Looking for answers to questions about Lions’ running game

Detroit News

Justin Rogers
 
| The Detroit News

Heading into a Week 4 matchup with the New Orleans Saints, the Lions’ ground game has been passable. Given the team’s recent history, that’s a solid start. But there are two questions fans have been routinely asking coming out of the team’s victory over the Arizona Cardinals last week. 

First, why does the team keep running the ball when it’s not working? Against the Cardinals, Detroit’s backs combined for 25 carries for 91 yards. That’s not great, but it’s not bad, either — at least until you consider Adrian Peterson gained 27 yards on the game’s second play. That means the group, led by Peterson’s 22 attempts, averaged 2.7 yards per carry over the final 59 minutes of the contest. 

Yuck. 

But while it might seem like the team is banging its head against a brick wall at times, Lions coach Matt Patricia explains why he sees plenty of value in sticking with the run, even if the numbers are ugly on the surface.

“Obviously (running) keeps the defense offset there a little bit with the balance of an offense,” Patricia said. “As a defensive coach, you know those games that you get into where the offense just abandons the run and now it becomes a complete passing game. You’re dialing up different pressures and looks and fronts and coverages, and you’re just really making — you kind of open up the playbook at that point and can kind of go after a couple different things.

“I think even all the way through the course of the game, and a lot of games here especially early in the season, the run game is critically important. It’s a big part of what keeps an offense balanced and keeps a defense trying to stay in between defending both. That’s really important.”

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Stated simply, the run game keeps defenses honest and prevents their pass-rushers from pinning their ears back and teeing off on your quarterback. 

Of course, don’t be surprised to see the conversation of an overcommitment to balance coming up again this weekend. The Saints run defense presents even more problems than the Cardinals, holding opponents to 3.4 yards per carry through three games. 

“They obviously have a phenomenal front here,” Patricia said. “They do a great job of plugging that up inside. They play a lot of five-down looks. They’re not going to let you run the ball. They’re going to play stout up front. They want to make you one-dimensional because that’s when they can release that whole pass rush and get into their exotic blitzes and pressures and all the stuff that they do. That’s a big challenge for us.”

The other challenge for the Lions has been keeping second-round draft pick D’Andre Swift involved. After leading the backfield in snaps the first two weeks, he played just six against the Cardinals. And he’s been far more involved in the pass game when he has been on the field, only taking eight handoffs through three games. 

Peterson, who is both the newcomer and the veteran leader of the group, said he was in the rookie’s ear about keeping his head up last week. 

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“He’s a young guy and there was a couple times I was looking at him on the sideline and he was like, you know, a little down,” Peterson said. “Whether he’ll admit it or not, I could see it. Just encouraging him, letting him know, ‘Hey, things will change. There are going to be games where you’ll be more involved and maybe I’m not.’

“It’s all about getting a ‘W’ by any means necessary. Just kind of reminding him of that and you stay ready throughout the game.”

Presumably, part of the issue for Swift was the extensive time he missed during training camp due to a hip injury, but Lions running back coach Kyle Caskey said he doesn’t need to see anything more than what he’s seen from the young back to trust him with a bigger role on Sunday. 

“I’ve seen it. I know what he can do,” Caskey said. “There’s a lot of talent in the room and there’s really — right now, it’s hard. I mean we’ve only got one guy on the field at a time. I’d love to get all friggin’ three of them at the same time, but that’s not my call.

“It’s one of those things where the flow of the game this last game, I thought AP was really doing a good job of what he was doing, so we rolled with him. We just gotta continue to press (Swift) forward to be ready when his number is called.”

jdrogers@detroitnews.com

Twitter: @Justin_Rogers

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