Players change but one thing stays the same: Lions can’t run the ball

Detroit News

Justin Rogers
| The Detroit News

This was supposed to be the year the Detroit Lions finally got their running game on track. But so was last year, the year before that and the year before that. And just like those failed efforts, the team is once again trending toward falling well short of its goal of having offensive balance. 

“Well, I feel like we’re not where we need to be at all,” Lions offensive coordinator Darrell Bevell said Tuesday. “There’s a lot of issues that are going on up there right now.”

Since general manager Bob Quinn arrived in Detroit, he’s touted the importance of winning in the trenches, but has yet to find the right recipe to do so. And that’s been true on both sides of the ball, if we’re being frank. 

Offensively, overhauling the line was one of Quinn’s first priorities. His first year on the job he drafted Taylor Decker, Graham Glasgow and Joe Dahl, adding center Frank Ragnow in the first round a couple years later. In free agency, Quinn took big swings, signing Packers Pro Bowl guard T.J. Lang and longtime Ravens starter Rick Wagner. 

But for all the investment, those various combinations up front were never more than middle-of-the-road units. Over the years, the Lions have continued to allow too many sacks, while doing too little damage on the ground. 

More: ‘Big loss’: Lions consider options with Kenny Golladay likely out vs. Vikings

This offseason, Quinn went back to the lab for more of a retooling than a second overhaul. Wagner was cut and Glasgow, one of the few consistent pieces up front, was allowed to walk in free agency because his price tag got too high. The general manager found replacements in Halapoulivaati Vaitai — a versatile backup on Philadephia’s strong offensive line with a strong resume for run blocking — while drafting two guards in the middle rounds to vie for Glasgow’s job. 

At running back, Quinn was even more aggressive. After Kerryon Johnson had suffered serious knee injuries his first two seasons, it was clear reinforcements were needed. That resulted in the Lions spending a premium draft pick on Georgia’s D’Andre Swift and signing future Hall of Famer Adrian Peterson days after he was released by Washington.

And out of the box, the new setup looked pretty good. In the season-opener against Chicago, the Lions ran the ball 29 times for 138 yards (4.8 per carry), led by Peterson’s 14 for 93.

And that was without Vaitai, who was sidelined by a foot injury, and Swift being slowly incorporated into the mix after a training camp hip injury. If anything, it was reasonable to believe greater success was on the way. 

As it turns out, injuries have been part of Detroit’s problem. Vaitai and Dahl have both missed time, leading to the team having to repeatedly tweak its starting five. That’s made building chemistry problematic. 

And Peterson’s efficiency has somehow managed to decline each of the team’s first seven games. That 6.6 yards per carry in Week 1 bottomed out at 1.4 yards per carry last Sunday against Indianapolis. 

Since gaining 27 yards on his first carry against Arizona in Week 3, Peterson has averaged 2.5 yards on his last 63 rushing attempts. 

“We’re always evaluating that,” Bevell said. “It’s important for us to make sure we’re using our guys the right way, but you can’t necessarily always just base it off what the stats look like. We’ve got to look at how the play’s designed. What are we asking that player to do? Is he capable of doing that? Are we even giving him a chance to do what he’s capable of doing by how we’re protecting him, how we’re blocking the play? Those types of things.

“(Perterson’s) had some of those opportunities that he’s had where he hasn’t had a well enough blocked play or we haven’t done exactly what we need to do to help him,” Bevell continued. “In fairness to your question, we’re still evaluating, every single day. Every day we go out there, every day in practice, we’re trying to put the best guys out there, trying to give them the best opportunities to make plays with the design of the plays. And we’ll continue to do that.”

With Peterson struggling, Detroit’s overall rushing numbers are starting to lag behind. Although some of it has been situational, with second-half deficits forcing the Lions to abandon the run earlier than they normally would have wanted, the team has rushed for under 100 yards in five of their first seven contests. 

More: Don’t count out Da’Shawn Hand as Lions move on without Trey Flowers

And strictly from an efficiency standpoint, the Lions once again rank among the bottom-10 in the league, at 4.0 yards per carry. That’s somehow worse than even last year, when Kerryon Johnson and quarterback Matthew Stafford each missed half the season. 

“To simplify it probably the best way I can, it’s just we all have to make sure each guy is taking care of his job,” Bevell said. “There’re certain aspects of that that go with each and every one of the positions, but we have to do a better job of detailing our work in the run game.”

Production dip

Adrian Peterson’s yards per carry have dropped in every game this season:

Chicago: 14 carries, 93 yards (6.6 yards per carry)

Green Bay: 7 carries, 41 yards (5.9)

Arizona: 22 carries, 75 yards (3.4)

New Orleans: 11 carries, 36 yards (3.3)

Jacksonville: 15 carries, 40 yards (2.7)

Atlanta: 11 carries, 29 yards (2.6)

Indianapolis: 5 carries, 7 yards (1.4)


Here are the bottom five teams in rushing yards per game this season:

28. Miami: 98.0 yards per game

29. Detroit: 97.1

30. Jacksonville: 96.6

31. Chicago: 85.6

32. Houston: 84.9

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