When pads come on, Detroit Lions running game ready to prove it’s the real deal

Detroit Free Press

Duce Staley  doesn’t want to hear about the Detroit Lions’ historical struggles running the football. The Lions assistant head coach and running backs coach is too focused on the present to care.

“It’s very easy for me to go back in history and find the bad things,” Staley said Monday. “It’s very easy to do that, and around here I think that’s what people do. But I’m looking forward to the backs I have here now, the type of system that we’re going to run offensively and we’re going to put our playmakers in position to make plays.”

In D’Andre Swift and Jamaal Williams, the Lions have a running back tandem potentially more potent than any they have fielded in the past two decades.

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Last year, Swift and Adrian Peterson became the second set of Lions running backs to top 500 yards rushing in the same season since 1986, but the Lions struggled rushing the ball overall. Reggie Bush and Joique Bell are the only other duo to hit the 500-yard mark, combining for 1,656 yards rushing in 2013.

Bush is the last Lion to crack 1,000 yards rushing — he had 1,006 in his first season in Detroit — and the Lions have not finished in the top half of the NFL in rushing since Hall of Famer Barry Sanders’ last season in Detroit in 1998.

Staley did not make any predictions Monday when those streaks will end, but with the strength of the offense consolidated in a star-studded line and two-headed backfield, there is reason to believe the Lions are on the right path.

COACH’S PLAN: Dan Campbell envisions Saints-like production for Lions RBs Swift, Williams

“A great 1-2,” Swift said last week. “I feel like you need that. You need that in any league of football. College, high school, I feel like you need a great 1-2, especially to stay healthy. NFL is a long season, especially this year with extra games. So I feel like you need a great 1-2.”

The Lions will get their first meaningful look at both their running game and offensive line Tuesday, when they hold their first padded practice of training camp.

Rookie first-round pick Penei Sewell has taken first-team reps at right tackle all camp and is expected to start at that position when the Lions open the season Sept. 12 against the San Francisco 49ers.

Reshuffled O-line brings optimism

Halapoulivaati Vaitai moved full-time to right guard to accommodate Sewell, and center Frank Ragnow, left guard Jonah Jackson and left tackle Taylor Decker return as starters. Tyrell Crosby, the Lions’ fifth starter last season, will play as a sixth lineman this fall.

Jackson called the line “the tip of the spear” of the offense, and first-year coach Dan Campbell said he is anxious to see the group in what promises to be more physical practices in the weeks ahead.

“This is where you really find out what’s what, because there are kind of three different cycles to it,” Campbell said. “It’s what we’re into now and what we have been with (the acclimation period), which you guys heard me call the pajama warriors. Then you’ll have pads. It’s like the first day, maybe first two days of pads, there will be some guys that will show up. And then once you get into the grind of it, you hit the second week and you get in about four or five days of pads, now you’ll find out who’s who.”

[ Lions sign C Evan Boehm, activate OG Evan Heim off reserve-COVID list ]

Ultimately, Swift, Williams and the rest of the Lions backfield will have to wait until the regular season to prove their worth, but Staley said the Lions’ strength up front can help them accomplish their goals.

“It helps a lot,” Staley said. “To have those guys up front who’ve been around, you sprinkle in the rook. He’s finding his way now, and it’s all about chemistry. It’s all about chemistry and chemistry simply is this: It’s what they do outside the so they can trust each other, bring it inside the building and fight for each other.”

Contact Dave Birkett at dbirkett@freepress.com. Follow him on Twitter @davebirkett.

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