Allen Park — As running backs coach Duce Staley likes to put it, the Lions have a thunder-and-lightning combination in their backfield.
But the one thing missing from the tandem of D’Andre Swift and Jamaal Williams have been the electric, big-gain run plays.
Through five games, the duo has combined for one run of 20 yards and the team’s longest rushing play of the season isn’t by either of them. It belongs to quarterback Jared Goff, who scrambled for 26 yards in Week 2 at Green Bay.
According to Staley, it’s no secret how the Lions’ backs can generate more explosive run plays.
“It’s about breaking tackles. When you get a back that’s in the defensive secondary, we’ve got to make sure that, boom, you break a tackle,” Staley said Thursday. “And sometimes breaking a tackle is running over a guy. We saw Swift got his chance the other week to run over a (defensive back), and sometimes it’s like that. Sometimes you have the ability to make them miss.
“So we’ve got to do better as runners, and we talk about it in our room, and we’re hard on ourselves because we should believe, and we do believe, when we’re in the defensive secondary, no one can tackle us.”
The problem, though, has been getting to that level. In 52 carries this season, Swift has topped 15 yards just once, with a 16-yarder in the season opener against the San Francisco 49ers. After ripping off the 20-yarder in Week 1, Williams’ longest rush since has been 14 yards.
While Swift and Williams are each posting respectable yards per carry averages at 3.65 and 4.44, respectively, and have each had runs of 10-plus yards in four of the five contests, Staley is still looking for both of them to break loose and showcase their big-play ability on the ground.
“Usually when you talk explosives, you talk pass game. A lot of people do,” Staley said. “Well, around here it’s explosive pass game and running game. So, we definitely have got to get that from our guys. Whoever is running the ball, it could be a reverse, it could be anything like that.”
It certainly doesn’t help that the Lions haven’t had their top two offensive linemen — left tackle Taylor Decker and Pro Bowl center Frank Ragnow — on the field at the same time opening holes and helping pave the way for the backs.
But even without them, the line has been able to get the job done, as evidenced by the 108-yard rushing effort and 4.5 yards per carry that Swift and Williams combined for last weekend against the Minnesota Vikings.
And the way guard Halapoulivaati Vaitai and center Evan Brown see it, it’s only a matter of time until Swift and Williams break free for a big hitter as the O-line becomes more cohesive and improves their game.
“Everybody’s doing their job,” Vaitai said. “We’re getting close, it’s that we’re just 1 yard away.”
Cutting it short
Over the past couple weeks, offensive coordinator Anthony Lynn has been changing the verbiage of the play calls and trimming them down.
“I grew up in the West Coast offense and it is a lot of verbiage, but I don’t believe in a lot of verbiage,” Lynn said. “But sometimes when you have a young, inexperienced group, you’re trying to tell everybody what to do and that verbiage can get a little long. We’re at a point now where I think our players understand concepts, where we can shorten things up, and hopefully create a little more tempo.”
Lynn provided an example, cutting down a play call like “six gun, double right, spider O across, Z escape” to one word like rally, where the players are instantly able to understand the formation, play and snap count.
Goff noted his first year in the Los Angeles Rams’ system was a similar situation, where the verbiage was trimmed as much as possible before the coaching staff gradually extended it over the years.
“It always helps, especially when you’re young and there’s a lot of things going on,” Goff said. “The more we can simplify it for myself, for all of these guys out here, the better.”
The Lions were down a couple of players at Thursday’s practice with cornerback/return man Corey Ballentine (hamstring) missing a second straight day and Williams (illness/hip) not taking part.
Tight end T.J. Hockenson (knee), outside linebacker Trey Flowers (knee) and cornerback Amani Oruwariye (hip) all returned to practice, while guard Jonah Jackson (shoulder) and Swift (groin) were limited.