Open thread: Should the Lions run the ball more often?

Pride of Detroit

For the first time of the year, the Detroit Lions did not lose a game. At the same time, we are still waiting for a victory. Such is Lions football.

A tie was an unexpected outcome heading into their showdown versus the Pittsburgh Steelers, but it was an apt finish. The second half of the game turned ugly, and it reached a point where neither team seemed willing to win. Multiple fumbles, a shanked field goal, and a bevy of punts led to a final score of 16-16.

The aspect of this game that really separates it from the rest of the season was the explosion from the run game. The Lions’ season high was 137 rushing yards versus the Rams in Week 7, but they trumped that with a whopping 229 yards against the Steelers. Pittsburgh was ninth in run defense DVOA, so it’s not like they were a weak foe either.

Due to a combination of injuries and poor conditions, D’Andre Swift alone carried the ball 33 times—his previous career-high was 16. This was certainly affected by an inactive Jamaal Williams and an injury to Jermar Jefferson, but give credit to Swift for managing such a load. He did look tired by the end of it, although I imagine many of us were tired just from watching.

All backs included, the Lions ran the ball a total of 39 times on Sunday. For comparison, here are their carries totals from previous weeks, excluding quarterback runs and fakes:

Week 1 vs. 49ers: 21 carries
Week 2 vs. Packers: 15 carries
Week 3 vs. Ravens: 26 carries
Week 4 vs. Bears: 22 carries
Week 6 vs. Vikings: 24 carries
Week 7 vs. Bengals: 17 carries
Week 8 vs. Rams: 26 carries
Week 9 vs. Eagles: 17 carries

As expected, their fewest carries came in blowouts. Sunday’s game against the Steelers was on a different level. Not only were the Lions keen on running the ball early and often, but they utilized six offensive linemen frequently. This gave Swift, a back that has struggled running between the tackles, plenty of room.

The Lions ran their most run-heavy playbook of the season, and it was the first game to not result in a loss. Would the Lions benefit from continuing that trend?

Today’s Question of the Day is:

Should the Lions run the ball more often?

My answer: No.

This was a really good game for the run game. However, it was a dreadful performance from the passing attack. Doesn’t that mean you should run the ball more often?

I’m not certain.

Detroit came out of the gate swinging with their rushing attack, and Pittsburgh had no answer. Unfortunately, such a one-dimensional offense is not sustainable, and the second half stats paint a different story. While Swift totaled 20 carries in the second half, he accumulated a mere 57 yards—an average of 2.85 yards per carry.

Fatigue played a factor, but the primary reason is that Jared Goff was accomplishing nothing through the air. Defenses were already unafraid of the Lions passing attack, but Sunday’s performance was turned up to eleven—eleven was the total number of passing yards Goff had at halftime. It was clear that the Lions were comfortable abandoning their passing game. With no downfield threat being posed, the Steelers defense keyed in on the run game and shut it down.

This is the reason why I think running the ball more often—30 times or more—is a long-term mistake. Sunday’s game reached a point where a draw play on third-and-long was the Lions’ best play call. Come the second half and overtime, with the game on the line, the Lions couldn’t muster anything. After starting the half with a long Godwin Igwebuike touchdown, the Lions ensuing drives ended in a punt, punt, punt, punt, punt, punt, missed field goal, punt, and the end of the game. The Steelers knew the Lions could only run the ball and adjusted.

For all the flaws of Jared Goff, you still need to have some semblance of a passing attack. Even if you’re pulling off short dink-and-dunk passes all game, it at least results in a diversified playbook. Whether you have Goff or Tim Boyle or David Blough, abandoning the passing game is not a recipe for success. I think the Lions should implement six offensive linemen more often, but they shouldn’t run the ball as often as they did Sunday. I think that was a unique circumstance.

It’s similar to your favorite food. Sure, you would love to eat it all the time, but it eventually gets stale. Variety is the spice of life, as they say. The Lions run game looked good and was exciting, but overdoing it is only going to lead to struggles down the road.

If too many teams shut down the Lions rushing attack, that offense will be left with nothing. If the Lions can put up a façade of a passing game, at least it will keep defenses honest. Remember the years of Detroit failing to have a run game for Matthew Stafford? Regardless of that, they were still an effective play action offense. Had they abandoned the run, their play action would have been less effective. It’s a similar thing with the Lions passing attack. There’s a common belief that you need to run to open up the passing game, but it’s the reverse for these Lions. They need to pass to open up the run game.

If Detroit can put up 100 or so passing yards in a half, that will at least keep the playbook open. When you finish a half with four completions for 11 yards, that paints a clear picture: we can’t throw the ball. It’s nice that the Lions can run the ball, but they shouldn’t overdo it.

Your turn.

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Should the Lions run the ball more often?

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