EDEN PRAIRIE, Minn. — Seeing Detroit Lions quarterback Matthew Stafford atop the NFL with 346 pass attempts this season isn’t surprising. Stafford led the league with 663 attempts last season.
But just when opposing teams figured they could zero in on Detroit’s offense by focusing on the passing attack led by Stafford and receiver Calvin Johnson, the Lions have added an unexpected wrinkle — Detroit is able to run the ball.
Second-year running back Mikel Leshoure and little-known backup Joique Bell combined for four rushing touchdowns in last week’s 31-14 win against the Jacksonville Jaguars as the Lions rushed for a season-high 149 yards as a team.
Leshoure ran 16 times for 70 yards and three first-half touchdowns. Bell had 13 carries for 73 yards and a late touchdown to finish off the victory. Now the 5-4 Minnesota Vikings, who host 4-4 Detroit Sunday, have something extra to think about.
“Our run game has improved on offense; getting (rookie offensive lineman) Riley Rieff into the mix and the rest of our offensive lineman and tight ends are blocking well, our running backs are running the ball,” Detroit coach Jim Schwartz said on a conference call with Minnesota media Wednesday. “The last couple of games we’re somewhere in the neighborhood of 70, 75 percent on third downs on offense and we’re 100 percent in the red zone.”
Being able to run the ball in the red zone has been a big plus for the usually pass-happy Lions. Detroit ranks just 22nd in the league in rushing, averaging 103.6 yards per game. The assistance, though, helps its top-ranked passing attack, which is averaging 307.3 yards per game.
Last year, the Lions were 29th in the league in rushing, and Stafford has seen the difference the running game has made recently.
“It’s different,” Stafford said on a conference call. “Obviously, I see some different looks than I’m used to. We used to get in big personnel groups and get two high safeties and teams would play two-man out of it. We don’t get that much more with the efficiency in which we’re running it out of those sets. It’s been a good positive for us. We’re trying to continue to do that.”
Much of the rushing renaissance has been due to the emergence of Leshoure, the 2011 second-round pick who missed all of last season with an Achilles’ injury and was ineligible for the first two games this season.
In his first game of the season, the big 6-foot, 227-pound back reached the 100-yard mark against the Tennessee Titans. He’s reached 70 yards twice since then, which isn’t much in the NFL, but it does count for a change in Detroit’s offense. Bell, a versatile undrafted third-year back, is contributing offensively for the first time in his career.
“Both of those guys, just like a lot of young players that we have and across the league, they’re just striving for consistency from game to game,” Schwartz said.
Minnesota will face the Lions with its run defense in tatters recently following a strong start to the season.
“We’ve got to figure out a way to get that figured out because Detroit is running the football a lot better than when we played them earlier this season,” Vikings coach Leslie Frazier said. “They’re much more intentional about running the ball. So, it’s something we’ve got to get corrected, like, right now.”
Leshoure is the latest in the line of running backs Detroit has tried to establish since the days when Barry Sanders was one of the league’s best. In the 13 years since Sanders retired, the Lions have had a 1,000-yard back just three times, the last being Kevin Jones in 2004.
Jahvid Best was a first-round pick in 2010, but he’s had his season wiped out by continuing concussion concerns. Enter LeShoure, who has the draft pedigree and is built to be a true workhorse back.
“He’s basically a rookie right now,” Schwartz said. “So, he’s sort of just going through things. This will be the second time facing a Minnesota Vikings’ team, first time in his career he’s faced a team for the second time. So, just being consistent from week to week.”