The lack of running game was the Achilles heel of the Detroit Lions offense in 2016. The Detroit Lions running backs ranked just 30th in the NFL, gaining just 81.9 yards per game and averaging just 3.7 yards per carry. The only teams who were worse at running the ball were the Minnesota Vikings, who lost Adrian Peterson for the season and the St. Louis Rams who struggled at nearly everything this season .
There are plenty of reasons for the collapse of the running game in 2016. There were also plenty of injuries, which left room for some players to stake a claim on playing time next year. Let’s look at the grades for each player, the position group and the outlook for next season.
Game 2 of the 2016 season is where the tragic tale of the Detroit Lions running game started. Abduallah was off to a solid start with 6 carries and 38 yards before suffering a torn ligament in his foot. The injury would force the second year back to miss the rest of the 2016 season.
As the season opened, Abdullah looked like the running back the Detroit Lions have been missing since Barry Sanders retired via fax prior to the 1999 season. As a matter of fact, Abdullah pulled of a move reminiscent of the NFL Hall of Fame running back the very game he was injured.
Still Ahead: Theo Riddick, Zach Zenner, Dwayne Washington, the bench, season outlook
Theo Riddick – RB, 4th Year – Notre Dame
After the injury to Ameer Abdullah, the Detroit Lions called upon Theo Riddick to carry the load for the offense. He held his own in the Lions hybrid rushing scheme averaging 3.9 yards per carry.
Nov 24, 2016; Detroit, MI, USA; Detroit Lions running back Theo Riddick (25) runs the ball during the first quarter of a NFL game on Thanksgiving against the Minnesota Vikings at Ford Field. Mandatory Credit: Tim Fuller-USA TODAY Sports
Riddick really excelled at catching the ball out of the back-field. Riddick caught 53 passes for 371 yards and 5 touchdowns while building a reputation as one of the première pass catching running backs in the NFL. He is also considered the 11th best running back in the league according to Pro Football Focus despite missing much of the season with injury.
But Riddick’s break-out season came to an end early when the Lions placed him on injured reserve on the eve of the playoff’s after missing 3 games with an injury to his wrist. Riddick had also been limited in practice time and effectiveness in the weeks prior cause of a nagging ankle injury.
Despite being banged up this season, Theo Riddick was still the Lions most consistent and dependable running back. Assuming he comes back in 2017 at full strength he should be able to help the Lions both out of the backfield and split wide.
Still Ahead: Zach Zenner, Dwayne Washington, Summary and Outlook
Zach Zenner – Running Back, 2nd Year, South Dakota State
Zenner was given some significant touches down the stretch in 2016 because of the injuries to Riddick and Abdullah. He made the most of it.
Dec 26, 2016; Arlington, TX, USA; Detroit Lions fullback Zach Zenner (34) scores a touchdown against the Dallas Cowboys in the first quarter at AT&T Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Tim Heitman-USA TODAY Sports
Zenner opened eyes against Dallas when he looked as if he would break the Lions streak of rushing ineptitude by rushing for 100 yards. Then as the Lions played from behind Zenner’s opportunity to touch the ball faded. Still he gained 91 total yards and scoring two rushing touchdowns in the Lions road loss.
The 2nd year man out of South Dakota State followed up that break-out performance with 110 total yards and a touchdown in the NFC North title bout with Green Bay on the last week of the season. Still despite the strong performances, Zenner still failed to gain 100 yards rushing and proved to be more of a role player than a starter as the game wore on.
At the end of the day, Dr. Z showed promise in his sophomore season and will certainly be in the mix for a Lion’s share of touches out of the backfield in 2017.
Sep 1, 2016; Detroit, MI, USA; Detroit Lions running back Dwayne Washington (36) runs the ball during the first quarter against the Buffalo Bills at Ford Field. Mandatory Credit: Raj Mehta-USA TODAY Sports
Dwayne Washington – Running Back, Rookie, Washington
Grade – C
We would be talking more about rookie Dwayne Washington’s season if it wasn’t for all the injuries to the running back corp. Washington proved himself to be a productive north, south runner with the ability to nose out touch yardage. His season average of 2.9 yards per carry leaves a bit to be desired, but as a role player Washington should fit in well next season.
To fill in the depth chart, the Lions signed a slew of running backs but none of them caught on. Former Baltimore Raven Justin Forsett, Former Detroit Lion Joique Bell and Former Tampa Bay Buccaneer Mike James all had a cup of coffee or two in Detroit as emergency options off of the bench. None of them caught on and failed to register a carry during the regular season.
Detroit Lions Running Backs Rankings
NFL Overall Rank – 30th
1,310 Total Yards (30th)
81.9 Yard Per Game (30th)
3.7 Yards Per Carry (27th)
9 Touchdowns (26th)
Overall Grade: C+
The Lions running attack was terrible this year but it wasn’t all their fault. Injuries decimated the position group and free agent acquisitions were unable to find the spark to ignite a solid ground game. Some of the blame should also go to the coaching staff who seemed unable to make adjustments that kept the running game going in the second half. Especially down the stretch.
If Ameer Abduallah and Theo Riddick return at full strength next season, the Lions should have the solid one-two punch they started 2016 with. The emergence of Zach Zenner will help add depth to the backfield and give Offensive Coordinator Bob Cooter plenty of tools to build a running game with.
Assuming everyone stays healthy, the Lions should have their best running game since Barry Sanders. An effective running game by Matthew Stafford more time to use his cannon of an arm to find receivers downfield for quick strikes. The key for the Lions will be keeping everyone healthy.