There is a lot of speculation about what running back the Detroit Lions should acquire to give their depleted offensive backfield a boost.
It makes for good conversation.
The reality is, if the offensive line doesn’t do a better job run-blocking than it did Saturday in a 31-20 preseason loss at Oakland, it won’t matter who’s carrying the ball.
The Lions were a one-dimensional offense last year, when they led the NFL with 666 passing attempts while winning 10 games and making the playoffs. They passed the ball 310 times more than they ran it.
Their goal was to become more balanced this season. It seemed as if they were making progress when the Lions finished with 198 yards rushing, averaging 6 yards a carry, in their preseason opener against the Cleveland Browns.
The run game tapered off in the second game, at Baltimore, before rookie Stephfon Green broke loose for a 76-yard touchdown late in the fourth quarter.
On Saturday, the Lions’ rushing offense came to a screeching halt in the third preseason game, considered the most important of the four exhibitions because it’s treated as a dress rehearsal for the regular-season opener. The Lions ran for 65 yards on 24 attempts against the Raiders, only 2.7 yards per carry and no touchdowns on the ground.
“I think that when it’s all said and done, we have good players in the run game, we have good scheme for the run game,” coach Jim Schwartz insisted in his postgame news conference. “There have been times this year we ran the ball very well in the preseason. Today wasn’t one of them.”
What’s alarming is that running back Mikel Leshoure, back from last year’s torn Achilles’ tendon and this year’s hamstring injury, actually appeared to run quite well in his Lions debut.
Leshoure ran hard and made moves to avoid tacklers, yet he still ended up with only 1 yard on five carries because there were simply no holes.
Kevin Smith, the No. 1 running back because of the injuries to Leshoure and Jahvid Best (ongoing concussion issues), had three carries for no yards before leaving with an ankle injury.
This was all with the first-team offensive line — tackles Jeff Backus and Gosder Cherilus, guards Rob Sims and Stephen Peterman, and center Dominic Raiola — on the field.
Leading up to training camp, the Lions were optimistic about improving their run game. They mentioned how things might have been different last year if Best and Leshoure had been healthy. They seemed determined not to have to rely almost exclusively on Matthew Stafford’s right arm again.
“The big issue is running the ball,” Raiola said during the offseason. “We need to run the ball better. We know that.”
Continuity is an offensive line’s best friend. No unit in football benefits more from experience together than the O-line.
The Lions have developed that continuity. Backus, Cherilus, Peterman and Raiola have been starting in the same system for much of the past three seasons under offensive coordinator Scott Linehan and offensive-line coach George Yarno. Sims joined them in 2010.
“You look at the great lines around the league, it’s guys that have been playing next to each other for a long time, been in the same system for a long time,” Backus said. “This is really my first chance where we’ve had that continuity, of being in the same system, having the same guys on the line. It’s a huge benefit.”
This fivesome clearly continues to be much better in pass protection than as run-blockers. Although Stafford got hit in the pocket and banged up his left (non-throwing) hand Saturday, the offensive line does a decent job in giving him time to throw.
It’s a different story in the run game.
First-round draft pick Riley Reiff, currently a backup at both tackle positions, already has established himself as the team’s best run-blocker. That says a lot about him, but it says something about the five incumbents, too.
It’s only logical to wonder if the Lions might be better off with Reiff in the starting lineup to add more of that run-game element to the offense. At some point, either later this year or maybe next year, the Lions will likely make the move to Reiff.
For now, they’re going to pass the ball much more, anyway, so they’re sticking with the better pass-blockers and the continuity up front.
“Talent-wise, it’s not a question,” Sims said of Reiff’s potential to start. “There’s a reason he was picked in the first round. He definitely knows how to play the game.
“The thing about playing offensive line in the NFL, it just takes time. You’ve got to learn so much. Your technique is such a big deal. You’ve got to play the best of the best of the best week in and week out. You’ve got to learn how to manage that. He’s coming along. He’ll get it.”
Until Reiff does, or until there’s some other personnel changes up front, the Lions are probably going to remain the pass-happy team they were a year ago.
Part of the reason is Stafford. Part of it is Calvin Johnson and the other receiving threats. Part of it is the depleted backfield.