Lost amid another elongated absence from quarterback Matthew Stafford might be the absence of Detroit's running game.
The team's ground attack is 30th in the league, and hasn't exactly supplied the tantalizing support expected entering the campaign. Derailed by turf toe to rookie Jahvid Best, and Kevin Smith's stubborn knee recovery, Detroit is managing just over 80 yards per contest. Since Best nabbed two scores in the team's opening week loss to Chicago, they've only managed three rushing touchdowns since.
In Sunday's loss to the Jets, the Lions tallied a paltry 78 yards, never establishing any kind of ground threat.
Although coach Jim Schwartz conceded on Thursday that New York's defensive philosophy is geared to thwart the run, success in the offensive backfield is required if the passing game -- especially sans Stafford -- is to hit on all cylinders.
"In order to open up the passing game with Nate Burleson and try to create some matchups elsewhere, we needed to run it," said Schwartz. "Even if it didn’t always look good, we needed to keep on running it. I thought that was accomplished in that game. We didn’t run it the way that we need to and we didn’t make a whole lot of big plays, but it was effective in keeping the passing game the way we wanted it."
Smith is averaging 4.1 yards per carry, but his contributions have been limited for two reasons: he started the season slow due to a knee injury suffered last year, and the Lions have been trying to get mileage out of Best. But after a flashy beginning, Best's toe injury has had a noticeable effect on his abilities; the first-rounder is picking up just 3 yards per carry and hasn't broken the 50-yard plateau in three weeks.
Best was limited in practice on Thursday, but Schwartz claimed his health is on the rise.
"He’s continuing to get better. Each week he gets a little bit better," he said. "I don’t know that he’ll be 100-percent or if any player will be 100-percent after game No. 1. He hasn’t had setbacks and each week he gets a little bit healthier."
Despite his run game's inability to get unhinged, Schwartz remained steadfast in its defense: blaming solid opponent tactics, rather than his offensive line (or running backs), and reminding those in his media briefing of the unit's ability to still score points.
"We haven’t run the ball the way that we want to, but the bottom line in this is scoring points," he said. "You have to be able to score points. The one thing about the run game is: the run game doesn’t leave you if the weather gets bad. That’s obviously something that we need to do better.
"But Indianapolis went to the Super Bowl last year with the 32nd ranked run team in the NFL."
With the team still reeling after last weekend's loss, a strong rushing performance might numb that sting -- especially with the dubious (if not depressing) status of Stafford's right shoulder.
As the team travels to Buffalo on Sunday, they'll face a winless opponent that could provide the opportunities that the Jets did not. The Bills are last in the league in rush defense, forfeiting over 178 yards per loss.
Given the potential for gusty conditions in upstate New York, the Lions might not have a choice but to have the breakout performance from its running back tandem that they've anticipated since training camp.
"Anytime you go to a place like Buffalo, there’s a chance that you might have 30-40 mile an hour winds. You have to be able to run. You have to be able to stop the run in this league," he said. "We haven’t done a good job there. Our first down plays have been down in numbers. Buffalo, obviously, that’s one thing they haven’t done well yet this year is stop the run. So it’s a big matchup.
"A lot of times you talk about matchups with particular players going against each other, or a team’s strength against a team’s strength. This one you look at a little bit different. They devote a lot of resources to stopping the run. They played some 46 stuff last week. They loaded the box a lot more than they had in the past, probably because of where they were stopping the run. It’s a challenge for us. We have to be able to do it."