The Detroit Lions head into 2012 considered to be a pass-happy team.
With an offense that features the likes of Matthew Stafford and Calvin Johnson and after finishing with the league’s second-rated passing attack in 2011, this perception seems to have some merit on the surface.
The coaching staff has been seemingly adamant on their desire to run the football for years but often doesn’t practice what it preaches, finishing in the top three in passing attempts in each of the last two years.
So, is it a smokescreen? Do the Lions just try to sell opponents on the fact that they might run the football? Can the Lions win without an effective rushing attack? Are they even capable of producing a strong ground game?
Good questions, let’s take a look.
Myth: The Lions can’t contend for a Super Bowl without an effective running game
Analysis: The Lions finished 29th – or close-to-last – in rushing last year, averaging 95.2 yards per game. This is an undesirable position, no doubt, but one that begins to take perspective when you consider the fact that five of the league’s 12 playoff teams finished in the bottom half in this statistic, including the eventual Super Bowl Champion New York Giants (ranked 32nd).
The Giants became the second consecutive team to win a Super after finishing the regular season ranked in the league’s bottom 10 in rushing (Green Bay, 24th).
What the Lions have in common with those teams is that when the running game isn’t working, the team has the offensive weaponry to supplement a ground attack with a short-range, high-percentage passing attack.
Result: Busted. Although an effective running game helps, a team can overcome deficiencies on the ground with an effective and efficient passing attack, en route to a championship.
The Lions do have the tools in the passing game, namely tight end Brandon Pettigrew, to supplement the ground-game if the need arises.
Myth: The Lions do not have a genuine desire to consistently run the ball
Analysis: During the season’s first six weeks, starting running back Jahvid Best ranked 16th in the league in rushing attempts (84), 10th in total touches (111) and sixth in total yards (677).
Over the season’s final 11 weeks, while Best was sidelined, Kevin Smith was the team’s leading rusher with 356 yards on 72 carries. Maurice Morris was the team’s second option, carrying the ball 71 times for 296 yards.
The Lions essentially attempted to spread Best’s workload between Smith and Morris, as the two averaged a combined 18.6 touches in games Best did not play, while Best averaged 18.5 in the games he started.
The tandem of Smith and Morris averaged 100.6 total yards per game while Best, himself, averaged 112.
Result: Busted. Although it is true that the Lions are built to be a pass-first team, their end-of-year rushing stats do not properly illustrate their intentions.
The Lions do want to run the ball with more frequency but – after Best’s season-ending concussion – did not have the resources to do so.
Myth: The Lions simply aren’t capable of being an effective running team
Analysis: The Lions averaged 4.3 yards per rushing attempt – good for a 12th place ranking – last year. The largest deterrent to their overall rushing yards was their lack of attempts (356, second last in the league) not their lack of production.
Also, the Lions proved to be quite effective depending on where they were running.
The team attempted 49 runs a piece at both the left and right A-Gaps (between the center and guard).
When running towards the right A-Gap (Stephen Peterman’s side), the team didn’t have tremendous success, averaging 3.7 yards per carry and scoring one touchdown. However, when running to the left (Rob Sims’ side) the averaged jumped to 5.6 yards and they added three touchdowns.
Of the team’s 10 rushing touchdowns, six came from between-the-tackles runs.
The team’s two biggest problem areas when rushing were right edge (outside the tight end) and left tackle (3.4 and 3.8 yards per attempt, respectively).
Result: Busted. The Lions aren’t built to be a smash-mouth running team but they do have the ability to produce a ground game that could be a nice compliment to their passing attack.
If Best is able to stay healthy, the team should be much more effective on outside runs and they have proven to be a capable (but not outstanding) inside running team.
Conclusion: The Lions have a sincere desire to run the football and, when healthy, have the talent to do so effectively.
Of course, the biggest obstacle will be staying healthy. Best and Smith will need to prove they are durable enough to stand up to a full 16-game schedule and, after serving his two-game suspension, Mikel Leshoure will need to prove he is fully recovered from last year’s torn Achilles.