To support quarterback Daunte Culpepper as he makes his third start of the season, the Lions need a strong performance from running back Kevin Smith on Sunday at Baltimore.
It won't be easy. The Ravens have the sixth-ranked rushing defense in the NFL. But the Bengals had the third-ranked rushing defense in the league this past Sunday, and Smith rushed for 75 yards on 16 carries.
"He didn't have his best output of the year, but he probably had his best day running the football," coach Jim Schwartz said. "Kevin ran very tough. He ran aggressive. Didn't go out of bounds easily. Didn't go down easily. Made yards on his own.
"Some of his best runs were one- and two-yard runs. He got hit in the backfield a couple times and was able to fight back to the line of scrimmage and get us in second-and-nine or second-and-eight or one of those situations rather than a second-and-12. I think those were some of the things that went unnoticed."
Smith left with a shoulder injury in the third quarter Sept. 27 against Washington, after gaining 101 yards on 16 carries. He didn't miss a game afterward, but struggled to be productive.
"I'm not going to use my shoulder as an excuse," Smith said. "Every game that I suit up, I'm healthy enough to play at a high level."
Offensive coordinator Scott Linehan appreciates that Smith hasn't made excuses, but he doesn't agree that the shoulder hasn't been a factor.
"I don't think it helped him," Linehan said. "For a runner to be playing with really a couple sore shoulders -- one really sore -- I mean, a lot of guys don't play. I give him a lot of credit for playing, toughing it out and playing through it. And it's paid off, because I see him starting to hit a little bit of a stride now."
Smith hasn't broken big runs this season. He has only one run longer than 20 yards, a 31-yarder. Schwartz has talked repeatedly about the need for explosive runs. Smith has been roasted by critics for a lack of speed and playmaking ability. He even kicked himself publicly after the Thanksgiving game against Green Bay, because he was tripped up when he had room to run multiple times.
But Smith has been strong as a blocker and receiver, and he has had 20 carries or more only twice this season -- not ideal for someone who once was known as a workhorse.
Smith set a major college record with 450 rushing attempts at Central Florida in 2007, when he rushed for 2,567 yards, just 61 shy of the NCAA rushing record set by Lions great Barry Sanders in 1988 at Oklahoma State. He finished college with 905 carries, 4,864 yards and 45 touchdowns.
The Lions often play from behind and don't put themselves in position to wear down their opponent with the running game. Schwartz said the Lions want to do for Smith what the Bengals did Sunday for Cedric Benson, who rushed for 110 yards thanks to 36 carries.
"It's just a matter of time," Schwartz said. "He's feeling healthier. He's in a position he can run tougher. I think it showed. We just need to be in a position as a team that we can get him more carries."
- TE Casey Fitzsimmons missed his second straight practice Thursday because of a concussion. He seems doubtful for Sunday's game at Baltimore.
- DL Andre Fluellen did not practice Thursday because of a groin injury. He was listed as limited Wednesday, so his lack of participating seems like a bad sign for Sunday.
- CB Will James practiced fully Thursday after being limited Wednesday with a neck injury. James left Sunday's game at Cincinnati with a stinger but expected to be fine, and it appears that he will be.
- LB Ernie Sims was limited by a hamstring injury for the second straight practice Thursday. Coach Jim Schwartz has said Sims will be a game-time decision Sunday, depending on his progress, the weather and the field conditions.
- S Kalvin Pearson was limited by a hamstring injury for the second straight practice Thursday. Schwartz has said Pearson will be a game-time decision Sunday, depending on his progress, the weather and the field conditions.