Detroit Lions’ Run Game in Need of an Overhaul


Last season, the Detroit Lions running game was bad. They ranked 28th in rushing offense, and their lack of success in the ground game was one of the most glaring weaknesses on an 11-6 playoff team.

This season, the Lions run game is even worse. They rank dead last (32nd) in rushing yards per game, 31st in rushing touchdowns, and 30th in yards per carry.  Ten individual players have more rushing yards by themselves, than the Lions do as a team.  In a word, the Lions run game is horrible.

What makes the Lions running game so bad? And how can they (quickly) improve it, moving forward? The problems with the Lions run game are part schematic/coaching and part personnel related.

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When Scott Linehan was the Lions offensive coordinator, the run game was far from fantastic, but it was eventually competent, ranking as high as 17th in total rush offense in 2013 (Linehan’s last season as Detroit’s offensive coordinator). Linehan brought a power-blocking scheme, focused more on 1-on-1 matchups, that seemed to make the most of the skill-sets of his offensive linemen.

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In the last season (and a half) under Joe Lombardi’s coordination, the Lions run game has sunk to new lows. Lombardi’s zone blocking scheme (focused more on protecting general areas, and requiring more on field adjustments and analysis) has unveiled the shortcomings of the line.

Left tackle Riley Reiff has gone from competent to barely dependable. Larry Warford has gone from a budding pro-bowler to average. LaAdrian Waddle has gone from a pleasant surprise (as an undrafted free agent) to a huge liability.

Travis Swanson and Laken Tomlinson haven’t started enough games to make final judgments on their futures, but both have developed slower than anticipated.

If the Lions are to fix their run game, and make it a competent complement to their passing attack, they have a lot of work to do.

The Lions should switch Riley Reiff to right tackle, as they have reportedly discussed doing in the past. Reiff simply doesn’t cut it at left tackle.  He was billed as a Jeff Backus 2.0 – not flashy, but dependable.  But Reiff has not consistently played at a dependable level for a competent left tackle.

Still, Reiff has performed at a higher level at left tackle than LaAdrian Waddle has at right tackle.  Switching Reiff to right tackle would upgrade that position, while forcing the Lions to seriously address the left tackle position in the offseason.

The Lions should then seriously consider signing a big name free agent lineman this offseason to play left tackle (Russell Okung). If they can’t (or choose not to) sign one of the major players, the Lions would be wise to use their top draft pick (1st round) on a tackle (Laremy Tunsil, Ronnie Stanley or Taylor Decker).

Even if the Lions overhaul their offensive line, they will still need to address the running back position, in order to improve the rushing attack. They will have to decide if Joique Bell is capable of being an effective contributor moving forward.  Bell looks like he’s on the downside of his career, but it’s hard to tell if that’s Bell getting old, not being 100% healthy, or just running behind a horrible line.

The Lions will also have to decide whether they think Ameer Abdullah can hold onto the ball long enough to carry the bulk of the load. Regardless, drafting another back (in the middle rounds of the 2016 draft) couldn’t hurt.

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Perhaps the biggest decision will be who the Lions choose hire as the next offensive coordinator. Jim Bob Cooter will have 7 more games to audition for that role (officially), but ultimately the next GM will have the final say. A lot will depend on who the next GM hires as a head coach (assuming Jim Caldwell is let go at the end of the season).

Whoever takes the reins as the Lions next offensive coordinator, they will have their work cut out for them to bring the Lions rushing attack back to respectability.