Allen Park— It’s too early to label the Lions’ running game as anything other than a work in progress.
Lead back Jahvid Best has exactly five carries in two games. So how are you going to pass judgment on anything?
The two veteran backs the Lions brought in to essentially replace injured rookie Mikel Leshoure — Jerome Harrison and Mike Bell — have been in camp for two weeks and are just now getting some idea of the nuances of the Lions’ blocking schemes and tendencies.
By all accounts, there was a slight improvement in the run game in Cleveland on Friday — but the Lions would have been hard-pressed to do worse than the 2.1 yards per carry they mustered against the Bengals.
The Lions rushed for 176 yards (3.9 average), most of that against the Browns’ second and third defenses, in the 30-28 exhibition victory.
“I felt like we made some progress,” left guard Rob Sims said. “The first week, we were too high (pad level). I feel like we were lower and we were being more physical and getting some push. But we still have a lot of work to do; we still have to get it tight.
“It’s going to come. Jahvid’s going to remember how we do it and we will start remembering how he likes to run. It’ll come together.”
The ground game is as much about synchronicity and continuity as it is about toughness and talent. Clearly missing the offseason workouts, as well as the injuries to Leshoure and Maurice Morris, to say nothing of the fact that left tackle Jeff Backus has yet to practice, has set the ground game back.
There is plenty of time to regain that rhythm. Assuming that Best’s issues Friday were only wooziness, as he said, and not symptoms of a concussion, the offensive coaches are right to downplay any major concerns.
But here’s my concern: Even if the timing comes together, even if Best stays healthy, the ground game still hasn’t progressed from where it was at any point last season. It still lacks any semblance of a power run threat.
That’s why the loss of Leshoure was so devastating. Of course we don’t know for sure, but he looked like he was going to be able to add that dimension. He looked like he could be the guy to get five or six yards consistently on first down and he absolutely looked like the guy who would pick up that hard yard on third down or at the goal line.
I don’t see that guy on the roster right now and as a consequence, offensive coordinator Scott Linehan again is having to reach deep into his bag of tricks to compensate.
Running on empty
Break down the runs from Friday. In the first half, with the first offense playing most of the first quarter, the Lions ran the ball 14 times on first down and not once on third down. One of the first-down runs was a reverse to Nate Burleson that went for 26 yards.
Take that out and the Lions managed just 34 yards on 13 first-down carries (2.6 average). Not good. Aaron Brown got the majority of the work, carrying the ball six times for 11 yards on first down.
In the second half, the Lions ran the ball 10 times on first down for 32 yards (3.2). Still not good. Bell carried it five times on first down for 20 yards.
The Lions ran the ball twice on third down — both by second-year back Ian Johnson. He gained one yard on a third-and-2 and picked up the first on a third-and-1 to help the Lions kill the clock.
Linehan will tell you that it doesn’t matter how the yardage was accrued — run, pass, gadget plays, what’s the difference. The point is to move the ball and score.
Absolutely true. And with the efficiency and potency of the passing game, the Lions have some cushion to absorb a lackluster run game.
The goal, though, is to be as complete offensively as possible. And in a tough NFC North, with the margin of error so small, the Lions can’t afford too many blanks in their arsenal.
Having the ability to carve out four or five yards on the ground on first down, making defenses respect the run in the red zone, would go a long way toward easing some of the burden on quarterback Matthew Stafford and the passing game.
How successful can the Lions be, ultimately, if teams know they have to pass 80 percent of the time on first down and 95 percent of the time in the red zone?
Again, to repeat the original point, it’s too early to declare the ground game a liability. Best is a dynamic talent and Harrison showed some signs of the regaining the bounce he displayed in 2009 when he gained more than 1,000 yards rushing and passing for the Browns.
And, slowly but surely, the run blocking will get back in sync. That was the last part of the offensive puzzle to click last season, and that’s with all five linemen relatively healthy.
But there was a reason general manager Martin Mayhew traded up to get Leshoure and why he and the coaching staff were so excited they were able to pull it off. Leshoure offered a power dimension the Lions haven’t had for years.
Time will tell, but looking at it right now, it’s hard to see where that dimension will come from.