Lions visit Harrison in hospital; team signs backup


Chris McCosky/ The Detroit News

Allen Park— Lions coach Jim Schwartz visited with Jerome Harrison Friday morning, hours before the running back was scheduled to undergo surgery to remove a tumor from his brain.

“He was in very good spirits,” Schwartz said.

Cornerback Eric Wright, who played with Harrison in Cleveland before the two rejoined in Detroit, saw him at the hospital Thursday night and said the same thing.

“This dude got me rolling right now,” Wright wrote on his Twitter page. “Smh he gone be juusst fine.”

The Lions officially put Harrison on the non-football injured list Friday and signed former Eagles running back Eldra Buckley, who had worked out for the Lions on Thursday.

“Hopefully I can do something to help this team,” said Buckley, who is 26. “I am going to try to do everything they ask. I will try to be any kind of back they need.”

After spending two seasons on the Chargers’ practice squad, Buckley carried the ball 36 times for 111 yards in two seasons in Philadelphia.

“He’s a hard runner and he was productive on special teams in Philly,” Schwartz said. “He’s strong and quick; a young player who has some NFL experience.”

Maurice Morris will start. He and Keiland Williams will shoulder most of the load Sunday, but Schwartz said

Buckley would be active.

“We won’t run out of ballcarriers,” he said.

Chris McCosky: Injuries leave Lions still searching for power run game


Chris McCosky

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.

chris.mccosky@detnews.com

(313) 222-1489

Lions keep making moves in midst of labor unrest


Tim Twentyman / The Detroit News

Allen Park — With all eyes focused on the labor unrest in the NFL Thursday, the Lions were busy shaping up their 2011 roster.

The team decided to part ways with veterans Kevin Smith and Julian Peterson while offering restricted free-agent tenders to a number of other players, including linebacker Zack Follett.

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The Lions did not offer a tender to former starting running back Smith, 24, making the fourth-year player a free agent. That doesn’t rule out the chance of Smith re-signing with the Lions, but it seems unlikely at this point.

With Jahvid Best expected to be the back-of-the-future and Maurice Morris coming on strong at the end of last season, the Lions felt Smith was expendable.

That’s good news for Best, a third-year pro out of Cal who thought his career might be over after he was carted off the field with a neck injury while covering a fourth-quarter kickoff during a 28-20 loss to the Giants at the Meadowlands on Oct. 17.

A third-round pick in 2008, Smith showed potential after running for 976 yards as a rookie. But injuries have derailed the last two seasons for Smith, who has rushed for 880 yards combined over that span.

Smith’s 2009 season ended because of a torn ACL. He played in only six games last season and finished it on injured reserve because of torn ligaments in his thumb. He also had a shoulder injury.

Smith rushed for 1,856 yards and 12 touchdowns in three seasons with the Lions.

The Peterson move was expected as Lions general manager Martin Mayhew confirmed to reporters last month that the move was imminent.

“We had a meeting, a great meeting, and I thanked him for his two years of service,” Mayhew said.

Peterson, 32, who was scheduled to make $8 million next season, made 15 starts last season and had 83 tackles.

Switching to players that will be wearing Honolulu Blue when camp starts, the Lions offered linebacker Zack Follett an exclusive rights tender for next season.

“I didn’t even know if they would offer me a contract,” Follett said. “I’m just thankful to be offered the opportunity to play for another year.

“I still don’t know if my neck will keep holding up, but I don’t think this contract would have been offered if they didn’t think that it could.”

Follett was placed on injured reserve following the incident in New York, and later told reporters he didn’t know if he’d ever play again after suffering a displaced disk that tapped his spinal cord.

Follett said he’s been intensively rehabbing his neck and feels he’s ready for camp. But he also said there is one more hurdle to cross.

“I haven’t hit anybody yet, so we’ll see,” he said. “Before I actually go back into camp to make it a full go we’ll do another series of tests to make sure there’s more space between the disk and my spinal cord and make sure I won’t be doing any permanent damage.

“It’s a little scary because the one thing the doctors did tell me is that by playing more, my situation can only get worse, and that’s the risk factor that’s involved here.”

The Lions gave fifth-year guard Dylan Gandy and special teams Pro Bowl alternate John Wendling original-round tenders on Thursday and reportedly issued tenders to some of their other four- and five-year players, including cornerback Chris Houston and kicker Dave Rayner.

The original-round tender for Gandy and Wendling mean that another team can offer them a contract but the Lions have the right to match that offer or let them sign with the other team for a fourth-round pick in Gandy’s case and a sixth-round pick for Wendling, the round they were originally drafted in.

Those players could ultimately test the free-agent market as unrestricted free agents, though, depending on the language in the new collective bargaining agreement — whenever it’s agreed upon — as it pertains to free-agent eligibility.

In last year’s uncapped season, free agency changed from four to six years, but it could revert back to four years in the new deal.

The Lions also extended exclusive rights original-round tenders to fullback Jerome Felton (fifth round) and defensive tackle Andre Fluellen (third round).

They also reportedly gave a second-round tender to defensive end Turk McBride.

ttwentyman@detnews.com

ttwentyman@detnews.com

Lions coordinator Scott Linehan survives season of changes


Tim Twentyman / The Detroit News

Allen Park – Lions offensive coordinator Scott Linehan is earning his paycheck this season.

A plethora of injuries at key positions on offense forced Linehan to game plan on the fly. He’s prepared three different quarterbacks to start games this season and also been through three starting running backs.

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Consider the challenges Linehan has faced: Franchise quarterback Matthew Stafford has started only three games with backup Shaun Hill starting nine (before Sunday’s game against the Vikings). Third-stringer Drew Stanton got pressed into duty for three.

Rookie running back Jahvid Best battled turf toe most of the season, Kevin Smith recovered slowly from knee problems and Maurice Morris didn’t emerge as a real contributor until Week 15 (109 yards against the Bucs). But through all the scrambling, ups and downs, and plenty of patchwork, the Lions offense has maintained a steady flow of production. Lions coach Jim Schwartz credits Linehan for finding answers.

“It’s not just playing with those guys, it’s finding a way to keep being productive and I think Scott and our offensive has done a good job at both,” Schwartz said.

“It’s about production and putting points on the board and I think we’ve done a good job at finding a way to do that.”

Despite all the lineup changes, the Lions offense has scored at least 20 points in 10 games this season and 32 or more four times.

Linehan doesn’t appear to get too caught up in the pats on the back he’s received lately.

“It’s your job,” he said. “What happened this year is certainly the exception and not the rule.

“It’s challenging, but that’s why you’re a coach. If you have adversity you’ve got to be able to step in and go with somebody else and trust (them).”

Linehan has found of ways to get the football into the hands of his playmakers.

None has benefited more than Pro Bowl receiver Calvin Johnson, who’s been targeted 134 times this season, seventh-most in the NFL. Eight of Johnson’s 12 touchdowns on the season have come in the red zone.

Best also has benefited from Linehan’s guidance. He’s struggled to run the ball effectively all season, but has 52 receptions and is averaging 8.9 yards per catch with three touchdowns.

Stafford sees Linehan’s body of work as a reason to get excited about the future — when he envisions a healthier team.

“We’ve had a lot of different starts and he’s had to do a lot of work,” Stafford said.

“The best thing is that he’s stuck to his system. He knows it works. We know it works.”

Johnson to play?

Schwartz said Monday that Johnson could play in the season finale against the Vikings even if he wasn’t able to practice on his sore ankle all week. And that’s exactly what could transpire. Johnson did not practice again Friday and will be a game-time decision.

… Cornerback Chris Houston didn’t practice all week and has a shoulder injury that will require offseason surgery. Tye Hill will start in his place.