November 8th, 2017
Lions serious playoff contenders,
but running game remains a joke
By KEITH GAVE
With just their second win at Green Bay since 1991, the Detroit Lions have survived the most challenging half, by far, of their season.
Standing at 4-4, they probably need to win six of their final eight games to make the NFL playoffs for the third time in four seasons under coach Jim Caldwell. That sounds daunting until you analyze their upcoming opponents. It’s not a stretch to build a compelling case for the Lions to win every one of their remaining games., starting Sunday with winless Cleveland visiting Ford Field.
Unlikely that they will, to be sure, and not unreasonable either.
But it hardly matters if the Lions can’t establish any semblance of a run game – the critical element for any team hoping to make a run in the playoffs. Right now, they’re simply pathetic. Right now, the victory formation – take the snap, fall back a step and take a knee – is a more productive running game than the Lions seem capable of mounting.
We know this, along with a national TV audience the past two weeks. At home against Pittsburgh last week in a game Detroit should have won, and again Monday night in Green Bay, the Lions looked lost and hopeless on running downs. Especially in the red zone. It was as if they were stranded on a desert island without a clue or a plan to get off, and dying of starvation.
“This is really hard to watch,” said Jon Gruden, the ESPN analyst and former Super Bowl-winning coach.
Hard for him to watch? Imagine those of us with a shred of vested interested who have watched this team fail to mount a consistent running attack since Barry Sanders retired prematurely last century. (I’m dismissing the oft-injured and disgraced Heisman Trophy winner Reggie Bush, who only seemed to want the ball in nationally televised games.)
Again on Monday the Lions were woeful on the ground, especially when they were in sniffing distance of the goal line. How bad? If the end zone was a women’s prison and the Lions had a fistful of pardons. . . they still couldn’t score.
How desperate were they Monday? When Ameer Abdullah should have been on the bench after losing a fumble earlier, he was back in the game with Detroit two yards shy of the goal line. Stunningly, quarterback Matthew Stafford took the snap, turned, and handed off to Abdullah, who dropped the damned ball again.
That’s not just stubbornness or stupidity on the part of the coaching. It’s disgraceful.
I understand that Detroit’s makeshift offensive line is challenged to consistently create openings for its running backs. But Abdullah is among the league leaders in backs tackled behind the line of scrimmage. Now he’s dropping the ball.
So I say again, as I did last week. The Lions have to find a way to run the ball even a little bit. To start, they need to re-evaluate their personnel – first by limiting Abdullah’s touches. Right now, he’s the third or fourth best back on this team. Theo Riddick deserves to be featured more, both running and receiving out of the backfield.
And on short yardage situations like the myriad blown opportunities the last few weeks: Zach Zenner deserves the opportunity. Get him out of street clothes as a healthy scratch and give him the ball inside the 5-yard line. It’s what he’s built to do. He sure as hell can’t do any worse. He’ll hang onto the ball, too.
Despite their issues on the ground, the Lions have given us a pretty good half of football. With even a little luck, they could be 6-2 right now. They’ve lost three games at home, but three of their wins have come on the road in tough places: Green Bay, Minnesota and New Jersey against the Giants. Those divisional road wins could be crucial before it’s over.
They have two victories on Monday Night Football, a first since 1991.
Stafford is earning every dime of that fat new contract. On the strength of his golden right arm alone, the Lions controlled the ball all night long. His offense didn’t punt the ball once – a first for a Detroit team since 1971.
There remains a lot of work to be done, but the Lions have put themselves in a good position at the halfway point. But if they can’t find a way to run the ball better than they have so far, they’re going to be really tough on the eyes on another long road to disappointment.