Bland backfield brings Lions' rush to crawl

Josh Katzenstein
The Detroit News

Allen Park — Through six games, the Lions look like they won't have a designated feature running back.

The Lions are using a three-headed attack with Theo Riddick, Ameer Abdullah, and Joique Bell or Zach Zenner, although Zenner is on injured reserve.

But the production hasn't been memorable.

*Riddick has been good as a receiver, but has nine carries.

*Abdullah leads the team with 54 carries but has fumbled three times, and he's had to talk about rebuilding the coaches' trust after the last two games.

*Bell will return Sunday against the Vikings after missing the last three games, and has 22 on his first 20 carries.

The Lions haven't had a running back rank in the top 10 in carries in a season since James Stewart was fourth in 2000. And that's unlikely to change this season.

"I think if you have a player that is head and shoulders above everyone else when it comes to everything you ask a running back to do, then that would certainly be a factor," offensive coordinator Joe Lombardi said of what it would take for a player to become the go-to back.

"And then the durability. We've got really good, effective running backs. You'd feel good about any of them taking that kind of role. But … I'm not going to specifically talk about ours, but I've been around running backs where it's like the minute that guy touches the ball 15 times or more in a game, he's so sore, it's hard to get him ready for the next game."

Lombardi praised Riddick, who leads NFL backs with 33 receptions, saying he has a "special skill-set" as a receiver and it's important to utilize such players.

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Free safety Glover Quin compared Riddick to other backs that thrive in the pass game like Darren Sproles, Danny Woodhead and Shane Vereen.

"I think overall it's kind of the nature of the game and the way it's progressed that you find that a lot of those guys have been getting injured through the years," coach Jim Caldwell said of feature backs. "And when you go with one back and he carries it the great majority of the time, at some point in time you're going to have some issues.

"But it's very difficult for a running back to make it through all 16 games, just the pounding that they take."

Center Travis Swanson balked at the idea of running back seeing consistent carries on a drive or in a game having an impact on the offensive line. He said the linemen have to open holes the same way regardless of which back is in, and any impressive play fires them up.

"They can give you juice regardless, whether it's running straight through someone and making a big hit and running them over, or if it's cutting and juking three guys at one time," Swanson said.

The Lions are 32nd in rushing at 66.5 yards, so they haven't had many opportunities to celebrate big runs. Abdullah's 24-yard touchdown in Week 1 was the only run of 20-plus yards.

Riddick's seven carries for 28 yards last weekend against the Bears were career highs. He's a good pass protector, but Lombardi indicated Bell can be a better option.

Abdullah appears to have the most upside, but has to fix his fumbling. He's also not a great blocker, but had some good ones against the Bears.

But with Bell back Sunday against the Vikings, the Lions will have more options to spread the ball unless one of the backs finally earns the majority of the work.

"Joique is a little bigger, so there's some things that come with that," Lombardi said. "Depending on what linebacker you think he may have to block in pass protection, he may be a guy that — because of his mass — you feel better about the matchups.

"Ameer and Theo have some similar skills when it comes to receiving and route-running. Theo has just got something special to him on the third down, two-minute situations."

Vikings at Lions

Kickoff: 1 p.m. Sunday, Ford Field, Detroit

TV/radio: Fox/97.1

Records: Vikings 3-2, Lions 1-5

Line: Vikings by 1½

Series: Vikings lead 70-36-2