Wojo: Abdullah shines, but retooled line key for Lions

Bob Wojnowski
The Detroit News
Lions running back Ameer Abdullah takes the ball upfield after a handoff with Riley Reiff blocking in the first quarter Thursday night at Ford Field.

Detroit — We know the Lions can pass. They throw as prolifically as anyone, and Matthew Stafford reached 20,000 yards quicker than any quarterback in NFL history.

OK. But what if, if, if, if, they actually could run the ball with authority, and even with occasional awe-thority? What if those moves and cuts by rookie Ameer Abdullah in the preseason opener weren’t fleeting taunts, but true evidence of tantalizing talent?

This is the whimsy of practice football in the NFL, when half of what you see turns out to be a mirage. I don’t think Abdullah, the second-round pick from Nebraska, was a mirage with his stirring bursts in the Lions’ 23-3 victory over the Jets Thursday night. Those quick feet and cutbacks sure look real, and the fans’ growing excitement sure feels real.

The deeper issue in the Lions’ endless quest to ramp up their running game is this: Can their revamped offensive line be real?

It showed signs against the feeble Jets, but it’s hard to tell if the efficient offense was a product of the line, or because Stafford and Golden Tate were sharp, or because Abdullah and other runners were sharp, or because the Jets were garbage. The interior of the line is rebuilt, with Travis Swanson at center and veteran Manny Ramirez at left guard. Right guard Larry Warford is a stalwart and left tackle Riley Reiff is solid. Right tackle, with Cornelius Lucas hanging on while LaAdrian Waddle heals, is the concern.

It’s too early to say Jim Caldwell is achieving his goal of balancing the offense with a tougher running game, but there’s evidence either way. First-round pick Laken Tomlinson hasn’t pushed out the veteran Ramirez yet, which either is a good sign for Ramirez or a reality check for Tomlinson.

Or neither. Caldwell praised Abdullah’s quickness, vision and “unique talents,” but the rookie was taking little credit for his dazzling debut. (NOTE: I KNOW IT’S PRESEASON, SHADDUP.)

“The line was outstanding, got a lot of good push,” Abdullah said. “We really wanted to emphasize the run today, and the O-line really answered the call and brought their ‘A’ game. Pretty much all you saw was because of them opening up lanes.”

That’s nice of the kid to say, although not completely accurate. Abdullah rushed for 67 yards on seven carries, and two other backs, Zach Zenner (55 yards) and Theo Riddick (35), averaged more than 4 yards per carry. Joique Bell didn’t play but he has legitimate competition.

Stafford threw only two passes and the Lions outgained the Jets by a staggering 428-123. I’d say it was impressive the way they punched the Jets in the mouth, except the Jets already have shown their glass jaw (poor Geno Smith).

Striking a balance

Stafford was sacked a career-high 45 times last season, and part of that was acceptable. He held the ball longer instead of making risky throws and dropped his interception total from 19 to 12. That was steady evolution, but for the Lions to sustain after an 11-5 season, they need more reliability and less volatility.

And nothing in football is more reliable than the balance provided by a running game and a physical offensive line.

“I guess it’s just an alpha-male mentality, when you run the ball it’s a physical thing,” Warford said. “We got some dogs, for sure, guys who just want to go out there and hit. … (Abdullah) makes us look good too. Sometimes we’re not always perfect on our blocks, and people who can pick up after you mess up, that’s awesome.”

No offense to Dominic Raiola and Rob Sims, but they were smallish linemen, tacticians but not exactly road graders. And no, I’m not declaring the Lions’ rebuilt line suddenly road-graderish. Neither is Caldwell or anyone else. But at least the plan is being executed.

“(The running game) is important to set up play-action pass, get single coverage, all that kind of stuff,” Stafford said. “It’s important to close out games, which we did tonight. It was fantastic to see. That helps you win games not only year round, but especially late in the year, bad-weather games, whatever it may be.”

Rediscovering the run

The Lions are aware of their reputation as a fancy-free dome team that struggles to win grinding games on the road. It’s not the fault of their defense, which was punishing last year. It’s partly the absence of the run threat, and the pressure it puts on Stafford, Tate and Calvin Johnson.

The Lions had six runs of 20-plus yards last season, near the bottom in the league. They were 28th in rushing yards and yards per carry (3.6). They’ve been looking for that explosive burst, the one Reggie Bush no longer could provide, the one Jahvid Best provided until his body betrayed him.

You know, a burst like when Abdullah saw the crease, stuck his right foot firmly and hopped back to miss a Jets defender. It was merely a 4-yard run on the first touchdown drive, but it was almost as impressive as his 45-yarder.

Listen, I’m not going to torture you with the litany of Lions’ running woes. In 2013, Bush was the team’s first 1,000-yard rusher in nine years. The Lions have been patching and hoping ever since you-know-who retired in 1999.

“(Abdullah) is as quick as a cat,” Jets coach Todd Bowles said. “He’s about as quick as Barry Sanders. I’m not saying he’s Barry, but he’s a good running back, and he made us miss.’

He said it! Not me! It’s legally and morally indefensible to pin that comparison on a Lions running back, which is why I’m glad I’m not doing it. I tried to pin Abdullah down on what type of back he considered himself — speed back, change-up back, every-down back — and he shut me down with, “I’m a running back.”

Fair enough. When you’re 5-9, 203 pounds and possess power and speed, it’s difficult to peg you. But here’s one statement from Abdullah that really stuck: “It’s my job to make the first guy miss.”

Exactly. The Lions haven’t had a lot of quick-footed runners the past 15 years or so, guys who see a hole and hit it with force. Of course it’s hard to make the first guy miss when he hits you immediately, and is followed by the second and third guys. The Lions’ line hasn’t been strong enough to create gaping lanes, but if that’s changing, there’s a snappy rookie eager to find them.