Niyo: Lions running game looks as weak as ever

John Niyo
The Detroit News

Allen Park — We knew where they’d taken a hit, and we’re seeing it now, the way the once-feared Lions defense is getting pushed around and picked apart.

But we knew where they’d spent the offseason working, too, and we’ve yet to see any tangible evidence the emphasis on improving the run game is ready to pay dividends. Or even move the chains.

Through two games, the Lions are ranked 31st in the NFL in rushing — ahead of only the also-winless Eagles — with the fewest carries (32) and second-fewest yards (107) from scrimmage. In two games, they’ve picked up four first downs on the ground.

And in a 26-16 loss at Minnesota, Detroit’s leading rusher was none other than Matthew Stafford, whose four frantic scrambles in the second half picked up 20 yards. The four backs who took handoffs from Stafford managed 18 yards on 12 carries. In all, it was the worst rushing performance for the Lions since September 2011. And it came against a Vikings defense that had allowed 230 rushing yards to the 49ers a week earlier.

“You gotta be able to run the ball if you want to be good,” receiver Golden Tate said.

And right now, they simply aren’t, for a variety of reasons, none of which anyone really wants to hear after the blood-eagle ritual in Minneapolis.

“It’s not just one thing that you can put your finger on,” center Travis Swanson said, shaking his head.

Everyone is at fault

There are injuries, yes. Right guard Larry Warford, who missed the opener as he worked his way back from a high-ankle sprain, didn’t play well in his return. Right tackle LaAdrian Waddle, coming off ACL surgery, was active for the first time but didn’t play, despite the fact Cornelius Lucas, hobbled by an ankle injury of his own, was having a brutal game in his place.

But injuries are just an excuse. And following an offseason that saw the Lions invest first- and second-round picks in the run game — guard Laken Tomlinson and running back Ameer Abdullah — there’s just no excusing this.

Monday breakdown: An 0-5 Lions start shouldn't surprise

As coach Jim Caldwell bluntly put it Monday, “We’ve got to do a better job of blocking.”

The backs have to do a better job, too. Both Joique Bell and Abdullah looked a bit tentative Sunday, and neither found a way to create yardage on his own. Nor did Caldwell and offensive coordinator Joe Lombardi give them much help with multiple tight-end formations — Brandon Pettigrew’s absence probably killed that notion — or an occasional sixth lineman. Fullback Michael Burton, another offseason investment in the run game, played 10 snaps.

“We didn’t run the ball as well as we could, or as well as we can, and that makes us a little bit one-dimensional,” Stafford said Monday during his weekly WJR appearance. “And when you do that against a well-coached, talented defense like Minnesota, they’re gonna make you pay for it.”

Stafford paid for it, all right. Though he was sacked just once, he was hit at least eight times by eight different Vikings defenders. It started with the Lions’ first drive, when linebacker Eric Kendricks drilled him in the ribs on his second pass attempt of the afternoon. And it didn’t end until the game was over, with Stafford dropping back in the pocket nearly 60 times and then heading for X-rays on his chest and ribs as a result.

“Now that it’s over with, there were a couple times he got in the huddle where he could barely speak the play — that’s how much pain he was in,” Tate said.

More trouble ahead

Stafford, who looked and sounded a bit better Monday, led the team through a brief walkthrough, but stopped short of saying he’ll be ready to play Sunday against the Broncos.

But if he does, and the Lions can’t run, he better be ready to hide. Because Denver’s pass-rushing tandem of DeMarcus Ware and Von Miller might be the league’s best right now, leading the NFL with eight quarterback hits and three sacks the first two weeks.

That’s the sort of pressure the Lions created last season, with a line anchored by Ndamukong Suh. And in theory, at least, this is a week where Detroit’s defense — a huge disappointment thus far — should be getting ready to roar, what with a raucous Sunday night crowd expected for the home opener at Ford Field and a Broncos team that’s also one-dimensional, albeit with a five-time MVP in Peyton Manning.

The Broncos might be 2-0, but they’re averaging 2.8 yards per carry and Manning has been sacked seven times already, prompting coach Gary Kubiak to say Monday, “We can’t ask him to hold up that way throughout the course of the season.”

“If you run the ball, you usually protect your quarterback better,” Kubiak added.

And if you don’t believe him, just ask Stafford. I’m sure he feels the same way, especially whenever the ibuprofen starts to wear off.