Niyo: If Lions are going to make a push, a reliable run game is needed

John Niyo
The Detroit News

Detroit — J.D. McKissic took a toss from Matthew Stafford and ran to his right. And for a brief moment, it looked like so many other running plays the Lions have attempted lately. There were blockers in front of McKissic, but little chance he’d find his way past them.

Only this time that was part of the design.

“The defense is gonna bite hard on the toss, so I just had to sell it,” said McKissic, who did just that — selling another failure in the Lions’ run game — before stopping dead in his tracks, turning and firing a pass back to Stafford.

The call, we soon realized, was for a flea-flicker on first down from the New York Giants’ 41-yard line early in the fourth quarter. And it worked to perfection as Stafford connected with receiver Kenny Golladay for a touchdown that proved to be the decisive play in the Lions’ 31-26 victory.

It’s the same trick play Lions offensive coordinator Darrell Bevell had run against the Giants two years ago with the Seattle Seahawks. McKissic even played the same pass-back role — “the easy part,” he laughed Sunday — setting up Russell Wilson for a touchdown strike to Paul Richardson.

“I just like that he’s willing to try those things, put them in,” said Stafford, who’d burned his own defense a couple times in Allen Park with that same play during the week. “If we execute them (in practice) and they look good, then he has confidence to go out there and call it during the game.”

Still, while tricks and treats are fun — especially this time of year — the Lions surely know they’ll need something more reliable in the second half of this season.

They’re 3-3-1 after Week 8, and no longer in last place in the NFC North, but that’s largely thanks to the play of Stafford and an explosive passing attack, as well as some opportunistic plays and forced turnovers from the defense.

'A collective effort'

The lack of a consistent running game, though, has been a problem all season. And while we’ve been saying that rather consistently around here for years — decades, even — it’s a more pressing issue now for the Lions with Kerryon Johnson going on injured reserve following knee surgery last week.

Matt Patricia’s desire to control the game — and his team’s ability to finish off opponents like the Giants — is running into trouble because the Lions’ offense really has become a bit too one-dimensional.

Stafford had another mostly brilliant performance in Sunday’s win, going 25-of-32 for 342 yards and three touchdowns with an interception.

More impressive, the Lions converted six of their first eight third-down situations despite an average of 10 yards-to-gain on those plays. And that was mostly due to the fact they couldn’t get more than a yard or two running on first or second down.

Sunday, it was mostly a by-committee approach behind Stafford, as all four backs on the active roster split 23 carries, a dozen of them going to Tra Carson, a fourth-year pro claimed off waivers from Green Bay only 10 days earlier.

Carson actually was the surprise starter, taking the handoff on three of the Lions’ first four plays from scrimmage and bouncing off tacklers for 23 yards. It was an impressive start. But his other nine produced just 11 yards.

Rookie Ty Johnson finished with seven carries for 25 yards, though he also had 10- and 11-yard runs negated by penalties. Paul Perkins and McKissic added three yards on four carries.

The sum total for the Lions’ running backs: 23 carries for 62 yards, or less than 2.7 yards per carry.

“Obviously we’ve got to do a good job of looking at the tape and see what that looks like,” Patricia said. "I mean, just from the feel of the game, I thought those guys were trying to run hard. I thought they were trying get downhill when they had to and try to execute the run plays. We had some plays that were blocked really well and some that were not.

“It’s always a collective effort.”

Backs on the block

But right now, that collective effort seems like it could use another push, which is where Lions general manager Bob Quinn enters the picture.

He already made waves last week by trading away safety Quandre Diggs in a deal with Seattle that brought back a fifth-round draft pick.

And while an injury to starter Tracy Walker in Sunday’s game may force his hand to make another roster move on defense, various reports indicated the Lions were actively engaged in trade discussions involving running backs over the weekend.

How much they’re willing to pay to land one remains to be seen, obviously. But Johnson won’t be eligible to come off IR until Week 16 at Denver.

And there are available options on the block, whether it’s a back like Kenyan Drake, whom the Dolphins already have agreed to trade, according to the Miami Herald, or maybe a player like Seattle’s Rashaad Penny, whom the Lions tried to trade for on draft day back in 2018. (Rebuffed by the Seahawks at the time, the Lions went ahead and selected Johnson with their second-round pick in that draft.)

Either of those players probably could be had for a mid- to late-round pick like the one Quinn just acquired from Seattle.

And though neither would guarantee any dramatic turnaround from a rushing attack that has posted just two 100-yard games this season — in the opener at Arizona and in the Week 4 loss to Kansas City — it’s certainly worth a shot if the Lions still view themselves as playoff contenders.

Stafford, for his part, insisted he’s not going to worry about it.

“That’s the last thing on my mind, to be honest with you,” he said after Sunday’s game. “I know it’s on a lot of people’s mind. But I’m just showing up every week with the guys that we’ve got, whoever we’ve got, and we’ll go out there and try to win.”

If they’re really trying, however, it’s time to show it off the field, not just on the field.

Twitter: @JohnNiyo