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Lions’ new offensive coordinator Joe Lombardi excited about crop of running backs

Josh Katzenstein
The Detroit News

Allen Park — The Lions split touches between Joique Bell and Reggie Bush last season, but the two players had extremely similar roles. Both were used between the tackles, and most of their receiving production came on screens.

Under new offensive coordinator Joe Lombardi, Bell, Bush and Theo Riddick will have more defined assignments.

Bell is the best runner between the tackles, and Lomardi said he’s a combination of Pierre Thomas and Mark Ingram, two backs he worked with in New Orleans.

“He’s a very good screen runner; he’s good at picking up protections, which is some of what Pierre did,” Lombardi said. “But he’s also kind of our bruiser back as well (like Ingram).”

Bush is a big-play threat with his speed and agility, and the Lions having three legitimate tailback options should help reduce his risk of injury, something that’s been an issue for much of his career.

“He’s a match-up nightmare for defenses at times, and the thing I’ve been impressed with from my experience is he’s become so much more decisive as a runner,” said Lombardi, who spent four years with Bush in New Orleans. “He’s a guy that’s always been good when you get him in space, and we’ll continue to try and do that both in the running game and the passing game.”

Riddick, meanwhile, remains a relative unknown in the NFL with just 13 touches his rookie season, but he’s fast, shifty and a good blocker.

“Anything to make this offense better,” Riddick said.

Fullback Jed Collins will also have a “significant” role, according to Lombardi, and Montell Owens, a top special teams player, could see some run if there are any injuries.

Going into each game, Lombardi said the Lions will map out a plan for each back, but how many touches each receives will be determined by the flow of the game. Predicting just how the duties will be split between the backs is tough, but there have been some signs this offseason of how the group could be deployed.

In training camp, Bush and Riddick regularly worked with the wide receivers, and both have the skills to run the route tree and create mismatches against safeties or linebackers. Running back Darren Sproles often lined up as a receiver the past three seasons, and Bush did, too, when he was with the Saints.

“It’s just a matter of finding those personnel groupings and formations where you get the matchups that you want because those guys can go out there and be very effective in that position,” Lombardi said. “When those guys have receiver type skills, they don’t have corners covering them usually, so you can try to shave the percentage points in your favor a little bit.”

Bush looked great during the exhibition season, particularly on an 86-yard touchdown run in the third game against Jacksonville. Last year, his first in Detroit, he had 1,006 rushing yards and 506 receiving yards, but he also lost four fumbles.

Bell had 650 rushing yards and 547 receiving yards last year and lost three fumbles, though two came in the snowy Week 14 game in Philadelphia. Even though the Lions signed Bush to a four-year, $16 million deal, Bell carved out a role, and with the Lions showing how much they value Bell with a three-year, $9.3 million deal this offseason, there’s reason to think he could have an even bigger load.

“It’ll be similar to last year,” Bell said of his role. “Of course, it’s going to be a little bit more broad this year, a little bit more, and I’m excited about it.”