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Lions' running back competition heats up

James Hawkins
The Detroit News
Zach Zenner

Allen Park – With two exhibitions left and less than two weeks until the 53-man roster needs to be set, the running back competition is heating up and who emerges remains anyone’s guess.

Over the past two seasons, Lions coach Jim Caldwell has carried four running backs along with one fullback on the roster. Ameer Abdullah and Theo Riddick are near locks along with Michael Burton.

That leaves Dwayne Washington, Stevan Ridley, Zach Zenner and George Winn duking it out for the final two spots.

“I think we’re all just working to get better,” Zenner said. “As far as what all of us need to do as a running back group is just maximize every run, execute our protection schemes, make people miss and make plays.

“I think it makes you better just having other guys to work with, not necessarily us four but as a group. Having so many guys, so many different perspectives to get a view on a play or different tricks that certain guys use has been helpful.”

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In the exhibition opener against the Steelers, Zenner, Ridley and Winn all shared similar workloads. Zenner led the group with 30 snaps (22 offense, eight special teams) and Washington bottomed out with 12 snaps (five offense, seven special teams).

Against the Bengals last week, Zenner, Winn and Ridley didn’t see much time with Zenner again topping the trio with 18 snaps (12 offense, six special teams), while Washington got an extended look with 32 snaps (23 offense, nine special teams).

Washington, the seventh-round pick, has made the biggest plays of the bunch. He scored on a 96-yard kickoff return in Week 1 and followed that up with a 5-yard rushing touchdown and two-point conversion in Week 2.

Through two exhibitions, Washington leads the foursome with 34 rushing yards on eight carries. Zenner has 28 rushing yards on 11 attempts followed by Ridley’s 27 yards on nine carries and Winn’s four yards on six carries.

"You know that's a tough decision to make. Like you said, we have a lot of talented backs,” quarterback Matthew Stafford said. “It's yet to be seen who's going to emerge from that group.

“Obviously a big thing is pass protection. Can you line up and figure out who is blitzing and go block them? That's a big point of emphasis for those guys and tough to do in the NFL, so that's one. Number two I would imagine is just run the football successfully and hold onto it and all that kind of stuff."

With cuts looming, effectiveness on special teams will also play a crucial role in determining who stays and who goes.

“The most important thing is obviously the production,” Caldwell said. “That’s what you look at in all phases, whether it’s pass protecting, carrying the ball, or involvement in special teams. Because all of those things are extremely important and so we’ll take a look at those guys and evaluate them accordingly.”