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Film review: Breaking down Lions' run game success

Justin Rogers
The Detroit News
Ameer Abdullah

Probably the most promising element of the Detroit Lions’ season-opening victory against the Indianapolis Colts was the effectiveness of the ground game.

The Lions finished the contest with 116 yards rushing, a mark they topped just twice in 2015. For this review, we’re going to ignore the quarterback scrambles, the end-around to wide receiver Golden Tate and rookie Dwayne Washington’s two goal-line carries and focus on the combined 19 handoffs to running backs Ameer Abdullah and Theo Riddick.

That duo racked up 108 yards for a healthy 5.7 yards per carry. Both had gains of at least 13 yards and both had rushes where they were dropped in the backfield. We went back and looked at each carry to see why the tandem was so effective.

We’ll start with Ameer Abdullah, who had 12 carries for 63 yards. He flashed his individual playmaking ability early in the contest, following a pair of 4-yard gains to start his day.

On his third carry, Abdullah got into trouble on the stretch zone run to the right side of his line when tight end Eric Ebron lost his block on the perimeter. Impressively, multiple Lions players recovered as the back reversed field. Guard Laken Tomlinson and receiver Anquan Boldin had the key blocks, freeing a lane for the back to pick up 13 yards.

Guard Laken Tomlinson and receiver Anquan Boldin had the key blocks.

Abdullah’s best stretch, as a runner, came during a second-quarter touchdown drive. The Lions opened up the series by handing off to the back three straight plays.

He almost needed just one.

On the first play, he took a handoff on quarterback Matthew Stafford’s left side and cut right, up the middle. The offensive line, along with tight end Cole Wick, had gotten strong push going left and fullback Michael Burton, pulling from the right, opened up a small crease for Abdullah, who popped through the hole.

At the last minute, a Colts defender recovered and was able to get an arm around Abdullah as he came through the lane, causing the back to lose his balance and spin the ground after a 7-yard gain. Had he been able to power through the tackle attempt and keep his footing, there was 70 yards of green and no Colts defenders in the secondary.

Had Ameer Abdullah been able to power through the tackle attempt and keep his footing, there was 70 yards of green.

Abdullah took the next two handoffs going right for gains of 9 and 10 yards, keeping the chains moving. Wick and right tackle Riley Reiff did a nice job on those plays, giving Abdullah plenty of room to operate and get up field.

Ameer Abdullah took the next two handoffs going right for gains of 9 and 10 yards.

As for Riddick, he did a surprising amount of damage up the gut. His first carry, a 21-yard touchdown, saw him take a shotgun snap right through the middle of the Colts defense. The play was exceptionally well blocked with guard Larry Warford (75) pulling left and wiping out two guys, allowing left tackle Taylor Decker to cleanly release into the second level and pick off a linebacker.

The play was exceptionally well blocked with guard Larry Warford (75) pulling left and wiping out two guys.

The final two blocks, securing the score, came from tight end Eric Ebron and wide receiver Marvin Jones. Ebron fired off the line of scrimmage and got enough of his man, allowing Riddick to take an outside lane and Jones sealed off the defender near the goal line allowing Riddick to finish in the end zone.

The final two blocks, securing the score, came from tight end Eric Ebron and wide receiver Marvin Jones.

Riddick also flashed some impressive elusiveness in tight space. The best example came on a fourth-quarter carry, his first after being cleared to return from a potential head injury.

The back had to first dodge a man in the backfield after right tackle Riley Reiff was beat off the snap. Riddick managed that with a jump cut to his right, but when he cut up field, he was swarmed by three defenders and appeared destined to be stopped for a minimal gain. Instead, he jump cut again, this time to his left, springing into the open field for a pickup of 12.

Obviously the Lions weren’t flawless in the run game. As noted, Ebron missed a couple blocks. Riddick also lost 4 yards on another play when nose tackle Zach Kerr blew by Tomlinson’s block and dropped the back in the backfield. Reiff also missed a noticeable assignment in the open field during a fourth-quarter Abdullah carry that could have resulted in a much bigger gain than 7 yards.

All in all, the push was consistently good up front. Center Travis Swanson was as good as we’ve seen him in the Lions uniform and Decker and Reiff on the edges are a clear upgrade from past years, giving the Lions more opportunities to stretch runs outside.

Tomlinson was the weakest link, even he was pretty solid outside of a handful of plays.  The team could also use a more consistent inline tight end, but Ebron, despite the mistakes, had multiple positive moments and showed good effort. Wick also showed promise in limited playing time.

As for the backs, they made the most of their opportunities. They took advantage of the lanes created for them and showed the ability to make plays on their own, something the Lions have lacked since the departure of Reggie Bush.

The performance was an excellent start for the oft-criticized component of the offense and they’ll look to build on it against Tennessee this week.