Lions’ Washington pivotal part in game plan vs. Giants
Allen Park — It may sound like a stretch, but rookie running back Dwayne Washington might be the Detroit Lions’ key to victory this Sunday, when the team travels to New York to battle the Giants.
As much as the Lions would love to lean on their potent passing attack, it’s going to be a struggle in this matchup. Quarterback Matthew Stafford is nursing a finger injury on his throwing hand — one he has admitted affects both his velocity and accuracy. That’s not something you want to push against one of the NFL’s premier ball-hawking secondaries, a unit that’s got a hand on 83 throws and intercepted 13.
And while the conditions aren’t going to be nearly as bad as they could be this late in the year, the elements figure to play a factor. Rain is a near certainty with winds expected to reach 20 miles per hour.
Combined, it makes Detroit’s ground game, led by Washington, critical to the team’s chances.
“This is the time of year that you want to have (a run game) established simply because of the fact that you’re going to have some inclement weather,” coach Jim Caldwell said. “You’re going to have wind. You’re going to have all kinds of issues and that’s one thing that’s constant.
“For us, at least we’ve been getting a little bit better in that area and hopefully that continues because it’s certainly needed. We need it on Sunday.”
The Lions ran the ball well in last weekend’s win over Chicago. Washington delivered the best game of his young career, gaining 64 yards on 16 carries. He combined with Zach Zenner to churn out 78 yards in the second half.
“I’m hopeful that it’s a trend that’s going to carry forward,” offensive coordinator Jim Bob Cooter said. “I think run game is very important in this NFL overall, but especially when you get into December, January. You’re playing outdoor games, you’re playing road games. It might be colder, wetter, windier, whatever. Run game takes on more and more importance in this league and I think that’s been proven over time.”
The performance highlighted Washington’s development. The negative plays that held him back earlier this season were minimized. He didn’t lose yardage once and was stopped for no gain just twice. He appeared to have a better feel for his blocking, leading to the productive output.
“I do think he’s becoming a bit more patient,” Caldwell said. “I do think that he’s running behind his pads a little bit better. I think he’s improving. I think he’s learning how to adapt and play in this league. Every week he has gotten just a little bit better and I fully expect him to certainly show some improvement this week as well.”
Injuries have forced the Lions to lean on Washington more than they would like. He’s had a rather nondescript debut campaign, something you’d expect from a seventh-round draft pick. He’s carried the ball 69 times for 212 yards and caught seven passes for another 49. He’s been in the end zone just once.
But starter Ameer Abdullah was lost early in the season to a foot injury and a wrist issue looks like it will sideline Theo Riddick a second consecutive week. Even Zenner’s status is up in the air after suffering a concussion during the fourth quarter against the Bears. Washington has been thrust into the featured role and has embraced the opportunity.
And it’s an opportunity he’s built for. His physical running style and the low mileage on his 6-foot-2, 226-pound is perfect for taking advantage of battered defenses during the stretch run.
“I feel like I’m a bigger back,” Washington said. “Things don’t hurt me as much. So, yeah, I feel like just the need just to run over people.”
It won’t be easy against the Giants. The team has been nearly as dominant stopping the run as they have against the pass. They come into the game allowing 3.6 yards per carry, third-best in the NFL.
This is not a playoff game, but it will have a playoff feel. The Lions will have to find some way to keep the chains moving and what better way than to prove they can do it on the ground? Ready or not, that’s going to fall on Washington.