Limp run game hamstrings Lions’ offensive prowess

Justin Rogers
The Detroit News

Allen Park — For the Detroit Lions, some equations are simple. Others, not so much.

There’s nothing fuzzy about the team’s playoff picture — win and they’re in. A victory in Dallas Monday night guarantees Detroit a wild card. And regardless of Monday night’s outcome, beating Green Bay at home next Sunday would win the NFC North, ensuring the postseason opens at Ford Field.

The more complicated issue is finding the right balance on offense, a unit that arguably hasn’t reached its full potential since the first game of the season, a 39-35 win in Indianapolis.

Offensive coordinator Jim Bob Cooter has been praised for his work with quarterback Matthew Stafford, who has spent much of the season in the MVP conversation because of his efficiency throughout games and his heroics at the end of them.

But Cooter has faltered in other areas. He hasn’t figured out a way to get anything close to consistency from the team’s run game, the play-calling in the red zone has been suspect and the Lions simply aren’t putting up enough points to win consistently. Among teams in the playoff picture, only the New York Giants (19.4 points) and Houston Texans (17.5 points) are averaging fewer than the 21.5 points by the Lions.

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At the heart of the struggles is the multifaceted issues with the team’s ground game. Despite a heavy investment in the offensive line the past few years, the scheme and talent aren’t creating consistent holes.

In the recent loss to the Giants, the Lions’ backs might as well have been running into a brick wall, gaining a paltry 43 yards on 17 carries. That’s even more troubling when you consider rookie Dwayne Washington gained 12 on his first run of the game.

And while blocking remains the primary issue, it’s not the only one. On the plays where lanes have opened, the backs, especially Washington, have failed to hit them.

Still, despite the fruitless efforts, the Lions continued to run the ball against the Giants, and with a disconcerting level of predictability. After all, Stafford handed it off on six straight first downs to open the game.

“There’s predictability in anything you’re going to do,” Cooter said. “Sometimes, when you think something is the right way to go about things, you’re going to have some predictability and you’re going to have an answer off of that.

“Could be some play action, could be some whatever we want to do. Sometimes run stats are higher on first down than they are on second down. Maybe it shouldn’t be that way, but that’s just sometimes how it falls.”

And after scoring six points against the Giants — part of a stretch where the offense has scored 20 or fewer during regulation in three of its past four and five of the past seven — Cooter understands it’s his responsibility to find a way to squeeze out more production on the ground, a tall task with the Cowboys ranking first in the league against the run.

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“Yeah, I think that’s part of my job,” Cooter said. “Quite frankly, one I’ve got to do better. We’ve not performed the way we would like to, especially last week. Didn’t get as many points on the board to help our team win the game. We’d like to do more of that, do that better moving forward and I think the kind of run-pass ratio is a big part of that thing.

“We’re striving for balance. That’s the ultimate goal, well the ultimate goal is winning the game. But, balance I think helps you on your way there.”

Rushing fewer times probably isn’t the answer. The Lions already rank last in that department.

But if Cooter can’t find the right balance and the right play calls to get the most out of his group, the Lions’ playoff hopes could get stuffed in the backfield.

Twitter: @justin_rogers