Lions' ground game down to its last legs: Zach Zenner

Justin Rogers
The Detroit News
Lions running back Zach Zenner is averaging 4.3 yards a carry in his last two games.

Allen Park — Jim Caldwell is like any other NFL coach, he would prefer to have a balanced offense. But try as the Detroit Lions have the past three years, the team has struggled to find a consistent ground game to balance out its aerial attack.

But the past two weeks, there has been a glimmer of hope. Zach Zenner, who entered the season as the team’s fourth-string running back, has shined his brightest under the prime-time lights. Against Dallas and Green Bay, he tallied more than 200 yards from scrimmage, averaging a respectable 4.3 yards on 32 carries, including three scoring runs.

“He really does a great job reading the play, seeing the hole, great vision, feeling the flow of the play and just attacking,” guard Larry Warford said. “He doesn’t get fancy with it. I think that’s a sign of a great back and he’s doing a great job back there.”

Almost all of that production has come in the first half of those games, which is another problem for the Lions to solve before the team’s playoff game against the Seattle Seahawks, but when Zenner has been involved and effective, the offense has been dynamic.

The Lions scored 21 in the first half against Dallas — something they’d accomplished just one other time this season — and should have hung 17 on the Packers through two quarters, had Matt Prater been able to convert a 39-yard first quarter field goal.

As Caldwell said early in the season, when the offense is balanced, it’s at its best.

And a successful ground game becomes even more critical in the postseason, on the road — especially outdoors, where cold, wind and precipitation are the norm.

“When the run game is going the whole offense goes,” offensive coordinator Jim Bob Cooter said. “The more you run it, the better the whole thing works and that’s for sure true in the playoffs.”

This wasn’t how the Lions envisioned finding balance this season. It was supposed to be Ameer Abdullah and Theo Riddick leading the charge. Through the first game and a half, it looked like that formula had serious potential. But Abdullah was lost to a foot injury in Week 2 and Riddick missed time with a high ankle sprain before a wrist injury ended his year.

The Lions tried to put more on the shoulders of seventh-round pick Dwayne Washington, but the rookie wasn’t ready. The physical tools are there, but the vision and patience remain underdeveloped.

Zenner became the man, the featured back, two weeks ago. The Lions cautiously dipped their toes in the water at first, easing off his workload in the second half after he rushed for 64 yards before the break against the Cowboys. But after being heavily scrutinized for that coaching decision, Zenner was the only running back to play a snap against the Packers and it’s safe to expect something similar against the Seahawks.

It’s a wonder why the team ever thought he couldn’t handle it. Remember, this is a guy who ran for more than 2,000 yards three consecutive seasons at South Dakota State. Regardless of the level of competition, that’s level of production, and durability, is impressive.

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Zenner didn’t test poorly at the combine, but he doesn’t have an ideal frame or elite speed. Even with the eye-popping production, he went undrafted last year before signing with the Lions. He went on to lead all players in rushing yards during the preseason, earning a roster spot.

His rookie season ended prematurely after a brutal hit broke multiple ribs and collapsed a lung. But Zenner worked his way back on to the roster this season, went from inactive early in the season to this current opportunity.

“It means a lot from the coaching side of it, that they’re willing to give me this opportunity,” he said. “And it means a lot for my career, as a player, and have ample opportunities to show what I can do.”

Zenner will tell you his approach, or his confidence, didn’t waver. He’s never fretted about his playing time or snap counts, focused only on making the most of the chances he was granted.

It’s no longer a carry here or a series there. Zenner has earned the right to be the guy for the remainder of the season. His emergence couldn’t have come at a better time. If he can run the way he has the past couple weeks, especially if he can keep it up for four quarters, the Lions will have a shot of upsetting the Seahawks.

jdrogers@detnews.com

Twitter: @justin_rogers

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