Detroit News sportswriters Bob Wojnowski, John Niyo and Justin Rogers take a look at the upcoming season for the Detroit Lions. Detroit News
Allen Park — Without quarterback Matthew Stafford, the Lions probably win three games in 2016. It takes a special player, both physically gifted and impeccably poised, to lead eight fourth-quarter comebacks.
But even with Stafford working his magic, the Lions’ offense was far from potent last season. The unit ranked 21st in yardage and 20th in points. There was a noticeable lack of big plays as the team relied on a dink-and-dunk passing game, long drives and late-game heroics to squeak by opponents.
And as it has for much of the past two decades, Detroit’s offense lacked balance.
Beyond brief spurts, opponents had little reason to fear the Lions’ ground game.
This year, the team believes it will be different. They believe that because they believe in Ameer Abdullah.
Detroit has so many offensive weapons. Golden Tate has consistently racked up 90 receptions, tight end Eric Ebron is a matchup nightmare who has steadily improved each season and Theo Riddick is arguably the best receiving back in the NFL. But Abdullah, in his third year out of Nebraska, holds the key to unlocking the offense’s full potential.
He teased that ability last season, before the football gods took him away.
In the season opener, a game where the Lions scored a season-high 39 points, Abdullah was electric. He racked up 120 yards from scrimmage on just 17 touches, scoring on an 11-yard reception where he lined up split wide.
In the opening quarter of Week 2 against Tennessee, he had a dazzling 14-yard touchdown run negated by a hold. And in the second frame, he got loose on a cutback, breaking two tackles for a 24-yard gain.
It ended up being his final play of the season. Charging through the second tackle, Abdullah was spun around and planted awkwardly, injuring his foot and requiring surgery. It was the first time he missed a game due to injury, at any level.
The team’s other backs averaged 3.5 yards per attempt last season. The leading rusher finished with fewer than 400 yards and 13.4 percent of the team’s carries were stuffed — resulting in a loss of yardage or no gain. That ranked last in the NFL.
That’s what happens when your backs can’t consistently make the first man miss, one of Abdullah’s strengths.
“He can break one at any point in time,” Lions coach Jim Caldwell said earlier this offseason. “Not everybody has to be blocked in order for him to be productive, because he can make some guys miss inside of the holes, outside of the holes.”
It’s why the Lions didn’t sign an accomplished veteran or draft a viable rookie to challenge Abdullah for the starting job. The team, from Caldwell to general manager Bob Quinn, felt they already had their guy.
Now it’s up to him to prove them right.
What potentially sets Abdullah apart, beyond his ability to move like a rabbit through traffic, is his mental approach. His attention to detail, his ability to think on a macro and micro level is a unique trait.
He’s obsessed with the mindset of the team. He’s in-tune and motivated by the improvement of his teammates, especially on defense. He raves about cornerback Nevin Lawson’s improvement and rookie linebacker Jarrad Davis’ deadline. And at 24, Abdullah is eager to be one of the team’s vocal leaders.
His ability to lead is grounded in his ability to communicate.
“He does a phenomenal job being inquisitive, asking questions,” offensive line coach Ron Prince said. “He pulls the linemen aside, might pull me aside, ‘Hey, what are we thinking here? What did you think about that cut I made?’ ”
Abdullah has a profound respect for the teammates who clear his path and is constantly probing to understand how the linemen like to block and why they do it specific ways. He understands the value of chemistry among the unit and wants to be part of a bigger symbiosis.
“I just try to step into their realm and understand how they’re calling things, the terminology they’re using, what are their checks when they get a specific front,” Abdullah said. “I want to know so when I’m lined up and they’re speaking in their language, I can have insight to do my job better. And if they know how I read things and how I like things blocked, it can give them a little bit of an edge.
“That’s the kind of relationship you need with your line,” he said. “You can’t just do your job and they do their job. You need to co-exist. I need them and they need me.
The Lions haven’t had a 1,000-yard rusher since Reggie Bush eeked past the mark with 1,006 in 2013. Before that, it was Kevin Jones in 2004. Could Abdullah be next?
During the offseason, he enjoys working with kids, participating and speaking at youth camps. One of his favorite mottos is, “Why not me?” It’s a philosophy he lives by.
Let’s be honest, a 1,000-yard season might be thinking too inside the box. Abdullah could average 4.5 yards per carry. He could provide a consistent big-play threat. He could help pave the way for the play-action pass, one of the team’s dangerous weapons.
And if you ask him, he believes he has the potential to be an elite dual-threat, on the level of Arizona’s David Johnson or Pittsburgh’s Le’Veon Bell.
Of course, that requires extraordinary opportunity, which isn't likely to be as plentiful in Detroit with Riddick, Zach Zenner and Dwayne Washington also expected to get touches. It also requires durability, something Abdullah understands he has to prove.
But is the concept that far outside reality? If he averaged the 120 yards from scrimmage he posted in the opener last season, his production wouldn’t be far off from the league leaders.
“Yeah, definitely, but there’s a process to everything,” Abdullah said. “I don’t like when people get caught up believing they can’t be something.”
That process is never-ending. Abdullah is still young and relatively inexperienced, at least at the pro level. He has no problem admitting he still has much to learn about playing his position, but he’s eyeing greatness.
“A lot of the things I’m learning this offseason, I’m seeing the way I’m applying them on film, and they’re becoming part of my subconscious,” he said. “That’s something really big, training that muscle memory until it becomes subconscious. I believe that’s what makes a lot of great players great.”
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