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Lions' ground game gunning to grasp 'upper hand'

Justin Rogers
The Detroit News
Running back Ameer Abdullah was held to 30 yards on 15 carries in the Lions' season-opening win over the Cardinals.

Allen Park — Heading into Monday night's game against the New York Giants, the Lions’ ground game is still plagued by concerns with its efficiency. And until the team proves it can consistently run the ball, the offense will struggle to live up to its potent potential.

It was an all-too-familiar sight in the season-opening win over Arizona. The running back, often starter Ameer Abdullah, would take a handoff heading more east-west than north-south. The Lions clearly had a strategy in mind, to attack a notoriously stingy defensive front with outside zone runs, letting the back pick and choose his lane as he got to the edge of the formation.

“We’re athletic up front and it’s good against defenses,” Abdullah said. “You try to run against a big front, you get those guys running sideways, their size won’t show up as much. I feel like that’s where we can get an upper hand.”

But there weren’t many lanes to choose against the Cardinals. Schematic and blocking breakdowns allowed defenders to get regular penetration into the backfield, resulting in multiple carries going for no gain or a loss of yardage.

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Abdullah was so inefficient that he traveled an average of 8.56 yards for every yard gained, the worst in the league last week, according to NFL tracking data. That’s even more troubling considering the Cardinals rarely put more than six defenders in the box.

The Lions are saying it’s only one game. Patience is being preached.

“It’s early yet,” Lions coach Jim Caldwell said. “I think that one of the things that you certainly don’t want to do is make too many declarations this early. I think really, like I’ve always said, that it takes you about four games to kind of see where things are.”

But even though there’s steady roster turnover from year to year, it’s difficult to avoid viewing the struggles through the lens of previous seasons, particularly given the continuity on the coaching staff.

The Lions aren’t about to abandon their outside runs. There are other teams in the league who are having plenty of success with those play designs, including the Dallas Cowboys and Chicago Bears, two of the NFL’s best on a yards-per-carry basis a season ago. The Lions believe they have the right pieces, both up front and in the backfield, to execute the calls at a similar level.

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But Detroit would be wise to incorporate more north-south running. Look no further than the way the team closed out the game against the Cardinals.

After the Lions had taken the lead in the fourth quarter, thanks largely to turnovers setting the offense up with short fields and quarterback Matthew Stafford’s precision passing, Abdullah opened up a late-game drive with back-to-back gains of seven and five yards.

Those runs didn’t come on stretch zone looks, with the offensive linemen moving one direction in sync and the back floating behind the play waiting for the lane to develop. No, those carries were between the tackles and helped set up a 45-yard touchdown pass to rookie Kenny Golladay out of play-action.

The Lions insist there’s no fear running Abdullah, or backup Theo Riddick, between the tackles due to their recent injury history. Offensive coordinator Jim Bob Cooter said he’s simply aiming to put his players in the best position to use their talents.

“Whether that’s an outside zone type of run, or an inside zone type of run, the way these defenses play it these days, you could end up in the mix with some big bodies no matter what,” Cooter said. “We want our guys to be able to run to their strengths and weaknesses, and we certainly evaluate that as we’re calling plays and as we’re trying to sort of make sure who gets what carries and who’s in the game on what plays. That’s something we definitely evaluate. We like to let guys play to their strengths.”

And Abdullah scoffed at the idea that outside runs are being leaned on to protect him or to play to his skill set. He noted he was part of the problem against the Cardinals, not doing enough to make the first defender miss, but whether it’s getting to the edge or running up the gut, he’s confident he can get the job done.

“Look at my film since I’ve been here, all I’ve done is run between the tackles,” Abdullah said. “Some games, we’ll have an emphasis on getting certain things going, but if you look at my film, especially my rookie year, I didn’t go outside the tackles much.”

The Giants present another stiff test for the Lions. They allowed opponents to gain just 3.6 yards per carry last season, tied with Cardinals for the second-best defensive average in the league.

The Dallas Cowboys, with their renowned offensive line and All-Pro back Ezekiel Elliott, did manage to expose some cracks in the Giants’ armor during the teams’ Week 1 matchup, gaining 129 yards on the ground and averaging 4.2 yards per pop.

If the Lions can post those kinds of numbers against the Giants, or any opponent really, the offense will be tough to stop.