Numbers don’t lie: Caldwell’s running attack doesn’t work

Justin Rogers
The Detroit News
Jim Caldwell

Allen Park – What defines respectability?

The Detroit Lions are not designed to be a ground-and-pound team, to wear out opposing defenses with 40 carries for 200 yards. Coach Jim Caldwell acknowledges as much and has repeatedly said the team merely needs to be respectable running the ball.

The problem, by almost any measure, is Caldwell’s teams have rarely been respectable in that department. And without the benefit of Peyton Manning at quarterback, one of the greatest to ever play the position, the struggles have stunted Caldwell’s offenses from nearing their full potential.

Let’s set a reasonable parameter that respectability is league average. Maybe that’s a generous bar, but we have to start somewhere. Since 2000, the NFL’s average has been at least 4.0 yards per carry every year and 4.2 yards or better 11 times.

Now, Caldwell’s numbers. In the eight seasons he’s been either a head coach or an offensive coordinator, his teams have averaged more than 4.0 yards once, the 2011 Indianapolis Colts, which went 2-14. And that team was only over thanks to running back Donald Brown breaking free from a tackle deep in his own backfield, reversing field and running for an 80-yard touchdown.

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During his one full season as offensive coordinator in Baltimore, in 2013, the Ravens finished last in yards per carry and 30th in yards per game. And those struggles have ported to Detroit.

In three-and-a-half seasons leading the Lions, the team finished in the bottom 10 in both categories, never averaging better than 3.8 yards per carry. This year’s figures, 3.5 yards per attempt and 82.1 yards per game, both check in at 28th.

And while it’s easy to highlight execution errors within a given play, the sample size of struggles here is more mountain than mole hill. There’s no way around it, blame has to fall on the shoulders of Caldwell and his staff, who remain committed to a blocking scheme that isn’t getting the job done.

“Yeah, I think you always got to look at everything you do,” Caldwell said Monday, after his team ran for 72 yards on 22 carries, the fifth straight where they were held under 100 rushing yards. “I don’t think there’s anything that you can’t, you shouldn’t look at and try to examine, and try to improve upon. Does it fit your personnel? Those kinds of things. But the most important thing, which I’ve always said, we have to have a respectable running game, make teams honor it.”

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No one is honoring the Lions’ ground game, because they haven’t been given a reason. Even with a capable running back in Ameer Abdullah, who entered Sunday night’s game as one of the NFL’s best in gaining yards after first contact – a necessity given how often he’s contacted in the backfield.

Despite running against eight-man fronts on fewer than a quarter of their carries, Abdullah and the Lions’ backs have been stopped for no gain or a loss of yardage on nearly a third of the time, the worst stuff rate in football and 10 percent worse than league average.

And when opposing defenses don’t have to commit extra attention close to the line of scrimmage, that means they’re in coverage, cluttering quarterback Matthew Stafford’s passing lanes, which should be the Lions’ bread and butter.

Scrapping a blocking scheme mid-season isn’t realistic. An offensive system is a massive ship, and its turns are gradual. It’s an evaluation that must be done in the offseason and implemented through OTAs and training camp.

But it’s time to go back to the drawing board. The investment has been made in the personnel – from draft picks Taylor Decker and Graham Glasgow, to the signings of T.J. Lang and Rick Wagner, and even the addition of big-bodied tight end Darren Fells.

Respectability running the ball has been elusive for the Lions, but without Peyton Manning walking through the door, remains imperative. Until the Lions’ find it, the offense will continue to be prone to lengthy lulls and consistent effectiveness will be out of reach.


Kickoff: 8:30 p.m. Monday, Lambeau Field, Green Bay, Wis.

Records: Lions 3-4, Packers 5-2

TV/radio: ESPN/760

Line: Lions by 2.5