Lions mailbag: Concerns emerge stopping, starting run

Justin Rogers
The Detroit News

Allen Park — It was a "Victory Monday" at the Detroit Lions practice facility, meaning the team had the day off. And since Jim Caldwell didn't have anything of consequence to say at his daily press conference, I though it best to knock out a mailbag.

On to your questions.

In light of letting the Browns run all over the place, how fearful should the Lions be of the Bears two headed monster?

— Ryan J. Smith (@_ryanjsmith) 

I don't know if I'd characterize the Bears' ground game as a two-headed monster. Tarik Cohen is a nice player, but he's more Darren Sproles than Brandon Jacobs. He's a bigger threat as a receiver than pounding it between the tackles. But given the holes the Browns were able to open up down the middle, there should be legit concern about the ability to stop Jordan Howard, a 225-pound workhorse who can both absorb and deliver a pounding.

And you can't discount quarterback Mitch Trubisky's mobility when a play breaks down. He didn't scramble once against the Packers last week, but is averaging 7.3 yards on his carries this year. The Lions can't concede the edges like they did against DeShone Kizer this past week.

Bears running back Jordan Howard is fifth in the NFL with 716 yards rushing.

Remember when the Lions were the Browns and the Browns were the Lions? Which team is truly building bright long term future beyond mediocrity?

— AJ C (@hey_aj) 

The Browns definitely repeatedly shot themselves in the foot like the Lions used to often do several years back, but there's a lot of promise on that roster. I like the running back tandem of Isaiah Crowell and Duke Johnson, Kizer looked much better than I anticipated, and it will be interesting to see how much Corey Coleman and Josh Gordon improve the pass game down the stretch.

Defensively, Myles Garrett is special, plus Jamie Collins, Danny Shelton and that secondary are solid building blocks. And what you have to love, if you're a Browns fan, is how well they've stockpiled draft picks. Right now they're set to have five in the first two rounds this year, with two potentially in the top 10. Look no further than the Los Angeles Rams for how well a young team can come together with a couple of years to develop.

Lions running back Ameer Abdullah has not gotten much help from his offensive line lately.

Run game question: First 2 games of 2016 #21 & #25 combo looked very good, 2017 not so much? Why? Or is Decker that much of a game changer?

— G (@GarrettSagen) 

There are plenty of factors that go into it. You have to take into account the opponents, the sample size, and yes, the offensive line continuity. Ameer Abdullah was dynamic the six quarters he was healthy last year. He's been pretty good this year, as well, with good yards after contact and missed tackles numbers. But he, along with all the Detroit backs, are being hit in the backfield far too often. That's largely on the blocking, both along the line and on the perimeter.

Does CLE having 2 weeks to game plan vs DET's 5 days factor into the Browns strong start and the Lions having to make adjustments to hang around?

— Brett Cousino (@bcoozno) 

You can point to it, if you want, but the most troubling part of that game was the Browns' first two drives in the second half — when those advantages, as slight as they might have been, should have been minimized. During that stretch, the Browns didn't win with trickeration, they simply overpowered the Lions, especially on the ground, marching for two long touchdown drives. That's cause for concern against any opponent, but especially against an offense that hasn't been good in 2017 and is the biggest reason the Browns are winless.

More:Wojo: Lions learn no pushovers in drive for playoffs

Do you foresee Jamal Agnew's role on offense continue to expand?

— Joseph Nicholas (@jfrie11) 

There's probably a pretty low ceiling on how much he'll contribute on offense, at least as long as the Lions remain committed to him playing cornerback.

So far he's peaked at three offensive snaps in a game, but I could certainly see a situation where he plays a few more. Without drastically increasing his practice and meeting room time on that side of the ball, his overall understanding of offense is going to be limited. That leaves him to line up in the same spot or two, with only a handful of alignments and play calls where he can participate.

Don't expect rookie cornerback and return specialist Jamal Agnew to emerge as a big part of the Lions' offense.

All of the Lions remaining games are winnable. Which remaining game other then Minnesota is the most worrisome?

— Andrew (@Charb_14) 

Probably the two road games where weather could be a factor — Chicago and Baltimore. Both opponents are capable of controlling the tempo with their ground games, are top-10 defenses in terms of yardage allowed. Add those factors to potentially challenging conditions for Matthew Stafford and company to move the ball through the air and both games will be tough.

Focus of need for 2018 draft? Let Ziggy go to save money?

— Julious (@timmsu) 

You obviously can't go into a draft focusing too much on need, because you risk reaching for inferior talent, but the team will need to find a way to bolster its defensive line, both at end and tackle. The Lions aren't getting it done rushing the passer, and the tackles haven't been consistent enough clogging the interior run lanes.

As for Ansah, saving money isn't the issue. It's the lack of production. You can't commit a long-term deal to a player who has been ineffective for two straight years because of multiple injuries. If he somehow gets it together down the stretch and closes strong, maybe you use the franchise tag. Otherwise, move on, as difficult as it can be to let a quality pass rusher walk out the door.

Defensive end Ziggy Ansah's days in Detroit might be numbered, unless he finishes this season strong.

You can weigh in on an argument I’ve had with a few people:
Is Stafford the best QB we’ve ever had?

— Fr. Joseph Krupp (@Joeinblack) 

Statistically, it's not close, but if you factor in the evolution of the game that's allowed for Matthew Stafford's bloated stat line, and place an emphasis on team success, it's probably fair to say he's still behind Bobby Layne. In my opinion, it's impossible to compare the eras, after all there were only 12 teams through much of the 1950's, but Layne was a six-time Pro Bowler, six-time All-Pro (first and second team) and a three-time championship quarterback.

Write about how Zettel is better than Ziggy.

— Hussein Baadani (@BAADANI15) 

What your eyes tell you, the numbers bear out. The two have been equally effective against the run, but Zettel has been the more steady pass-rusher, generating 30 pressures to Ansah's 18. Sacks are nice, but steady disruption of the pocket is more important.

Haven’t heard Miles Killebrew’s name in weeks. Is he on the Ansah-witness-protection program?

— Derek Wilczynski (@derekwilc) 

Lions safety Miles Killebrew (35) appears blocked for additional playing time by Tavon Wilson (32).

The playing time has been trimmed in recent weeks. He's averaged 21 snaps the past four games, just about half as much as he played the first five weeks. It is important to point out that Tavon Wilson was dealing with some injury issues for three of those five games.

Here are some other factors. First and foremost, Quandre Diggs has been much better this season, meaning the Lions have reduced the variety of nickel packages they use. The team also has some better linebacking depth this year, compared to last, which also eats into Killebrew's snaps.

I don't think this speaks negatively to Killebrew's long-term role, but Wilson is the starter at strong safety and doesn't leave the field much. As long as he's here and healthy, Kilebrew is blocked from a bigger role.

What's the Lions best chance of making the playoffs - catching Vikings to win the North or taking a wildcard?

— John Wallace-Howell (@JohnHowell77) 

The top of the NFC is crowded, and with the Saints, Panthers and Falcons all holding a tie-breaker edge over the Lions, so the best bet is overtaking the Vikings, who are about to enter a brutal four-game stretch. And, let's be honest, that's also better for the Lions because it will net them a home game at Ford Field.

What is with the team’s refusal to throw downfield more often? I get it that many plays are designed for it but then protection breaks down, but it just seems like we are content to check down.

— doug mccready (@dgmccready) 

Matthew Stafford is sixth in the NFL with 38 deep-passing attempts this season and his average distance his attempts are traveling in the air is up nearly a half-yard from last season and more than a yard from 2015. I don't think the team has been lacking in downfield shots this year.

Why is Caldwell steady trying force the run instead of using Stafford's arm to open the run game?

— apparently worthless (@messiah819) 

The philosophy is fairly simple. If you don't offer a balanced attack, opponents will drop seven or eight into coverage every time, making an efficient passing game nearly impossible. You have to run the ball to keep defenses committed to stopping it. That means keeping linebackers close to the line of scrimmage and safeties at least alert to the possibility.


Don't you think the thing that's different about our current Lions team vs. the SOL is they don't quit? The SOL would have started slow and gotten rolled.

— Milehigh Gus (@GusMilehigh) 

People are often asking about the identify of a team and I think the identify of the Lions, under Caldwell, is they don't get rattled regardless of the circumstance. They may not be as talented as you'd like, and Caldwell's coaching style might be more conservative than some fans would prefer, but rarely is this team out of any game, no matter the deficit.

In a league where so many games are close, there's plenty of value in that.

Who will they take in the first round of the 2019 draft? I'll hang up and listen.

— Kevin Hochstein (@kevbo789) 

2019? You hung up before I could hang up on you.

What does Zenner have to do to get some carries?

— Corey Hall (@CoreyHallcomic) 

First, he has to be active. And with Dwayne Washington suffering another injury in the win over the Browns, that seems to be a strong possibility this week. But let's be honest about what Zach Zenner has done with his opportunities. In 2016, despite a late-season surge, he was stuffed on 15.9 percent of his carries, the fourth-worst rate among backs with at least 50 attempts. This year, he had a 14-yard run on a fourth-down conversion. He's gained two yards on his other nine carries. Two yards.

Yes, the line is the biggest problem, but it also shows a complete lack of ability to create on his own.

Why does everyone love Lawson? I’ve thought for a while that he’s average at best and isn’t a coverage CB. What am I missing?

— Steve Brown (@stevejbrown23) 

I was unaware that there was uniform agreement on the topic. In fact, based on my social media feed the past three years, I would say the opposite is true. I felt fans were overly critical of Lawson, who was more than adequate in his role as the No.2 cornerback in 2016.

This year, he hasn't been as good and the criticism is merited. His fumble return against the Browns was an incredible play, but he also had a number of errors in the game, including a missed tackle that resulted in a touchdown and a hold that negated a long punt return.

Lawson plays hard, but he's the weak link in the secondary that isn't helped out by an ineffective pass rush. He's a free agent at the end of the year, and with Teez Tabor waiting in the wings, it seems unlikely Lawson will be re-signed.

Can we talk about next year yet? If Robinson keeps improving at guard do you see us letting Swanson walk? And chances of us tagging Ziggy had to be slim by now?

— Adam Carlson (@flaw2705) 

There's nowhere for Corey Robinson to go but up at guard, because he was pretty brutal in his debut. He allowed quarterback pressure three times, which is far too much for an interior lineman, and was even worse as a run blocker, looking lost on multiple assignments. He's a smart player and has skill, so more time in the role could be all he needs, but I still believe his long-term fit is as the swing tackle, backing up Taylor Decker and Rick Wagner.

Should Riddick be getting more carries than Abdullah? Do you think at any point the team decides to consider Riddick the number one running back?

— A.J. Albright (@ActionJackson84) 


I mentioned Zenner's stuff rate being the fourth-worst in the NFL last year. Well, Riddick was the worst. His quality outing against the Browns boosted what had been an otherwise ugly season carrying the ball, with a 2.6 average. He doesn't offer the vision or the power Abdullah does in between the tackles. There's no reason for a switch.

Do you think the Lions should name Ebron a captain every week so he has a better chance of catching a TD pass?

— john smith (@UFOsAREfromGod) 

Correlation does not equal causation, but I respect your out-the-box thinking.