Bob Wojnowski and Justin Rogers look ahead to this weekend's game with the Bears. Detroit News
Allen Park — It’s unclear how big Ameer Abdullah’s role will be down the stretch of Lions’ season, but one thing is for certain: They are no longer willing to definitively label him their starting running back.
That wasn’t the case this offseason, after the Lions opted not to make a significant addition to the backfield rotation, either through the draft or free agency. Following the draft, general manager Bob Quinn said he felt good about the team’s depth at the position and acknowledged Abdullah would be the starter. Coach Jim Caldwell confirmed as much the following month, even as Abdullah continued to rehab from foot surgery the previous season.
Now, Caldwell is falling back to a popular training camp refrain, saying he doesn’t talk about depth charts. Abdullah said he doesn’t feel like the Lions are necessarily moving away from him, but senses the team feels better about using other backs in certain situations.
“They feel like, in some areas, they can gain more with other people, maybe,” he said. “And in some areas, they think I’m the best doing certain things. That’s pretty much it.”
Through 11 games, Abdullah’s usage reflected the organization’s belief that he was their top option. Despite averaging just four more snaps per game than backup Theo Riddick, Abdullah had three times as many carries.
Abdullah missed the past two weeks with a neck injury, but an NFL Network report indicated he was healthy enough to play Sunday against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers and was being held out for performance-related reasons. Caldwell declined to confirm the accuracy of the report, but Abdullah, after initially hesitating, noted he probably was good to go.
Asked if he was disappointed being scratched from the lineup, Abdullah played the role of the good solider.
“That’s the coaches’ call,” he said. “It’s never in my hands. If the coaches feel it’s the best direction, maybe they know something I don’t. I’m always going to trust that. I’m always going to fall behind the leader of this team. You’d definitely get a lot more answers if you ask Coach Caldwell these questions. Like I said, I’m always going to follow his lead. No matter what he thinks the direction is that week, I’m for it.”
Abdullah certainly hasn’t lived up to expectations put on him coming into the year. After flashing game-altering ability during his short stint before he suffered a season-ending injury in 2016, he’s been limited to 3.5 yards per carry this season.
A deep dive into his metrics would suggest his blocking has been a bigger problem.
According to Pro Football Focus, he’s made a tackler miss on every 7.5 carries, 16th among starting backs, and is averaging 2.67 yards after contact, which ranks 11th. The Lions’ scheme calls for him to run a lot of stretch plays — which has him running horizontally and spending more time in the backfield than almost every back in the league — despite a proven inability to block them properly. That’s contributed to 30 percent of the team’s runs being stuffed for no gain or a loss, the worst rate in the NFL.
Despite all that, Abdullah shoulders the blame for his struggles.
“It’s always going to fall on me and rightfully so,” he said. “I’ve always got to be productive. The good thing is, we’ve got three more games and there’s a lot to gain these three games. With everything out there for us to get, in a sense, it’s important for me to be productive these three games.”
One thing that can’t be rattled is Abdullah’s confidence in his abilities. He’ll continue to work hard in practice and do his best to make the most of the opportunities he gets the next three weeks, whether he’s starting or not.
“We’re going to continue to proceed how Coach Caldwell wants things to proceed and I’m going to just do my best,” Abdullah said.
BEARS AT LIONS
Kickoff: 4:30 p.m. Saturday, Ford Field
TV/radio: Channel 4, NFL Network/760
Records: Bears 4-9, Lions 7-6
Line: Lions by 5
NFC PLAYOFF PICTURE
Remaining games for top teams in the NFC playoff race:
■Eagles (11-2, clinched division): at Giants, vs. Raiders, vs. Cowboys
■Vikings (10-3): vs. Bengals, at Packers, vs. Bears
■Saints (9-4): vs. Jets, vs. Falcons, at Buccaneers
■Panthers (9-4): vs. Packers, vs. Buccaneers, at Atlanta
■Rams (9-4): at Seahawks, at Titans, vs. 49ers
■Seahawks (8-5): vs. Rams, at Cowboys, vs. Cardinals
■Falcons (8-5): at Buccaneers, at Saints, vs. Panthers
■Lions (7-6): vs. Bears, at Bengals, vs. Packers
■Packers (7-6): at Panthers, vs. Vikings, at Lions
■Cowboys (7-6): at Raiders, vs. Seahawks, at Eagles