Improved run game would elevate Lions' offense among NFL's elite

Justin Rogers
The Detroit News

This is the first in a two-part series looking at the Lions heading into training camp. Today, Justin Rogers of The Detroit News looks at the offense. Coming Tuesday: A look at the defense.

Allen Park — As training camp sets to open later this week, the Detroit Lions have all the pieces in place to possess one of the NFL’s most potent offenses. It’s a matter of whether offseason changes solve the team’s glaring weakness.

The cornerstone of the operation, quarterback Matthew Stafford, is a top talent who has long moved beyond the inconsistencies and subpar decision-making that plagued him earlier in his career. He’s been a premier passer since Jim Bob Cooter took over as offensive coordinator in the middle of the 2015 season. In those 41 games, Stafford has completed better than 66 percent of his throws for 11,169 yards, 73 touchdowns to 24 interceptions, adding up to an impressive 98.2 quarterback rating.

Running back LeGarrette Blount is one of a handful of new additions on offense brought in to revitalize the Lions' ground game.

Stafford’s ability is enhanced by an explosive trio of receivers. Golden Tate, the chain mover in the slot, has caught no fewer than 90 passes in his four season with the Lions, thanks in large part to his unparalleled ability to make tacklers miss in the open field and pick up valuable real estate after the catch.

Tate is complemented on the outside by a pair of legit deep threats, Marvin Jones and Kenny Golladay. Jones averaged 18.0 yards per catch in 2017, leading the NFL, and Golladay wasn’t far behind as a rookie, checking in at 17.0 per grab.

Led by this aerial assault, Detroit finished eighth in scoring. That’s impressive, considering the unit had to overcome the NFL’s worst ground game.

In 2017, the Lions averaged a paltry 76.3 rushing yards per game and 3.4 yards per carry. The team’s most efficient ball carrier was undrafted rookie Tion Green, who didn’t see his first playing time until December and is no longer on the roster.

Many of the issues moving the ball on the ground can be traced back to the blocking. Injuries ravaged the Lions’ offensive line last season. Left tackle Taylor Decker missed half the season following an offseason shoulder injury and wasn’t rounding back to form until late in the year, while center Travis Swanson, guard T.J. Lang and right tackle Rick Wagner all were sidelined for more than 20 percent of the team’s offensive snaps.

For a unit so reliant on chemistry, it proved difficult to build and maintain any given the injuries. The team ended up using 10 starting combinations, and 21 combinations overall. Not only did that fuel the struggles running the ball, it played a key role in Stafford getting sacked a career-high 47 times, the second-most in the league.

Injuries can’t be predicted. The Lions unquestionably had some bad luck in the department last season, but general manager Bob Quinn proactively adjusted the makeup of his offensive line this offseason to mitigate a repeat scenario.

A full season from left tackle Taylor Decker should help the Lions' offensive line develop chemistry on the field.

Swanson is gone, allowed to walk in free agency. He’s effectively being replaced by Frank Ragnow, the team’s first-round draft pick. Additionally, Quinn signed Kenny Wiggins and Wes Johnson for potential depth. Those two started 31 of a potential 32 games last season. And at tackle, the team added Tyrell Crosby in the draft, bolstering the talent behind Decker and Wagner.

A coaching change for the position group also can't be dismissed as a potential catalyst for improvement. Former assistant Ron Prince was dumped when Jim Caldwell was fired in January and has been replaced by Jeff Davidson, who has nearly three decades of playing and coaching experience

At the tight end spot, the Lions placed a premium on blocking, unceremoniously dumping former first-round pick Eric Ebron, for less flashy options in Luke Willson and Levin Toilolo. Both have reputations as solid run blockers on the edge. As for Ebron’s production in the passing game, the Lions will look for Willson and second-year tight end Michael Roberts to pick up some of the slack, while Golladay is also a likely candidate to see an uptick in targets.

Quinn also upgraded his backfield rotation, signing LeGarrette Blount and drafting Kerryon Johnson. Blount, a 6-foot, 247-pound wrecking ball, gives the Lions a physically imposing, north-south runner the team has lacked in recent years. A year removed from the team finishing last in short-yardage situations, he should be the key to correcting the problem.

Johnson is the team’s future at the position. A three-down workhorse at Auburn, he churned out 1,391 yards and 18 touchdowns on the ground for the Tigers as a junior last season.

The biggest element of intrigue coming into the camp, on the offensive side, is how the backfield rotation shakes out. Beyond Blount and Johnson, the Lions return Ameer Abdullah, Theo Riddick and Zach Zenner. One figures to be the odd man out, especially if the Lions stick with their plan to reincorporate the fullback into the offense. 

Regardless of how the timeshare develops, if these investments and alterations pan out, elevating the Lions' ground game anywhere close to league average, look out. That would mean longer drives, fewer three-and-outs and greater efficiency in the red zone. Combined with the established passing attack led by Stafford, a reliable run game could easily thrust the Lions into the conversation of the league’s best offenses.