Detroit New reporters Justin Rogers and John Niyo talk about the Lions' season-opening matchup with the New York Jets. Justin Rogers and John Niyo, The Detroit News
Allen Park — NFL coaches have a habit of spewing effusive praise about an opponent in the days leading to a matchup. You never want to be the one to provide that bulletin board material, after all.
New York Jets coach Todd Bowles dabbled in that standard hyperbole during a Thursday conference call, when he called the Detroit Lions’ backfield rotation a “four-headed monster.”
The Lions’ struggles running the ball have been well-documented. The team bottomed out in 2017, finishing last in yards per game, last in yards per carry and last in conversion rate in short-yardage situations.
Not a year goes by that the Lions don’t preach an emphasis on running the ball. But for all the upgrades the team has made in the past, this offseason’s improvement plan looks to have the potential to make a real difference.
General manager Bob Quinn attacked the issue on multiple fronts. For the second time in three years, he used the team’s first-round pick on an offensive lineman. He also revamped the tight end position, moving on from Eric Ebron and Darren Fells in favor of Luke Willson and Levine Toilolo, both who come with superior run-blocking resumes.
Finally, the Lions signed LeGarrette Blount and drafted Kerryon Johnson. Paired with Ameer Abdullah and Theo Riddick, they make up the “four-headed monster” Bowles was talking about.
“I like where we’re at from that standpoint and I think all those guys do things really well,” Lions coach Matt Patricia said. “And they’re a little bit different, each one of them, which is good for us because it gives us a little bit of a variance that we can use them all with as opposed to just having four of the same guys, because then it doesn’t really affect the defense as much when you put them out there.”
While it’s unlikely the Lions are going to make a sudden transformation into a ground-and-pound powerhouse, this combination of backs merits more optimism than any group since the Lions signed Reggie Bush and paired him with former second-round pick Mikel Leshoure and local upstart Joique Bell in 2013.
Leshoure didn’t do much that year, but Bush ran for 1,000 yards, while he and Bell combined for 2,700 yards from scrimmage. This current collective has the chance to do something similar.
What should be unique about the group is how they can be deployed. Earlier this offseason, Patricia hinted the weekly workload is likely to be dictated by matchup, as opposed to having a more traditional bell cow.
“It’s not necessarily the Xs and Os, it’s who is the X and who is the O and what’s the matchup,” Patricia said back in April.
The group certainly gives the Lions a variety of ways to attack an opponent.
If Patricia believes he can cram the ball down an opponent’s throat, Blount is the 250-pound battering ram for the job. If another opponent struggles to cover the middle of the field, Riddick or Abdullah could see an expanded role that week. And if Johnson, the electric, one-cut slasher out of Auburn, continues to be a quick study and explosive playmaker, it’s easy to imagine him quickly forcing his way into an expanded opportunity.
This uncertain timeshare is nothing new for Blount, who played a role in a Philadelphia’s diverse and talented backfield last season. That group racked up the third-most rushing yards in the league last year on the way to a Super Bowl title.
Having that versatility gives the Lions coaching staff the ability to game plan to create those mismatches Patricia is eager to exploit.
“An unlimited number of mismatches, let's just say that,” Blount said.
Blount has won Super Bowls as the lead back and as part of a rotation. He’s carried the ball nearly 300 times for the Patriots in their 2016 championship campaign and just 173 times last year for the Eagles.
How the Lions split touches this season doesn’t matter to him, as long as the strategy is resulting in victories.
“I care more about winning than running the football a lot,” Blount said. “That’s the biggest thing for me. If we’re winning football games, doesn’t matter how much we’re running the football.”
The Lions will debut their new-look rushing attack against the New York Jets on Monday night. The Jets finished 24th in rushing defense last season.
N.Y. Jets at Lions
Kickoff: 7:10 p.m. Monday, Ford Field, Detroit
TV/radio: ESPN/WJR 760
Line: Lions by 6.5