Zach Zenner filling void in Lions' injury-riddled backfield

John Niyo
The Detroit News
Running back Zach Zenner (34) led the Lions with 54 yards on 12 carries.

Allen Park — The options may be limited. The opportunities are not.

That was the message on the practice field last week for what’s left of the Lions’ injury-riddled offense.

“That was one thing we tried to talk about as an offense: ‘Some different guys are getting some different opportunities this week, and who’s going to take advantage of them?’” coordinator Jim Bob Cooter said.

Zach Zenner certainly took note, which comes as little surprise, since his coaches say the fourth-year pro who goes by "Doc" is always taking notes in meetings.

“Yeah, I would say Zach really did a nice job of, ‘Hey, Zenner, go in there and get a few carries and see what you can do with 'em,’” Cooter said. “And they turned out to be pretty good for us and pretty big for us. So, we’re looking for more of that around the offense.”

Zenner’s late surge helped seal the Lions’ 17-3 win at Arizona on Sunday, and it also solidified his reputation as a dependable backup. After the Cardinals cut the Lions’ lead to 10-3 midway through the fourth quarter, Zenner got the call instead of starter LeGarrette Blount and then kept getting the calls — seven consecutive carries that produced 42 yards, including a 1-yard touchdown plunge.

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““I think Zach gave us a little spark there,” Cooter said. “Ran the ball hard, ran it downhill, got a few extra yards. Sometimes I looked up and he was getting contact at maybe two yards past the line of scrimmage and the pile was moving five or six more yards. Obviously, our guys up front (were) working hard to move that with him, but Zach ran hard. Zach found the fight hole, found the right spot.”

That the former undrafted free agent found his way back, after a scary preseason injury — two fractured vertebrae — left him wondering if his career might be over, was a story in itself. Six weeks ago, Zenner was studying for the MCATs and thinking about medical school again while rehabbing and waiting for the phone to ring.

It finally did in early November, and now Zenner figures to see an even bigger role down the stretch after Sunday’s performance.

"Whenever my number's called, I’ll be ready," he said. "But these coaches, they know who I am, and they’ve known me for a while and it’s nice to have that confidence, for sure.”

Catching up

This isn’t quite like Week 3, when Patricia faced his former team from New England. But he and Bills offensive coordinator Brian Daboll do have a lengthy history.

Technically, it goes back to college, when Patricia was an offensive lineman at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute and Daboll was playing safety for the University of Rochester. (In 1996, both were coaching when the Division III teams met — Patricia as a grad assistant and Daboll as a volunteer coach after a neck injury cut short his playing career.)

Daboll went on to spend a couple years working as a grad assistant for Nick Saban and Michigan State, and Saban’s recommendation helped him land a job on Bill Belichick’s first staff in New England in 2000. Patricia says he has Daboll partly to thank for landing a job with the Patriots in 2004.

“He kind of was in charge of trying to help find that next young coach to go to New England,” Patricia said. “(He) gave me a call and kind of connected all the dots and put that all together. He and Josh (McDaniels) had just gone through the process there, so I was kind of the next guy that they brought on as a young coach.”

That connection led to speculation he could be a part of Patricia’s own initial NFL staff last winter. But in mid-January, the Bills hired Daboll away from Alabama, where he served as Saban’s offensive coordinator last season. Daboll also was an NFL offensive coordinator in Cleveland, Miami and Kansas City from 2009-12, before returning to New England as tight ends coach for three seasons.

“We’ve been able to work together for two different stints at New England, which was great, and just to be able to see his growth as a coach and his style and what he brings and the way that he’s developed different teams,” Patricia said. “I’ve been able to coach with him and I’ve coached against him, so we’ve been kind of intertwined my entire career here in the NFL. So, this will just be another chapter of that.”

Extra points

A day after the Lions put defensive end Ezekiel Ansah on injured reserve, ending his season after suffering a shoulder injury that likely will require surgery, Patricia wasn’t interested in discussing Ansah’s future. The former Pro Bowler who ranks fourth on the franchise’s all-time sack list (48) is scheduled for unrestricted free agency this winter after playing the 2018 season on the franchise tag.

“Ziggy has been great for me this year, we’ve worked really well together,” Patricia said. “I think I have grown as a coach and he’s grown as a player. I think that relationship has been great. It’s unfortunate, but injuries happen. Right now, our focus is just trying to get onto the Bills and get ready to go and make sure that we’re doing everything that we can to win this weekend. So, that’s really kind of just the short-term picture for us.”

… After promoting two players — guard Leo Koloamatangi and tight end Jerome Cunningham — to the 53-man roster to replace Ezekiel Ansah and tight end Michael Roberts, who also is on IR, the Lions filled three practice-squad vacancies Tuesday. They signed defensive tackle Joshua Frazier, a rookie seventh-round pick (Alabama) by Pittsburgh, defensive end Jonathan Wynn, an undrafted rookie who spent time on Minnesota's practice squad, and offensive lineman Jarron Jones, who had practice-squad stints with Washington and Tampa Bay this season.

… The Lions held a walk-through indoors Wednesday, but running back Kerryon Johnson (knee) was still listed as unable to practice on the official injury report. Others in that category included right tackle Rick Wagner (concussion), receiver Bruce Ellington (hamstring), defensive tackle Da’Shawn Hand (knee) and defensive back Charles Washington (hamstring). Matthew Stafford is still listed as limited with a back injury, as are Taylor Decker (shoulder), Devon Kennard (hip), Nick Bellore (ankle), Marcus Cooper (back) and Trevor Bates (ankle).

Twitter: @JohnNiyo

Lions at Bills

Kickoff: 1 p.m. Sunday, New Era Field, Orchard Park, N.Y.

TV/radio: Fox/760 AM

Records: Lions 5-8; Bills 4-9

Line: Bills by 1.5