Unheralded James Robinson might cause trouble for Lions' underwhelming run defense

Justin Rogers
The Detroit News

One of the greatest things about the NFL is stars can be found in the most unexpected of places. Tom Brady, arguably the greatest quarterback of all time, was a sixth-round draft pick, while three of the most productive receivers in league history — Jerry Rice, Randy Moss and Terrell Owens — played collegiality at Mississippi Valley State, Marshall and Chattanooga. 

James Robinson

While there are plenty of players who followed the more conventional path, going from being a five-star recruit to a Power Five program to an early-round draft pick, there are far more who took a circuitous route. 

So why are we even surprised when an unheralded, undrafted rookie running back from Illinois State is putting up similar numbers to Ezekiel Elliott and has been more efficient than established workhorses like Derrick Henry and Josh Jacobs? 

That man is James Robinson, who beat the odds by not only cracking the Jacksonville Jaguars' roster in a year where a pandemic wiped out the opportunity to showcase his ability in preseason games, but by running away with the team's starting job five weeks in into the season. 

And he's the man the Detroit Lions will be focused on stopping this week if they're going to get their dimming postseason hopes afloat coming out of the bye week. 

More: Lions backfield still trying to get handle on how to divvy up carries

"Thoroughly impressed with everything this guy has done and taken his opportunity to just play at a high level," Lions coach Matt Patricia said. "This guy runs really well. He runs with great pad level. He really runs with his shoulder pads over the ball. He does a good job of just getting downhill. I think he fits the mentality that (coach Doug) Marrone wants to run the ball and (offensive coordinator Jay) Gruden wants to run the ball, the way that they want to run it."

Through five games, Robinson has dominated the workload in the Jacksonville backfield, carrying the ball 73 times. Rookie receiver Laviska Shenault is next on the list with nine carries. 

And with those 73 carries, Robinson has racked up 333 yards. Plus, he's added another 183 yards on 19 catches, putting him in the top-five in the league in yards from scrimmage. That's impressive production for a guy who often gets phased out of the game plan earlier than the team would like because of their tendency to fall behind.  

"That means we have to start faster, finish some drives, and keep the game in reach where we can use him for 60 minutes, not just 25 or 30," Gruden said last week. 

At first glance, there's nothing too remarkable about Robinson. He's on the shorter side at 5-foot-9, but with a thickly built 219-pound frame. He ran a 4.64-second, 40-yard dash at his pro day, which is average. But one area where his measurables stands out is explosiveness. Few running backs can boast a 40-inch vertical leap. 

That, combined with his ability to run low, has made him tough to bring down. He's broken 18 attempts through five games, averaging better than 3 yards after contact. It also helps explain how he ran for 4,444 yards during his college career playing against Division I FCS defenders. 

"He’s a strong runner," Patricia said. "I think one of the things that’s been most impressive about it is how many arm tackles as he breaks. He’s a hard target to hit. He’s just going downhill. I think that has been very impressive. He’s got great vision. He can see some of the cuts.”

Robinson's strengths figure to be a problem for the Lions, who have struggled to stop the run during the team's 1-3 start to the season. In those four games, the defense has given up a staggering 681 yards on the ground — worst in the league despite 26 teams playing one more game — at an unsustainable 5.2 yards per attempt. 

And while there might seem to be few reasons for optimism, defensive coordinator Cory Undlin points to improvements he saw down the stretch against New Orleans, where the team managed to hold the Saints running backs to 3 yards on six carries in the fourth quarter. 

"You keep going back out there," Undlin said earlier this week. "You keep fighting until you can find a way to stop them. And I was proud of those guys. It could’ve gone a couple different ways there. We ended up staying together there, getting a couple stops and then obviously the offense went down – we came up short there, but I was proud of the way they fought there at the end of the game because that could’ve gone the wrong way quick. So, we’ve got a way to go still and I feel really positive about that happening going forward.”