The Detroit Lions have had their varying forms of teams over the course of the Matthew Stafford era. The two most successful years were 2011 and 2014. Both years resulted in playoff appearances, an unknown and scary world to a Lions fan. The teams in those years were considered the best teams since the early 1990s and the team carries a relatively similar core to the 2014 squad.
Detroit Lions Running Game Will Lead to Playoff Appearance
So how does Detroit move forward, capitalizing on a NFC North division with no clear front-runner? A logical approach would be to replicate the offensive situation surrounding Stafford. The heart and soul of the team has shown 5,000-yard passing seasons.
The idea is that if he’s put in the best possibile place to succeed, the Pro Bowl quarterback will perform at the first-overall pick standard he’s expected to. Looking back on the years he was, the team featured an overall manageable defense, two rushers that combined for at least 1,000 yards, and over 110 passing targets to running backs. The team this year has a manageable defense. Eyes now look toward the Lions’ backfield.
Three Headed Monster
In both of the playoff years, Detroit was last in the league in rushing, barely acquiring 1,500 yards each year. The point was that they got some overall fine production from two receiving backs. The Lions backfield currently features six running backs. Stevan Ridley, Ameer Abdullah, and Theo Riddick will look to get featured roles. The running production will be from Ridley and Abdullah. Ridley hasn’t been given the same amount of touches he got in his 2012 breakout year. Because of that, he’s a semi-unproven entity, along with Abdullah.
Abdullah‘s running style is similar to that of Jahvid Best, a running back that thrived under Stafford. Abdullah is a much better back, featuring a higher level of explosiveness with better agility. Abdullah turned heads with a preseason run that drew Barry Sanders comparisons. Where was he during the regular season? Stuck behind the lackluster offensive line and the horrific Lombardi offense. He had some problems holding onto the ball that caused him to get benched. By the time he got back out there, he was splitting time with Joique Bell and putting up average numbers. While he was slumping, the entire team was slumping. With Detroit’s offense being led by the old quarterback coach Jim Bob Cooter, Abdullah will get more carries and targets. Under Cooter, Abdullah got most of his carries on the ground, with double-digit carries in half of the games.
Now Detroit has a running back who led the league in kick return yards, no Bell and an entire off-season to work on the fumbling. That spells success for Abdullah.
The Loss of Calvin Johnson
The past two years Stafford has averaged 165 attempts to running backs, fantastic production for the quality of Detroit’s backfield. With Cooter in and no real way to replace Calvin Johnson, the offense will have to turn more to its consistent pass catchers. Riddick and Abdullah alone could have 150 targets with their projected work load. This gives Stafford more options to attack with Johnson gone.
Zach Zenner is another running back on their roster who can see catches. He didn’t get much sunshine last season, achieving only one start, but the man is a workhorse who amounted for 2,000-yard seasons in his last three years at South Dakota State. There’s no way he doesn’t find a way on the field this year. Stafford has a realistic shot at having more attempts to running backs than wide receivers.
With Zenner and Ridley included, Detroit has ample options at running back that put Stafford in his best place to succeed. Historically, Stafford has been about as predictable as a sundial in Seattle. But never has there been a time where he’s had as many tools. Even without Calvin, he’s poised to have his best year yet because of his running back corps.