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The Detroit Lions had one of the best running back tandems in the NFL last season. Their 1-2 punch of Bush and Bell terrorized defenses all season. And yet, I’d hesitate to put their entire running back corps against many other teams. Despite Bush and Bell’s record setting performance in 2013, the depth behind them wasn’t just lacking, it was non-existent. How does a 23 year old RB coming off a 9 TD season get only 2 carries? I’m sure Mikel Leshoure would like to know the answer to that as well.
While Ndamukong Suh and Calvin Johnson may have gotten the national trade talk attention this off-season, no player was thrown out more as a trade possibility from Lions fans than Mikel Leshoure. That logic may have been sound at the start of LAST off-season, in fact the Lions even turned down a trade offer from the Indianapolis Colts who eventually made the Trent Richardson trade. If the Lions weren’t willing to trade him, why weren’t they willing to get him on the field?
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That answer will likely remain a mystery. Fans have their own theories of course, that he had some mystery injury, that he had a bad attitude, that he was asking for a trade. There’s no real proof to back those theories (In fact, what little proof there is often points in the opposite direction), and nobody will step forward anytime soon to offer any answers. Rather than sit and ponder the what ifs, it’s more productive to look at what the team can do now.
Leshoure has, by all accounts, come into 2014 with a renewed sense of purpose. In his only real season of action, he ran for a disappointing 3.7 yards per carry but managed an impressive 9 touchdowns in that campaign. Coming back from an Achilles tear is a monumental task for a player at any position, most of all running back, and the rust was apparent with Leshoure. Jim Schwartz opted in 2013 to build on the versatility of Joique Bell, who ran for 5.0 YPC in 2012 and notched 52 receptions. That would be fine, but they also chose to completely abandon Leshoure to the bench, where he languished all season almost completely unused.
Bell would regress statistically as a rusher. Though his volume increased from 2012, his efficiency as a runner nose dived, especially early in the season. Bell rushed for only 3.3 YPC the first six weeks of the season, and wouldn’t get up above 4 YPC until after week 10. He finished the season at 3.9 YPC, only .2 YPC ahead of Leshoure’s previous season. He would finish with comparable TDs (JB 8- ML 9) and fumbles (JB 4 – ML 3) as well. The only area that Bell was clearly superior to Leshoure was in the receiving game, where few RBs in the league could compare to Bell.
Now, don’t get me wrong. I’m not advocating for starting Mikel Leshoure over Joique Bell, that would be silly. Bell earned his role and not once could you question his dedication to the game. Was Bell as a rusher so far ahead of Mikel Leshoure that you’d be willing to completely write off Leshoure and keep handing Bell the rock in any and all situations? Of that, I’m not so sure. Bell fought through rib and knee injuries last season, the latter of which he is still dealing with today. To not only keep his present situational volume, but increase it, would be potentially torpedoing any chance of Bell seeing the end of his contract in Detroit.
Which brings us full circle, back to Mikel Leshoure. Leshoure showed in 2012 that he could handle a heavy workload, even doing so behind an inferior line both to what Bush/Bell ran behind in 2013 AND what the Lions will field in 2014. With Bell starting the season injured, it only makes sense to give the heavy lifting to someone else (Leshoure) and allow Bell to go back to doing what he does best, abusing defensive backs unfortunate enough to meet him in the open field. The addition of a Fullback into the Lions offense makes it even more likely that Bell will get to see his old, more productive role.
With the Lions utilizing a “Saints-like” offense, the chances they will move from their 2 back system they used in 2012-2013 to a more role based 3 to 4 back system is almost a certainty. With Riddick possessing a similar skill-set to Bell, it makes sense not only to use Leshoure in the short yardage situations to utilize his skill set, but also to help Bell be a more efficient runner and possibly even last to the end of his recently signed extension.