The Detroit Lions secured a playoff berth last season despite their flaws. Here’s what I believe is the lynchpin to them finding similar success in 2017.
Last season, the Detroit Lions posted a 9-7 regular season record and earned their second playoff berth in the past three seasons. And they did so without All-Pro wide receiver Calvin Johnson, a defense that struggled to get to opposing quarterbacks and their top two running backs injured.
If the Lions could find success last year despite those challenges, this season should be a cakewalk, right? If it was only that easy. If the Lions’ truly want to return to the postseason, they’ll need to rely on what I believe to be the lynchpin to success for the Motor City. What is it?
The answer is the ground game. Last year, the Lions clipped along at 81.9 rushing yards per game ranking 30th in the NFL. It didn’t help that running back Ameer Abdullah was injured in Week 2 versus the Tennessee Titans and never saw the field the rest of the season.
Abdullah has also suffered an injury in every calendar year dating back to a minor MCL sprain in 2014. Now he’s 100% healthy and looking good in training camp this year, which bodes well for the potential of 2017’s rushing attack. But Abdullah needs to remain healthy for the rushing attack to put its best foot forward.
Lucky for the Lions, they have a stable of running backs with some experience. That includes a solid third down back in Theo Riddick who carried a heavier load in 2016. And throw in a capable backup in Zach Zenner who proved at the end of last season he can gain yards for this offense.
Now, we can’t expect Abdullah or the other backs to do it alone. The new look offensive line will have to open some holes. Guard Larry Warford and tackle Riley Reiff departed in Free Agency. The Lions countered their departures by signing a couple of big names in guard T.J. Lang and tackle Rick Wagner.
A healthy center Travis Swanson, an improving guard Graham Glasgow and a shining tackle Taylor Decker looked like a very good offensive line…until Decker injured his shoulder this offseason. And then Wagner suffered a minor injury in a joint practice with the Indianapolis Colts last week.
While we keep an eye on Wagner’s injury to see if he’s out any significant time, we’re watching tackle Greg Robinson emerge as the leader to replace Decker’s spot at left tackle.
We can’t know how this unit will perform until deeper into the preseason. But the key focus of the offensive line, for rushing purposes, is often the reads made by the center and guards. The sooner Swanson gels with Lang and Glasgow, the better things look for the rushing game this season.
Things are looking positive from a player standpoint, barring further injuries. But from a coaching standpoint, the history is a bit staggering.
Lions’ head coach Jim Caldwell hasn’t had an offense finish in the top 25 of league rushing yards since 2012! That year was his first as the offensive coordinator for the Baltimore Ravens. As an NFL head coach, he’s never had a team finish top 25 in rushing yards.
Attribute this to Caldwell’s system, play calling, personnel, opposing defenses or whatever you like. The fact is that in his five years of head coaching, a top 25 finish is something he’s never accomplished. Minus the injury to Decker, the table is set for 2017 to be different. And this Lions team needs it to be different if they want to win the division.
Will the stars align and bring the Detroit Lions rushing attack to an above-average level this season? Or will the injuries rear their ugly heads and doom Jim Caldwell’s squad to his average yardage totals as a head coach? We’ll have to wait and see.