Are the Detroit Lions tipping their hand with running backs?

NEW ORLEANS, LA - OCTOBER 15: Ameer Abdullah
NEW ORLEANS, LA - OCTOBER 15: Ameer Abdullah /

The Detroit Lions put their backup running backs on the field for specific situations; it might be too predictable for opposing defenses.

Ameer Abdullah is the Detroit Lions unquestioned starter at running back. Expectations continue to be high this season after missing the majority of 2016 with a Lisfranc injury. But a total of 342 yards in six games isn’t exactly what the team had in mind.

The offensive line has been bitten by the injury bug with starters at left tackle, center and right guard all missing games. This unfortunate situation has the Lions ranked 28th overall in rushing yards this season averaging 84 yards per game. It’s not great, but as head coach Jim Caldwell told reporters last month, the ground game only needs to be respectable.

Respectable is good enough as long as the offense keeps putting up points and winning games. This is a stat that might be surprising: the Lions are 8th overall in points per game with 26.8. This stat suggests the running game is respectable in Caldwell’s eyes, but seeing the offense sputter for long stretches during games suggests otherwise.

Seeing Abdullah break out for runs of 20+ yards has happened in nearly every game this season. He has the explosive ability to keep defenses honest. It’s when he comes off the field when defenses might be getting a leg up on the Lions.

It’s no secret that running back Theo Riddick is a threat in the passing game. His 80 receptions in 2015 put him on the map as a receiving threat out of the backfield. He already has 23 catches for 180 yards this season.

Running back Zach Zenner has served as the short yardage back and, more often this season, he’s been used in shotgun formations as an additional blocker to help protec

t quarterback Matthew Stafford. Running back Dwayne Washington has served a similar role as Zenner before he was injured in Week 2. Neither has a single reception this season with Zenner only being targeted once.

This is where the formations and play calling could use a little more creativity. Obviously, you want to use a player’s strength to your advantage. But bringing in Zenner on third and one in a power running formation without using any pre-snap motion is basically telling the defense what you’re going to do.

Yes, you should be able to line up, get a good push off the ball and gain the one yard you need. But it isn’t happening. Opposing defenses are reading the situation and making the stop. Adding a little bit of motion in the backfield to give the defense something else to consider shouldn’t be too much to ask.

Maybe Lions offensive coordinator Jim Bob Cooter is a genius. Maybe he’s setting up the second half of the schedule to notice the tendencies in his personnel groupings and play calls in an effort to exploit opposing defenses in the future. But that doesn’t help right now.

Next: Defensive stat ties Detroit Lions to Super Bowl contenders

Right now the Lions need to keep a respectable ground game. They need to keep defenses guessing no matter which running back is on the field. And they need a victory versus the Pittsburgh Steelers on Sunday night to show they are playoff contenders.