The Detroit Lions have had one of the worst rushing attacks for the past two decades. Until it is fixed, they will never be a consistent playoff contender.
The Detroit Lions ineptitude in the running game has been astounding over the past twenty seasons. Losing Hall of Fame running back Barry Sanders to early retirement after the 1998 season is one thing, but their ineptitude has reached epic proportions.
From 1999 through 2019, the Lions have never reached the top half of the league in rush yards per game. When Barry Sanders retired in 1998, Detroit was tenth in rushing in the league with 122.2 rush yards per game. The best that they have done since is 112.0 rush yards per game in 2013, which placed them seventeenth in the NFL. Check out a full chart of the past twenty-one seasons rushing (via Screen Rivals).
Last year the Detroit Lions ranked twenty-third in rushing with an average of 103.8 rush yards per game. It was much better than being dead last in the NFL, which has happened four times in the past twenty seasons (via The Football Database):
- 2003 – 83.6 rush yards per game
- 2006 – 70.6 rush yards per game
- 2015 – 83.4 rush yards per game
- 2017 – 76.3 rush yards per game
The fact that this has happened two out of the past four seasons is pretty unsettling. But there are reasons for hope.
General manager Bob Quinn has invested plenty of draft capital into the run game. The offensive line has plenty of young (but unproven) talent. But the key is last year’s rookie running back: Kerryon Johnson.
Kerryon played in ten games last season (starting seven of them). And he amassed 641 rush yards in 2018. If not for the injury, the offense may not have had such a downturn during the last half of the season, and Johnson could have reached that mythical thousand yard threshold.
But one of the more remarkable statistics is that Kerryon averaged 5.4 yards per carry. An excellent number for sure. But it is astounding compared to the previous single season leaders that are not named Barry Sanders.
Sanders had five seasons with an average per carry of over five – including one season of over six (6.1 in 1997). Since Barry’s retirement, no Detroit Lions running back that led the team in rushing has broken the five yard average per carry – until Kerryon did it last year.
It is a small thing, but it is a good reason to believe the running game has their guy. Now, staying healthy will be paramount for Johnson. A more balanced attack should make the offense harder to stop, and take some of the pressure off of quarterback Matthew Stafford.
The other big change coming this season is the hiring of offensive coordinator Darrell Bevell. According to Dave Birkett of the Detroit Free Press, Bevell’s teams gain 132.4 yards per game in his eleven seasons as an offensive coordinator. Pair that with a talent like Kerryon, and this could mean big things via the Detroit ground game.
It’s funny to think how great things were when Barry Sanders was running the ball. It would feel good to feel that way again with the combination of Johnson and Bevell. They could truly be the key to elevating Stafford’s play, the offense in general, and this entire franchise into a contender.