According to Pro Football Focus (PFF), Kevin Smith and Jahvid Best had overall rankings of 41 and 43, based on running backs that played in at least 25% of the season's snaps. Frank Gore, Chris Johnson, Shonn Greene, Reggie Bush, and Beanie Wells each ranked lower.
To narrow it down and put the numbers in focus, Smith and Best ranked 41st and 47th as runners, while Titans RB Chris Johnson finished the year ranked 53rd. Clearly, Jahvid Best's strength as a running back has been in the passing game, where he totes an overall ranking of 11. Kevin Smith's strength is as a blocker, where he finished the 2011 campaign with a blocker rank of 14. Smith did an above average job of picking up blitzes, and was productive leaking out of the backfield as a receiver.
It's also interesting to note that no Lions running back ranked in the top 56 in "breakaway percentage," based on 25% of snaps played. According to PFF, the breakaway percentage ranks tailbacks by the amount of carries that went for 15 yards or more. Furthermore, Smith and Best ranked 37th and 39th respectively in the "drop rate" category; PFF bases this on catchable balls that are dropped.
The numbers indicate that guard Stephen Peterman and tackle Gosder Cherilus, manning the right side of the offensive line, struggled opening up consistent running lanes for Lions backs. Peterman finished the season ranked 56th amongst offensive guards as a run blocker, and Cherilus ranked 61st amongst offensive tackles as a run blocker.
Jahvid Best's season was cut short, and his ability to make impact plays was sorely missed, though PFF's numbers indicate his breakaway runs were infrequent. Mikel Leshoure being injured in training camp left the Lions without what they imagined to be a workhorse back, and what may have been the ying to Best's yang. While Kevin Smith epitomizes will and toughness, his ability to stay on the field impacted his and the team's success as the season went on.
The question then becomes, what is the biggest factor for the Lions inability to consistently run the ball with effectiveness? Is it the offensive line? The running backs? A combination of both?
With Matthew Stafford under center, the Lions won't likely ever be a "running" team. Jim Schwartz made it clear earlier this season that the organization didn't draft #9 to hand the ball off all game. However, even Schwartz would agree that being more efficient in the running game would provide Stafford and the offense with an ability to keep the defense guessing.
As free agency and NFL draft fast approach, the Lions front office must address the run game, whether by adding offensive lineman, running backs, or both. Hopefully Mikel Leshoure fully recovers from a torn Achilles and Jahvid Best is able to play a full season, but each player remains a huge question mark. Bringing back Kevin Smith would provide depth, but the numbers indicate the team needs more.
It will be intriguing to see the approach the Lions take in addressing the running game woes.