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Things of that nature: Changes to the run game pay dividends

The Lions enjoyed a modicum of success on the ground against the Oakland Raiders by breaking from old habits. Let's be thankful for that.

Tim Fuller-USA TODAY Sports

We're on a short week, and like many of you, I'll spend a decent chunk of it traveling. Let's get right to it.

One of our favorite ongoing jokes on this site/the field for the past few seasons has been the Lions' running game. For years, it's been woefully ineffective, enough that at times, coaches have seemed to outright deny its existence with their playcalling. This season has been more of the same, if not worse. The Lions have spent most of 2015 mired in last place in Football Outsiders' rushing DVOA, with no apparent solution to their woes forthcoming.

And then, something strange happened. Last week, the run game showed just the dimmest glimmer of life. The Lions ran the ball with something approaching mild effectiveness, and even managed to ice away a win on the ground. The earth shook, and the reverberations have been felt throughout the statistical community: What was once the lowest-ranked rushing attack in the NFL is now ... still the lowest-ranked rushing attack in the NFL.  Take heart, though. The Lions are closer to 31st than they were last week. They've improved! Baby steps up the charts. I wouldn't say the ground game has a pulse yet, but there are faint electrical signals flickering in the cells of this putrid, rotting corpse.

What were the reasons for this mild improvement? Jim Caldwell would no doubt say the team is simply executing better. You have to execute, guys. It's important in football.  Beyond that, though, there seems to be one obvious change that spurred the team's modest gains: the Lions didn't run very much zone.

This topic has been lamented a number of times this season (most dramatically by Senior POD Draft Analyst Alex Reno), but let's pick at an old scab for a second. Joe Lombardi loved running inside and outside zone; by and large, zone was the staple run call on his play sheet. Its prominence in the playcalling persisted despite the fact that the Lions don't block zone particularly well. That's a problem! Enter new Lions offensive coordinator/moonshine bootlegger Jim Bob Cooter.

Watching the Lions borderline competence against the Raiders, it's quite clear that zone has been replaced as the favorite call in the run game. Where there once was zone, now there is power. Cooter and the Lions ran a lot of power against the Raiders. Power refers to a specific play design, but the scheme mirrors its namesake: get bodies to the point of attack as quickly as possible, and force your way through. The great Chris B. Brown wrote a detailed article on power (and its sibling, counter) for Grantland before the season started. I'd recommend reading it (and any of his work) in full, but here is the breakdown of blocking assignments in power, as written by Brown:

  • Playside linemen (tight end, tackle, and guard): The basic rule for each of the playside linemen is "Gap, On, Linebacker," which means they first check their inside gap (i.e., if the run is to the right they look to see if anyone is lined up to their left), then look to see if anyone is lined up across from them, and finally, if there's no defender to their inside gap or across from them, they will block an awayside linebacker. The hope is that those straightforward rules help to produce at least one double-team block to the playside, typically with the guard and tackle double-teaming the defensive tackle. The basic idea for the double-team is for the two linemen to move the defender out of the way until one slips off to block the linebacker at the last second — only when the lineman can "smell the linebacker's breath," as a college coach once said — as there is no hope for success unless the double-team is effective.
  • Center: The center steps backside to stop any inside penetration.
  • Backside guard: Known as the "wrapper" because his job is to wrap around to lead block for the runner, the backside guard is tasked with pulling and blocking the first unblocked defender who appears.
  • Backside tackle: The backside tackle steps inside to seal off penetration, then turns and hinges to stop any backside pursuit.
  • Fullback (or another blocking back, like an H-back): He's known as the "trapper" because his job is to execute a trap or kick-out block to create the alley.

Here's what that looked like for the Lions last Sunday:

Ameer Power 1

Having a running back who can muscle through tackles is a wonderful luxury, but the greatest attribute for any back in this scheme is patience. In addition to waiting for one of the double-teaming linemen to break off to the linebacker, the back also has to follow the wrapper (Larry Warford above) and the trapper (Michael Burton). The Lions use a counter action with Burton, who takes a step right before blocking playside, which only adds to the time required for the blocking to develop. The back has to find and navigate the gaps when they appear, and Ameer Abdullah did a marvelous job of it on a number of plays last week, including this one:

Ameer Power 2

This is a slight tweak on the scheme here, as the roles of the backside guard and the FB are reversed—the guard kicks out, while the FB leads through the hole.

As Brown noted, power can't work without the double-team, but I'd like to extend some props to Burton here. On both plays above, Burton lays beautiful blocks on Malcolm Smith (53). Burton isn't out there pancaking people, but he's creating real space for Abdullah to work with.

Not only are the Lions changing the run play, they're changing how the looks from which they run it. Unlike early in the season, when the Lions telegraphed run/pass, depending on whether Matthew Stafford was under center or in shotgun, the Lions are doing a better job varying their looks and their play calls. Here they motion Brandon Pettigrew as the H-back and run power to Abdullah out of shotgun:

Ameer Power 3

Pettigrew never really gets a hand on a defender, but the point ends up being largely moot. Ben Heeney (51) over-pursues playside, and Abdullah smartly cuts back to gain nine yards.

The Lions didn't limit their power looks to just Abdullah, either. Joique Bell got in on the action, as well:

Joique Power 1

The Lions keep varying up the looks here with the end-around motion by Golden Tate (something I've always been fond of) in shotgun. Bell gets a modest four yards, but these are actual, tangible gains from an offense that had previously been devoid of them.

This was a theme throughout the game. The Lions came out running power on the impressive first drive, and they ran it on the last drive. Those two final runs that sealed up the win? Dial it up, Cooter:

Joique Power 2

Joique Power 3

The Lions only averaged 3.5 yards per carry against the Raiders, an admittedly pedestrian number. But remember, no Lions running back broke off a big play on Sunday. Teams with inflated YPC stats most often come to them by virtue of gigantic runs that skew the numbers. I'm certainly not arguing that the Lions failing to break a big run is a point in their favor, but that they managed to post an even passable average without any big plays is a legitimate improvement for this moribund unit. Furthermore, they achieved this improvement by implementing what appear to be serious philosophical changes up front. Tailoring scheme to fit talent is what good teams do. The Lions run game will probably never be good. But, after last week, I'm thinking that perhaps we can aspire to mediocrity? We'll find out on Thursday.

Happy Thanksgiving, everyone. To those of you traveling, stay safe.

Go Lions.

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