There are a lot of players on the Detroit Lions who can have an effect this season. Calvin Johnson, Matthew Stafford, etc. are all key players, but none may affect the team as much this year as Eric Ebron and Ameer Abdullah. These two players will be the X-factors for the Lions this season, and if they do not perform up to par, Detroit will have a hard time making the playoffs in 2015. With the defense most likely taking a step backward this year, it will be up to the offense (and the young playmakers) to help carry the load.
On paper it's easy to see how both Ebron and Abdullah can affect the game. Both players move throughout the formation and, from a planning aspect, make it hard on opposing defensive coordinators because of the various alignments and roles they can play. The Lions can use Ebron tight to the formation or split out in the slot. They even used him as a de facto fullback last season. To become a favorite target of Stafford, Ebron will need to consistently find the soft spot in the defense, and do a better job of sealing off defenders to make the catch. Abdullah will be an asset in the screen game, on edge runs and in the passing game vs. linebackers -- much like how they used Reggie Bush last year.
The Lions will also use Abdullah and Joique Bell in tandem at times, freeing up Abdullah as an extra receiver. This is a tough formation for defenses to defend against. They run the risk of giving up a big play if they decide to play man coverage or send a blitz. And they have to respect the run if the Lions use a variation of 21 personnel (2RB-1TE-2WR). This grouping can also include a fullback, but putting Bell, Abdullah, and Ebron all in the same formation is a unique way for the Lions to put pressure on the defense.
For the most part, 21 personnel will receive a base defense because of the threat of the run. This gives a softer cushion to anyone running a route.
Within the 21 grouping there are multiple formations.
In this shot against the New York Jets in 2014, the Lions are in 21 personnel with Bell in the backfield and Bush and Ebron split out. Even though the Lions are in shotgun and have four receivers in the formation, the Jets still commit eight players in the box to defend against the threat of Bell running the ball.
On this particular play, the Lions use Bell as an extra blocker and send everyone else out. All run hitch routes except for Bush, who runs to the flat. It gets an easy chunk of yardage on first down, and gets the Lions out from deep in their own territory.
It's not flashy, but these are the types of plays that the Lions need consistently to be more effective this season.