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Mythbusters: The Lions don't need Ameer Abdullah to rush for 1,000 yards

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Many expect big things from the sophomore running back, but the Lions don't need Ameer Abdullah to run for a thousand yards to be a good team this year.

Tim Fuller-USA TODAY Sports

"I don’t know if we need one," Walker said after practice Sunday. "I know this: Whether we end up having a guy that rushes for 1,000, that’s really not our goal. Our goal is to be efficient when we run the ball and, if we can be a group that’s over 4.2 per carry, then whether we carry it 300 times or we carry it 500 times, then that will be what we’re looking for from a production standpoint."

The Detroit Lions don’t need a running back to rush for 1,000 yards all on his own. Running backs coach David Walker doesn't think the team needs one and neither do I. It certainly wouldn’t hurt to have a single running back run for all of those yards, but the Lions don’t need one in order to be successful. It seems as though so much importance has been placed on Ameer Abdullah to be a breakout contributor this season and with labels come expectations, and with expectations come numbers.

Longtime a standard for running backs, 1,000 yards has become somewhat trite in its appropriation as a measure of not only an effective runner, but that a team needs one of these backs in order to achieve success. Whether or not the yards are amassed by one back or three different runners is irrelevant so long as the backfield produces. So just how many yards do the Lions need to produce on the ground this year to make it back to the playoffs? Let’s take a look at what the 12 teams to make the playoffs last year did on the ground, but before we do, a word from our sponsors*

*The rushing totals reflect only running backs and fullbacks, unless I deemed a quarterback's rushing totals integral and unique to a team's offense i.e. a quarterback who had more then 75 carries last season.

Year 2015
Team Patriots Bengals Steelers Texans Broncos Chiefs Redskins Vikings Packers Panthers Cardinals Seahawks
Lead Rusher LeGarrette Blount Jeremy Hill DeAngelo Williams Alfred Blue Ronnie Hillman Charcandrick West Alfred Morris Adrian Peterson Eddie Lacy Jonathan Stewart Chris Johnson Thomas Rawls
Lead Rusher Stats 165 att. 703 yards. 4.3 Y/A 223 att. 794 yds. 3.6 Y/A 200 att. 907 yds. 4.5 Y/A 183 att. 698 yds. 3.8 Y/A 207 att. 863 yds. 4.2 Y/A 160 att. 634 yds. 4.0 Y/A 202 att. 751 yds. 3.7 Y/A 327 att. 1,485 yds. 4.5 Y/A 187 att. 758 yds. 4.1 Y/A 242 att. 989 yds. 4.1 Y/A 196 att. 814 yds. 4.2 Y/A 147 att. 830 yds. 5.6 Y/A
Total Rushing Stats 335 att. 1,301 yards. 3.9 Y/A 381 att. 1,528 yds. 4.0 Y/A 339 att. 1,534 yds. 4.5 Y/A 424 att. 1,606 yds. 3.8 Y/A 377 att. 1,631 yds. 4.3 Y/A 416 att. 1,971 yds. 4.7 Y/A 398 att. 1,518 yds. 3.8 Y/A 414 att. 1,878 yds. 4.5 Y/A 357 att. 1,427 yds. 4.0 Y/A 506 att. 2,172 yds. 4.3 Y/A 410 att. 1,884 yds. 4.6 Y/A 486 att. 2,251 yds. 4.6 Y/A
Offensive Line DVOA 2nd in run blocking 1st in run blocking 8th in run blocking 18th in run blocking 17th in run blocking 5th in run blocking 21st in run blocking 10th in run blocking 25th in run blocking 12th in run blocking 3rd in run blocking 4th in run blocking

Of those 12 teams, only one of them had a running back who rushed for 1,000 yards, and that was Adrian Peterson aka Purple Jesus himself — the exception and certainly not the rule. The NFL had just eight running backs last year rush for over 1,000 yards. With injuries cutting Le’Veon Bell, Jamaal Charles and LeSean McCoy’s seasons short, 2015 was a down year for the number of 1,000-yard rushers in comparison to years prior. In 2014 and 2013 there were 13 running backs who cracked the century mark, in 2012 there were 16 and in 2011 — led by retired Maurice Jones-Drew, free agent Ray Rice and also retired Michael Turner respectively — there were 15 runners who made it to 1,000 yards. Now, compare those averages of teams that made the playoffs with those of the Lions in 2015:

Year 2015
Team Lions Lions Lions Lions
Name Ameer Abdullah Joique Bell Theo Riddick Zach Zenner
Rushing Stats 143 att. 597 yds. 4.2 Y/A 90 att. 311 yds. 3.5 Y/A 43 att. 133 yds. 3.1 Y/A 17 att. 60 yds. 3.5 Y/A
Total Rushing Stats 301 att. 1,104 yds. 3.7 Y/A 301 att. 1,104 yds. 3.7 Y/A 301 att. 1,104 yds. 3.7 Y/A 301 att. 1,104 yds. 3.7 Y/A
Offensive Line DVOA 22nd in run blocking

This isn’t telling us much that we didn’t already know: the Lions were a team who couldn’t run the football effectively whatsoever last season. There is something to take note of here, however, and that’s Ameer Abdullah’s limited sample size of just 143 carries isn’t so limited. 64 more carries last season — or four more carries per game — and Abdullah would have had as many or more rushing attempts than nine of the teams' lead rushers who made the playoffs. Compared to other team’s lead running backs, he isn’t far off of their pace with his 4.2 yards per attempt either. In fact, his yards per rushing attempt were as productive as or even better than Jeremy Hill, Alfred Blue, Ronnie Hillman, Charcandrick West, Alfred Morris, Eddie Lacy, Jonathan Stewart and Chris Johnson.

"So what you’re saying is if Abdullah gets more carries this year then the Lions will make the playoffs?"

Well, no, not at all. For one, it’s definitely not the only factor considering the offense isn’t the only group of 11 guys who play on game day. But there’s also something else sitting behind these statistics in more ways than one: it’s not just up to him to take those carries and turn them into yards. Take a look at the other runners who made up the backfields of the 2015 playoff teams:

Year 2015
Team Patriots Bengals Steelers Texans Broncos Chiefs Redskins Vikings Packers Panthers Cardinals Seahawks
2nd Leading Rusher Dion Lewis Giovani Bernard Le'Veon Bell Chris Polk C.J. Anderson Alex Smith Matt Jones Jerick McKinnon James Starks Cam Newton David Johnson Marshawn Lynch
2nd Lead Rusher Stats 49 att. 234 yds. 4.8 Y/A 154 att. 730 yds. 4.7 Y/A 113 att. 556 yds. 4.9 Y/A 99 att. 334 yds. 3.4 Y/A 152 att. 720 yds. 4.7 Y/A 84 att. 498 yds. 5.9 Y/A 144 att. 490 yds. 3.4 Y/A 52 att. 271 yds. 5.2 Y/A 148 att. 601 yds. 4.1 Y/A 132 att. 636 yds. 4.8 Y/A 125 att. 581 yds. 4.6 Y/A 111 att. 417 yds. 3.8 Y/A
Total Rushing Stats 335 att. 1,301 yards. 3.9 Y/A 381 att. 1,528 yds. 4.0 Y/A 339 att. 1,534 yds. 4.5 Y/A 424 att. 1,606 yds. 3.8 Y/A 377 att. 1,631 yds. 4.3 Y/A 416 att. 1,971 yds. 4.7 Y/A 398 att. 1,518 yds. 3.8 Y/A 414 att. 1,878 yds. 4.5 Y/A 357 att. 1,427 yds. 4.0 Y/A 506 att. 2,172 yds. 4.3 Y/A 410 att. 1,884 yds. 4.6 Y/A 486 att. 2,251 yds. 4.6 Y/A
Offensive Line DVOA 2nd in run blocking 1st in run blocking 8th in run blocking 18th in run blocking 17th in run blocking 5th in run blocking 21st in run blocking 10th in run blocking 25th in run blocking 12th in run blocking 3rd in run blocking 4th in run blocking

A few things stand out from the numbers here, but what’s most noticeable is how only three playoff teams had their secondary rushing option run the ball fewer times than Joique Bell in Detroit. New England’s Dion Lewis had 49 rushing attempts, but the Patriots had six teams run the ball fewer times than they did — the Lions had the second fewest rushing attempts in the league. The Chiefs had many contributors out of the backfield including Spencer Ware and the injured Jamaal Charles, so the carries were spread out evenly between those guys — this is also your semi-annual reminder that Alex Smith can run and he does so often. The final playoff team that had their second leading rusher get less carries than Bell was Minnesota’s Jerick McKinnon, but we all know that Adrian Peterson is not normal.

A final component of this discussion has to, of course, revolve around the offensive line. The Lions offensive line last season had its fair share of struggles and it ended up finishing 22nd in DVOA according to FootballOutsiders.com. Many of the concerns about the Lions offensive line have rolled over into the 2016 season: health concerns, inexperience and uncertainty at a tackle position — albeit this time a much more important tackle position. There are reasons for optimism as the offensive line has looked better with each preseason game, but even if the Lions hang around the same ranking, a bit of progression or slight regression still puts the Lions right in the thick of the four playoff teams from a year ago: Denver (17th), Texans (18th), Redskins (21st) and Packers (25th).

So outside of Abdullah, the Lions didn’t get much from their other running backs in 2015, whereas the overwhelming majority of playoff teams that season did. The Lions didn't commit to running the football last year, so it's up to Jim Bob Cooter, and it's up to the depth the Lions have at running back to earn more opportunities and gain more yards on the ground. Ameer Abdullah won't do it all on his own, and that's okay because he shouldn't — and doesn't — have to.