One of the Detroit Lions’ biggest problems on offense has been their short-yardage situations. It reared its ugly head again on Sunday, when the Lions could not get into the end zone once against the Steelers, despite five possessions in the red zone.
But the problem isn’t just localized to last Sunday’s game. Just look at this stat from the Detroit Free Press’ Dave Birkett:
Some perspective on Lions converting just 4 of 12 third- or fourth-and-1 situations.— Dave Birkett (@davebirkett) October 30, 2017
NFL percentage in those situations is 66.5%
The Lions are converting one out of a every three one-to-go situations, while the rest of the NFL is converting twice as often. We’re talking about twice as many drives stalled because the Lions can’t pick up one freakin’ yard.
And here’s the most confounding part of this conundrum: The Lions refuse to use their best running back in these situations. Ameer Abdullah has yet to carry the ball on third down a single time in 2017. I refused to believe this when I saw this tweet:
I was still skeptical when DetroitLions.com’s Tim Twentyman tweeted this:
7 games in, Stafford Lions' leading 3rd down rusher:— Tim Twentyman (@ttwentyman) November 2, 2017
Abdullah 0 attempts
But it’s true. Abdullah has zero carries on third (or fourth) down this year. In fact, Abdullah only has one touch on third and fourth down this year: a short 6-yard pass on third-and-10 against the Cardinals back in Week 1 (per Pro Football Reference).
Here is the stat breakdown of Lions running backs on third and fourth down this year:
(All stats provided by Pro Football Reference)
Ameer Abdullah: 0 rushes; 1 catch, 6 yards; 0 first downs
Theo Riddick: 5 rushes, 10 yards; 5 catches (8 targets), 19 yards; 3 of 13 first downs (23.1%)
Zach Zenner: 4 rushes, 12 yards, 0 catches (1 target); 1 of 5 first downs (20%)
Dwayne Washington: 4 rushes, 9 yards; 1 of 4 first downs (25%)
It’s pretty clear both Riddick and whichever active running back between Zenner and Washington are the preferred backs on third down. It’s also equally clear that neither choice has been particularly effective with the ball in their hands. Abdullah, on the other hand, is never really given the opportunity to make plays on the most important of offensive downs.
Just let that sink in. On the most important plays on offense, the Lions are sidelining their best running back. Why would they do that? There are a few reasons, but none of them are good enough.
I will completely cede that Washington, Zenner and Riddick are all better than Abdullah at pass blocking. But the talent isn’t quite pronounced as it used to be. Abdullah no longer minds getting his jersey dirty. Just look at the play he made on Sunday night:
It’s not a perfect block from Abdullah, but watch how quickly he transforms from play-action mode to pass-block mode. It buys Stafford enough time to find T.J. Jones on a back shoulder throw and give the Lions first-and-goal.
And Detroit may be able to afford a little less in the pass blocking department now that Taylor Decker is nearing a return to action.
Then there’s the whole power back thing. After the game on Sunday, Jim Caldwell insisted that Dwayne Washington was the Lions’ best power back simply, “Because he can run with power.”
While that may be theoretically true, the stats haven’t bore that out to be a reality. Whether it’s been Zenner or Washington, the Lions have not been effective on short-yardage situations. Aside from all of the other stats listed above, only three teams in the NFL have a worse “Power Success” rate (per Football Outsiders) than the Lions—“Power Success” measures the percentage of runs in third or fourth down situations with two or less yards to go. Detroit is converting on just 50 percent of those scenarios, while the league average is 62 percent.
I’m not saying Abdullah will fix all of Detroit’s short yardage problems, because he won’t. Clearly some of these issues persist because of inconsistent play along the offensive line. But when there’s a breakdown in blocking, why not use the back that is best at making guys miss? Only two NFL backs are averaging more yards per carry after the first potential tackling point:
Average yards per carry before and after the first Potential Tackle Point. Leaderboard updated through week 8. pic.twitter.com/cFV6mT1CJo— Adam Spinks (@TheRBScout) November 1, 2017
Things are a little different when the box is crowded on the goal line, but remember this play?
Abdullah doesn’t need to be in the game in every short yardage situation, but he absolutely needs to be involved more often. He’s versatile enough where he can pass block, run or leak out as a receiving threat. He’s shifty enough that he can fit in small holes and make people miss after blocking breakdowns. In short, he’s just too valuable of a weapon to have sitting dormant on key third down plays.
So on the goal line—or facing a third-and-short—who would you rather have? A power back who has proven to be ineffective in power situations, or a back that has shown time and time again that he can make guys miss? The choice is easy.