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It’s still too early to give up on Ameer Abdullah

Ameer Abdullah is not the biggest problem facing this Lions running game. Not by a long shot.

NFL: Detroit Lions at Chicago Bears Mike DiNovo-USA TODAY Sports

On Thursday, Ameer Abdullah carried the ball a season low six times for just 14 yards (another season low). It was the fourth time in his past five games in which he’s averaged under 3.0 yards per carry.

As a team, the Detroit Lions now rank in the bottom three in most rushing categories, averaging just 3.4 yards per carry (30th) and earning first downs on just 16.4 percent of rushes (31st). They’ve only totaled 100 rushing yards in a game twice this year, while falling under 75 in seven of 11 contests.

The run game is even worse than where it was at this point last season:

2017: 256 rushes, 861 yards, 3.4 YPC, 4 TDs
2016: 239 rushes, 889 yards, 3.7 YPC, 4 TDs

This year was supposed to be different. Not only did the Lions retool the right side of their offensive line, but Abdullah was healthy for the first time since his rookie year and was going to build on the flashes we saw at the beginning of the 2016 season.

But it hasn’t worked out that way. The Lions are clearly one of the worst rushing teams in the NFL (again), and now a lot of fans are turning on Abdullah. The word “bust” is getting thrown around and many believe it’s time to start giving his carries to someone else; one local writer even suggested the Lions’ running game will never be good until Abdullah is out of town.

While the frustration with the running game is obviously warranted, this feels like an odd time to make Abdullah the scapegoat. I don’t think it’s quite time to give up on the young back, and I’ll tell you why.

First off, let me address the elephant in the room: No, I don’t think Ameer Abdullah has been good as of late. It’s easy to look at the stats and make an argument he hasn’t even been the best Lions running back out of the bye week.

In the past five games, Abdullah is averaging just 2.7 yards per carry. That isn’t good enough regardless of the run blocking you’re getting. And when you compare it to Theo Riddick’s stats, it looks downright awful.

Out of the bye week

Ameer Abdullah: 60 rushes, 163 yards (2.71 YPC)
Theo Riddick: 27 rushes, 122 yards (4.52 YPC)

While those stats are damning for Abdullah, they don’t tell the entire story. Riddick is often in the game during passing downs, giving him some extra room considering defenses don’t typically load the box against the Lions on obvious passing downs. Riddick has not been traditionally used as a rusher, so defenses may not be looking to him as a real threat between the tackles. To Riddick’s credit, he has mostly proven them wrong, and he’s been a real help in an otherwise stagnant running game.

Abdullah, on the other hand, has fallen victim to predictable play-calling and obvious running formations. Whether it’s their extremely high percentage of runs called from the pistol formation or just uninspiring play-calling, Abdullah has not been getting any help from his offensive coordinator. We all accepted this as truth a few weeks ago. Why the sudden turn on Abdullah?

Is it the fumbles? This was a perceived problem for Abdullah in college, so every time it happens it seems to magnify this narrative surrounding him. But Abdullah has just two fumbles lost this year. 18 NFL running backs have as many or more fumbles as Abdullah this year, and only five of them have carried the ball more. Mistakes like this are costly, but Abdullah’s fumble rate does not stick out this year.

What really confuses me about the sudden negativity is the lack of culpability on the offensive line. For the first half of the season, we saw stats like this and accepted that Abdullah wasn’t the problem:

In case you can’t read that, that chart shows that through six weeks of the season, Abdullah was averaging the second-fewest amount of yards before first contact (1.14 per carry) while earning the third-most yards after contact (2.66). So Abdullah is dealing with defenders earlier than almost every other back, yet is still earning more yards after contact, despite not being able to reach full speed yet. I can’t think of a more clear picture that the offensive line is largely to blame here.

There is no better way to judge the play of an offensive line than in short-yardage situations. The key to success those plays isn’t breaking tackles, but simply dominating the opponent in the trenches. It’s eye-opening just how bad the Lions are in these situations. According to Football Outsiders, through 11 weeks of the season the Lions are converting on just 33 percent of short-yardage rushes. The NFL average is 62 percent conversion rate. The Lions are also worst in the league in “stuffed” percentage, which is the amount of times a back is tackled at or behind the line of scrimmage.

Perhaps some believe that because the Lions keep changing parts on the offensive line that they can no longer be blamed. After all, Detroit’s newest pieces—T.J. Lang and Rick Wagner—are some of the highest-graded players at their position per Pro Football Focus. But that hasn’t seemed to change their overall run blocking efficiency. The Lions only have one player (Lang) ranked in the top 25 in run blocking at their position according to PFF. Even with all of the changes, I haven’t seen an improvement in run blocking.

Again, we all accepted this as an excuse for Abdullah’s struggles, and we even lamented when Dwayne Washington was stealing some of his reps just a month ago. Yet, for some reason, people seemed to have completely soured on Abdullah and are ready to move on.

I’m not there yet. I truly think Abdullah currently gives the Lions the best opportunity to gain yards on the ground. He’s quicker, he’s more instinctive and he’s really the only back that provides a home-run opportunity. He actually has five rushes of 20+ yards this year, which is not only four more than anyone else on the team, but ranks him tied for seventh among all NFL backs. Considering the awful offensive line play, that’s really quite impressive.

All that being said, I wouldn’t mind seeing the Lions add some help in the backfield. If there’s one thing frustrating about Abdullah, it’s his similarity to Theo Riddick. The Lions have yet to find a thunder-and-lightning combination that has been so successful in Atlanta and New Orleans and Philadelphia and Minnesota. But to completely rid themselves of Abdullah right now would be a mistake.