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The Lions running game isn’t as good as you think

Hold your praise for the Lions running game. It’s still a work in progress.

NFL: Detroit Lions at New York Giants Brad Penner-USA TODAY Sports

The Detroit Lions got a ton of praise on Monday for beating the New York Giants while rushing for more yards than they threw for. I’ll admit that after the game, I was a bit aghast looking at the box score. Detroit ran for 138 yards on 32 carries (4.3 YPC) against that Giants defensive line? Wow, that’s impressive.

And it went beyond my wildest expectations. I gave the Giants a +2 advantage in the “Lions Run O vs. Giants Run D” matchup in my “On Paper” preview, but only because I figured the Lions could get by without a running game.

So the Lions wildly outperformed expectations and actually had a really good running game, right?

I’m here to tell you, unfortunately, that it’s all fool’s gold.

I’ve been catching a lot of heat in the comment section this week, suggesting that the Lions’ running game is as flawed as it’s ever been. I’m not going to sit here and say that the Lions aren’t better off with Ameer Abdullah back there, they absolutely are, but this Lions running game is still pretty darn bad—and Monday’s performance shouldn’t convince you otherwise.

At the crux of my argument has been this:

I know what you’re already thinking. “You can’t throw away the top two runs of the game. They happened.” You’re right, but that’s not what I’m trying to do. I’m trying to say that big running plays aren’t happening frequently enough, and the Lions aren’t doing enough with their other carries to make this a good running team.

“I bet if you take away the top two runs from other teams, they’re just as bad,” you may be thinking. Well, I’ve gone and done it, and you’re wrong.

Below are the rushing statistics from what I consider the top seven rushing teams with the top two rushes from each game completely eliminated:

Titans: 53 rushes, 204 yards (3.85 YPC)
Washington: 52 rushes, 192 yards (3.69 YPC)
Chiefs: 43 rushes, 153 yards (3.56 YPC)
Broncos: 71 rushes, 237 yards (3.34 YPC)
Raiders: 52 rushes, 168 yards (3.23 YPC)
Cowboys: 41 rushes, 123 yards (3.0 YPC)
Vikings: 46 rushes, 121 yards (2.63 YPC)

And the Lions?

Lions: 52 rushes, 114 yards (2.19 YPC)

Now, no one is saying the Lions now have a top-seven rushing offense in the league, but the Lions aren’t just a little behind these teams, they’re averaging a full yard, yard-and-a-half behind most of these teams.

“But the Lions have faced two really good defenses in as many weeks,” you respond. Yes, I get that, but look at how the other teams that faced the Cardinals and Giants did:

vs. Cardinals (with top 2 rushes eliminated)

Lions: 25 rushes, 57 yards (2.28 YPC)
Colts: 27 rushes, 52 yards (1.93 YPC)

vs. Cardinals (with no runs eliminated)

Lions: 27 rushes, 82 yards (3.04 YPC)
Colts: 29 rushes, 76 yards (2.62 YPC)

vs. Giants (with top 2 rushes eliminated)

Lions: 27 rushes, 57 yards (2.11)
Cowboys: 29 rushes, 102 yards (3.5)

vs. Giants (with no runs eliminated)

Lions: 32 rushes, 138 yards (4.31)
Cowboys: 31 rushes, 129 yards (4.16)

The Lions performed eerily similar—but admittedly better—than the Colts regardless of whether we count the top two rushes or not. As for against the Giants, the Lions actually outperformed the Cowboys on the ground. However, the Cowboys managed to get to 129 rushing yards with their two longest runs being of 17 and 10 yards.

While the final stat line may look similar, the game played out much differently for the Lions and Cowboys. Dallas was able to keep consistently pick up 3.5 yards per carry throughout all four quarters against the Giants. The Lions, on the other hand, were barely picking up 2 yards per clip for the majority of the game. Which team do you think would have more effective play action at that point?

Still, some aren’t buying it. In fact, Lions head coach Jim Caldwell directly addressed my argument in Thursday’s press conference. Here’s what he said:

“It’s always tickled me, from time to time, when everybody will say ‘If you take out this run, you only got this number of yards.’ Well, you’re right, but you can’t do that. It’s all part of it, right? You can do it if you want to write something that is skewed one way or another in terms of persuading someone to be cautious. We’re coaches, we’re cautious about it.

We want to make certain that we see it more than one time, but I do think we’re getting better, and I think I’ve told you all along, when 21 is on the field and 25 is healthy, our running game has always been a respectable running game. We are not a team that is going to run the ball for 300 yards in a game—it’s not a wishbone. So just need to be respectable, and I think that’s what we were on Monday”

I won’t argue against the running game being better, it is. This is a team that only had six rushes for over 20 yards all of last season—they had two of those on Monday alone. The bar was set low last year, so improvement was almost a certainty in 2017.

But I just don’t agree that it’s quite respectable yet. If Detroit really wants to be a credible threat on the ground, they need to prove they can break off these long runs more often, and they have to be better on the other 20-25 carries per game.

Here’s the good news: It’s incredibly early in the season. As offensive coordinator Jim Bob Cooter said on Thursday, “It’s so early, we’re only two games in. Everything’s a small sample size at this time. If you overshoot the statistics right now, you’re sorta just messing around.”

Maybe the Lions running game gets its act together. Maybe Abdullah consistently breaks out three to four long rushes per game instead of one or two, but there’s no doubt in my mind that they need to be better than they’ve played through two weeks.

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