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Detroit Lions’ revamped running game has tough road ahead in 2018

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The Lions running game looks better on paper, but their divisional foes won’t make it easy.

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NFL: Detroit Lions at Minnesota Vikings Reese Strickland-USA TODAY Sports

As the offseason has progressed, Detroit Lions fans have incrementally gotten more excited about the team’s rushing attack. The Lions first addressed their last-ranked running game on New Year’s Day, firing maligned offensive line coach Ron Prince. Since then, the hype has been on. The Lions grabbed LeGarrette Blount during early free agency, they took interior offensive lineman Frank Ragnow with their first-round pick, and they traded up to grab their running back of the future in Kerryon Johnson.

So all things considered, the Lions running game should absolutely be improved in 2018. Only one problem: That’s only looking at things from the Lions’ point of view. There are two sides to a successful running game: a good offense and a struggling defense. Unfortunately for Detroit, they aren’t in a division with struggling run defenses.

Pro Football Focus ranked all 32 team’s run defense this week, and the NFC North dominated the list.

The Green Bay Packers, led by run-stuffers Blake Martinez and Mike Daniels, were No. 1 on PFF’s list. The Minnesota Vikings (fourth) and the Chicago Bears (ninth) weren’t far behind. The Lions, after a rough 2017 season, were all the way near the bottom at 26th.

If you look at the Lions’ rushing stats from last year, you’ll see that these rankings make some sense. Detroit couldn’t seem to run the ball much against their divisional foes.

vs. Vikings

  • Game 1: 31 rushes, 97 yards, 1 TD (3.1 YPC)
  • Game 2: 15 rushes, 53 yards (3.5 YPC)
  • Average: 75.0 yards per game (3.26 YPC)

vs. Packers

  • Game 1: 33 rushes, 64 yards, 1 TD (1.9 YPC)
  • Game 2: 23 rushes, 51 yards, 1 TD (2.2 YPC)
  • Average: 57.5 YPG (2.05 YPC)

vs. Bears

  • Game 1: 24 rushes, 65 yards (2.7 YPC)
  • Game 2: 20 rushes, 91 yards (4.6 YPC)
  • Average: 78.0 YPG (3.5 YPC)

For the season, the Lions averaged 76.3 rushing yards per game and 3.4 yards per carry. So against all of their divisional foes (except the Bears), they were especially bad against the run. The Lions may have swept the Packers last season, but they absolutely could not run the ball against them in 2017.

The good news for Detroit is that the rest of their opponents don’t have particularly great run defenses. Here are just a few of their out-of-division foes and their corresponding run defense ranks, according to PFF:

They also do face the Patriots (third) and Jets (11th) but for the most part, their non-conference games are a nice reprieve from the NFC North’s suffocating defenses.

In the end, the Lions running game should be improved from last season, because it literally can’t get much worse. However, expectations should probably be tempered just a little bit; the Black and Blue Division is not messing around when it comes to stopping the run this year.