The Detroit Lions run game has been world-class bad for nearly my entire life. I was alive and somewhat well during Barry Sanders’ entire career, but outside of those 10 years, the other 26 years of my Lions-watching life has consisted of guys like Artose Pinner and Keiland Williams. Outside of the 2013 season, the Lions have been at or near the bottom of the league in rushing since 1999. That’s a long time to have the same problem.
Not to pile on, but speaking of 1999, the Lions have only had 12 running backs run for 100 yards in a game since then. They’ve only had two who have done it in back-to-back games. Who remembers that Shawn Bryson 100-yard game? I certainly didn’t
Since the hiring of assistant head coach/running backs coach Duce Staley, things are beginning to look up on this front. D’Andre Swift looks like he’s on the verge of being a breakout star (if he can stay healthy) and Jamaal Williams is a fine backup. What’s even more exciting is that Jermar Jefferson, Craig Reynolds and Godwin Igwebuike have all continued to show flashes that they’re pretty good, too. Suddenly it seems like the Lions have a good problem. They have too many viable running backs.
What’s also nice is that the Lions are near the top of the league in yards per carry (4.6, eighth), 20+ yard runs (9, t-ninth) and 40+ yard runs (2, t-third). Before Swift’s injury, he was the league's best receiving running back, too.
There’s a flip side here. The Lions are near the bottom of the league in rushing yards (1,436, 16th) and rushing touchdowns (9, t-22nd), but there’s a perfectly good excuse for that. The Lions are a bad football team. The Lions are usually losing games in the second half and have to scrap the run game in favor passing since you can, theoretically, gain more yards through the passing game. I say theoretically because that method doesn’t really work for the Lions either. Unsurprisingly, the Lions rank near the bottom of the league (21st) in rushing attempts (24.0 per game).
Long story short: the Lions run game has been very efficient in their limited opportunities. Imagine what this group could do if they had more time to do it. Also, imagine what they could do when they’re healthy.
Unfortunately, injuries are nothing new for Lions running backs. They have a young running back—often a second round pick—that shows a ton of potential and then injuries end their career as starters. It happened with Jahvid Best, Mikel Leshoure, Kerryon Johnson and Ameer Abdullah. Will it happen to Swift? Here’s hoping that’s a big no.
Also, while Williams is good, he’s only under contract for one more year and who knows if he decides to run it back with the Lions?
There are not a lot of concern with the young guys, though. The Lions are in an advantageous position with guys like Igwebuike, Jefferson and Reynolds, especially if Williams decides to move on once his contract is up. If the Lions can get one of the young guys to pop off and be a good No. 2 back, then they totally lucked out on grabbing some guys that other teams missed on. It feels like that’s an odd thing for the Lions.
The best part of the Lions run game is that this is theoretically just the beginning. The Lions offense should be better all around in 2022. The Lions’ offensive line—which has been largely responsible for the running game success—is set for the foreseeable future in all positions but one. If Detroit can get a healthy and improved wide receiving corps, then they can be more balanced on offense. And if the defense shows improvement next year, Detroit won’t find themselves so far behind in games. If those things pan out, there’s no place to go but up.
We’ll see what happens, but it does feel real this time. The Lions haven’t averaged 4.6 yards per carry in a season since 1997. It seems like Duce Staley is the man sent by the football gods to fix this problem, and he may not fail.