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Projecting the Detroit Lions running back touch distribution for the 2021 season

Looking back to predict the future.

Syndication: Detroit Free Press Kirthmon F. Dozier via Imagn Content Services, LLC

One advantage for the Detroit Lions coaching staff during the 2021 season is that nobody really knows much about how they will operate. There are basic things that opponents, fans, and media can ascertain from practices and research, but when it comes down to the details on how they will operate in a game situation, it’s all about projecting.

One of the most common questions posed to us by the fanbase at POD via our Greenroom podcast or on Twitter has been: How will the Lions distribute their touches at the running back position?

For the most part, we have referenced two obvious situations: 1) how coach Dan Campbell has been influenced by his time with the New Orleans Saints as an assistant head coach; and/or 2) looked at offensive coordinator Anthony Lynn’s time with the Buffalo Bills (as OC and interim head coach) and the Los Angeles Chargers (head coach) for more data about the run game.

New Orleans’ offense is the gold standard after finishing with a top-7 DVOA in each of the last five years. It finished no worse than sixth in rushing DVOA during that span and had the top-rated rushing attack in 2017 and 2020. Of course, having at least two capable backs each season helped tremendously, but the Saints found a system that works and have maintained it regardless of who the feature back is.

When looking at the Saints running back touch distribution over the last five years, they have consistently run a two-back system. They give their top running back roughly 50-55 percent of touches and the complementary running back 31-39 percent of touches, spreading the last 10 percent over multiple players.

In the chart below, touches are identified by year, with a player’s rushing attempts in the first column and receptions in the second:

Lynn's resume is also impressive but with more variance. Over the last five seasons, his offenses have also consistently finished with a top-15 DVOA. His offense also featured the No. 1 rushing attack in 2016, but rushing has also taken a backseat at times to the passing attack—highlighting his willingness to adjust the scheme.

Lynn is not as strict with his touch distribution as the Saints and will occasionally use his third back more often. In 2016, he had the NFL’s leading rusher in LeSean McCoy and rode the hot hand. In his first year in L.A. (2017), he had an established rusher in Melvin Gordon but little depth behind him other than undrafted rookie Austin Ekeler. When Ekeler proved himself reliable, Lynn shifted into a two-back system (similar to the Saints) during the 2018 and 2019 seasons. In 2020, Lynn once again had an established starter (Ekeler) and an unproven rookie, but this time he tried to keep a two-back focus. When Ekeler was injured, RB3 Kalen Ballage’s snaps increased briefly.

Don’t expect the Lions coaches to just pick one style of influence and run with it, but instead, blend their experiences to come up with a unified game plan that leans on the best of both approaches. Both have seen success using systems that feature two capable running backs, so it should be no surprise that this appears to be the same approach the Lions have adapted in 2021, based on Lynn’s previous comments about deploying a “1A” and “1B” concept to the Lions’ backfield.

When we line up the two charts side-by-side, find the distribution averages, and blend them, we get a “Combined” look at how the Lions could potentially distribute touches this season. Going a step further, we can eliminate the seasons where Lynn featured just the primary back (2016-2017) and the one where the primary back was injured (2020) to get an “Adjusted” average that focuses on just the seasons where two backs were heavily utilized.

Based on the Lions' current roster, I believe the coaches will adopt something similar to the “Adjusted” approach to snap distribution in 2021. To apply this to the Lions' current players, that would mean:

  • D’Andre Swift would see around 52 percent of the backfield touches
  • Jamaal Williams 36 percent
  • Jermar Jefferson 6 percent
  • leaving the final 6 percent to be split among the other rostered options

There’s still a lot to learn about how the Lions' offense will operate in 2021, but based on their histories and comments during this past offseason, this projection should be in the ballpark of what they wish to accomplish.