The Detroit Lions have been trying for over two decades to establish a running game, and have mostly failed year after year. It’s extremely early, but there are some very positive signs from the Lions’ first game of the Dan Campbell era that Detroit may have finally figured things out.
On Sunday against the San Francisco 49ers, the Lions rushed for 116 yards, 4.8 yards per carry and a touchdown. While those numbers aren’t exactly mind blowing, it’s worth noting that Detroit basically had to abandon the run game at halftime after falling behind 31-10. Here’s a half-by-half breakdown of their run game:
First half: 17 rushes, 88 yards, 5.2 YPC
Second half: 7 rushes, 28 yards, 4.0 YPC, 1 TD
But it wasn’t just the total yardage that was impressive from Detroit, it was their efficiency on each play. PFF’s Kevin Cole laid this out nicely in visual form:
Browns were pretty good running the ball in Week 1 pic.twitter.com/2qtnj19ssm— Kevin Cole (@KevinColePFF) September 14, 2021
In case you can’t read that, that’s the Detroit Lions ranking second in the NFL in rushing efficiency (measured in Expected Points Added per play) and in the top five in rushing success rate.
Any time the running game succeeds, you naturally credit the running back. And to their credit, Jamaal Williams ran decisively and D’Andre Swift showed off his slipperiness at times. But the real star of the show was the offensive line.
Take, for example, the yards before contact statistic, which measures exactly what it sounds like: the number of yards gained by a rusher before they’re first touched by a defender. Let’s break it down:
- 40 of 54 total rushing yards gained before contact
- Averaged 4.4 yards before contact per rushing attempt (6th among Week 1 RBs)
- 34 of 39 total rushing yards gained before contact
- Averaged 3.1 yards before contact per rushing attempt (12th among Week 1 RBs)
Not convinced yet? Let’s turn it over to PFF.
Overall, the Lions run blocking grade was sixth-best among all teams in the NFL. Individually:
- Frank Ragnow is the league’s highest rated center (fourth in run blocking)
- Penei Sewell has the fourth-highest run blocking grade among left tackles
- Jonah Jackson had the 10th-highest run blocking grade among left guards
That’s top-10 performances on the entire left side of the offensive line when it comes to run blocking.
And we haven’t even adjusted for opponent yet. The 49ers were one of the best run defenses in 2020. They ranked 10th in run defense DVOA and sixth in yards per carry allowed (4.0). Last year, despite all the injuries along the defensive front, they allowed 4.8 yards per carry or more just twice all season. Yes, there is no guarantee this defense is as good as it was last year, and it’s true that they were missing one of their better interior defenders in Javon Kinlaw, but it’s hard not to come away very encouraged from Detroit’s rushing attack in Week 1.
The Lions will have to keep it up throughout the year. Last year, they rushed for 138 yards and 4.8 yards per carry against a great Bears defense in the season opener, but quickly fell off and averaged just 93.7 rushing yards and 4.1 YPC for the season. In other words, it’s easy to do it once. It’s hard to do it for an entire season.