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Detroit Lions mailbag, Part 1: Concerns about the running game?

Part 1 of this week’s mailbag focuses on questions leading up to this week’s game.

Detroit Lions v Pittsburgh Steelers Photo by Joe Sargent/Getty Images

The Detroit Lions are just days away from taking on the San Francisco 49ers in Week 1 of the 2021 season and this mailbag is presented with a focus on that game. As always, Jeremy Reisman and I will be answering your questions, so let’s jump right in.

Do you see any chance (Trinity) Benson, and or, (KhaDarel) Hodge will play week one? — Butch Franklyn

Jeremy: Let’s start with this one, since Dan Campbell basically answered this question on Wednesday. Here’s what he said about the two new wide receivers:

“Both of them are real smart guys and they’ve been working at it and we’re going to have a plan for those guys. We’re going to certainly. We want to try and use Trinity if we can. We’ll see where Hodge is at.”

Seems pretty clear to me that Benson is going to get some playing time right away against the 49ers. It may not be much, but they clearly like the guy a lot. “We’ll see where Hodge is at” is coachspeak for “Uh..... he’s not ready.” Am I reading that right, Erik?

Erik: Yeah, that’s how it sounds to me too. We have previously talked about how his special teams play could get him on the field early, but with only a short time to acclimate, we may be waiting a bit before he is ready.

Erik: I’m going to assume Jason is talking specifically about this game against the 49ers and to that my answer is: no.

Last year, the 49ers were dismantled with injuries, yet they still managed to allow the seventh-fewest rushing yards against on the season. The 49ers front features an above-average four players, but Javon Kinlaw, the 14th overall pick in 2020, missed practice on Wednesday with a knee injury which could open the door a bit wider for the Lions.

Jeremy: Man, they sure are going to try, though. I’m not leaving it out of the question, since the Lions run game remains a relative mystery with no D’Andre Swift in the preseason, but the 49ers sure aren’t going to make it easy. They did allow over 100 yards nine times last year, but they only allowed over 130 yards once, so teams were barely hitting that mark.

I think purely by volume, they’re going to get pretty darn close, but Fred Warner is a monster, so I have the Lions coming up just short.

Jeremy: As the self-proclaimed leader of the “Running Backs Don’t Matter That Much” club, I can’t say that I have that much concern. Sure, Swift is head and shoulders above the rest of the running back room, but if the Lions' offensive line is as good as they can be in the run blocking department, I think Jamaal Williams and Jermar Jefferson as 1A and 1B can work. The running game starts up front, and much of the reason the run game struggled in the preseason is because the offensive line (and tight ends) didn’t block well.

Without Swift, they’ll likely be more limited in the passing game, which is a drag, but Williams proved capable of that in the offseason as well.

Erik: I agree, it’s too early to freak out over Williams as he has a proven track record of producing. Over his career, he averages 4.0 yards per carry, even averaging 4.2 and 4.3 YPC in each of the last two seasons respectively.

I also believe Jefferson is ready to step into a role if need be. I have been one of his advocates this offseason, consistently saying I believe had RB3 locked up. If there is any spot in the NFL where a rookie can come in and contribute day one, it’s running back, and I think Jefferson has the chops to get it done. Dial up a few early cut-back runs to get him comfortable and confident, then let him roll.

Erik: Not that I am aware of.

It’s worth noting that the players vote for team captains, and with all the roster turnover, it looks to me that the team went with the quarterback (Jared Goff) and the best player on this roster (Frank Ragnow) as their offensive choices. Decker has been a leader in this locker room, even if he’s wasn't re-elected as a captain this season, and I don’t think this is a negative reflection on him.

Jeremy, are you seeing something I’m not?

Jeremy: I wouldn’t make too much of it. Some beat writers were joking that Decker may have campaigned for Ragnow so that he didn’t have to go in front of the media as much anymore. I wouldn’t completely put that past Decker, but I think this simply has to do with a changing of the guard center on the offensive line. Decker was the best player. Now Ragnow is.

Like Erik said, I still expect Decker to be the vocal FOOTBALL, FOOTBALL guy in the huddle and on the sidelines, but Ragnow has everything you want to represent your organization. He’s humble, he’s fantastic at football, and let’s not forget he played through a broken throat last year.

Jeremy: I can’t say for sure, but it is worth noting that Jared Goff seemed to imply that they are. When asked if being a captain comes with any cash or prizes, Goff replied, “Nope. Nope. Just a patch.”

Of course, Goff could simply be assuming since he wore the patch last year with the Los Angeles Rams. Any insight here, Erik?

Erik: Not really. They didn’t have a “C” patch on their jerseys in the social media graphic when they announced the captains, but I also think those were just basic team photos that the media department took ahead of training camp.

Erik: So, I’m going to make a few assumptions to answer this question. First, I expect just one player (Nickell Robey-Coleman) to be elevated from the practice squad this week, taking the roster up to 54 players on Sunday. Second, I think the Lions will meet the requirements for an expanded roster, therefore allowing them 48 active players on game day. Third, despite having a few limited players on the injury report, everyone will be declared eligible to play. Therefore, the Lions will have 54 players to choose from and will need to declare six players inactive.

Declaring inactives comes down to a few key things. Is there a position with extra or weak depth, who are the special teams contributors, and are any adjustments due to the game plan calling for more players at one position?

Here’s my best guess:

  • RB Godwin Igwebuike — health/depth at the position puts him out
  • WR KhaDarel Hodge — he may not be up sot speed yet.
  • WR Tom Kennedy — lack of role on special teams hurts him
  • EDGE Austin Bryant — with five edge rushers, someone has to sit
  • LB Anthony Pittman — four linebackers may be enough to get the Lions through
  • CB Jerry Jacobs — Robey-Coleman (my projected elevation) takes his spot

Jeremy, we have had this discussion in the press box most weeks while we prewrite the inactives article. Do you have a different opinion on how the roster shakes out or who may be scratched from this game?

Jeremy: I think I agree on Hodge, Pittman, Bryant, and Jacobs. At this point, we don’t know who the Lions’ kick returner will be, and you’ve placed two candidates on your list in Igwebuike and Kennedy. The Lions could just use Kalif Raymond as their returner, but as we saw with Michigan last week, it may not be the greatest idea to use one of your top receivers on special teams like that. So I’ll keep Kennedy out as well, but swap in Igwebuike and take out Jermar Jefferson. There’s little doubt Jefferson is the better back right now, but the gap isn’t all that much, and he wasn’t likely to get offensive snaps in Week 1 anyways.

I’m also gonna shoot my shot John Whiticar style and make another wacky kicker prediction. I think Zane Gonzalez also gets the temporary promotion from the practice squad, moving recently-added kicker Austin Seibert to the inactive list.

Erik: Get better soon, Ronnie Bell.

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