I don’t quite know who deserves the blame for the running game. There are a few prime suspects however, so lets comb through them and see what we can come up with.
1st Suspect: Jim Bob Cooter
JBC is the prime suspect in the case. If Matthew Stafford is under-center, it’s likely a run. If Matthew Stafford motions a receiver in-line, it’s a run 100% of the time. The predictability and blandness of Cooter’s play-calling this season has been disappointing, the only real wrinkle he’s introduced was a Jamal Agnew jet sweep. He doesn’t deserve all of the blame for the Lions issues establishing a running attack, but he sure does deserve a lot of it.
2nd Suspect: The Running Backs
Coming out of the bye, Jim Bob Cooter tried to use all three of his running backs on the game day active roster. Ameer Abdullah got a majority of the carries, but Theo Riddick and Dwayne Washington got some as well. The issue the Lions have is that all three of their running backs have specific skills, but none of them do those skills particularly well. Abdullah is not the ultimate 3-down back the Lions had hoped for, and attempting to run him inside the offensive tackles is not going to lead to much success. He has decent ability to make guys miss and has broken off a few good runs this season, but he ultimately lacks good speed and can never out run the secondary. Theo Riddick either has lost a step, or teams just figured out the Lions don’t have him do anything but run three yards forward then turn around. I think your answer is somewhere in-between, but I’d like to see Cooter get more creative with him. Nonetheless, Riddick can’t run the ball so when he’s in the game it’s an automatic tell that #9 will be dropping back. As for Dwayne Washington, his biggest issue is a lack of feel for the NFL game. Unfortunately, I don’t see this getting any better. On one of his goal-line carries, there was no reason that he couldn’t have reached the ball over the line. He frequently runs into the backs of his offensive linemen, and also has struggled to get onto the field due to his inability in pass pro. Ultimately, Washington is a 7th round pick. It’s just frustrating to see him have flashes in the preseason, but not really be able to put it all together.
Moral of the story, Abdullah, Riddick, and Washington have limited skill-sets and aren’t very good at what they should be able to do. I think a good amount of the blame rests with them.
3rd Suspect: The Offensive Line
The biggest issue with the offensive line this year has been a lack of continuity. More than any other group in sports, the o-line requires weeks and weeks of football to get right and to trust each other. The truth of the matter is that the Lions group has looked different almost every week. Everyone has been hurt at some point in time for this group going back to June with Decker, who’s triumphant return we patiently wait for. I do think that the offensive line will continue to improve as the weeks go on, and they looked the best they have all season in pass-pro on Sunday night. They have struggled to get a good push in the run, often getting blown into the backfield on many occasions. The offensive line hasn’t helped issues, but a lot of the problems rest in things that are uncontrollable.
The Solution: Zenner and Green
Call me crazy, but lets see Zach Zenner and Tion Green get playing time. I much more believe in the Zenner side of this solution, and don’t get why he has been inactive for a majority of this years’ games. When forced into the starting role for the last 3 games of last season, Zenner was effective both running and receiving. He had 12 carries for 67 yards in the Dallas game before Cooter mysteriously refused to play him in the second half, and also had 54 receiving yards in the Seattle playoff game. Zenner also excels in pass-protection. At the very least, with Zach Zenner in the game it will be harder for defenses to tell whether the Lions will be passing or running.
As for Tion Green, let’s see why the Lions decided to keep 5 running backs on the roster. He had the biggest play of the preseason and wants to follow in Don Carey’s footsteps to become a special teams ace.
Something needs to change in the backfield. Ultimately, I’d really love to see Washington inactive on Monday night and Zach Zenner get a chance to be the feature back going forward.