Lions’ Running Game Becoming a Bright Spot in 1st Season Under New Regime

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There have been few positives to take away from the Detroit Lions’ 2021 season, but one thing that has stood out in recent weeks is the improvement of the running games.  In a short span of time, these players and the coaching staff have turned what had long been the kryptonite for Detroit offenses into a legitimate strength for their rebuilding team.

Of course, you cannot have a good running game without at least an adequate offensive line.  The Lions’ offensive line was projected to be one of the best in the league with Taylor Decker, Jonah Jackson, Frank Ragnow, Halapoulivaati Vaitai, Penei Sewell making up the starting unit.  However, that combination of players appeared in NO games together this season.  Decker missed the early portion of the season due to a training camp injury, and, by the time he returned, Ragnow had been lost for the year. Sewell, Jackson, and Vaitai have also dealt with minor injuries.

The fact that the running game has held firm and even improved throughout the season with crucial players like that missing tells you how good this staff is.  Journeymen like Evan Brown and undrafted rookie Tommy Kraemer have had to play meaningful snaps this season, and it honestly does not look that different most of the time.

When Dan Campbell took over as head coach, he mentioned wanting to be able to run the ball well in his 90-minute long introductory press conference.  He also singled out running back D’Andre Swift as a player he could build around, and Swift has exemplified exactly that in 2021.

Swift is in just his second year in the NFL and has already displayed star potential.  He does not go down easily, makes good cuts, and can help the offense in the passing game.  Earlier this season, he became the first Lions running back to gain over 100 yards in consecutive games since Kevin Jones in 2004.

It is not just Swift helping to improve the rushing offense.  The Lions have used four other running backs (Jamal Williams, Godwin Igwebuike, Craig Reynolds, and Jermar Jefferson) and all have had promising moments.  Williams is second on the team in rushing yards and has provided a spark to the offense at times.  Igwebuike has very few carries but did have an impressive 42-yard touchdown run against a great Steelers defense.  Jefferson averages over six yards per carry, and the undrafted Reynolds has 195 yards and a touchdown in just two games.

From the opening game, you could tell the running game was different this year. Detroit was able to get chunk plays on the ground against San Francisco but had to abandon the game plan when it fell behind. 

Dan Campbell took over play-calling duties after the team’s Week 9 bye week, and that is when the running game really started to improve.  Detroit ran for 229 yards against Pittsburgh, and its running backs have combined for at least 100 yards in four of the five games since the change to Campbell was made –averaging 138.2 yards per game in that span.  To put that into perspective, the Lions crossed the 100-yard rushing mark just four times over their first eight games.

Overall, the Lions rushing offense is just 17th in the NFL, but the real highlight is the recent improvements and all it has overcome.  With many players missing due to COVID and its top three backs all ailing from something, Detroit was still able to create a respectable rushing attack with an undrafted player and a seventh-round rookie against Denver and Arizona.

Despite a lost season, the running game seems to have the pieces to grow as the rebuild continues in Detroit.  If it continues at this pace, the Lions could have a formidable running game for the first time since the days of hall-of-famer Barry Sanders in the 1990s.

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Travis Tyler

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