By Ashley Dunkak
ALLEN PARK (CBS DETROIT) – Detroit Lions wide receiver Nate Burleson expects big contributions from the team’s running backs – and not just Reggie Bush.
“We have three really good running backs,” Burleson said after training camp Tuesday. “They’re all going to be productive. I guarantee you’ll see all three of them multiple times in the end zone.”
Besides Bush, the Lions will use Joique Bell and Mikel Leshoure.
Most of the hype about a more versatile offense surrounds Bush, who rushed 986 yards and recorded 296 receiving yards in 2012 and is widely renowned as a dual threat.
What sometimes gets overlooked is that Bell, a Wayne State alumnus, is similarly adaptable. To go along with the 414 rushing yards he amassed in 2012, he ranked third in the NFL among running backs with 485 receiving yards and tied for fifth among NFL running backs with 52 receptions.
“Joique has been a pleasant surprise since he’s been in a Lion uniform,” Burleson said. “People look at him and they automatically think he’s a bigger back, he’s a bruiser, he’s more of a fullback type, but for the weight that he carries, he has tremendous ability to find the hole, he’s very shifty, he’s hard to take down, and he can catch the ball well out of the backfield.
“The great thing about Joique is he’s the combination back,” Burleson added. “He’s big, strong, fast, and he has that versatility to run routes and get the ball handed off to him in the backfield.”
With a jump start from the addition of Bush and the comparable versatility of Bell, the Lions could look noticeably different from the pass-happy offense of 2012.
Statistically, it might be hard to look more one-dimensional than the Lions did last season.
Of 6,450 yards of total offense last year, 4,927 yards came through the air – 76.4 percent. Of 382 first downs, 272 were converted on passes – 71.2 percent.
Of course, the passing game will still be the strong suite of the team because of the presence of superstar wide receiver Calvin Johnson and the competency of quarterback Matthew Stafford.
Even so, the addition of Bush and reassertion of a run game should make the Lions less predictable and keep defenses on their heels a little bit more. Defensive end Israel Idonije, who played nine seasons for the Chicago Bears before joining the Lions this off-season, is impressed by what he has seen of Joique.
“You just watch him run, his explosiveness, the ability to attack the line,” Idonije said. “On the offense, you have to have that dagger, that guy who can punch it up there and just get you the hard yards – three, four, five – and then the ability to break one and take it.
“He has all the weapons necessary to manage that and to be that for us, and then you bring in the weapons they have in the passing game, Reggie,” Idonije continued. “Just as a package it’s exciting to see what they’ll be doing on that side of the ball.”
Not only will a better run game free up Johnson and give the Lions options, it might also help preserve the collective health of the wide receivers group.
“Having those three running backs is going to help us,” Burleson said. “We don’t have to take so many shots, we don’t have to take so many risks. The receivers are opening up the defense. You’re going to have these guys coming out of the backfield getting big chunks. That way we’re not putting ourselves in risky positions.”
The passing game carried the Lions in 2012. It probably still will in 2013, but this time the load should not be quite so heavy.
“We’ll be a lot more versatile,” tight end Brandon Pettigrew said. “[Reggie will] help us a lot more in the backfield, coming out matchup-wise. They try to play us man, it’s a better matchup for him, us, and receivers as well.
“They won’t be able to double down as much,” he added. “It’ll create a lot of problems for defenses.”