By: Will Burchfield
1,000 yards: it’s the benchmark every NFL running back shoots for when the season begins. It would be simplistic to say it separates the great rushers from the good ones – there are too many exceptions on either side of the line – but it’s the number that puts a stamp on a strong season.
“1,000 yards?” we ask. “Oh, great year.”
The Detroit Lions, deficient in this regard since the retirement of Barry Sanders, have had just one 1,000-yard rusher in the last 11 years. That was Reggie Bush in 2013, who just barrrrrrely got there with 1,006 yards. Before that, you have to go all the way back to Kevin Jones in 2004.
This year’s team features a prime candidate to buck the trend in Ameer Abdullah. Make that prime candidates – plural – according to Abdullah.
“As long as we’re doing things through the system, I think a number of us backs can go for 1,000,” he said. “Whether it’s me, Theo (Riddick), whoever’s called to carry the ball, Dwayne (Washington), Zach (Zenner). If we’re doing things situationally correct, and how we do things schematically, blocking things right, taking the right steps, a number of us could do it.”
To be clear, Abdullah was partly following locker-room code here; neither Zenner nor Washington has a chance at 1,000 yards. But if the Lions’ season-opening win over the Colts is any indication, both Abdullah and Riddick are very much in the running to break that barrier.
Operating behind an improved offensive line, the Lions’ two lead backs combined for 108 yards on just 19 carries, a per-carry average of 5.7 yards. It was an effort that left Jim Caldwell pleased.
“You want to be about four yards a carry, overall. I think we were just a hair higher than that. Pretty good for us at this point,” he said.
Abdullah shouldered the bulk of the load against the Colts, rushing 12 times for 63 yards. He was shifty at the point of attack and explosive in space, showing the flair that made him a three-time 1,000-yard rusher at the University of Nebraska.
But he’s not concerned with repeating that feat this season.
“It’s not that I don’t want to, but once you start focusing on that, I’ve seen throughout history and throughout my own experience that you won’t get there when you start becoming result-driven instead of just driven through the process of doing things right,” Abdullah said.
In short, he’s letting the numbers take care of themselves.
Just for fun, an average of 63 yards per game works out to 1,008 yards over the course of a season. That doesn’t seem like such a tall task, until you consider Abdullah is limited to about 15 carries per game. He was efficient with his touches on Sunday, a trend that will have to continue for him to approach quadruple-digit yardage.
I don’t envision him carrying the ball 30 times in a ballgame,” Caldwell said. “I think he’s capable, certainly, but that’s not his strength. I think he’s one of those guys that you have to get it to him a number of different ways. But do I think that he’s durable enough to do it? Absolutely. Do I think he’s strong enough to do it? Absolutely. I just don’t think that’s his cup of tea.”
What’s more, the Lions don’t need Abdullah to be a bell-cow back given Riddick’s complementary ability. The pass-catcher extraordinaire will be heavily involved in the team’s offense, limiting Abdullah’s statistical upside.
The Lions may find themselves with a two-headed monster in the backfield, but not necessarily a single beast.
“I believe both of them were over 100 all-purpose yards, I think that’s who they are,” Caldwell said after Sunday’s game. “I think they’re effective catching it, I think they’re effective out of the backfield, running the ball as well, but I think you have to mix it up with them.”
If both Abdullah and Riddick continue to find success, they’re liable to see their usage increase.
You hope that (if) you give it to them a little bit more, they’ll keep the same type of production up,” Caldwell said.
Which brings us to an interesting thought. Perhaps the Lions, after producing just one 1,000-yard rusher in the last 11 years, will have two in the same season.