By Ashley Scoby
Although fans in Detroit have burned Matthew Stafford jerseys since the beginning of the NFL season, the Lions’ struggles haven’t all been on No. 9. The rushing game has been putrid, which only exacerbates the issues in the passing game.READ MORE: Michigan Matters: Fighting for Inclusion, Detroit's Place in Civil Rights History
Detroit is holding steady at dead-last in the league in rushing yards per game (49.8). Most of those (26.2 per game) come from Ameer Abdullah, who also has as many fumbles lost this year (1) as rushing touchdowns. Joique Bell has an ugly 1.1 yards-per-carry average – even lower than his quarterback’s (Matthew Stafford averages 2.9 yards a rush).
“Yeah, we’ve just got to get better at what we’re trying to do,” said Detroit offensive coordinator Joe Lombardi. “But we certainly have good running backs, our offensive line is getting better every week and we’ve got good enough receivers that people should have enough respect for the passing game that people should have enough respect for the passing game that we can get some good numbers to run it against.”
That the Lions have to get better at running the ball is a massive understatement. Avert your eyes if you get queasy – the numbers are graphic.
They’re on pace to rush the ball 278 times this year. For comparison, the NFL record for fewest rushing attempts in a season was 211 in 1982 by the Eagles (and they only played nine games that year).
The Lions – at 49.8 rushing yards per game – are still ahead of the 1940 Eagles, which set the league record for fewest rushing yards in a season (298, an average of just over 25 per game in their 11-game schedule).
Nobody has been an exception to the ugliness. First-stringer Bell has struggled to keep his total yardage positive in each game he’s played. He missed the entire preseason with a knee injury, then missed the game against the Seahawks because of an ankle injury, and has had trouble finding any consistency.READ MORE: Karen Carter, and Others Metro Detroiters Chipped In To Help Salvation Army’s Bed and Bread Radiothon
“I think for most players you have to get in a little bit of a rhythm and it’s hard to be off for so long and then come back and see the runs exactly like you were a year (ago) because you haven’t had so many reps,” Lombardi said about Bell. “Just the fact of him getting his reps back and his rhythm going.”
Head coach Jim Caldwell also pointed to Bell’s injuries as the main culprit of why he hasn’t performed up to his normal standard. Last year, Bell ran for 860 yards and seven touchdowns, and caught 34 passes for 322 yards and another touchdown.
“He would just fatigue fairly easily on his injury and then sometimes, you just can’t tell,” Caldwell said. “It looked like it was really, really good when he first came back and then you get in the ball game and it was just different and he wasn’t quite where he would like to be or we’d like to have him from that standpoint.”
To be fair, hardly anyone on the running backs list has been everything the coaching staff would probably like them to be. Theo Riddick has performed well this season, but mostly as a slot receiver, or as someone reliable to catch screen passes out of the backfield. He only has two rushing attempts this season.
Even more crucially, Abdullah was benched last week against the Cardinals after fumbling twice and losing one. The biggest knock on Abdullah coming into the league as a rookie was the fumbling problems he had at Nebraska.
Until he gets them fixed, Caldwell has said he will have to look closely at limiting his playing time. But with Bell struggling to find daylight, Riddick being used almost exclusively in the passing game (and showing up on the injury report on Thursday) and Zach Zenner still finding his way, the Lions might be running out of options.
“He’s a young player. I don’t think we banish him to the minors yet,” Lombardi said. “I think that you kind of trust that he’s going to keep working on it and get better. Listen, at some point if it continues to be a problem, certainly there may be some drastic steps that have to be taken as far as limiting carries or those kinds of things. I think you’ve got to trust that he’s going to get it fixed at this point anyway.”MORE NEWS: Granholm Confirmed By Senate To Be Next Energy Secretary