It’s no secret that the Detroit Lions’ running game is struggling and there are three main factors contributing to the struggles. The Lions’ have had injury and ineffectiveness plague the guards this season. They started five players at both guard positions and their best guard, Stephen Peterman, is out for the year. Secondly, the Lions have fallen behind quickly in most of their road games forcing them to abandon the run. Lastly and potentially most importantly, Kevin Smith has not adapted to the switch away from the zone blocking scheme as well as the coaching staff had hoped.
A running back’s success in the zone blocking scheme is predicated on patience and vision. The offensive line blocks players that come into their zone and the running back reads the holes created by the lineman. The running back “tip toes” along until he decides which hole to hit and then accelerates upfield. The running back has to be patient because the offensive lineman are also trying to create lanes on the backside of the play for the running back to cut back. Kevin Smith ran in a zone blocking scheme in college and last year with the Lions. This year, the Lions still run some zone blocking plays, but they are not a zone blocking offense anymore.
The Lions run a more traditional type of offense where the play call tells the running back which hole to run through rather than the running back reading the line and deciding where to go. Patience is replaced by acceleration and vision doesn’t become important until the running back gets through the hole. The running back has to hit the hole with conviction and keep his legs driving until he breaks through to the second level of the defense. This is where Kevin Smith’s adaptation is lacking.
Kevin Smith frequently takes the hand off, “tip toes” to the hole and stops his feet looking for a cutback lane. This is how he has been coached to run for the last four years of his career. Obviously, the Lions’ offensive line hasn’t been opening big holes for Smith with all the issues at guard, but he has to attack the line of scrimmage when he takes the hand off. Smith has been getting tripped up and arm tackled at an alarming rate this season, and it’s because he isn’t attacking the hole and building up a head of steam. He is frequently moving slower than the defender tackling him by the time he gets hit. Once he gets into the open field he can stop and start and look for cutbacks, but until he hits the second level of the defense he needs to just power ahead.
Kevin Smith may or may not be the future at running back for the Lions, but his chances of being “the guy” will increase when he overcomes the zone blocking instincts that he has developed.