Going into the 2009 season the Lions wanted to base the offensive attack around a steady running game that would set the table for an aggressive downfield passing attack. The Lions’ running game finished 24th in the league in rushing yards, rushing attempts per game and 25th in yards per carry in 2009. They finished 31st in both rushes over 20 yards and rushes over 40 yards. Needless to say, the table was not set for the aggressive downfield passing attack and the offense struggled to create big plays despite the best big play receiver in the league, Calvin Johnson.
Injuries, inconsisntancy and a change in philosophy were the two biggest obstacles that the Lions running game was unable to overcome in 2009. Kevin Smith was banged up early in the season and was slow to adapt to the change in philosophy. The Lions were a zone blocking team in 2008, a scheme that Kevin Smith spent his entire career in. The Lions switched to a more balanced blocking scheme that featured zone and man running plays, but more of a “downhill” running mentality.
In a zone blocking scheme the back takes the handoff and patiently reads his blockers and allows the play to develop before determining which hole to run through. The Lions’ offense called for more structured plays with designated holes that require the back to hit the hole decisively. Smith was finally starting to get acclimated to the scheme when he suffered his season-ending knee injury.
Injuries and inconsistency plagued the offensive line and outside of two or three games, the rushing attack never got on track. Scott Linehan and Jim Schwartz are both proponents of a strong running game, so there was a high priority placed on adding personnel to accomplish that goal during the offseason.
Two subjects have dominated discussions of the Lions’ backfield this offseason, the addition of Jahvid Best with the 30th overall pick and the recovery of Kevin Smith. I am a big fan of Jahvid Best, but Kevin Smith’s recovery may be the more integral to the Lions’ success this season.
Jahvid Best provides the Lions with their first legitimate game breaking threat since Barry hung up the cleats. Best is not the next Barry Sanders, but he offers a similar big play threat that should open up the passing game and cause defensive coordinators to honor the Lions’ running game.
Best can’t be relied on to do it himself though. While I don’t think Best’s size or injury history will be a limitation, I do think the “rookie wall” will be. College players play 12-13 games a year, Best only played nine last season due to the season-ending concussion. This season he is expected to play in 20 games, most likely as the Lions’ starting running back. The Lions need a second back to help keep Best fresh all season and prevent him from hitting the rookie wall. If Best fades down the stretch, all the benefits he brings to the offense become moot.
By all accounts, Kevin Smith is ahead of schedule in his recovery. Although, when is the last time a player/coach has said a player is behind schedule or struggling with rehabbing an injury? When healthy, Smith is a slashing runner that is competant in every phase of the game but doesn’t stand out in any. He is shifty in the hole, catches the ball well out of the backfield, has decent power and the quarterbacks trust him in pass protection. I have always likened him to a poor man’s Marion Barber.
Maurice Morris is a veteran presence in the backfield who is a capable starter for short periods and has made a career as the second back in the rotation as well as a very good thrid down back. He is a little faster than Kevin Smith but isn’t as adept at shedding tackles. He will be relied on to bridge the gap if Smith’s recovery isn’t complete by Week 1.
Aaron Brown is elusive and difficult to grasp, both literally and figuratively. He would flash playmaking ability one play and the next play he would look so lost you’d swear he was blindfolded. Brown has big league speed and acceleration, but needs to develop better focus and patience. If Smith is healthy, Brown will most likely not make the active roster.
One of the biggest disappointments of the 2009 season was Jerome Felton. Felton is a multi-dimensional fullback who was rarely asked to use that ability. Felton carried the ball 575 times in college and set the school record for most points scored in a career. Despite the impressive college resume, Felton only has 17 carries and 22 receptions in the NFL. Felton struggled with assignment errors at times in 2009, perhaps the coaching staff was reluctant to give him more opportunities until he could handle his blocking assignments.
Jake Nordin and Matt Clapp will compete for the back up fullback slot, if the Lions decide to carry two. Nordin has an edge due to his experience playing tight end and fullback last season. Clapp rarely did anything but block in college as his 17 career touches show, but he was a solid special teamer and is the only pure fullback on the roster.
The Lions made two aggressive moves to acquire Best and almost as importantly LG Rob Sims. Sims is entering the black hole known as the Lions starting left guard, where 15 others have ventured in the last nine years. There are a lot of expectations on the two newcomers, but the front office and coaches obviously have faith that they represent the missing pieces. Factor in the Lions’ additions to the receiving corp and Matthew Stafford’s continued development and the Lions have given the ground game all the help one could expect in a single offseason.