6 Reasons Why the Lions' Backfield Will Be a Top-10 Unit in 2012
The Lions rushing game was ranked 29th out of 32.
I won't bother posing the question of how that's possible. I'll just point out that Calvin Johnson had more receiving yards in 2011 than the Lions had rushing yards.
But, although the Lions are, and will continue to be, a "pass-first" offense, they absolutely cannot ignore the running game.
While I have questions about the ability of the offensive line to create interior gaps, there's little question that the Lions have invested in talent in the backfield.
Perhaps this reflects the Lions' ability (and willingness) to use their running backs as receiving targets, or perhaps they're just not putting as much emphasis on a relatively unimportant position.
Either way, there are several reasons to be optimistic about the success of the Lions' backfield, despite any offensive line concerns.
The first one will... not surprise you.
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Last year, the Lions' top three running backs were Jahvid Best, Mikel Leshoure, and Jerome Harrison.
Best suffered two concussions by the end of week six, Harrison was nearly traded before doctors found a rare brain tumor that shut him down for the season and Leshoure didn't even make it through a full week of training camp.
Later in the season, the Lions signed Kevin Smith, whom they had released that spring. He played healthy long enough to make everyone wonder why he was released in the first place, and then reminded everyone by suffering another injury.
Harrison isn't with the the team anymore, but the other three comprise the top three backs on the roster, and each of them is back to full health, at least by their individual standards.
Smith may be the guy with the most severe long-term health issues, though it's frightening to think of the results of another Best concussion.
Leshoure, however, suffered a serious Achilles injury which kept him out for the season, but he doesn't really have an injury history otherwise. In Leshoure's case especially, the injury concern is based around a single freak-accident injury.
Unpredictable injuries are always going to be part of the NFL, but that's a two-way street. Sometimes consistent performers get injured, and sometimes guys with an injury history play completely healthy. The important thing at this point is that everyone is healthy right now.
And building off of this...
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To an extent, this goes hand-in-hand with health.
But where talking about health means hoping everybody stays healthy, talking about depth concerns what happens if they don't. And despite his own health problems, Kevin Smith proved to be a more effective, explosive option than Jerome Harrison, Keiland Williams or Maurice Morris.
And this year, he's the third running back.
But because the Lions are three deep with talented running backs, they can also cycle them in and out, mitigating the wear and tear on each of them individually. The last thing the Lions need is to give 500 carries to a guy coming off a severe Achilles injury, or to run Jahvid Best into a wall of tacklers 25 times a game.
The less touches each of these guys gets, the less they will wear down, not only this season, but over their respective careers.
We all know running backs are candles burning at both ends, and a committee system like this is an effective way to keep them healthy for more games, and keep them effective for more seasons.
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Nobody quite remembers this, but Mikel Leshoure was the second running back to get drafted in 2011, after Mark Ingram, in round two at No. 57.
Sure, it wasn't a great year for running backs, but Leshoure had a first-round grade from some. The bottom line is that he's extremely talented.
Leshoure, frankly, was the guy the Lions drafted last year with the very intention of resurrecting the between-the-tackles running game. His impact should have been felt last year, but it didn't turn out that way.
The injury Leshoure suffered last year in training camp was so severe, initial reports wondered whether he would be ready for next season.
If you believe what Leshoure says on Twitter, he'll not only be healthy by the start of the season (though he won't play until Week 3 due to his league suspension), he's already fully healthy for the start of training camp.
The only question remaining now is whether he'll have the same talent and explosion after his injury that he had before.
The Lions Win Games Now
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Sometimes, stats don't tell the story.
Sometimes, the story tells the stats.
And the simple fact of the matter is that teams run the ball a lot more when ahead than behind. And the Lions, until recently, spent a lot more time behind than ahead.
Frankly, considering the Lions set an NFL record for comebacks last year, they even spent a lot of time trailing during a season they won 10 games.
But the fact remains falling behind generally means passing more to make up the deficit. And unless you're one of those types who thinks the Lions' 2011 season was a fluke, the Lions stand to lead a lot more games (or at least roughly the same amount) in 2012.
Even if the Lions' rushing efficiency isn't improved in 2012 as it should be, the sheer numbers should improve if only because of the Lions finding themselves in more rushing situations.
The Pass-First Offense
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I know, I know. This seems counter-intuitive, right?
Well, it's not. Nobody is going into a Lions game saying, "We have to stop the running game. We have to make Matthew Stafford and Calvin Johnson try to beat us."
It's the exact opposite. As a result, opposing defenses are tailored to taking away the passing game, to the detriment of the run defense.
To this point, the Lions have not had the personnel to take advantage of this. If anything, what they had was a talented enough passing attack to continue passing the ball against defenses shaded to stop it.
By all accounts, the Lions should have that again in 2012, and so the rushing attack, while it won't be the primary feature of the offense, should have a fine time taking what the defense gives it while it tries to limit the passing damage.
That means the field is more spread, which means more space for guys like Jahvid Best to move around. The Lions entire offense is based on stretching the field, and that starts with the passing game. The run game is the unit that gets to reap the benefits.
And let's not also forget that I'm talking about the success of the backfield, not just the running game. When healthy, it's possible the Lions field the strongest set of receiving targets in the backfield in the entire league.
Jahvid Best, in particular, is not an outlandish choice as a 1,000-yard receiver, if he plays 16 games at full strength.
NFC North Defenses
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Interesting fact: Despite the evidence that the NFC North is often considered among the strongest in football, not a single team in it fielded a defense that fell in the top half of the league in total yards allowed.
Based on last year's numbers, that's six games against below-average defensive units.
The caveat here is that the Packers, Bears and Vikings were actually top-15 units in total run defense. But I wonder how much of that is due to games against the Packers and Lions; teams that, in 2011, would frequently pass for 400 yards and run for 50.
Still, it's an interesting stat to keep an eye on. Statistically, the NFC North fields some of the worst defenses and best offenses in football. But are those defenses bad because the offense is good? Or vice-versa? Or are they mostly unrelated?