When the Detroit Lions signed free-agent running back Reggie Bush to a contract last week, the team aspired to have an even better overall offense for 2013. Bush signed a four-year deal for $16 million, which means Bush will be 31 years old during the final year of this contract.
It isn't like the Lions have been hurting for an offense that can move the football. Indeed, the Lions overall offense has been ranked No. 3 in 2012 and No. 5 in 2011.
So how much more do they really need to improve? Considering that the Lions record was just 4-12 in 2012, the answer would be quite a lot. What exactly will Bush do that is going to make the Lions offense that much better than it already is?
Detroit Free Press writer Mitch Albom endorsed the Bush signing, as he called Bush the first legitimate running back the team has had since Barry Sanders. Albom claimed Bush will put winning ahead of personal statistics or glory, which can only be viewed as a positive development for the Lions and their locker room.
For starters, let's examine the Lions offense at length by highlighting the pros and the cons.
Not only was Detroit's overall offense in the top five of the NFL for the past two years, but their passing attack has been ranked No. 2 in 2012 and No. 4 in 2011. They continue to find new ways to move the chains, as their first down totals have been rising in the last three years (304 in 2010, 349 in 2011 and 382 in 2012). The 382 first downs last year were good for No. 2 in the entire NFL.
The Lions have been very good in the red zone over the past three years. Detroit converted 60 percent of their red-zone opportunities in 2012, which ranks them No. 7 in the league. In 2011 they were No. 1 in the NFL (66.1 percent) and were No. 2 in 2010 (64.4 percent). That is outstanding consistency.
The Duo of Calvin Johnson and Matthew Stafford.
Megatron set the NFL single-season record for receiving yards (1,964) in 2012. Last year Johnson also led the NFL in targets (205), receptions of 20-plus yards (40), average receiving yards per game (122.8) and catches that resulted in a first down (92).
With that much production, it is no wonder defenses do whatever they can to slow Johnson down and shift additional personnel to lend support. That is why the addition of Bush can make defenses pay.
Stafford threw for 4,967 yards in 2012, which was No. 2 in the entire NFL. In the last two years Stafford has totaled 10,005 passing yards. Stafford has turned in two consecutive healthy seasons, so the injury prone label is now considered a thing of the past.
As most Detroit fans are painfully aware, the running game and the defense has been a source of contention. During the 4-12 season last year, eight of the losses were by a margin of seven points or fewer. The margin of victory in five of those games was four points or fewer, which included two losses in overtime.
Despite all of the big numbers that Stafford posted in 2012, defenses knew Detroit had to pass the ball to score. Stafford only threw 20 touchdown passes in 2012, compared to 17 interceptions. He was ranked as the No. 22 quarterback last year, with a passer rating of 79.8. In Total QBR, he fared a little better, coming in at No. 15 with a score of 58.9.
Stafford's 20 touchdown passes wasn't even half of what Drew Brees did, who led the NFL with 43 touchdowns.
With Bush in the lineup, the premise is that defenses will have to honor the running game, which in turn opens up more passing lanes for Stafford. His touchdown totals in 2013 should rise as a direct result.
Detroit's opponents are doing a better job at taking away wide receiver Calvin Johnson in the red zone. Megatron's touchdown totals took a noticeable dive in 2012. He scored 16 times in 2011 and then just had five scores last year. That is a big factor, especially when you consider all the close losses.
From an points-per-game perspective, Detroit saw their average drop on offense from 29.6 points per game (No. 4 in the NFL in 2011) to 23.3 points per game in 2012 (No. 17 in the league). In the NFC, the Lions trailed behind more explosive offenses like New Orleans (28.8), Washington (27.3) and Green Bay (27.1).
The defense is another issue altogether. It is up to head coach Jim Schwartz, GM Martin Mayhew and defensive coordinator Gunther Cunningham to add more talent and come up with better schemes.The Lions offense should be potent enough in 2013 that they have more leads to protect in the fourth quarter as opposed to rallying from behind.
So far in free agency the Lions have added S Glover Quin and DL Jason Jones to address the front and back needs of the defense. The Lions also re-signed veterans CB Chris Houston and FS Louis Delmas to strengthen the secondary. They aren't done, but those are the highlights on the defensive side of the ball from the first week of free agency.
The pass rush is now an issue with the departure of Cliff Avril to Seattle and the release of veteran Kyle Vanden Bosch.
In most categories the Lions defense looks fine on paper. In 2012 they were ranked No. 13 overall (341.1 yards allowed per game), No. 14 in pass defense (223.1 yards per game) and No. 16 in run defense (allowing 118.1 yards per game). But the big disconnect is that the defense allows an average of 27.3 points per game, which is No. 27 in the NFL.
Until the Lions' defense can figure out a way to get off the field more, or stop giving up so many points, they will be placing a high degree of stress on the offense to outscore the opposition.
So How Does Bush Improve Detroit's Running Game?
Detroit's struggle to run the ball is something that Bush hopes to erase on his own. Bush saw action on 582 snaps last year, which ranks him at No. 19 in that category in the NFL. Arian Foster led all NFL backs with a total of 847 snaps, courtesy of Pro Football Focus (subscription required).
Operating as a full-time back for the Miami Dolphins the past two seasons, Bush averaged 4.67 yards per carry while employed as the main workhorse in the Miami backfield. Bush carried the ball at least 200 times both years he was a Dolphin.
In 2012 Bush averaged 4.3 yards per carry. The year before, Bush averaged 5.0 yards per rush. Meanwhile, the Lions have been led in rushing in 2012 by MIkel Leshoure (3.7 yards per carry) and in 2011 by Jahvid Best (gaining just 390 yards).
Bush proved that he can be a positive contributor to the offense by generating 52 overall first downs, (rushing and receiving) and scoring seven total touchdowns in 2011. He followed that up with 57 combined first downs and eight touchdowns in 2012.
Best of all is that Bush averaged 1,036 rushing yards in each of the last two seasons at Miami. Detroit hasn't had a single running back top 800 yards in any of the last four years.
We don't know what Bush runs these days in the 40-yard dash, but when he was coming out of USC he posted a time of 4.33 seconds. Bush still has the ability to break off big plays, as he had a long run of 76 and 65 yards over the last two seasons. That is another important dimension he adds to the Lions' offense.
If a safety is rotated over to provide help on Megatron, watch out.
What does Bush signing do for Detroit in 2013?
On any running play that allows Bush to get to the second level, he only has to avoid the other safety and then he's off to the races. If Bush can break off a couple long runs in September, that will force defenses to change their coverage plans, which should allow Matthew Stafford to utilize Johnson even more than he already does.
Another aspect worth addressing is that Bush will allow the Detroit offense to convert more third-down opportunities.
You can line Bush up as a receiver, or use him as a decoy. If Detroit keeps Bush in the backfield as a pass-blocker, he would be miscast.
Offensive coordinator Scott Linehan can create plays where Bush is isolated on a slower linebacker and exploit Bush's speed and quickness. He is still an effective receiver coming out of the backfield, as he caught 78 passes for 588 yards over the past two years for Miami.
The more drives that Detroit can extend, which keeps the Lions defense resting on the sidelines, the better.
Another benefit that hasn't been discussed very much is what Bush can do for Mikel Leshoure. Leshoure will be healthy coming into 2013 but hasn't really had many successful running backs to learn from since he joined Detroit. Bush can not only teach him some invaluable tricks of the trade, but will keep Leshoure rested and fresh throughout the season by limiting his number of reps and touches.
To be perfectly fair, Bush does have some holes in his game. He isn't known as a great blocker and he takes some penalties. The blocking issues were enough for Pro Football Focus to give Bush a negative grade for the 2012 season. PFF ranked him as the No. 24 running back, while Leshoure was ranked at No. 20 (subscription required).
As the 2013 season unfolds, the Lions' running game totals will be an interesting factor to follow. The more yards Bush can rack up, the more attention defenses will devote to stopping him. If a defense needs to bring eight men up into the box, Johnson will have a field day.
Lions fans in particular will want to be focusing on what the opposing safeties are doing against the Lions. Are they creeping up in the box to slow down Bush, or are they shading more toward whatever side Megatron is lining up? The Lions offense will allow defenses to pick their poison this year.
Which way do you want to be beaten, on the ground or in the air? Or maybe a little bit of both?
Thanks for checking out the presentation. Follow me on Twitter—@DanVanWie