There was something missing in Detroit last season: a running game. Not just any running game but an explosive and effective one.
The Lions averaged 4.1 yards per carry and ranked No. 23 in total rushing yards last season. They had 84 rushing first downs, which ranked No. 21 in the league, according to pro-football-reference.com. Those statistics, along with the team's 378 total carries, have to improve this upcoming season if the Lions plan on taking their offense to another level and helping franchise quarterback Matthew Stafford.
Stafford attempted 727 passes last season, which was 56 more than any other team in the league. Most of them were in the direction of his tight ends and wide receivers, but that's expected to change this upcoming season with the addition of Reggie Bush.
Bush comes from the Miami Dolphins, where he averaged 5.0 yards per carry in 2011. In 2012, that number dropped to 4.3, primarily because the team shifted to a zone-blocking scheme that didn't really suit his running style. In 2011, the Dolphins used a man-blocking scheme and Bush was very effective, running for more than 1,000 yards to go along with his sparkling yards-per-carry average
In Detroit, the Lions are banking on Bush being as good as he was in 2011. He will have a great chance of doing that because he's operating in a scheme where he'll have a lot of room to run. The additional room, which comes from defenses focusing on wide receiver Calvin Johnson and the passing game, is expected to make it easier for Bush to get into the open field, where he does most of his damage.
That damage will not only make the Lions' running game better but it help Stafford, as well. Stafford won't have to rely so much on deep vertical throws to pick up yards in chunks. This should help Stafford cut down on the 17 interceptions he threw last season.
So expect Bush to make life easier for the quarterback in the passing game, too. Bush is a very dynamic pass-catcher out of the backfield and a matchup problem for defenses, which Stafford alluded to in a recent interview: (via Detroit Free Press)
You hope Reggie can be a two-man (coverage) buster. A guy that can cause coverage that we see quite a bit of just because of Calvin and our ability to throw the football and get him matched up on guys and really be able to make them pay for it.
You want to have the (defensive) coordinators sitting there scratching their heads and wondering where he's going to be, where's he going to line up, who do we put on him. That's what you want as much as you possibly can. When you do get those matchups, take advantage of them. I think he's a guy that can do that.
Stafford's point about using his new backfield partner against man coverage is an astute one. Whether a defensive coordinator wants to use a linebacker or safety against Bush, he's too quick to handle in either case and will pick up yards with ease.
An excellent example of this was against the New England Patriots in Week 17. The Dolphins were in a one-back set and Bush was lined up to quarterback Ryan Tannehill's right. It was going to be a passing play that saw Bush run an option route against linebacker Jerod Mayo, who was assigned to the running back in man coverage.
When the play began, Bush released to his right and avoided a jam from the outside linebacker. He then headed upfield, where he closed the gap between himself and Mayo. There was plenty of space for him to run, whether he went to middle of the field or the near flat.
The option route is a difficult one to defend for any linebacker. In recent years, the New Orleans Saints' Darren Sproles has run it very well and made it easy for quarterback Drew Brees to get him the ball. The same can be expected for Stafford this season, provided offensive coordinator Scott Linehan uses Bush wisely.
As the play continues, Bush plants his left foot and makes a quick cut to his right, where he separates from Mayo and catches the football. There's plenty of room to run after the catch, and Bush covers it quickly, picking up 19 yards.
Bush has averaged 53 receptions per season since coming into the NFL, and there's no reason to think he can't at least match that number in Detroit. According to head coach Jim Schwartz, there's a chance he catches more. (via Tim Twentyman on Twitter)
Eighty receptions is a high number for Bush to meet, but he has done it before.
In his rookie season with the Saints, he caught 88 passes. His next closest season total was 73 in his second year. In both seasons, he was used very similarly to how the Dolphins deployed him in the illustration above. Overall, though, the Dolphins failed to utilize him to the extent that they should have, as he caught 78 passes in two injury-free years.
Although 80 receptions may seem far-fetched to some Lions fans because of the amount of targets the other weapons will get, it's possible considering that season Detroit running backs caught 97 passes. Like them, Bush will also have a lot of room to run because of Calvin Johnson's vertical routes.
If Bush does indeed catch that many pases while also improving the Lions' running game from last season, it'll be good for Stafford, who needs more help from his teammates.