Preparing for the 2013 Detroit Lions Training Camp: The Running Backs

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Preparing for the 2013 Detroit Lions Training Camp: The Running Backs
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Admittedly, breaking down the offensive line had to be sleep inducing in its incessant drone. There is, however, a lot of meat on that bone (pun intended).

It’s time to move on to the fun stuff—the skill positions—where children won’t be frightened of the “Big Uglies” in their closets.

Without further pun, or ado, I give you the running backs.


What Makes a Great NFL Running Back?

Trick question. If you could genetically engineer the perfect running back, he’d carry the genetic traits that you prefer, but the outcome would invariably differ from any other Frankenstein at the water cooler.


It’s equally difficult to put together a list of traits for the purposes of a comparative analysis checklist. Your definition of vision, for example will differ from the definition of vision for another.

In the end, the film speaks for itself. Vision, explosiveness, elusiveness, speed, agility and patience are all on display for your unique definition. A definition I pray doesn’t include the words, “He can make himself small.”


Of Schemes and Synergies

In Detroit’s man-power blocking scheme (MBS) it’s important for a running back to explode at the point of attack at precisely the instant that the offensive linemen open up the gap. Linemen will pull into the point of attack, creating an advantage in numbers.

By contrast, the Zone Blocking Scheme (ZBS) allows the offensive linemen to attack (at a predetermined angle) the first defender that they encounter. The running back will chose the point of attack based on how the blockers fare in their assignments. There’s always a gap to exploit in the ZBS.

Both schemes are designed to open “cutback” lanes that enable the running back to get into the second level of the defense—where the fun starts.

Both schemes utilize elements of their counterparts on a per-play basis. An MBS scheme will use some zone techniques on the edges. A ZBS scheme will use some man-power techniques between the tackles.

No matter the scheme, every running play is uniquely designed for down-and-distance situations within the game plan for any given Sunday. Draw plays, counter plays and delays all require equal degrees of deception and timing in order to succeed.

The synergies developed between a running back and his offensive line are born of many practice reps. A running back must trust that the blocks will be there when he explodes at the point of attack. Blockers must trust that their running back will hit the hole at the appropriate time.


What a Difference a Year Makes

I dug out the Lions 2012 training camp roster from my archives. Last year’s crop of running backs (current status in parentheses) looked like this:

Stefan Logan (Unrestricted free agent)

Keiland Williams (Released Oct. 18, 2012. Now with Washington)

Jerome Harrison (IR - Non football related. Harrison is out of football)

Mikel LeShoure (On 2013 roster)

Joique Bell (On 2013 roster)

Kevin Smith (Unrestricted free agent)

James Bryant (Fullback - unrestricted free agent)

Stephfon Green (CFL - Saskatchewan)

Jahvid Best (Reserve - injured)

I wonder how Jerome Harrison is doing? I’ll tickle some people and get back to you on his condition.

Anyway, take a look at the current roster, where only LeShoure and Bell will be returning. Let’s break down the latest crop of running backs, where I expect the Lions to keep four.


Reggie Bush

USA TODAY Sports

As a whole, Lions fans were pleased with the Bush signing in free agency. Sure, there are the haters out there who point out that Bush (according to NFL.com stats) only racked up 4.3 YPC (986 yards on 227 carries) in 2012, and never seemed to reach the high expectations that fans have had over his career—even though he earned a Super Bowl XLIV ring with New Orleans.

In Detroit’s pass-happy offense Bush should thrive both as a runner and a receiver. He’ll be used in just about every way imaginable and absolutely must be accounted for by defenses on every snap.

Watching Bush’s game films at Miami, where he played behind a ZBS yields little—if any—usable information for his analysis as an MBS back. Only time, and hundreds of reps with Detroit’s offensive line will determine Bush’s effectiveness as the feature back in the Lions’ offense.

However, we can make some educated projections as to how Bush will (hopefully) impact the offense:

1. Defenses will no longer keep seven, or even six, defenders in the box. Bush must be accounted for.

2. Getting the ball in space, Bush is pure murder. Not the fleetest of foot, Bush’s ability to rack up missed tackles makes him a threat to score from anywhere on the gridiron.

3. As a safety valve option, Bush will enhance the O-line and QB performances. Stat lines could improve in 2013.

4. Bush will be part of the solution to freeing up WR Calvin Johnson from double coverage. Call it a fringe benefit.

If Bush can validate these educated projections, the Lions will have found the offensive weapon that has been absent for some time.


Mikel LeShoure

Tim Fuller-USA TODAY Sports

Nothing has ever come easy for LeShoure. Whether it’s his life or his football career, LeShoure has had to overcome obstacles at every turn. He never seemed to fully recover from the Achilles tendon injury suffered during training camp in 2011. He was a tentative runner in 2012.

On a positive note, LeShoure’s complete recovery was expected to take more than a year to complete. The muscle and tendon issues that plagued LeShoure after returning to the active roster have dissipated, somewhat, as reported by Tim Twentyman of detroitlions.com.

However, he has the greatest explosion at the point of attack that I’ve seen since Steve Owens bludgeoned NFL defenses back in the early 1970s.

Will LeShoure shed his tentative instincts in 2013 and return to a form that will energize the offense? 


If he can, the offensive line will look forward to coming to work every day. The “bigs” love teeing off on run blocks for a running back who seeks contact.


Joique Bell

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Lions fans have an unabashed love for the versatile Bell, and why not? All that Bell has done since being signed by Detroit in December 2011 is exceed everyone’s expectations as a running back, and as a receiver out of the backfield.

His skill set seems to have been relegated to redundancy since Reggie Bush joined the team. His production, however, is undeniable as a third-down back, long threat and reliable check-down option for QB Matt Stafford.

Bell, not LeShoure, or any other option for that matter, was the unheralded star in an otherwise moribund 2012 Lions ground attack. It remains a mystery why he didn’t get more than 134 touches, but popular opinion suggests that the Lions—playing mostly from behind—simply had to abandon the run.

Bell seems to have redoubled his efforts this year, impressing head coach Jim Schwartz and could even see some reps at kick return duties according to special teams coach John Bonamego, who coached Bell in New Orleans.

One thing looks like a lock: Joique Bell’s active roster spot. Book it!


OK, Who Wins the Fourth RB Roster Spot?

We’ve discussed Bush, LeShoure and Bell, the big-three that will get the bulk of the workload among the running backs. That precious fourth spot will be won by the player who:

1. Provides the missing element among the aforementioned RBs: Speed.

2. Proves to be a more valuable addition to special teams.

Stefan Logan is a goner. One of the Lions’ greatest needs will be determining who will handle kickoffs and punt returns. That roster spot winner will come from the cornerbacks, wide receivers or the running backs.

The Lions could eschew a fourth running back on the roster, but this seems very unlikely. It is, however, a consideration that shouldn’t be discarded out of hand. The glut of competition at tight end and wide receiver positions could be very persuasive when those final cuts are made.

That said, let’s see who could fill that fourth roster spot among the remaining running backs on the current roster.


Shaun Chapas

Chapas was a 2012 practice squad acquisition who is strictly a special teams contributor and fullback on scout teams. Considering the depth at RB, I don’t see a chance of him sticking around, especially since those practice squad spots are likely to be allocated to developing players.


Jahvid Best

Sadly, there seems little doubt that Best’s playing days are over. The Lions will continue to keep him on injured reserve for the remainder of his rookie contract, which expires after the 2014 season. A classy move by the Lions organization that will ensure Best’s NFL pension eligibility.

I do hope Jahvid can stop by training camp, and I wish him a full recovery.


Theo Riddick

Harry How/Getty Images

Had the Lions not drafted Riddick in the sixth round of this year’s draft (199th overall) he might have gone undrafted. But, Lions new running backs coach Curtis Modkins is tight with the staff at Notre Dame and lobbied hard for Riddick.

If you get the impression that I’m not a fan of Riddick, you’re right.

There’s nothing about Riddick that can be considered an upgrade over Bush or Bell, other than the fact that he’s played some slot receiver prior to becoming a full-time RB. His 4.66 speed doesn’t qualify as an edge running threat.

I’m afraid that Riddick’s reps will be empty reps, and we’ll begin questioning Modkins’ credibility.


Steven Miller

If you liked the departed Stefan Logan you’re gonna love Miller, the undrafted free agent who impressed the Lions scouts enough at his Pro Day to get an invitation to work out in Allen Park prior to the draft.

Miller checks in at under 5’7”, 172 pounds. He’s the fastest RB on the roster (4.46), is extremely quick and agile and has an otherworldly 43” vertical jump.

Note that for a little guy, Miller is pretty effective running inside the left tackle.

Miller will get his shot at kick return specialist, and I wouldn’t sleep on him making a splash at running back. He’d be fun to watch elevating from the one-yard line, wouldn’t he?

Oh, and I almost forgot… Miller doesn’t have to make himself small.


Montell Owens

This year, the Lions seem fully dedicated to improving the special teams coverage units. To that end, the Lions released Kassim Osgood at the end of the 2012 season and picked up Owens, who was similarly released by the Jaguars.

If Owens makes the cut he’ll do it as a special teams “gunner” on coverage teams. Ironically, Owens’ spot on the roster could depend upon rookie cornerback Darius Slay’s status. If Slay fails to nail down the starting role, he will come off the bench as the gunner on special teams. Owens will be out.


Conclusions

This year’s crop of running backs is an obvious upgrade over 2012, where the Lions held out hope that Jahvid Best’s return would justify their RB rentals of 2011 and 2012. The Lions have moved on.

Some questions persist as training camp approaches:

1. Have the Lions found that speedy edge threat option that they will need come Week 1? Is Miller that missing piece in the absence of Stefan Logan?

2. Will Mikel LeShoure return to his pre-injury form as a one-cut hammer?

3. Will the Lions keep four running backs on the roster?

4. Will the new-look offensive line gel with the running backs in time for the start of the regular season?

5. What on earth were the Lions thinking when they drafted Theo Riddick? Isn’t his skill set redundant (Bush and Bell)?


Next Up: The Tight Ends

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