The workload may be similar, but the roles for Detroit Lions running backs Joique Bell and Reggie Bush might change ever so slightly under new offensive coordinator Joe Lombardi.
Hailing from the New Orleans Saints—a team featuring an offense that threw the football plenty but also employed a power running game—Lombardi may envision Bell as his new Pierre Thomas/Mark Ingram/Chris Ivory, while Bush could be used in a Darren Sproles-like "space" role.
One thing is for certain: It will be another timeshare for the Lions backfield in 2014.
“I think they both have their specific role and again, I'm familiar with them," Lombardi said, via Dave Birkett of the Detroit Free Press. “But this game is a violent game…and it's hard for one running back to get all the carries. So much like they did last year, I see these guys kind of having a split role and both being very productive.”
The two were among the most productive in football last season. Thanks in large part to the pair's 2,709 total yards, the Lions finished behind only the New England Patriots and San Diego Chargers in yards from scrimmage from running backs in 2013.
Bush and Bell also became the first running back tandem to both go over 500 rushing and receiving yards in the same season. Bush finished with 1,006 rushing yards and 506 receiving, while Bell contributed 650 and 547.
Overall, Bush played 625 snaps and received 277 total touches. Bell was on the field for 562 snaps and saw 219 touches.
|Joique Bell and Reggie Bush, 2014|
|*Over 14 games|
Given Lombardi's past in New Orleans and the money paid to Bell this offseason, it's a good bet those numbers could flip-flop in 2014. At the very least, it looks likely Bell's workload is about to increase.
Lombardi spent two years as an offensive assistant (2007-08) and another four as quarterbacks coach (2009-13) in New Orleans. He wasn't directly involved in play-calling, but he has committed to bringing a Saints-like offense to Detroit.
"There will be a lot of similarities (to the Saints' playbook)," Lombardi said, via Kevin Patra of NFL.com. "You are going to see some difference, but the playbook that we are starting from is the Saints' playbook, so it will certainly be very similar."
The numbers coming out of New Orleans since 2011 are probably good news for Bell.
The Saints acquired Sproles, a shifty, sure-handed back who excels in space, before the '11 season. Over the 44 games he played over the next three years, Sproles saw an average of 140 touches per season, or roughly 9.5 a game—which equates to roughly 153 over a 16-game season.
Meanwhile, the Saints gave Thomas, Ingram and Ivory 372 total touches in 2011 and 348 in 2012. Last season, Thomas, Ingram and Khiry Robinson combined for 363.
|Carries and Receptions from Saints RBs Since 2011|
The clear divide in the touches stems from New Orleans' desire to run the football from under center while giving Sproles carefully devised snaps to get him in space. The Lions ran as much shotgun under former coordinator Scott Linehan as any offense in football, but that should change with Lombardi.
Bush certainly isn't an exact replica of Sproles. While the two have similar receiving chops, Bush is a much better runner between the tackles (he averaged 4.5 yards per carry last season). He can also handle a bigger rushing load than Sproles, who never carried more than 87 times in one season with the Saints and who doesn't have a single season with 100 or more carries in his career. Bush has carried over 200 times in three straight seasons.
However, it's easy to see how dynamic Bush is in space and why Lombardi might want to use him in a more Sproles-like role in 2014. And with over 1,500 NFL touches on his 29-year-old body, Bush could probably use the downtick in usage—especially between the tackles.
While the Bush-Sproles comparisons are easy to make, it's just as effortless to compare how similar Bell is to the workhorse backs that have hogged the touches for the Saints in recent years.
Since 2011, Thomas has averaged 528 rushing yards and roughly 55 catches per year. Those numbers line up closely to what Bell produced in his own role last season.
The two backs are similarly built at 5'11" and roughly 215 pounds, both are handfuls to get to the ground and both are accomplished receivers out of the backfield. Lombardi will have no problems fitting Bell into Thomas' role in the Saints offense.
However, the Lions don't have a solidified third and fourth option like in New Orleans. There's no Ingram, Ivory or Robinson lurking. So it's likely both Bell and Bush will have to take over those missing touches from the equation, with the ledger leaning towards Bell's workload.
And there's plenty of carries to be had.
Ingram has averaged 119 carries per season since entering the NFL in 2011. Ivory averaged 85 carries a year from 2010 to 2012. Robinson was given 54 carries last season.
Bush will be given some of those carries. But Bell is still the more likely candidate to eat up the touches that so routinely went to the bigger, tougher backs. Remember, Bush's career high for carries while with Lombardi in New Orleans was only 157, a number he may come closer to in 2014.
The Lions certainly paid Bell like a running back who was about to see more opportunities.
Detroit could have been content with Bell's restricted tender, which would have paid out almost $2.2 million for 2014. Instead, the Lions gave him a raise—in the form of a three-year deal worth $9.3 million—and added in $4.3 million in guaranteed money. Bush's four-year deal with Detroit, signed last spring, had just $4.0 million included.
If money talks, Bell is about to become the more important back in Detroit.
The most likely scenario for next season is one that sees Bell's carries jump, from the 166 he received in 2013 to 200 or more in 2014. Meanwhile, Bush's rushing attempts will likely take a hit, while his role in the passing game will almost certainly increase.
If the Lions can make it work as well as the Saints have in recent years, Detroit's new timeshare at running back will be a win-win.
Zach Kruse covers the NFC North for Bleacher Report.
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