There’s a choice to make when pinpointing the moment Ameer Abdullah ditched his training camp hype train Thursday night and instead strapped himself to a hype rocket that blasted into orbit.
The obvious turning point seems like his 45-yard, first-quarter run against the New York Jets in which Abdullah removed several defenders from their undergarments by accelerating out of his cuts with impressive burst. That’s how he collected most of his 67 rushing yards on seven carries.
But the moment when Abdullah went from hyped to feared rookie came after his preseason debut. If he can prompt an opposing head coach to put his name in the same sentence as one of the best running backs ever, the 22-year-old second-round pick just might have a future in football.
Abdullah did just that, as Jets head coach Todd Bowles had this to say, via ESPN's Adam Schefter:
Abdullah’s lateral movement hasn’t exactly been a tight-lipped training camp secret. Lions defensive coordinator Teryl Austin told Dave Birkett of the Detroit Free Press that trying to tackle Abdullah is like “grasping at air.”
His college opponents were quite familiar with getting handfuls of air after the former Nebraska Cornhusker posted two straight 1,600-plus-yard rushing seasons in 2013 and 2014, averaging 6.1 yards per carry during that time.
But both training camp chatter and college success ultimately mean little. If Abdullah is to finally be the answer at running back Detroit has been searching for while finding only heartbreak and disappointment, he needs to show his skill set translates to the next level.
And, more importantly, when we take the long view, Abdullah needs to demonstrate against live NFL competition that he can give his Lions offense what it so desperately craves: balance.
There are no grand, sweeping conclusions to be made based on a handful of snaps and carries. What we do have, however, is a strong, table-pounding statement. Abdullah can be a difference-making talent for a team that sorely needs one at his position and for an offense already loaded with the tandem of Calvin Johnson and Golden Tate at wide receiver.
As his own head coach, Jim Caldwell, said, he’s been blessed with a golden touch from high above, per DetroitLions.com's Tim Twentyman:
Abdullah received all the first-team work Thursday, with Joique Bell sitting due to leg injuries that have kept him sidelined for much of training camp. Once Bell is healthy (the intensity of his workouts recently increased, per Birkett) a backfield time-share will likely develop at first.
However, that may only be a cautious initial approach. Abdullah could soon leave Caldwell little choice but to give an explosive offensive weapon more opportunities to do his exploding.
When that time comes, the move to increase Abdullah’s carry diet is one Caldwell will gladly make. The Lions are a pass-heavy team, even by the high bar set during an era when being pass-centric is pretty fashionable. Focusing on that area of your offense happens naturally when a guy who very much justifies his Megatron moniker is on your team.
Still, on a fundamental level, offensive success is rooted in mental deception and minimizing how often a defense can anticipate what’s coming next. Because when a rushing offense is either ignored or severely lacking, over time defenses can concentrate solely on shutting down an aerial attack.
And it’s been years since the Lions fooled defenses even a little bit, as shown below:
|Detroit Lions year-by-year pass vs. run|
|Year||Pass attempts||Run attempts|
|2014||604 (11th)||396 (25th)|
|2013||634 (5th)||445 (14th)|
|2012||740 (1st)||391 (25th)|
|2011||666 (1st)||356 (31st)|
The 2013 season is an outlier there, and even then Detroit finished with nearly 200 more pass attempts than carries. During the other three recent seasons, it ranked 25th or worse in run attempts, and quarterback Matthew Stafford twice led the league in throws.
The quest for some semblance of offensive balance has been derailed by multiple early draft picks at running back who gave Detroit only disappointment.
In 2011, the Lions used a second-round pick on Mikel Leshoure, and he accumulated all of 807 rushing yards over three seasons before the team cut him at the end of training camp in 2014.
Then there was Jahvid Best, whom the Lions deemed worthy of a first-round investment in 2010. During his second campaign, he averaged 4.6 yards per carry before his career ended far too soon because of concussion problems.
Abdullah is the latest attempt at a solution, and he’s uniquely gifted. For evidence, we can return to that home run play against the Jets. It started with one swift, decisive cut.
On the first play of the Lions’ second drive Abdullah (No. 21) took a handoff and ran right. The play was a counter-run intended to flow off-tackle in that direction. But immediately a problem halted the rookie. Lions right tackle Cornelius Lucas wasn’t able to advance into the second level and seal the edge with a block on Jets linebacker Demario Davis.
When the play is frozen at that moment, even the most creative imaginations struggle to see any scenario where it ends 45 yards later. Abdullah is four yards deep in his own backfield, and he’s already been forced to change his path abruptly then try to accelerate again as defenders swarm.
But really, those developments didn't stop Abdullah’s momentum at all. He channeled it in a different direction after planting with his right foot.
At that point he could power forward instead of continuing to his right as Davis expected.
Abdullah did run forward, and remarkably he more than maintained his speed. He accelerated and seemed faster after his cut than before.
Davis, meanwhile, was completely baffled while left to pirouette as Abdullah whizzed past him.
That massive chunk gain has generated a lot of drooling, and rightfully so. Abdullah’s ability to create missed tackles while darting sideways can turn even a pedestrian four-yard run into highlight-worthy material.
The evidence: a four-yard play earlier in the first quarter Thursday when Abdullah likely would have been held to no gain had he been stopped here…
Instead another would-be tackler experienced the same sinking sensation Austin described. It seems that, yes, trying to make contact with Abdullah really is like chasing air.
The Lions averaged a lowly 3.6 yards per carry in 2014. It was a season when Bell led the team in rushing attempts (223), and he contributed little, with his individual per-carry average finishing at 3.9 yards.
Passing is something the Lions do well, and that won’t change even if Stafford keeps making bad decisions. The 6'5", 236-pound Johnson will remain an imposing physical presence deep, Tate can churn out yardage after the catch, and Bell is an effective pass-catcher out of the backfield. Tight end Eric Ebron is expected to mature as a reliable option up the middle, too.
The supply of weaponry for Stafford to work with is deep, with the exception of one core area.
The rushing offense needs to finally provide balance to a unit that’s been tilted in one direction and largely predictable. The Lions can still be pass-focused, but they can do it while forcing defenses to stay honest and to account for a running back who sends tacklers tumbling.
Abdullah can be the missing piece.