The State of the Running Game: Week 3

I went back and watched this game and actually enjoyed it. You may think that makes me a masochist. Armchair Linebacker would agree with you. I would quote his article, but I don’t think there’s a single line in it not laced with profanity. But there’s no doubt that on Sunday, this game was tough to watch. The whole game was a mixture of that sort of queasy anxiety you get at the dentist’s office with plenty of those Punk’d moments of “This isn’t actually happening, is it?” I was yelling at my computer screen (and anyone that would listen via twitter) for 3 hours. And then I turned it off down 41-27 after our backup quarterback threw an interception in the endzone with 21 seconds left. What can I say? I didn’t just think it was over. I was certain it was. A few minutes later I saw 41-41 on the CBS score ticker and fell out of my chair. Shortly after that, I was back to depression.

But yesterday I watched the game again. I had to see for myself how Shaun Hill (go UMD!) led the Lions to two touchdowns in 18 seconds after throwing what I thought was the game ending interception (By the way, if this can happen, so can a fumbled snap in kneel down formation, fellas). And I had to figure out why the hell Linehan thought the Lions could run the ball. When was the last time that happened? And I had to see what allowed a cornerback to tear a completed pass out of Pettigrew’s arms and bring it all the way back. I had to see the Music City Miracle: Part II (This time with holding!). Forget that wildcard game freak trick play. This was a game of miracles. If this football game was a movie, everyone would have said, “Okay, we get it. Big plays are fun to watch. Just tell us who wins.”

But when I watched the game again, I saw something that really surprised me. What I saw was a consistent, methodical offense. And a capable running game. Like, not just adequate, but at times good. I mean, they were getting good running looks—they rushed against an average 6.13 men in the box per rushing play. Overall, Mikel Leshoure and Joique Bell combined to rush for 3.97 yards per carry. Let’s break that down. On 1st down, they ran for an average of 4.36 yards per carry, considerably better than what they did last week. On 2nd down, they rushed for 4.2 ypc, also much better than last week. And they also got rushing first downs (!), my biggest concern with their running performance last week. They rushed for 10 first downs (excluding a Stafford scramble). That’s one first down per 3.1 carries. Every one of their first down carries came on 2nd down, keeping them out of do-or-die situations. That means that out of 15 2nd down carries, they converted the first down 66.6% of the time. That’s quite efficient if I do say so myself. Their average distance to the sticks when they rushed the ball on 2nd down was 4.4 yards. So their 4.2 ypc with an average 4.4 yards to go for a first means they were at least getting to 3rd and short, if not converting. The average distance on the 2nd downs that they did successfully convert into 1st downs was 3.3 yards. However, you’ll notice there is one thing I’m missing: third downs.

On Sunday, the Lions took 96 offensive snaps. Of those 96 plays, they only faced 12 3rd downs. The problem with those 3rd downs was that their average distance was 5.25 yards. This is similar to what we saw last week. Still not getting into 3rd and short. 3rd and short is important, not because it helps the passing game so significantly, but because it gives you the option to run for the first down. It keeps the defense honest and opens things up. However, because they were being forced into 3rd and long, the Lions only ran the ball twice on 3rd down (both from 3rd and 2), but converted neither of those. The first came in the 2nd quarter with the Lions down by 8 on the Tennessee 14 yard line. Here’s a schematic of the play:

This run is supposed to go between the left tackle and left guard. On the play, Backus and Pettigrew seal their guys to the outside. The left DT is supposed to be chipped by Sims while Raiola comes around to seal him off to the right, at which point Sims moves to the 2nd level and takes out a linebacker. A similar thing is going on with Peterman and Cherilus. Peterman gets a chip and then heads to the 2nd level.

The problems with this play come from the chips. Peterman had the bigger problem: he didn’t actually chip the guy. He more or less just slipped past him to go to the 2nd level. By the time Cherilus went to punch, he was swinging at thin air. As you can see, that DT crashed to the inside to disrupt the play before it really even got started. The other problem is with Sims at the 2nd level. He took too long on the chip, so the linebacker he was looking to block just kind of went around him instead. Still, I think if only one of these two mistakes happen, Leshoure can either outrun the DT to the lane or cut back behind sims to get the first down. As it was, it resulted in a 1 yard loss. Clearly, Cherilus was upset by Peterman’s performance there.

What the hell, Peterman?

On the second 3rd down run, it was less about execution and more about poor play design.

This play starts out looking just like some of the Lions’ most successful runs. They pull Sims from left guard into the hole between the right guard and right tackle and he puts a big block on someone to spring the running back free. On this particular play, Linehan decided to get cute. Instead of doing that run that was successful all game (4.5 ypc in 6 tries), they decided to fake a handoff to the right and pitch the ball to Leshoure on the counter to the left. Instead of Backus sealing off the left DE, he goes to the 2nd level to seal the linebacker to the inside. Sims still pulls and pretty much doesn’t have to do anything because the play goes to the opposite side of the field. Raiola does a nice little move to the effect of, “My goodness how you’ve evaded my block!…oh wait, I’m sealing you to the right.” Since the left DE is left unblocked, he’s supposed to bite on the fake and get exposed for being over-committed. I can imagine a scenario where they try this in practice and Linehan loves it because KVB bites on these fakes so hard that he always looks like a fool (KVB is quickly becoming my least favorite defensive player. And yes, I’ve seen the safeties). All the execution here is fine. The problem is that the other team doesn’t have Kyle Vanden Bosch (any more) to bite on the fake. Instead, the DE holds his ground pretty well and chases Leshoure to the outside, forcing him wide. Leshoure actually uses a nice little fake cutback to the inside to freeze the defender and get past him.

I’m not sure if Titus is intentionally blocking the defender to the outside (I assume this is the case) or if the corner just fights through the block, but either way, the cornerback is able to force Leshoure to the sideline and out of bounds for no gain.

Still, removing these two hiccups, Leshoure and Bell ran for 4.28 ypc in what was a largely successful day running the ball. A lot of Lions fans asked for a running game over the summer, thinking offensive balance would be the holy grail to NFL domination. Last week, I was among the most vocal about why running the ball was idiotic. But seeing what I’ve seen from this game against the Titans, I’ll now welcome any carries they decide to give Leshoure. He’s only going to get better from here. And now that the Lions have a running game, don’t be surprised if they decide to go ahead and use it.

 

Follow me on Twitter @NateWashuta

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