Pasquarelli: Lions zero in on ground game

In a league increasingly reliant on the passing game, there have been some teams with less than stellar running attacks that still prospered. Yet the Detroit Lions are fully aware that they need some semblance of a ground game to reach that other level.

In a league increasingly reliant on the passing game, there have been some teams with less than stellar running attacks that still prospered.

Witness last year's New York Giants, who claimed a Super Bowl title despite finishing the regular season with the NFL's last-rated running game. Or Indianapolis, which won Super Bowl XLI with a 32nd-ranked running attack. Or New England, with just one top 10 rushing finish in its five most recent Super Bowl appearances.

But the Detroit Lions were historically deficient in 2011, with a running game that statistically was fourth worst in the NFL, and players, coaches and club executives all agree the team must improve in 2012 to progress in its resurgence. The Lions claimed their first postseason berth since 1999 -- ending an 11-year drought in which the franchise had just one winning season, averaged only 4.4 victories, and finished last in the division six times -- before exiting in the wild card round with a loss at New Orleans.

Coming of a 10-6 regular season, and with young and emerging stars like quarterback Matthew Stafford, wide receiver Calvin Johnson and defensive linemen Cliff Avril and Ndamukong Suh, the Lions appear poised for a long run. But perhaps only if Detroit can produce some long runs, short runs, or a running game, really, of any kind, moving forward.

"We have to be able to do what we want to do," guard Rob Sims said of an offense that rated fifth in the league in 2011, and scored the fourth most points in the NFL, but was lopsided toward the pass and rarely ran the ball with much effectiveness. "And that means running the ball better."

How bad was the Lions' running game last season? OK, Detroit wasn't statistically the worst team in the NFL, with Tampa Bay, Tennessee and the Giants all averaging fewer rushing yards per game. But the Lions were the first team since Philadelphia in 2000 to win 10 games despite not having a single back rush for 400 yards. Not since the Seattle Seahawks in 1984 has a franchise won 10 games without a runner who logged 100 carries. Since the league implemented the 16-game schedule in 1978, the Seahawks were the only other offense without a back who totaled 400 yards and also with no player registering 100 carries.

The Lions' leading rusher in 2011, both in terms of total yards and carries, was Jahvid Best who had 84 attempts for 390 yards, before going onto injured reserve with post-concussion symptoms.

Things have to get better this time around.

"The passing game is explosive, but we have to run better, too," acknowledged wide receiver Nate Burleson, who had a career-best 73 catches. "It's a given."

The Lions were one of only three teams in the league with three players who had 70 or more receptions, with tight end Brandon Pettigrew (83) joining Johnson (96) and Burleson (73) in one of the NFL's most lopsided attacks. But while Detroit rated No. 12 in yards per run (4.3), it registered the second fewest rushing attempts per game (22.2), had only nine touchdowns on the ground,

Said coach Jim Schwartz: "We have to get the tough yards."

Actually, the Lions have to get any kind of yards on the ground. Last year, Detroit had as many games (six) in which it gained fewer than 75 yards on the ground as it did outings with 100 or more ground yards. When it came to running the football, the Lions' emitted more a purr than a roar.

It isn't as if the Lions haven't tried to develop a running game. The team took Best in the first round in 2010, but injuries have limited the former California speedster to 22 appearances and 15 starts in his two seasons. Best, who played in just six games in 2011 because of the concussion issue, is said to be progressing, and has said he plans to make up for lost time in 2012. In 2011, Detroit snatched Mikel Leshore in the second round, thought to be the guy who would an inside complement to the speed of Best, but the former Illinois star tore his left Achilles in camp and never played a snap.

The Lions were forced to sign Kevin Smith in November, a former third-round pick they had essentially jettisoned earlier in the spring by not making him a qualifying offer, to rescue the running game. Smith performed admirably, starting four games, and rushing 72 times for 356 yards and four touchdowns, and Detroit will have him back in 2012. The Lions' brass, though, would prefer that Smith be a spare part, not the main cog, in their running game.

The offensive line, while aging at a few positions, was stabilized somewhat last season, after a 2010 season in which the unit was a revolving door. There certainly seems to be a commitment to running the ball better. And if Best and Leshoure can return healthy, there clearly is talent on hand.

"The pieces are in place, I think," Sims said. "We just have to do it."


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