The biggest preseason issue for the Lions has been the running game. After firing pass-happy offensive coordinator Mike Martz, the Lions committed to the run this season.
It is the heart of their team approach -- from opening up the field for wide receivers Calvin Johnson and Roy Williams, to keeping the pass rush away from quarterback Jon Kitna, to controlling the clock and keeping the defense off the field.
It has been a work in progress. The Lions have pounded the run in practice, but they struggled to run in their first three exhibitions -- and although progress is evident (they've improved they're YPC by a yard in each win), the team is far from content.
"Solid. It's got to get better," said head coach Rod Marinelli. "It's got to be more consistent. We had a couple that broke, which is good. What I want is a punishment. I want to punish the defense. And I want to take their legs out of them so they can't rush. And that's what I'm trying to do. Will we run for 2,000 yards? I don't know. But I want to be physical. I want to make a physical statement with that front, and we have to keep punishing the ball up inside. And then they'll defend it. Then we have a chance to use the big guys outside."
When running back Kevin Smith finally broke free and ran for a 35-yard touchdown in the third exhibition game against Cleveland, the rookie celebrated his first NFL score by just sitting on his knees in the end zone.
In the game, Smith, the expected starter, had two carries for 45 yards and a touchdown, but also eight carries for zero yards.
"It's a sigh of relief, especially with me, because I take pride in it," Smith said. "So when I'm out there gaining zero yards or one yard, it doesn't matter whose fault it is, because it feels like my fault. It doesn't matter if seven guys were free to hit me. It still feels like there was something I could have done. It does feel good when you get in there."
Smith has 86 yards on 22 carries in the preseason. Veteran Tatum Bell has only 26 yards on 16 carries.
The Lions point out that they have installed a new zone-blocking scheme, a zone-blocking scheme requires chemistry, and chemistry requires rep after rep after rep.
Kitna, a 12-year veteran, said his experience has shown teams installing new running systems take off after their bye weeks. The Lions' bye week falls after their third game this year.
"It's going to take some time," Kitna said. "It will. You can't just change your whole philosophy on how you run it and expect it to just click overnight."
The Lions also caution that you can't get a read on the running game in the regular season because the starters come out so quickly. They don't get a real chance to get into rhythm, and they don't get a chance to wear down the defense.
"That's how the running game is," Kitna said. "A lot of times, it's two, it's three, it's negative-two, it's nothing, and then all of a sudden, that big one hits.
"The running game is like that boxing match where a guy keeps hitting somebody in the body. It doesn't really look like much early. But later on, they just get tired of getting hit in the body, and then they let their guard down."
That said, there is a sense of urgency.
"It's got to get better," coach Rod Marinelli said. "It's got to be more consistent. We had a couple that broke, which is good. But what I want is a punishment.
"I want to punish a defense. I want to take their legs out of them so they can't rush. That's what I'm trying to do. Will we run for 2,000 yards? I don't know. But I want to be physical."
"It's frustrating for us as much as anybody to not see it go quicker, to not see more big plays run off," center Dominic Raiola said. "I'm anxious for the regular season to start, and we'll see what happens."
Quarterback Jon Kitna doesn't think he and wide receivers Roy Williams and Calvin Johnson need to knock off any more rust in the Lions' exhibition finale. "I don't think there's any rust," Kitna said with a laugh. "I think that we've proven that there's no rust. I don't think we need more reps." Through three games, Kitna is 18-for-21 for 280 yards and two touchdowns -- with no sacks, no interceptions and a passer rating of 150.5. Williams has five catches for 87 yards and a touchdown. Johnson has nine for 170 and a TD. "We have some pretty good receivers," Kitna said. "When we get protection, those receivers are not going to lose very often. I think we've proven that over the past couple years."
Individual Player Notes: