The Lions Running Game: Success and Lack Thereof

>> 11.18.2011

First: for those of you who don’t typically check out my Bleacher Report stuff, you should probably look at today’s Matthew Stafford film breakdown. I took a good look at Stafford’s pocket presence, footwork, and mechanics against the Bears.

Okay, now. A few weeks ago I discussed the Lions success running the football on first and second down. Several of you had been asking for me to update the piece in the aftermath of the Broncos game, but Chase Stuart of Smart Football went and did a leaguewide rushing success analysis.

This is pretty much brilliant, and exactly what I’d planned to do for the Lions. Just as with Pro Football Focus, though, I am happy to stand on the shoulders of giants (or even metaphorically tall regular folks who put in the time and effort that I can’t).

First, Stuart broke it down by individual runner. He sorted the table by total number of successful runs—but since the Lions don’t run nearly as often as other teams, I knew that would skew things. I re-sorted the table by success rate, and here’s what I got:

  Name Tm Car Succ Succ% RshYd YPC
1 Danny Ware NYG 28 18 0.64 91 3.3
2 Jacquizz Rodgers ATL 32 20 0.63 137 4.3
3 DeMarco Murray DAL 97 59 0.61 646 6.7
4 Peyton Hillis CLE 59 35 0.59 216 3.7
5 Derrick Ward HOU 29 17 0.59 88 3
61 Jahvid Best DET 82 34 0.41 388 4.7
62 Maurice Morris DET 41 17 0.41 172 4.2
63 Chris Johnson TEN 146 59 0.4 496 3.4
64 Montario Hardesty CLE 75 29 0.39 245 3.3
65 Deji Karim JAX 54 20 0.37 131 2.4
66 Thomas Jones KAN 67 24 0.36 199 3
67 Javon Ringer TEN 44 16 0.36 147 3.3

Okay, that’s the top five, and bottom seven, rushers by success rate. The first thing you’ll notice is that the Lions’ primary runners to date have identical success rates, despite big disparities in carries, yards, and yards-per-carry. In the Smart Football piece, Stuart singled out Jahvid Best as an example of a runner with deceptively high yards-per-carry: he has the numbers of a back who’s been highly successful when he hasn’t been.

However, he correctly notes that the Lions’ run blocking is atrocious. That Maurice Morris—a different back with different skill sets—has the exact same success rate indicates that the problem isn’t the Lions running backs, it’s the Lions’ running game.

You see the same issue with Tennessee: Chris Johnson and Javon Ringer are almost identically terrible, despite being different runners with different tools. What proves the rule, though, is Cleveland’s backs: Peyton Hills is the 4th-most-successful back, getting the job done 63% of the time with just 3.7 YpC—and his running mate Montario Hardesty is only successful 39% of the time, with 3.3 YpC.

Stuart helpfully included the table of team rushing success, and this time he broke it down by rate as well. Atop the list were New Orleans, Buffalo, and New England, with success rates in the mid-50s. At the bottom? Detroit and Tennessee, with success rates of 40.7% and 39.6%, respectively.

So the Lions aren’t moving the chains on the ground. Worse yet, without Best there’s no threat of the home run, either. Opposing defenses can key on the pass—and that’s putting an awful lot of pressure on Matthew Stafford, the receivers, and the pass protection. They’re talented enough to overcome that pressure, but they have to bring their A game against every non-pushover foe.

I'm thrilled that Stuart included the defensive rushing success rate, as well, because it's an entirely different story: the Lions have the 4th-most successful rushing defense in the NFL. When considering down and distance, the Lions are allowing only 42.2% of carries to succeed. Seattle, San Francisco, and Atlanta are ahead of them with 39.5%, 41.4%, and 41.5% respectively.

The Lions have allowed 944 yards, far more than either of those three teams (771, 516, 676) at a far higher per-carry rate, 4.7 YpC (3.5, 3.3, 3.8). Considering that Stuart eliminated all third- and fourth-and-long carries (so tailbacks wouldn’t be punished for calling the Incredibly Surprising Draw on 3rd-and-forever), this is really impressive stuff. Though the Lions run defense is giving up the occasional long gainer, they’re otherwise completely shutting opponents down—mostly without help from the defensive line.


Michael Bodalski,  November 18, 2011 at 1:01 PM  

Is there a way to subscribe to just your posts at BR? I follow the Lions articles over there, but the I'm not crazy about the signal-to-noise ratio over there and so I only occasionally skim the feed.

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