Lions taking a pass on running game

Eric Goska
For Press-Gazette Media
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Detroit Lions running back Ameer Abdullah runs for yardage against the Chicago Bears during the first half of their Oct. 18 game in Detroit.

The Lions could use Barry Sanders.

Sanders, Detroit’s all-time leading rusher, last played in 1998. Now 47, the Hall of Famer still might be a viable option for reviving a running game that often has languished in the years since his departure.

Sanders’ absence is most noticeable when Detroit (1-7) struggles to run. And the Lions, the Packers’ opponent Sunday, have been limping along since early September.

Detroit is a reluctant runner. Its reticence stems from a lack of production, a lack of confidence and too much time spent playing catch-up.

The Lions’ 150 rushing attempts are the fewest in the league, 18 behind the second-place Dolphins. Their output of 557 yards is barely half that of the top teams.

They labor to move the chains. With 22 first downs rushing, they are on pace to break the record for fewest in a 16-game season.

That’s a record (53) few would want. It’s a record owned by the Lions of 2006.

In 1994, Sanders gained 1,883 yards rushing. Three years later, he piled up 2,053.

In 16 seasons A.B. (after Barry), Detroit has yet to break 1,800 yards. Ten times it failed to average even 100 yards a game.

Detroit never has ranked higher than 16th in rushing yards A.B. Even when its offense cracked the top 10 (5th-2011; 3rd-2012; 6th-2013), its running game never rose above 17th place.

The Lions have the fewest rushing attempts (5,875) this century. Every other team has at least 6,000, including the Texans, who didn’t begin play until 2002.

Ameer Abdullah (225 yards) and Joique Bell (99) lead the charge this season. Bell, who has battled an ankle injury, has four starts. Abdullah, a rookie, has three.

Abdullah has led the team in rushing yards five times with a personal best of 50 yards. Bell’s 56 yards against the Chiefs in a dismal 45-10 loss are the most by a Lion this season.

Only once has Detroit gained more than 85 yards rushing or run more than 20 times. It accumulated 155 yards on 32 trips in its only win, that a 37-34 overtime triumph against the Bears.

The Lions have produced 12 runs of 10 or more yards, the fewest in the league. On the flip side, they have 19 runs that lost yardage.

Detroit never has run more than three times in succession in any game this season. Almost half (71) of their rushing attempts have been solo shots not followed by another run.

Of course running the ball tends to become less of an option when playing from behind. The Lions have spent much time in arrears.

Detroit, which has been on the short end of the score at some point in all eight games, has played from behind an average of 33 minutes, 40.75 seconds per game. It never led in losses to Minnesota, Denver or Seattle.

Second halves have been worse. The Lions have been behind an average 24:20 in the third and fourth quarters combined, and they trailed the entire 30 minutes against the Vikings, Broncos, Seahawks, Cardinals and Chiefs.

Not surprisingly, there is a clear difference between the team’s rushing by halves. The Lions have gained 356 yards on 87 carries (4.1 average) in the first half. They have 198 yards on 58 attempts (3.4) in the third and fourth quarters combined.

The vast majority (18 of 22) of the team’s rushing first downs were earned before halftime. They have yet to manufacture one in the third quarter.

Clearly, this is a big cat that doesn’t hunt. It has little bounce in its pounce.

If the second half of the season unfolds as the first, Detroit will become the first team in NFL history to run on fewer than 30 percent of its offensive plays. Its rate of 29.35 percent (150-511) is less than the all-time low of 31.35 percent (321-1,024) of the 2013 Falcons.

Extra point

The Lions like to pass. They have strung together seven or more passing plays 13 times this season. In a 42-17 loss to the Cardinals, they closed with 38 consecutive pass plays without so much as even one scramble by quarterback Matthew Stafford.

Regular-season series

Overall: Green Bay leads 95-67-7.

At Lambeau Field: Packers lead 31-10-3.

Starting QBs

Packers: Aaron Rodgers (76-35 overall; 10-2 vs. Detroit).

Lions: Matthew Stafford (36-49; 2-7 vs. Green Bay).

Eric Goska is a Packers historian. Email him at

Low down on first down

Teams that produced fewer than 60 first downs rushing over the course of a 16-game season.

No. Team Record

44* 2015 Lions 1-7

53 2006 Lions 3-13

54 2000 Browns 3-13

55 1991 Colts 1-15

56 2014 Raiders 3-13

58 2005 Cardinals 5-11

58 2012 Cardinals 5-11

59 2002 Texans 4-12

* — Based on the 22 rushing first downs the Lions have through eight games.

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