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2010 Season Breakdown: Running Backs

The Detroit Lions were synonymous with running backs for the better part of the 80’s and the 90’s with the electric Billy Sims and Barry Sanders ripping through defenses.  The Lions were so good at running the ball that even though everybody knew that was their bread and butter, nobody could stop the Lions.  Since that fateful August morning when Barry hung up the cleats the Lions have not fared very well on the ground. 

                                             Detroit Lions Rushing Ranking
1999: 28th 2002: 29th 2005: 26th 2008: 30th
2000: 20th 2003: 32nd 2006: 32nd 2009: 24th
2001: 28th 2004: 19th 2007: 31st 2010: 23rd

The Lions’ running game has been plagued by a lack of talent, or a lack of health when they did have a talented rusher.  James Stewart, Kevin Jones and Kevin Smith have all had 1,000 total yard seasons and all three had season ending injuries, the two Kevins have had multiple season ending injuries.

2010 was more of the same as Jahvid Best struggled with twin turf toes for 14 games, Kevin Smith ended up on injured reserve and the Lions finished in the bottom third of the league in rushing.  However, the rebuilt offensive line started to gel and 3rd stringer Maurice Morris put together a strong month running the ball over the Lions’ four game win streak.

Jahvid Best:  With all due respect to Adrian Peterson, Jahvid Best is the most explosive running back in the division.  In the two games Jahvid Best played at 100% he totaled 268 yards from scrimmage and 5 touchdowns.  Best brings a new dimension to the Lions’ backfield as he is a dual threat player that is lethal in the open field.  Turf toes are an incredibly frustrating injury for a running back because it robs them of their speed, cutting ability and burst but they are not too injured sit out.  Watching the tape of the first two weeks, versus the remaining 13 games he played, there is a distinct difference in Best’s game.  I never like comparing anybody to Barry Sanders as a whole, but Best’s vision and open field moves are as good as I’ve seen since Barry.  Watch Best’s highlights from the Eagles game and you see his ability to set up his blockers, read the defense and explode once everything falls into place.  That is a rare combination to have in a back.  The downside to Best is he is not a polished inside runner and he lacks patience sometimes.  Best needs to watch film of Maurice Morris to see how Morris bursts into the hole and keeps his legs driving.  Best frequently started to shuffle his feet in the hole trying to set up a big run or bounce it outside which he can’t do on every play in the NFL.  If Best can just hit the hole with authority he will set himself up for huge gains because defenses won’t have the time to react when he hits the second level.  When he stutter steps in the hole the linebackers and defensive backs get an extra split second to flow to the ball creating a congested running lane.  Best will have plenty of time to rest his injuries and add a little bulk for the 2011 season and hopefully he hits the film room with Maurice.  2011 Outlook:Best will be the lead back and will probably see 60% of the carries.  Best will also continue to be deployed in a Brian Westbrook/LeSean McCoy type role with 12-15 carries and 5-8 catches to give him opportunities in the open field.

Kevin Smith: I really like Kevin Smith as a solid second back in the Lions’ backfield.  Smith didn’t get a real opportunity to play that role as he spent the first part of the season recovering from his knee surgery and then finished the year on IR with a major thumb injury.  Smith’s value was apparent in the Washington game when he ground out tough yards between the tackles, caught a pair of passes out of the backfield and had a couple huge blitz pickups.  Smith does everything well and he has a great competitive spirit and drive that rubs off on the other players.  I always viewed Smith as a poor man’s Marion Barber, he lacks the power of Barber, but he always fights for that extra yard and is a great blocker and receiver.  It takes two years to fully recover from the knee injury Smith suffered in 2009, so he should be 100% heading into 2011.  2011 Outlook: Smith will probably see about 35% of the touches and he’ll probably see some time in the backfield with Best.  The Lions really couldn’t count on Smith as he recovered from his knee so they used him in a different role in 2010.  I expect him to play a strong role as the 1b running back to Best’s 1a.

Maurice Morris: I can’t say enough about Maurice Morris’ value to the team.  He is a valuable team first player, a savvy vet, a strong on field contributor and a great mentor for the younger backs.  Morris gladly accepted a role on special teams, which you don’t always see out of a 9 year vet.  Morris shined as the starting back when Kevin Smith went down and Best couldn’t carry the load due to injuries.  Morris runs hard and hits the hole fast, but he’s not much of a creator.  If the running lanes are clogged he doesn’t have the size and power to barrel through or the speed and burst to bounce outside and rip off a 40 yard run.  When the offensive line struggled against the Dolphins and the Vikings, Morris was really limited without room to run.  2011 Outlook: Morris is the type of guy that a coach wants in the locker room.  He is humble, works hard and puts the team first.  He’s also the type of player a coach wants on the field as he is always prepared and makes very few mental mistakes.  Morris should be back to reprise his veteran role and will probably get a few change of pace carries here and there.  He is a great insurance policy in case Smith or Best get dinged up as well.

Aaron Brown: Aaron Brown has blazing speed and a lot of physical ability, but he also has assignment mistakes and an inability to display his talents in the regular season.  Many will say he had limited opportunities with only 25 touches this season.  However, with the injury issues the Lions had in the backfield it’s a damning statement that he couldn’t garner more playing time.  2011 Outlook: Brown had two great preseasons in the last two years but really couldn’t take advantage of the opportunities he got in the regular season.  He relies on his speed too much and isn’t sure in his assignments which is a bad combination.  Brown will have one more offseason and training camp to take that next step and earn the coaching staff’s trust, but I think he faces an uphill battle.

Jerome Felton:Felton isn’t a true fullback, he’s more of a halfback/fullback hybrid.  Felton took some big strides in his blocking in 2010 and while he will never remind anybody of Cory Schlesinger, he is a serviceable blocker.  Felton is also a decent change of pace back but he needs to use his size to his advantage and attack the hole rather than tiptoe in.  Felton did well with his limited carries, but like Brown, if he couldn’t earn more carries with the injuries the Lions suffered, that is not a good sign.  His fumble against Dallas really turned the tide in that game and his struggles in short yardage work against him.  2011 Outlook: Felton was drafted as a fullback, but he did very little blocking in college.  He had improved each season which is a promising sign and he is a solid special teamer.  Felton may see some competition in camp, but the Lions like his versatility, he just needs to do everything a little better.

2011 Offseason: I don’t view the backfield as a high priority in the offseason, but I do expect the Lions to bring in a fullback and halfback to compete with Brown and Felton.  The Lions could look at a veteran fullback or a undrafted free agent, while they may spend a late round pick on a halfback.  Running backs can be found anywhere as Arian Foster showed this year, so the Lions could end up upgrading with a minimal investment.  The top of the depth chart is as strong as it’s been in years, they just need to build a little depth.

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One Response to “2010 Season Breakdown: Running Backs”

  1. Kim Kardashian says:

    You’re a dork.

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