O'HARA'S MONDAY COUNTDOWN: Upgrading the run game a priority

Posted Jan 8, 2018

This week’s Monday Countdown focuses mostly on the running game, with a look back at what Bob Quinn said last week and what it might mean for the future.

Tion Green might not be the solution for what it takes to put a pulse in the Detroit Lions’ dormant running game, but he showed enough in his rookie-season cameos that he might be part of the formula for improvement.

Green gave the offense a spark in the last five games after being inactive for the first 11. It started with his first carry as a pro – a 33-yard run against the Ravens in Week 13. In limited duty in the last five games, he wound up with 42 carries for 165 yards, two touchdowns and a 3.9-yard average per carry.

For Green, the future is  ... something.

“I don’t know how this stuff works,” Green said as he talked to reporters after the season ended. “Who’s going to be here? Who’s not going to be here?”

Both good questions by Green, who seems to have an uncommon awareness for a rookie of the uncertainties of pro football.

What is not a question, though, is that after hiring a new head coach one of general manager Bob Quinn’s priorities will be to upgrade the running game.

This week’s Monday Countdown focuses mostly on the Lions’ running game, with a look back at what Quinn said in his press conference last week and what it might mean for the future.

There’s also a look at what the running game means in this year’s playoff field, where the Lions rank with that group (there’s no surprising ending to this one), the importance of coaching and a look at how Tion Green broke in.

We start with Quinn:

1. Quinn’s quotes: Most questions asked of Quinn last week focused on the head coach position – why Jim Caldwell was fired, what Quinn is looking for in a replacement – but the running game got a lot of attention.

He didn’t leave anything out in his answers, including announcing that offensive line coach Ron Prince was the only assistant who had been released from his contract.

“We need to run the ball better, bottom line,” Quinn said. “We need to block better. We need to run better. We need to protect the ball better. We need to call better plays. I mean, you name it -- everything needs to get better.”

2. My take: The way Quinn spoke directly about the running game and the components that go into it – calling plays, among them – gave an insight into his management style and demands.

Everything is under scrutiny and review, and it’s all held to a high standard. It isn’t good enough to barely make the playoffs – or barely miss the playoffs, for that matter. And everything that goes into that effort matters.

Quinn and the personnel staff he assembled did not come to Detroit to be stewards and enjoy the ride that comes with guiding a pro football team.

Quinn took the Lions’ job to make decisions that are a part of leadership and set standards.

The running game is one of those areas that has new and higher standards.

3. Run to postseason: Of the 12 teams that made the playoffs, 11 ranked in the top 15 in rushing yards, and there was an obvious exception for the one team that was outside the top 15.

Six of the nine teams that had a 1,000-yard rusher made the playoffs. That included the top five rushers: 1. Kareem Hunt of the Chiefs; 2. Todd Gurley of the Rams; 3. Le’Veon Bell of the Steelers; 4. LeSean McCoy of the Bills; 5. Mark Ingram of the Saints.

Of the five, only the Bills did not win their division.

4. Lions rushing ranks: They were last in these key team categories: Yards per game (76.3) and per carry (3.4), total first downs (58) and percentage of carries for first downs (16.0).

It was not a one-season anomaly. It was a new low in a four-season downward progression of average yards per game that was not acceptable in any season -- 88.9, 83.4 and 81.9.

Individually, Ameer Abdullah’s team-high 552 yards ranked 36th in the league, and his 3.3-yard average per carry was 37th for players with at least 550 yards rushing.

5. Exception – Steelers: They ranked 20th in rushing as team, but in Bell they have one of the league’s best dual threat backs. He added 655 yards to his rushing total on 85 catches to rank second in yards from scrimmage with 1,946. Gurley was No. 1, with 2,901.

The bottom line: When the Steelers want to run the ball, they have a back who delivers as well as anybody.

6. A Patriot way: It would be futile to try to copy everything they do, but there’s a lesson in how they finished the 2017 season. The Patriots aren’t known for their running game, but when they choose to run they do it well. Their running game ranked 10th overall in 2017.

Dion Lewis and Brandon Bolden were their only two tailbacks active in a Week 17 matchup against the Jets that the Patriots needed to win to lock up home-field advantage throughout the playoffs.

On a day when the wind chill at Gillette Stadium was minus two degrees, the Patriots ran for 147 yards, passed for 195 (Tom Brady completed just 18 of 37 passes) and did not have a fumble or interception in a 26-6 victory.

7. Coach search, staff: Quinn said that whoever is hired as head coach will have the right to pick his staff. And that should be the case.

But it stands to reason that somewhere in the interview process the candidates will be asked about their plans for building their staff.

And many football people regard the offensive line coach as one of the most important assistants on the staff. It’s a critical hire. The offensive line is the heartbeat of most teams in terms of work ethic, temperament and setting a tone of toughness.

Again, the Patriots are an example of the importance of the offensive line coach.

Long-time Patriots assistant Dante Scarnecchia retired after the 2013 season. He had coached the offensive line the last 15 of his 33 seasons with the team.

The Patriots missed him. In 2013, the Patriots ranked ninth in the league in rushing. In 2014-15 without Scarnecchia, they dropped to 18th and 30th respectively.

He returned in 2016, and the Patriots were back to their high standard – seventh in 2016 and 10th in 2017.

8. RB, depth chart: As Quinn said, he expects to add to the running back group. That would be in the draft or free agency, or a combination of both. That doesn’t mean he’ll clean out the whole group, though.

Green brought some energy to the group when he finally was made active. He scored a touchdown in addition to the 33-yard run on his first carry.

On get-away day, Green talked about what it was like to finally get his first carry as a pro.

“I remember seeing the offensive linemen’s faces,” he said. “T.J. (Lang) was telling me, 'Be our spark. You’re our spark.'

“You couldn’t start off a better first game – getting the ball and running.”