MIKE O'HARA

O'Hara: Leshoure prepares for his long-awaited NFL debut

Posted Sep 21, 2012

Leshoure has been mostly an intriguing mystery man since the Lions drafted him in the second round in 2011.

Mikel Leshoure has never carried the football in a regular season game, but he has something in common with Chris Johnson, once one of the NFL’s brightest stars but now in decline.

They are running backs who come from different places at this point in their careers, but they can help their teams in Sunday’s game between the Lions and Titans at LP Field in Nashville.

The Lions and Titans both could use a spark in the backfield.

Leshoure has been mostly an intriguing mystery man since the Lions drafted him in the second round in 2011.

He missed all of his rookie season because of a torn Achilles and was suspended for the first two games of this season because of a violation of the NFL’s policy on substance abuse.

What the Lions have seen from Leshoure in offseason workouts, practice and two preseason games this year has brought an air of excitement about finally seeing Leshoure in a real game.

“He’s a big back, hard to take down,” said Calvin Johnson. “We saw that in the preseason games. He brings a lot of excitement, not just to the offense but to the team.”

Leshoure isn’t sure about his role Sunday. Kevin Smith started the first two games.

Leshoure feels the excitement. It’s been a long wait for him.

“I’m pretty amped,” he said. “I’m excited - everything I dreamed of, being in the NFL almost two years now. It’s going to be my first game. I’m ready to roll.

“I don’t think I’ll be too amped to the point where I’m losing focus or I’m too excited and forget something. I’m just level excited. I know what I need to do. I’m prepared. I just need to go out there and play.”

Johnson has a proven record. He rushed for 2,006 yards in 2009, his second pro season, but has not come close to that total again. He went over the 1,000-yard rushing mark in his first four seasons but barely made it last year with 1,047 yards. In five games he gained less than 25 yards.

Johnson has had a ghastly start this year, with 21 yards on 19 carries in losses to the Patriots and Chargers.

Middle linebacker Stephen Tulloch has a perspective on what it means to have a runner who can make plays on his own. Tulloch spent his first five NFL seasons with the Titans and was a teammate of Johnson’s for three seasons.

Johnson has blazing speed. At the NFL Combine in 2008, Johnson was timed in 4.24 seconds in the 40-yard dash. It’s the fastest 40-time ever.

Don’t be fooled by Johnson’s slow start. He can go the distance on any play.

“You have to stay in your lane,” Tulloch said. “You can't over-pursue, especially against a guy like CJ. I’ve seen him play for many years.”

Tulloch likes what he sees from Leshoure in practice, but the proof is on the playing field.

“I’m looking forward to seeing him play,” Tulloch said. “I know he’s ready. We can definitely use him.”

It is too early in the season for a team to be in crisis mode, but the Lions and Titans have hit a bump in the road. The bump is considerably bigger for the Titans. They’re 0-2, and their offense ranks last in the NFL in points score with 23.

The Lions weren’t nearly at their best in last week’s 27-19 loss at San Francisco that made their record 1-1. Untimely penalties, a passing game that misfired too often and an inability to stop the 49ers late in the game on third-down passing situations cost them.

The Lions’ running game was decent against the 49ers, netting 82 yards on 26 carries, but there were no breakout runs by Smith or Joique Bell, who shared time at tailback.

Smith’s longest gain in 16 attempts was nine yards. Bell ran six times with a long gain of four yards.

A runner has to break tackles and get yards on his own for a running game to have a consistent threat.

“Every running back has to make some plays,” said offensive coordinator Scott Linehan. ”The biggest thing is, there’s always going to be a ‘free-hitter,’ we call it. That back is going to have to make that happen.

“The backs that are successful week-in, week-out, are going to make two or three plays that are on his own, whether it’s making a guy miss in the hole, or coming out of an arm tackle.

“Things like that - that’s what you’re looking for in the backs.”