With the status of starting running back Kerryon Johnson (knee) in doubt for Thursday’s game against Chicago, the Lions could find themselves in a situation where they’ll have to rely on LeGarrette Blount, Theo Riddick or Zach Zenner – or all three – to help keep their run game on schedule vs. Chicago’s No. 1 ranked rushing defense (77.8).
Johnson has brought the threat of a run game to the Lions' offense this season. He has 641 yards rushing (5.4 average) and three touchdowns through 10 games, including two 100-yard performances.
Zenner is the interesting name among that group to watch for Thursday. Blount and Riddick combined for just one yard on eight carries vs. Carolina last week. On the season, Riddick is averaging 3.3 yards per carry and Blount 3.0.
The Lions brought Zenner back earlier this month after releasing him in August with an injury settlement because of a back injury he suffered in the preseason. Zenner’s come back much stronger, and that’s allowed him to hit the ground running. He said Tuesday he’s ready for any role the Lions might have planned for him on offense.
“First, no matter what it means for me, it’s always disappointing to see a teammate get injured no matter what the situation is,” Zenner said. “Hopefully he’ll be back and ready to go, but if not, I’ll be ready to do whatever I’m asked of.”
Zenner has averaged 3.6 yards per carry over a 30-game career with the Lions, but in the last three games where he’s carried the ball 10 or more times, he’s averaging 4.2 yards per carry.
He isn’t as flashy a runner as Johnson, and he doesn’t bust off a lot of big runs, but Zenner can keep a run game on schedule with positive plays and productive runs.
“He’s done a great job since he’s been back,” Lions head coach Matt Patricia said of Zenner. “He’s done a lot out at practice that we feel very confident with him out there. I think he’s a great example of a guy that’s just – he’s such a professional. He’s just always ready to go. He’s done a good job.”
The Bears aren't an opponent the Lions can afford to be one dimensional against. We saw what can happen in that regard in Chicago when Detroit fell behind early, and were forced to abandon the run in favor of the pass.
If Zenner’s name is called Thursday, the fourth-year back out of South Dakota State will be ready.
“I can just speak to me personally, just not try to do too much, you know what I mean,” Zenner said of the key to replacing such a productive back like Johnson if he’s asked to do so. “Stay within your own strengths and try to help out the team as much you can in that area. Not try to go outside of yourself and be something you’re not.”
In a conference call with Detroit reporters Tuesday, Bears head coach Matt Nagy said the recent matchup with Detroit on Nov. 11 has helped his preparation for Thursday’s game.
“Whether you prepped ahead of time and you had stuff that you didn’t use that you liked or vice-versa, I think that’s the cat and mouse game between the coaching staffs,” he said.
Because of the way the first game got out of hand so early for Detroit – a 26-0 deficit midway through the second quarter – Patricia is expecting to see some new wrinkles from Chicago that maybe they had planned for the first go-around, but didn’t need because of the way that game went.
“I think it’s probably more on his side of the ball,” Patricia said. “Things went so well for them early they probably had a lot left on the call sheet that he didn’t have to call in the game. I would expect from that standpoint that they are able to carry over a lot more of that situation from the last game to our game.”
Patricia has had a front-row seat to some shaky kicking performances against his club this season. From Mason Crosby's five missed kicks, to Chicago’s Cody Parkey clanking four kicks off the uprights in Chicago, to Graham Gano missing two kicks Sunday for Carolina, it certainly makes Patricia appreciate the consistency Matt Prater has provided his team in the kicking department this season.
“I think with Prater, just in general, he’s great,” Patricia said. “He’s competitive. He’s very thorough. He’s a great professional. He just wants to be perfect and right all the time and he’s a great professional, so I appreciate that first and foremost. He very into his craft making sure he’s the best.”
Prater is 19-of-22 kicking field goals this season and a perfect 21-for-21 on extra points.
WHO IS CHASE DANIEL?
There are still a couple days before the Lions and Bears strap it up at Ford Field on Thanksgiving, but it’s worth noting that Bears starting quarterback Mitchell Trubisky is dealing with a throwing shoulder injury, and wouldn’t have practiced Monday or Tuesday had the Bears held practice on those days.
It was Trubisky who spearheaded Chicago’s 34-22 win over Detroit earlier this season, throwing for a career-high 355 yards and adding four total touchdowns (three passing & one rushing).
If Trubisky can’t go, the Bears would likely turn to backup Chase Daniel. The 10-year veteran and career backup has completed 51-of-78 career passes for 480 yards with a touchdown, an interception and a passer rating of 81.1.
“Well, first of all, we’re on a short week. So regardless, there’s not a lot you can do,” Nagy said of how the offense might change under Daniel. “The nice thing about having a guy like Chase, regardless of which direction you go, is I was Chase’s quarterback coach in Kansas City for three years. So, I know Chase inside-out and he knows me.
“That’s why you bring in a guy like Chase, is not only for his expertise in this offense, but in the way he handles his position each and every week. You know that if you ever get into a situation where you’re going to need him or call on him, you feel very comfortable.”