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O'HARA: Asiata could give Lions' run game a lift

Matt Asiata's record as an effective inside power runner and sure-handed receiver proven over five seasons with the Minnesota Vikings has the potential to give the Detroit Lions' running game a badly needed lift.

Asiata, who was signed this week by the Lions after a tryout in rookie minicamp earlier this month, also has experienced the difference between being part of one of the NFL's top running games and the worst.

The Vikings were third in the NFL in rushing in 2015 and won the NFC North with an 11-5 record. They were a missed short field goal away from beating Seattle in the Wild Card playoff round.

It was a different story last year. With Adrian Peterson playing in only three games – and gaining a career-low 72 yards rushing – the Vikings were last in the NFL in rushing. They finished 8-8 – collapsing after a 5-0 start – and finished third in the division.

It wasn't all the running game that made the difference, but without a consistent threat in the backfield the Vikings were not nearly as powerful as in 2015.

"It was hard, going in there, trying to take the load off AP with him missing," Asiata said after Wednesday's OTA practice. "We just couldn't do it. It was a big struggle last year, trying to get different people to run the ball."

The Lions have had problems of their own running the ball. They ranked 30th last year, and were only slightly better than the Vikings – 81.9 yards per game and 3.7 yards per carry to 75.3 and 3.2 for the Vikings in the same categories.

What the Lions had – and the Vikings lacked – was a quarterback in Matthew Stafford with the ability and guile to lead eight game-winning rallies, and a clutch kicker in Matt Prater who made game-winning field goals. Their heroics were largely responsible for the Lions making the playoffs with a 9-7 won-loss record – and beating the Vikings twice along the way.

Improving the running game, which has been a weakness in the offense in recent years, is a priority for the Lions this year in their bid to make a stronger run at the NFC North title and return to the playoffs for the third time in four years.

"I think it's a big key," Asiata said. "It opens up the passing game. With Stafford back there, he can do whatever he wants. With a good running game, it will help out more."

Barring a change in plans, the Lions will not rely on a single back to carry the load. Ameer Abdullah, returning from a season-ending foot injury sustained in the second game last year, is the lead tailback but is likely to share the load.

View photos from Day 5 of Detroit Lions OTA practices.

Asiata is joining a group that includes returning tailbacks Theo Riddick, Zach Zenner, Dwayne Washington and Mike James.

Asiata, 29, had a couple of productive seasons in his five years with the Vikings. Last year he rushed for 402 yards and six touchdowns, and added 32 catches for 263 yards. In 2014 he rushed for 570 yards and nine TDs and had 44 catches for 312 yards and another score. In both of those seasons the Vikings played most of the year without Peterson.

The 2016 stats show that Asiata performed well as a short-yardage runner. He had 27 rushing first downs, with 22.3 percent of his carries gaining first downs.

"I think without question, he's certainly been involved in a lot of football -- big games, and certainly has experience," Caldwell said. "He's played in a number of different phases besides the offensive load that he's carried.

"He's also been a real steady performer in terms of special teams – a real pro, and we're happy to have him."

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