O'HARA: Lions' run game continues to take positive steps

The sample size is too small to make firm judgments, but the numbers indicate that the Detroit Lions’ running game has taken positive steps in the first two preseason games.

There has been a shuffle of players on the offensive line, and the carries have been spread out to a degree that does not come close to how the rushing load will be distributed in the regular season.

Regardless of who has played and who has carried the ball, the Lions’ running backs have gained 133 yards on 29 carries – an average of 4.6 yards per carry. The yards and carries do not include quarterback scrambles.

But looking at the key stat of yards per carry, the running game has shown improvement.

The running game has been scrutinized in recent years on a season-to-season, game-to-game and play-to-play basis.

After four seasons of a downward spiral in productivity, the running game improved to 103.8 yards per game and 4.1 yards per carry. The yards per game ranked 23rd in the league, but it was a dramatic improvement over 76.3 yards per game and 3.4 yards per carry, both last in the league in 2017.

“It’s hard to look at just the numbers,” head coach Matt Patricia said Monday. “What are the runs? Who were they against? The whole overall picture.

“Getting there ... developing there ... We’re building it there. I’m sure it will grow once we get into the season.”

Quarterback Matthew Stafford didn’t play in the first two games, but his work in training camp – including joint practices with the Patriots and Texans – has him believing that the Lions are achieving their goal of having a stronger running game.

“I think the guys up front are doing a really good job,” Stafford said. “There’s a big commitment to being physical and making sure we’ve got positive plays in the running game.

“Those guys are doing it. We’ve got talented backs. We’re giving them the ball, and they’re doing a good job.”

There have been numerous variables in the first two preseason games, as is the case at most positions in the preseason.

The five starters on the offensive line played only the first series in the Game 1 loss to the Patriots. It was intact throughout the first half against the Texans, with one change. Joe Dahl was at left guard in place of Kenny Wiggins, the Game 1 starter.

No running back has played enough to get in any sort of rhythm.

Lead back Kerryon Johnson has had only three carries for 16 yards – an average of 5.3 yards per carry. He led the Lions as a rookie in 2018 with 641 yards and a 5.4-yard average per carry.

Mark Thompson, who spent time last year on practice squads with the Ravens and Jets and was signed by the Lions in January, is the leading rusher with nine carries for 46 yards, an average of 5.1 yards per carry.

Zach Zenner (six carries, 30 yards) and rookie Ty Johnson (seven carries, 33 yards) have been effective in limited action.

Veteran C.J. Anderson has four carries for eight yards but has a history of playing well in the regular season.

“Us as starters, we haven’t played a lot of snaps,” Anderson said. “I can’t give you an answer until week one.”

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