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O'HARA: Lions running backs bring balance & production to offense

Head coach Matt Patricia likes the multiple options the Detroit Lions could get from an upgraded running game this season, but the impact is not on the offense alone.

The offense is obviously the primary focus with the moves made in the offseason.

Drafting running back D’Andre Swift of Georgia with the third pick in the second round could prove to be the most valuable pick of the Lions' 2020 draft for his potential impact.

The word "multiple" comes up often in conversations with Patricia regarding the running game in general and the running backs specifically.

It fits Swift, based on what he showed at Georgia as a runner, receiver and a player whose overall feel for offense made him an effective pass protector.

Those multiple skills make Swift a good complement to Kerryon Johnson, a second-round draft pick in 2018 who has shown signs of being a legitimate lead back. However, knee injuries forced him to miss six games as a rookie and eight in 2019.

Bo Scarbrough is the third back on the depth chart who adds a power back to the multiple dimensions. Scarbrough was signed to the practice squad on Nov. 6 and promoted to the active roster on No. 16.

Scarbrough played his way into the plans for 2020. In six games with five starts he rushed for 377 yards, one touchdown and an average of 4.2 yards per carry.

There will be battles for roster spots and playing time when training camp opens, but the Johnson-Swift-Scarbrough trio provides balance and production – and multiple options on how to use them together or separately.

It also causes problems for the opponent.

"Put whoever you want to in there," Patricia said. "The immediate value is, it puts pressure on the defensive coordinator. What is it? A personnel group with all three of those backs looks completely different.

"As a coordinator, you need to prepare for that."

Another advantage in having backs with multiple skills is insurance in case of injuries.

Having one back carry the load has become the exception, not the rule, in the last two decades. Teams are using their version of load management to keep fresh legs in the game.

For example, only two backs in 2019 had 300 or more carries – Derrick Henry of the Titans (303 carries, 1,540 yards) and Ezekiel Elliott of the Cowboys (301 carries, 1,350 yards). Elliott played all 16 games.

Henry missed one game, but he carried the load in the playoffs with 34 carries for 189 yards in a win over the Patriots and 30 for 195 in a win over the Ravens. He was held – relatively – to 69 yards on 19 carries in a loss to the Chiefs in the AFC Championship.

In 2009, six backs had at least 300 carries, led by Chris Johnson of the Titans with 358 for 2,006 yards.

And in 1999, 11 backs had at least 300 carries, led by Jamal Anderson of the Falcons with 410 for 1,846 yards.

Patricia is an advocate of spreading out the carries.

"You have to have multiple backs to handle that load," he said. "If you don't, there are too many hits, too many plays, too many situations. You need a guy who can handle all of it and be durable enough to get through all of it.

"Durability of a running back is critical. If you have multiple guys to do that, your chances for being healthy through the course of the season are better."

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