Run, Forrest!

Sunday, August 16, 2009

On September 7 of '08 Michael Turner rushed for 220 yards in Matt Ryan's NFL debut, and Jerrious Norwood tacked on another 93. As a team, the Falcons rushed for 318 yards to the Lions' 70. Flash forward to August 15 '09, and we see something that Lion fans haven't seen in a very long time. A team that runs. And runs. And runs.

A lot (deservedly) has been made of Stafford's impressive debut. Culpepper's surprising nimbleness and playmaking qualities have also earned praise. So far though, there hasn't been a lot of discussion of the running game.

Detroit rushed 35 times for 191 yards. Stanton's bootleg was the key play that set up the game-winning field goal. Aaron Brown went to warp speed for his 32 yard touchdown run. Matt Stafford dragged a defender five yards for a first down. It was exciting to see and it is a dimension of the game that Detroit hasn't had since the days of Bobby Ross, excepting a few weeks with Kevin Jones.

I'm not exactly sure how excited to be about this, other than to know the commitment is there. Detroit's main backs, Aveion Cason and Allen Ervin combined for 47 yards on 17 carries, and while we know that they won't be getting the carries during the regular season - if either are even on the team - the holes that they attacked are the same holes that Smith and Morris will have to find. Barring a specialty package, Stanton's runs will be limited to running the microphone to call in plays to whichever quarterback the Lions ultimately choose. Brown's run, while exciting, was not one that will be available much during the regular season. He hit the edge quickly, but did it against rookie defenders who don't know their assignments as well as they should, and who also aren't as experienced at reading the flow of the play as well as veterans are. More often than not, Lance Briggs or Atari Bigby will be there to string the play out and limit the gain.

On the other hand, we did see a real commitment to the run. Not a hopeless effort like we've seen so many times in the last few years, but rather from a team clawing back from a deficit and getting positive yards to put the quarterback in a position to be able to make plays. Counting Culpepper's two scrambles, they ran 7 times in their first 10 plays to set up Hanson's field goal. The runs had a real purpose too, setting up the pass. They ran twice for a first down and then a screen to Kevin Smith for 11. They ran again and then took a shot at the end zone, forcing a defensive penalty and another first down. They ran twice more for short gains and then sucked in the defenders on a screen play that went for 16 more.

28 of Detroit's 35 yards came with the team behind. After Atlanta's last touchdown, Detroit came back in Stanton's first series and got the score back with six consecutive running plays, three by Ervin, one by Stanton, and the last two by Brown, including his 32 yard score. It was only in Detroit's last two possessions, running the two minute drill that the Lions abandoned the run.

After the game Jim Schwartz told Tony Ortiz that the Stanton bootleg at the end was not a called play, but rather a recognition by Stanton as the linebackers swarmed to the sidelines and the whole middle of the field parted. Culpepper's short runs and Stafford's bootleg did not appear to be designed either, but it is clear from their games that both like to run and get hit. Culpepper gained an extra yard on his drive by initiating contact and carrying the play forward. Stafford told Ortiz that getting hit is a part of the game that he enjoys, that it helps to bring things into focus.

I'm nowhere close to calling this a new paradigm. Detroit also rushed 35 times in last year's exhibition opener against the Giants. It is probably the nature of exhibition, particularly the first game, to just get out there and bang a little and then get the game over with. Even so, we saw some purpose to the running game yesterday that has been missing from the Lion arsenal for years.

Agree? Disagree? Have something to say? Discuss it Here, in The Den.