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Can Lions' Run Game Improve in 2021?

Logan Lamorandier investigates whether the Detroit Lions' run game can improve in 2021.

With the Detroit Lions seeing plenty of offensive turnover in 2021, they will likely have a new identity on that side of the ball. 

Gone is longtime gun-slinger Matthew Stafford, and in is the more conservative Jared Goff. With that, new Lions general manager Brad Holmes emphasized building up the trenches in order to offset the losses in the passing game. 

However, the Lions struggled to run the ball last season, finishing third-to-last in the NFL for total rushing yards. Yes, the Lions weren’t always in a position at the end of games to rush the ball, but they still were in the bottom eight of the league for rushing yards per carry.

Despite not finding much success on the ground, it’s fair to say that not much of the blame can be placed on the offensive line. 

According to The Post Route, the Lions' offensive line produced an average of 2.7 yards before the running back was contacted. Only six other NFL offensive lines were able to top that figure.

So, if the O-line wasn’t the problem, obviously, the issues lie in the backfield, and the stats back it up.


Detroit's backs' average yards-after-contact rate in 2020 was tied for worst in the entire league at 1.4 yards per rush. In short, the running backs weren’t creating many yards by themselves; they instead were taking what was given to them and not much after.

Per Pro Football Focus, D’Andre Swift finished 56th, and Adrian Peterson finished 45th of the 63 qualifying running backs for average yards after contact. 

Former Lions RB Kerryon Johnson didn’t have enough carries to qualify, but he didn’t fare much better.

Actually, as a whole, the Lions finished second-to-last in the NFL for their grade in rushing the football.

However, Johnson and Peterson are no longer in Detroit. New to the backfield this season is Jamaal Williams, who finished 41st for yards after contact with the Green Bay Packers in 2020.

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Regarding Swift -- who the Lions will rely on heavily this upcoming season -- he has never been known as a powerful back. He does his best work in the open field. Give him space, and he can make defenders look silly. 

With that said, his forced-missed-tackle-per-rushing-attempt (14.9 percent) rate landed him 44th, out of 63 running backs with at least 75 carries last season. 

Williams was even worse, finishing with the second-worst forced-missed-tackle rate in the league.

Important to note, there is plenty of subjectivity in this data. There isn’t a perfect method that is flawless. 

Still, the overall data from 2020 is not a great look for the Lions' running backs.

All in all, the Lions presumably upgraded their already solid line by adding offensive tackle Penei Sewell via the draft. 

The O-line was never the issue, though. It will be on the running backs to live up to their end of the deal. 

If the Lions can’t turn around their run game -- which appears to be their biggest strength on paper -- it's difficult to point to many other facets of the team that give the Lions an upper hand on the competition.

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