The Detroit Lions’ Goal Line And Short Yardage Work Is An Unclear Situation Going Into Camp.
The Detroit Lions decided not to address their need for a goal line and short yardage running back in the NFL draft. They added a couple of pieces in free agency and through undrafted free agents. Other than that, they appear to be planning to lean on their in-house options. The Lions have a good mix of running backs that they can use in different situations, but it remains unclear who will handle the duties of the “short yardage back”. The DLP writing staff shares their thoughts on who is the most likely option to fill that role for the Lions in this upcoming year.
This offseason, much ado has been made about the Lions finding a power back to handle goal line and short yardage duties. The fan consensus was that the team needs a foil to the smaller, shiftier Abdullah. They did nothing to address the supposed need in the draft, a surprise given the depth of the class. But, they signed former Viking Matt Asiata and picked up undrafted free agent Tion Green, who’s also a bigger runner. This could be interpreted as an attempt to find a short yardage back, but neither is a guarantee to make the roster. In fact, I think the answer has been on the roster all along. But, it’s not fan favorite Zach Zenner.
It’s Ameer Abdullah. Abdullah possesses the suddenness to make guys miss, which is important when teams send the house to stop the run and get penetration, and has a low center of gravity and good leg drive. In May, I tweeted at Brandon Thorn of Inside the Pylon to get his thoughts on Abdullah as an inside runner. Thorn said that Abdullah’s size belies his abilities as an inside runner, and he praised his pad level and contact balance. With Abdullah, it’s just a question of whether he’s healthy.
When looking at current options on the roster, I think the most obvious choice to handle short yardage carries next year will be Matt Asiata. While yes, he failed to impress in six starts last year, Asiata is still a nice role player that can get you a few yards in tough situations. He’s not going to blow you out of the water by any means, however, he’s a blue collar workmanlike player that can get the job done most of the time. Asiata winning this job, however, isn’t as much about his quality as it is the lack of quality around him.
Zach Zenner, while a nice all-round option, is a limited power/short distance option and is much better suited as an RB4 jack of all trades guy. Dwayne Washington showed very little as a power runner last year, getting little push in the pile and more looking to avoid contact, a trend I don’t see changing in the near future.
Mike James has proven he can do what’s required in theory, however he really hasn’t been an NFL player since 2014. While Tion Green definitely looks quite intriguing he’s a UDFA that had a limited role at a smaller division 1 school and has proved nothing at the next level.
Now things could certainly change between now and week one. Zenner and Washington have supposedly been steadily developing and other guys have had notable moments through minicamps. That being said, if we’re going purely off of what we know right now, it’s Asiata’s job to lose.
The Lions’ short-yardage back is going to be Ameer Abdullah, or Theo Riddick, or whichever running back happens to be in on any given series. Jim Bob Cooter doesn’t sub out his running backs situationally. He calls the play appropriate to the situation – at least in his mind – and relies on the players in the game to execute it.
Good NFL offensive coordinators are not typically only worried about maxing out every single play, they’re setting up a grand portrait and every play call is a single brush stroke. Some plays simply set up planned moves later. It’s not a coincidence that in key situations the team reverses their tendencies and suddenly finds success.
Because I expect Ameer Abdullah to get the majority of drives for the Lions, he will get most of the short yardage carries. That’s not a bad thing. There is no running back on the Lions’ roster who gets to the line of scrimmage faster, and that’s job #1 in short yardage situations.
The Lions have a lot of different running backs going into the season this year. They all have different skill sets and excel at different things. Unfortunately, none of these backs are a true “power back”. There aren’t any backs that I feel confident in giving the ball to on third and two. That said, I think that the favorite for those duties is Zach Zenner.
Zenner took on a larger role as the season progressed last year. It seemed that the team was invested in getting Dwayne Washington on the field, but that clearly didn’t work out as well as the team hoped. As Washington struggled, Zenner saw more and more action. The coaching staff showed faith in his abilities more as the season continued.
I find it hard to believe that the coaching staff will eliminate him completely after what they saw from him last season. I still believe that Abdullah should be the primary back, and I even believe that he should cede minimal work in short yardage situations, but I’m not sure that the coaching staff will agree, and I think that it is a realistic possibility that the coaching staff limits Abdullah’s workload out of injury concern.
The primary additions that could fill the power back role are Matt Asiata and Tion Green. I have not been impressed by either. Asiata has been the definition of sub-par for his career as a Viking. I was excited for Tion Green but, after spending absurd amounts of time looking for his full game tape, watched his tape and was ultimately disappointed.
I think Zenner will do an alright job with short yardage work. There is the distinct possibility that he loses work to other backs in the team’s attempt to experiment with different options, but I think, over the course of the entire season, Zenner will see the bulk of the carries.