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The Detroit Lions’ run game is even better than you think

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Starting out 1-3 has many people turning on the Detroit Lions. Despite early murmurs about the offense being fantastic, the defense has been equally disappointing. The two sides of the ball have been Jekyll and Hyde in a way none of us predicted it would be.  Considering the chances the team had in the offseason to improve that side of the ball, the defense being putrid is no surprise. What is a surprise has been the offensive firepower unleashed this season, led by the Detroit Lions' run game.

There is no lack of statistics that help prove the case that Detroit has a top-five offense in the NFL this year. Not only are they first in the league in total yards, but they're tops in many other categories as well. All of this culminates in the frustration everyone has felt, but there is a definite silver lining and an unsung part of this team that needs proper attention.

I am referring of course to the vaunted rushing attack of the Detroit Lions. The offense has churned, they've scored points, and they've done everything they can to win. Everyone knows this, but advanced statistics paint an even better picture of just how profoundly good the Detroit Lions have been rushing the ball.

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Why has the Detroit Lions' run game been so good?

Using Pro Football Reference, I'd like to make the case that the Detroit Lions are doing what everyone begged them to do while Matthew Stafford was still in town; run the damn ball. The first stat I'd like to point to is at the individual level, a rushing statistic that gives proper credit to the run blocking of the Lions, YBC/Att.

YBC/Att stands for Rushing yards before contact per attempt. This metric is a fantastic indicator of not only a back's speed in hitting the hole but also how dominant your offensive line can be per carry to force defenders further and further downfield or away from the play design.

Advanced statistics prove Detroit Lions' run game is elite

With this metric in mind, I would like to highlight D'Andre Swift's patently absurd YBC/Att of 5.5 yards, meaning De'Andre Swift is getting a first down before being touched on two carries. This stat is incredible and a testament to the “swiftness”, sorry, of D'Andre but the superb blocking of Detroit as well. What may really set Swift apart from other backs however is the tandem metrics of 5.5 yards before even being touched, followed by a ridiculous YAC/ATT, yards after contact instead, of 3.1 yards. We're talking about a back that is hitting his play-designed holes, getting over half the yardage without being touched, and then gaining almost 9 yards after first contact on every carry he's had.

Jamaal Williams, for his credit a power back who inevitability is put in situations that would reduce this number, is still top 25 in the league at 2.9 YBC/Att. That number is larger than Christian McCaffrey, Leonard Fournette, Najee Harris, Joe Mixon, Derrick Henry, Ezekiel Elliott, Clyde Edwards-Helaire, and Austin Ekeler.  As the superb RB2 that he is, Williams also is top ten in the NFL in earned first downs rushing at 16 on the season. That is exactly the type of number you want to see out of your power back; a solid 2.9 yards before contact, 2 yards after contact, double-digit first down conversions, and top ten in carries.

Another point to address is the number of offensive linemen the Lions have had to play in the early part of this season. Continuing to remember the metrics above, the Detroit Lions have had seven linemen log a start in 2022, with particular focus coming from Dan Skipper and Evan Brown, filling in with Halapoulivaati Vaitai hitting the IR & Jonah Jackson only seeing one game thus far, causing shifts all across the offensive line.  Pro Football Focus rated the Detroit Lions' offensive line, not at full strength, as eighth best in the NFL. They also shared that the Lions are third overall in yards before contact, which is notable as they are the first team on that ranking to not have a distinctly mobile quarterback. All told, the offensive line switches and changes haven't seemed to slow this team down and they are able to compensate for weaknesses, especially in the interior, and play phenomenally.

Detriot Lions' run game scheme breakdown

Lastly, I wanted to discuss the scheme, specifically Ben Johnson's propensity for motion and pulling action in his run designs. With the three images below, notice the players pointed to with the red arrows, and notice their positioning in relation to the rest of the line.

Detroit Lions' run game
Detroit Lions v. Seattle Seahawks | October 2, 2022 | Ford Field

In this first image, Johnson designs a double pulling motion to the right side of the line, using Brock Wright & Dan Skipper to lead a convoy on 2nd & 7. The interior of the line presses forward while Williams is given a convoy not only of Wright and Skipper but a WR jetting out to give him a ton of space.

Detroit Lions' run game,Lions,Jamaal Williams,Detroit Lions,DAndre Swift
Detroit Lions v. Seattle Seahawks | October 2, 2022 | Ford Field

In this second play, we again see straight blocking with a pulling man again. Part of the reason the Lions are able to average such high yards before contact is due to this type of design. Each man is told to win their one-on-one battles and let the pulling man, in this case, the guard, lead the way and let Swift and Williams do their work.

Detroit Lions' run game,Lions,Jamaal Williams,Detroit Lions,DAndre Swift
Detroit Lions v. Seattle Seahawks | October 2, 2022 | Ford Field

Lastly, another power run with a pulling man. This time around, rather than a straight run design, the pulling guard is going against the zone blocking that is flowing the defense to the left of the formation. What this play creates is a defensive tidal wave toward the top side of the field while leaving a one-on-one for the pulling man to take out the edge or linebacker left in his wake. This gives a wide-open field to work with that has multiple holes depending on how the edge reacts either by leaping forward up the field and being kicked out or being dominated back inside with the rest of the defense, causing the running back to bounce outside.

The above plays can be found in full motion here.

Each aspect of the Detroit Lions' running attack, from their splendid running backs to their malleable and stalwart offensive line, to their brilliant play design, has made for a team that is fun to watch. They are great at what they do, now it will need to account for some wins so the rest of the league can recognize the Detroit Lions for the bruising team that they are.

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