If there was one weakest link on the Detroit Lions last year, it came from the inability to sustain a consistent running game. Though many pointed the finger at the organization for not addressing the problem and replacement players for not getting the job done, it was hard to seriously play the blame game considering the rash of injuries which plagued the position nearly all of last year. This season, things haven't gotten off to an excellent start in that department either, meaning uncertainty could once again dominate early season tailback talk.
Today, we nervously put the running back position under the microscope. With injury or without, what's 2012 looking like behind Matthew Stafford? Here's a few hints:
Who's The Guy? Jahvid Best and Mikel Leshoure. Obviously, these two are both the go to guys when healthy at the running back position. Problem is, neither one has been participating much in training camp due to injuries once again. Best is still sitting on the sidelines after last season's concussion being eased into action, while Leshoure has been slowed by hamstring problems coming off his Achilles injury. Leshoure will also be suspended for two games to open the season following his offseason arrest, meaning the Lions could be without both of their featured runners right away. That's not a great way to start the year for an offense which needs a functioning running game to evolve even more.
Second In Command? Kevin Smith. In the absence of either Leshoure and to a lesser degree, Best, expect Smith to carry the load like he did much of the second half of last season after being signed off the couch as a free agent. In limited action, Smith has proven that he can be a decent running back and take most of the carries. As with others, the concern will be consistency and health. Smith is not going to wow with his abilities, but he's a gritty, north and south runner with enough breakaway speed to hurt defenses when he's in the clear.
Others Worth Noting: Keiland Williams and Joique Bell. Back again are Williams and Bell, two players the Lions signed late last fall when things were getting increasingly desperate in the backfield. Expect Detroit to keep one of the two (likely the one who performs best in preseason) as an insurance policy for Smith. Despite the fact that both have shown decent in exhibition games thus far, the true doomsday scenario is either playing extended minutes as the lead running back during regular season action. Williams is more of a tough bruiser, while Bell is a shiftier cut runner who can make players miss.
Biggest Key To Positional Success? Health. Like last year, staying out of the infirmary is the most important thing for Detroit's runners to do. If both of the featured backs are able to split minutes with Smith and keep each other healthy, the position might actually be a help to the offense instead of a complete hindrance.
Best/Worst Case Scenarios: Best? Leshoure and Best stay healthy and are able to become a thunder and lightning type tandem for the Lions. The team uses Best's threatening legs more as a decoy and receiving threat, while using Leshoure to be the feature back to grind out yardage and take the hits. They each have decent seasons, forcing defenses to stay honest with Detroit's rushing attack. Worst? A repeat of 2011 occurs, where either Leshoure or Best (or both) are missing in action for long periods of time, forcing Smith to carry the load. Worse yet, Smith goes down, making Williams or Bell the feature back, with inconsistent and sub-par results.
Outlook: Things couldn't possibly get any worse than last season, right? At least that's the hope. The chances of lightning striking the same spot twice in two years is remote, so it's wise to assume that at least one of Best and Leshoure will give the Lions significant minutes this year and straighten out the running game despite the team's early season injury cautiousness. You'll see Smith toting the rock at times, too. Barring another catastrophe, the running game won't be as non-existent as it was in 2011, but it won't be phenomenal either. Expect the Lions to be a middle of the road team when it comes to running the ball in 2012.
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