Lions looking for something from running game

OAKLAND, Calif. — They talked about becoming a more balanced offense for months, even sounded believable at times. But when the Lions open the season Sept. 9 against the Rams, they’re bound to be as pass happy as ever.

It’s hard to argue with the approach. When you have the best receiver in the NFL and a quarterback on the fast track to joining him among the game’s elite, why not maximize their talents?

But as Saturday’s 31-20 exhibition loss to the Raiders proved, the Lions need some semblance of a running game to make sure this doesn’t morph instantly into a lost year.

When Matthew Stafford went to the bench clutching his non-throwing hand with 13:13 left in the first half, everyone from coach Jim Schwartz down held their breath.

Almost immediately, Stafford’s hand puffed up like a balloon. He put a bag of ice on it, draped a towel over that and eventually retreated to the locker room for halftime X-rays that fortunately proved negative.

No stranger to the training room after missing time his first two years with knee and shoulder injuries, and playing through a broken finger on his throwing hand last year, Stafford said he had never before seen such a fast-swelling injury.

“That’s kind of why it freaked me out,” he said.

Stafford isn’t the type of quarterback to play scared. He’s better in muddied pockets than most.

And the Lions can’t alter their play calling for fear of injury or to protect a 24-year-old with heaven for a ceiling.

But by running the ball more efficiently, the Lions stand a better chance of keeping single-minded defenses at bay and, thus, their quarterback upright.

“I think that when it’s all said and done, we have good players in the run game, we have good scheme for the run game,” Schwartz said. “I don’t want to say we’re not worried, we’re working on every part of our game right now. It’s the third preseason game so there have been times this year we ran the ball very well in the preseason. Today wasn’t one of them.”

The Lions finished with 24 carries for 65 yards Saturday and, as has been their M.O. in recent years, got much of their run-game production in nontraditional ways.

Take out two Shaun Hill scrambles for 13 yards and a couple of end-arounds by receivers Nate Burleson and Lance Long and the Lions averaged a discouraging 1.9 yards a carry.

They rank fourth in the league in rushing through Saturday (143 yards per game), but that’s a hollow number achieved mostly through the sorcery of exhibition games.

Keiland Williams, arguably the Lions’ most effective back this summer, and Joique Bell combined for 160 yards rushing against Cleveland’s second- and third-team defense in the opener, and Stephfon Green skewed last week’s numbers with a late 76-yard touchdown run against the Ravens.

On Saturday, oft-injured starter Kevin Smith left the game after three carries with a sprained ankle (X-rays were negative and he said it wasn’t the dreaded high ankle kind of sprain that limited him late last year) and backup Mikel Leshoure was statistically ineffective in his NFL debut.

Leshoure, who missed all of his rookie season with a torn Achilles tendon and the start of this year with a strained hamstring, gets a pass for his first game action in 20 months, since he was a junior at Illinois. But how effective he’ll be this year remains a mystery, especially since he’s suspended for the season’s first two games.

Smith said it’s too early to draw any conclusions about the running game, which should theoretically benefit from the mismatches Stafford and Johnson provide.

“We’re out there, we’re not game-planning,” Smith said. “This is a preseason game, this is training-camp mode for us. I think through the preseason we’ve been doing decent with the running game. I’m not going to judge it on numbers. … You can only really judge the running game when you get into the season.”

When the season starts, though, NFL teams turn to win-at-all-cost mode. For the Lions as currently constituted, that means lots of Stafford, Johnson and their difficult-to-defend passing game, and little of everything else.

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Posted by Tribune News Services

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