In 2015, rookie Running Back, Ameer Abdullah, from Nebraska began his NFL journey with the Detroit Lions. After an impressive preseason, Abdullah earned himself a role in the running back by committee to start the season. Unfortunately, the season was quite underwhelming as the Lions were dead last in Rushing yards and Abdullah spent time on the bench due to fumbling issues. After a coaching change in Detroit, Ameer's season was revived and he played a solid second half of the season to help the Lions finish the season at 7-9, after a 1-7 start.
To understand the improvement in the season, we must understand what the intent was in the beginning, and what went wrong for the Lions' running attack. Offensive Coordinator Joe Lombardi wanted to use Ameer's vision, agility, and acceleration in the Zone Block Scheme. As discussed in my stat break down of Todd Gurley (http://theplaybook.sportsblog.com/posts/20244219/stat-breakdown--todd-gurley-ii-and-the-zone-block-scheme.html), the zone block scheme is a run philosophy where the line moves laterally down the line of scrimmage to stretch the defense out and attack the sidelines. If, and when the defense overcommits, cut back lanes will open up and its up to the running back to hit that hole and explode north and south. It relies on patience, vision, and agility which are all things that Ameer excels at. In theory, its the best way to use Abdullah and it showed early, specifically his first career carry.
Here, the Lions are facing the 3-4 of San Diego which is shifted over with the NT lined up over the strong side guard. When the ball is snapped, the line moves laterally right and Ameer does an excellent job of flowing with the movement, which causes MLB Manti Teo to follow, overcommit, and Ameer cuts back to the middle of the field. From there, its a one on one in the open field and Ameer scores a touchdown. Normally, the 3-4 is excellent against the Zone Block Scheme, but the Chargers over committed to the edge, and a cut back lane was opened.
The question now is, what went wrong? After a 70 yard game in Week 1, Ameer had just 81 yards in weeks 2-5, as well as four fumbles that resulted in him being benched a few games. I think it is first worth noting that in that span the Lions played three teams in the top 6 in rushing defense (Seattle #1, Denver #3, Arizona #6). Second, as discussed before, the zone block scheme doesn't work well against disciplined 3-4 defenses, in which the interior lineman play 2 gap control, compared to a 4-3 defense which relies on penetration. Lastly, the Lions offensive line personnel just isn't fit for the Zone Block Scheme. Lombardi was forcing a scheme on a team based on what the running back did best, not what the line did best. All that, and Ameer fumbled four times in six games. C'mon man! Amidst the struggle, Ameer did the best he could with what he had, as he rarely was tackled by the first man in the backfield. Ameer showed good decision making, excellent shiftiness (remind you of anyone Detroit?) and almost always fell forward when being tackled. Check this Denver clip, where Von completely destroys the edge, Ameer makes him miss completely. The line just couldn't hang with this scheme. Clip is at 11:50.
With Lombardi out, and Jim Bob Cooter promoted to Offensive Coordinator, the change was almost instant for the Lions' offense, that finished 6-2 to the end the 2015 season. With the new coach brought a new look as Man blocking was introduced to the offensive philosophy. Conveniently, man blocking works well against 3-4 teams (due to not penetrating), and the Lions played ten games against 3-4 teams in 2015. The man block scheme is different because the line is not attacking. Pulling guards and getting down field and attacking a pre-assigned defender which is what these Detroit maulers were meant to do. In the second half of the season, Ameer averaged 4.65 YPC (Compared to 3.5 YPC), as well as double the YPG (almost 50 YPG compared to 29 YPG). Not only that, Ameer had just one fumble in the last ten games of the season. Here is an example of a play in the Chicago game that shows us the difference in line movement at the snap compared to the Chargers game above.
Its always important to remember that the Lions had a fairly easier schedule in the second half of the season, as the highest ranked rush defense they played was the #13 ranked Oakland Raiders. Nonetheless, these are professional teams and progress is progress. Ameer was solid and reliable in the second half of the season with just one fumble in 80 carries, as well as 4.6 YPC. It doesn't take him long to make a difference either, as he averages 4.2 YPC in his first 5 touches. Its important for offenses to start quick and Ameer played his role efficiently. With Joique Bell out of Detroit, I expect Bell's carries to be distributed to Ameer/Theo instead of just bringing in Zach Zenner, who's real usage would be on the goal line.
The reason for this analysis, is that while many are down on Abdullah, I believe we will see a big improvement in him as a player and his production will show. He is excellent at making people miss, and can be utilized in so many different ways in both the running and receiving game. Not to mention, he is always a threat in the special teams game.
The Lions not only enter 2016 with a full offseason in the new scheme, but they have added Ohio State LT Taylor Decker, who was an excellent run blocker/edge setter for 4th overall pick Ezekiel Elliott. Decker's ability should help with the runs to the left, where Ameer struggled netting only 2.8 YPC. This pick allows Riley Reiff to move to a more natural right tackle role which only adds more value to the Lions ground game. Lombardi was boring, predictable, and negligent in adjustments which are all traits the Jim Bob Cooter's offense doesn't have. He utilizes his tools, he sets plays up well (see first snap for Abdullah in Saints game, and then the touchdown run in the 3rd), and is unpredictable. Its up to Ameer to hold onto the ball and continue to show good tendencies in the open field. I am high on him to break 750 yards this season, as well as 200-300 yards through the air. Ameer Abdullah is a promising young running back that I think Lions fans should be optimistic about.
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