Detroit Lions coach Matt Patricia speaks to the media on Monday, Nov. 19, 2018, in Allen Park.
Dave Birkett, Detroit Free Press
Zach Zenner had the best game of his career late in the 2016 season when the Detroit Lions’ annual running woes hit an unprecedented low, even for them.
Ameer Abdullah hurt his foot in the season’s second game and required Lisfranc surgery. Theo Riddick had recurring problems with his wrists and landed on IR. And after watching Dwayne Washington run into brick wall after brick wall — or more precisely, his own offensive lineman after his own offensive lineman — the Lions reluctantly made Zenner their starting running back for a post-Christmas game against the Dallas Cowboys.
Zenner had himself a career of a first half that day, rushing for 64 yards on 10 carries and scoring two touchdowns as the Lions raced to a second-quarter lead they’d quickly fritter away.
They inexplicably stopped giving Zenner the ball — he had just two carries in the final 34 minutes — and after two more modest performances in the season’s final two games, the regular season finale against the Green Bay Packers and a playoff loss to the Seattle Seahawks, Zenner returned to being a bit player on one of the NFL’s most one-dimensional offenses last year.
Zenner won’t make anyone forget about Barry Sanders or even Kerryon Johnson, but with Johnson reportedly dealing with a sprained knee and expected to miss Thursday’s Thanksgiving game against the Chicago Bears, his time as the Lions’ No. 1 running back might be near again.
Johnson ranks ninth in the NFL with 641 yards rushing, and third among rookie running backs, and the Lions don’t have any single player on their roster who can approximate his production on the field.
LeGarrette Blount and his 2.3 yards per carry can’t do it. Riddick the receiver can’t do it. And while Zenner can’t, either, he’s at least the Lion best suited to gain exactly what’s there for the taking on any given play.
Maybe that’s not the ideal way to beat the Bears and one of the best defenses in the NFL. Maybe the Lions feel they need Riddick’s big-play ability on the field, or Blount’s, I don’t know, size.
But if there’s anything the Lions proved in Sunday’s win over the Carolina Panthers, it’s that you can win a game by controlling field position and staying ahead of the chains.
“I was just trying to do a good job of keeping us ahead of the sticks,” Detroit Lions’ quarterback Matthew Stafford said. “If I had to take 3 or 4 (yards) on first down and not wait on something that was 10 or 15, I was going to do it. … Obviously running the ball effectively helps out a lot, too. When you’re able to take 3 on first down, get 5 on second down running the ball, it helps.”
Lions coach Matt Patricia knows that, too, though he shed no real light in his news conference Monday on how he plans to account for Johnson’s absence this week.
“I think we have good players, we have dynamic guys, guys that can make plays in different ways and it’s not cookie cutter,” Patricia said. “Football is not that way. When you have a different player that’s in and in the same position, it doesn’t mean that they can do the same thing. You have to be able to adjust with that and do a good job of handling that, whatever the situation is, whoever those guys are.”
In all likelihood, the Lions will use all three of their running backs Thursday, in perhaps very defined roles.
Blount is a short-yardage back at this point in his career and not much more. It’s hard not to cringe when he bounces runs outside.
Riddick has never been much of a runner, and Johnson was beginning to take his reps in the pass game.
Zenner won’t have the Bears tossing restlessly in their hotel room Wednesday night, but with just 15 carries since the end of the 2016 season, he said he’s “absolutely” ready for a bigger role in Johnson’s absence and he’s got the right mindset to make it work.
“(To replace a back like Johnson you have to) not try to do too much,” Zenner said. “Just stay within your own strengths and try to help out the team as much as you can in that area. Not try to go outside of yourself and be something that you’re not.”
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