ALLEN PARK, Mich. -- David Walker was hired in the offseason and almost immediately, he started preaching to his running backs they needed to think like more than just a runner, pass-catcher or blocker.
Sure, some of them had been placed in specific roles before with the Detroit Lions, but that was going to change. Now, Walker said, every back was going to have to at least try to be a bit of everything in Jim Bob Cooter’s offense.
It was something he mentioned constantly.
“Not that they felt pigeonholed, but that they were used in certain ways,” said Walker. “And that’s one thing that we’re working hard, or we have worked hard on, is focusing on becoming complete backs.
“Make plays with the ball in your hands, make plays without the ball in your hands.”
That’s going to be tested. The Lions lost their most complete back Wednesday when Ameer Abdullah was placed on injured reserve. It leaves three backs for Detroit to use: Theo Riddick, Dwayne Washington and Zach Zenner.
Of the three, Riddick has the most experience and Lions coach Jim Caldwell said Wednesday that Riddick will be "the lead guy" in Detroit. But others will get work, too.
Zenner has shown power. Washington has a combination of size and speed. But none of them have been in a lead role before in the NFL. Riddick had been sharing time with Abdullah prior to the injury. Washington is a rookie. Zenner has been mostly a complementary back.
To help reinforce the thought the Lions needed complete backs, Walker spent time this offseason working with Riddick -- a premier pass-catcher -- on moving his eyes to the proper position to see holes. He worked with him on how to set up defenders to make his blocks even more useful and how to see the developing creases set up by offensive linemen faster.
“When we’re sitting in the film room and we have a clicker in our hand and we can pause stuff and see things, that’s one way,” Walker said. “But guys gotta be able to make split-second decisions on the field and he’s learning where to put his eyes to help him make those split-second decisions.”
So far, Riddick has been a superior runner to what he’s done in the past. He’s averaging 4.56 yards per carry. More importantly, he looks more confident as a rusher than he ever has in the past, too. It helps that he’s being used in a variety of ways now as a runner instead of mostly as a third-down or two-minute runner, as he was in the past.
Riddick said his improved vision comes from Walker's teachings.
“He just simplifies it to the point where you just play fast and just play ball,” Riddick said.
The Lions will need more of that from Riddick now. Abdullah going on injured reserve changes the dynamic of the Lions' running backs. Before, Abdullah and Riddick were almost interchangeable. It offered Cooter flexibility with his playcalls because he knew if either running back was in the game, the skill sets were similar enough they could both do anything they were asked.
Now, he’s dealing with three runners with distinctly different frames and styles.
“We have plays that we can adapt to that or that we utilize,” Caldwell said. “They might not be used exactly the same way we use Ameer. There are some of the things that they do and in some cases they can do the same plays.
“It might just not look the same to you, you know, because it’s a little bit different style of runner. But I think you’ll see we’re not changing our offense.”
Riddick is the smaller speed back at 5-foot-9, 201 pounds. Washington is 6-2, 226 pounds and has great speed for his size. He has some skill as a receiver – he played the position in college – and has a good size/speed combination that makes him intriguing. He was also used in a goal-line situation against Indianapolis.
Then there’s Zenner, who was inactive the first two weeks of the season. He’s likely to be active this week and could transform into the bigger, goal-line back for Detroit in short-yardage situations at 5-11, 222 pounds.
“The thing that stays consistent with those three is that they are all very good and they make my job easier,” fullback Michael Burton said. “Whether it’s Zach, Dwayne, Theo behind there, they all have excellent vision.
“They make my job much easier.”
But with Abdullah out, their jobs just got a lot more difficult.