ALLEN PARK, Mich. – Every Saturday during the season, we try to answer a question or two for a Lions Mailbag. To submit a question for a future Mailbag, use the hashtag #LionsMailbag on Twitter, email me at firstname.lastname@example.org or ask away on Facebook.
Now to today’s question.
This, to me, was an incredibly interesting question. Ameer Abdullah, clearly Detroit’s top running back, has 101 carries this season. He’s gained 369 yards. Though his 3.65 yards per carry is the lowest of his career, the 24-year-old is still Detroit’s most productive rusher, more than a half-yard ahead of Dwayne Washington and Theo Riddick.
And yet the Lions have not used him on third down at all this season. He has five snaps on third down, all passing plays. On three he ran routes and the other two he pass-blocked. He has no carries on third down.
This, as Kris pointed out, is pretty weird. So I asked Lions coach Jim Caldwell about it.
“It just depends on the situation, and we use our guys where we think they fit in particular games,” Caldwell said. “There may be some games where he may get some. There may be other games that he doesn’t.
“So, we don’t necessarily limit it to what he does consistently across the board. End of the year? Let’s talk about it at that time.”
But through almost half of the season, Abdullah hasn’t been used there. Meanwhile, Riddick has rushed four times for 10 yards on third down. Zach Zenner has three carries for 16 yards. Washington has four carries for 9 yards.
It’s not as if Abdullah has not had success there in the past (albeit in a limited sample). Before this season, Abdullah has had five third-down carries for 60 yards. Two of those runs went for more than 20 yards.
Meanwhile, Riddick’s career on third down is 16 carries for 64 yards; Zenner nine for 22 and Washington nine for 17.
Abdullah didn’t seem to think about it much, though, when he was asked about it.
“No, man. Statistics, you can break them down to make anything look a certain way,” he said. “But for me, I haven’t really thought about that intuitively about not having a carry on third down.”
When Lions offensive coordinator Jim Bob Cooter was asked about Abdullah's lack of third down carries, he called it "situation." But when he was pressed on the reasoning behind it, he essentially said Riddick is a better pass-catching back.
"Well, Ameer traditionally doesn't play a lot on third downs," Cooter said. We're doing a lot of passing in the league. The league is very high-percentage pass on third down. That's true of us as well. So we're throwing the ball a whole lot. We're doing a lot of route-related things. We're doing a lot of protection-related things. Theo is quite good at that and some of our other backs have done a really nice job at some of those things.
"So on third down, like the rest of the league, we throw the ball a very high percentage of the time, so there are not a lot of runs to go around. When there are, some of the guys who are in there tend to get them."
When asked if that meant if Cooter felt Washington and Zenner are better pass-catching backs than Abdullah, Cooter said "I'm not into rating guys in the media."
Abdullah seemed more concern about the red zone work -- or lack thereof -- by any running back. Abdullah has seven red zone carries this season for 2 yards and a touchdown. Other backs haven't had much more success. Overall, the Lions have 19 red zone rushes for 27 yards. The 19 carries rank 27th in the NFL. The 27 yards rank 28th, as does the 1.42 yards per rush.
In other words, like the rest of the run game, it hasn’t been good. How can the Lions solve it?
“Red zone rushing,” Abdullah said. “Call them, for one. Two, execute them when they are called. Three, score.”
Abdullah’s only rushing touchdown this season came in the red zone, as have both of the Lions’ rushing touchdowns. When asked if Abdullah felt he could handle that role, he said simply, “Why not.” Then he said he has not asked the coaches about it or told them he’d like more work closer to the goal line or on third down. Cooter said Friday he uses Washington in goal-line situations because of "size, power, things like that." When asked why Abdullah wasn't used in those situations, he said "same answer."
“Hey, I’m never going to tell the coaches what to do,” Abdullah said. “I mean, their job is to design, to put us in the best situations. My job is to execute under any circumstance. It don’t matter if he calls me a toss play with no blocking in front of me, I’ve got to do my best. I’m never going to tell the coaches what we should or shouldn’t do.”
Which goes back to Caldwell, specifically with third downs.
Going back through his time as an offensive coordinator and head coach in the NFL, he’s used his lead back on third down at least a fair amount of the time. Prior to Abdullah, the Lions split carries with Reggie Bush and Joique Bell. In his two years under Caldwell, Bell had 17 red zone carries for 74 yards. In an injury-hampered 2014, Bush had five red zone carries for 35 yards.
In Caldwell's two years with the Ravens -- we’ll give him the full year in Baltimore even though it was only half of the year he was coordinator in 2012 -- Ray Rice had 29 red zone carries for 97 yards and Bernard Pierce 15 red zone carries for 62 yards.
During Caldwell's three seasons in Indianapolis, lead back Joseph Addai had 38 red zone rushes for 134 yards. His usual No. 2, Donald Brown, had 30 for 115 yards.
So Abdullah’s lack of third-down usage appears to be singular -- although it should be noted that Addai had only eight red zone carries in 2011 for 23 yards, so it’s possible Abdullah could reach that mark. The lack of usage up to now is somewhat baffling and tough to explain. Considering Detroit’s run-game struggles, there’s no reason for the Lions to not try Abdullah there in the future. It definitely couldn’t hurt.