|Mikel Leshoure (center) might need to take the load from concussion-prone Jahvid Best (44). (Getty Images)|
When people talk about the Detroit Lions they tell you how critical Matt Stafford and Calvin Johnson are to the team's future, and, of course, they're right. But they're forgetting someone here, and I'm talking about running back Mikel Leshoure.
As a matter of fact, so is coach Jim Schwartz, who this week told the Detroit Free Press how important Leshoure could be to the Lions' fortunes.
Important? Indispensible is more like it. I don't care if it's Leshoure or Kevin Smith or Jahvid Best, but somebody ... somebody ... must act as a threat to run the ball, and Leshoure is the logical choice.
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Best would be, too, but I don't know what his future looks like after suffering another concussion. Running backs and concussions are as compatible as the Red Sox and Yankees, and once a back has had more than one -- and Best has -- I move on to Plan B.
That's where Leshoure comes in, and if you don't know much about him, that's OK. He's more famous for what he's done off the field -- namely, get nailed twice in one month for marijuana possession, drawing a two-game suspension -- than he has on it. That's because he never had a chance to play his rookie season, bowing out after tearing an Achilles in training camp.
The injury not only crippled Leshoure; it impaired the Lions, who, after Best was sidelined in the sixth game of the season, were forced to recycle Smith and Maurice Morris and call on Keiland Williams. Yeah, I know, the numbers weren't much different -- with the Lions actually averaging more per carry afterward -- but they couldn't produce the quality yards when they were needed most ... and that's why Leshoure could be so valuable to this year's team.
Schwartz said he's capable of getting the "tough yardage," and I'd hope so. I mean, that's why they drafted him. But he must ... absolutely must ... give them something they didn't have down the stretch in 2011, and that's the threat of a running game. The Lions lost it when Best was hurt, and it showed: They split their last 10 games after winning their first five and were closed out in the opening game of the playoffs.
Best gave them a versatility that was missing in Morris and Smith. That doesn't mean Smith didn't have his moments. He did. But the guy's fragile. So the Lions never really had anyone to back off defenses, and that makes all the difference in games you absolutely, positively must win.
Exhibit A: Last year's Atlanta Falcons. People keep telling me that it's a passing league, and that you don't need to run to be successful. Well, tell that to Mike Smith and the Falcons. They couldn't convert two fourth-and-1s and another third-and-1 in their playoff loss to the New York Giants, while the Giants ran for a season-best 172 yards.
Exhibit B: Last year's Detroit Lions. Look what happened in their first game without Best. It was vs. Atlanta, with the Lions three times failing to produce a yard after they were set up first-and-goal at the Falcons' 6. Reason: They couldn't run. They tried ... but with wide receiver Nate Burleson, and he gained nothing. So they turned to Stafford, who produced an incompletion and a sack, before taking the field goal.
The Lions didn't have a back the Falcons respected, and it showed. When they ran, they did it with a wide receiver ... and that's what I'm talking about when I mention the threat of a rushing game.
When the Indianapolis Colts went to Super Bowl XLIV, they did it with the league's 32nd-ranked running game. That was supposed to be an indication of how poorly they ran, but it wasn't; it was a reflection of Peyton Manning's decision making. He chose to pass and not to run, even though he had a capable back in Joseph Addai, who scored 10 times that season -- and it's important to make the distinction.
I remember when the San Francisco 49ers lost Ricky Watters to Philadelphia prior to the 1995 season and plugged in little-known Derek Loville at his position. Loville responded with 13 touchdowns and 87 receptions, which was terrific, but the defending Super Bowl champions went nowhere in that season's playoffs.
As quarterback Steve Young later explained, the 49ers were handicapped because they didn't have the rushing threat to back off Green Bay. So then-defensive coordinator Fritz Shurmur rushed three and dropped everyone else into coverage, daring the 49ers to beat them with Loville. They could not, with Loville running for 5 yards and Young forced to throw a career-high 65 times, and suffered a 27-17 defeat.
That game illustrates another element here, and that's what a ground game can do for a quarterback -- which is open passing lanes that aren't there. It doesn't take a genius to figure out that if you drop seven or eight into coverage it's going to be difficult to find open receivers. But produce an attack opponents respect, and watch them commit defenders to the line of scrimmage.
Look what happened to New England two years ago in the playoffs. The New York Jets -- who did have a running game -- blanketed the secondary with defenders and stunned the AFC's top seed. Now, look what happened to the New York Jets last season. The running game that served them so well in Mark Sanchez's first two seasons fizzled, and so did Sanchez and the offense.
People want to blame Sanchez, and, granted, he threw too many interceptions and was anything but consistent. But it's like one coach told me: When you're successful throwing off play-action and don't have a rushing attack opponents respect, what do you think is going to happen? Answer: The 2011 New York Jets.
That's a long way of saying that Schwartz is right to single out Mikel Leshoure as a significant element to this year's success. No one is more important to what happens to the Lions than Stafford, who threw for more than 5,000 yards, but Leshoure can take the pressure off him by grinding out the tough yards Stafford had to gain with his right arm.
All I know is that Detroit was 5-1 when it had Best in the lineup and was 5-6 (including the playoffs) without him. Best gave the Lions the threat they will need again this season, and, as I said, I'm not counting on him. So, if I'm Schwartz, I look at what's left and hope Mikel Leshoure is as good as I need him to be -- both on and off the field.