Lions coach Jim Caldwell will never admit it, but he knows the 2016 season and his future in Detroit depend heavily on second-year running back Ameer Abdullah.
Matthew Stafford will, as always, be the focal point of the offense, but the Lions aren’t going anywhere if they finish 32nd in rushing yards for the second straight season. With Joique Bell gone and Theo Riddick still looking like a receiving specialist more than a runner, it is going to be the second-year back out of Nebraska that is going to have to carry the load.
That load, though, won’t be as a back that pounds into the line on every play.
“I think he’s one of those guys where you have to get him the ball in a lot of different ways,” Caldwell said this week. “I don’t envision him carrying the ball 30 times a game - he’s capable of doing that, but it isn’t his strength. He’ll be effective for us with all-purpose yards, just as he was last year.”
No matter how he gets the yards, the Lions are going to require a major step forward from Abdullah. He only gained 597 yards as a rookie despite playing in all 16 games and getting every chance to establish himself as Detroit’s No. 1 back.
As a second-round pick, he came into the NFL with a reputation as an elusive runner who might have problems with fumbling. He proved the first half of that description true in his preseason debut. He was so impressive against the New York Jets that Todd Bowles compared his quickness to Barry Sanders - and Bowles should know, having faced Sanders as a safety with Washington and San Francisco.
Unfortunately for both Abdullah and the Lions, it was his hands that became a much bigger problem once the regular season began. He started well, carrying seven times for 50 yards and a touchdown against San Diego in Week 1, but his fumble issues meant that Caldwell and offensive coordinators Joe Lombardi never fully trusted him to carry a huge workload.
He was benched after fumbling twice, once on a kickoff return, against Arizona in Week 5, and struggled to find a role in Lombardi’s offense. Things bottomed out in Week 8’s 45-10 loss to the Chiefs in London, when he carried the ball once for three yards.
That game dropped the Lions to 1-7, and he had finished the first half of his rookie season with just 225 yards rushing and one touchdown. His 3.6 average per carry wasn’t impressive, and he hadn’t shown the kind of breakaway ability that Detroit had counted on.
However, things changed for him, as they did for the team itself, after the Kansas City game. During the subsequent bye week, new offensive coordinator Jim Bob Cooter started to install his system, and the Lions returned to action with their first win at Lambeau Field in the Favre/Rodgers era.
Abdullah still wasn’t a big part of the offense - he carried five times for 15 yards - but he showed off his big-play ability with a 104-yard kickoff return. Fittingly for a frustrating rookie season, he didn’t score on the play - he was tackled on the Packers 1, tying Percy Harvin’s record for the longest non-scoring play in league history.
The Lions went 6-2 in the second half of the season, and while Abdullah still only averaged 10 carries a game, he was much more effective. He averaged 4.7 yards a carry and 30.1 yards per kick return while building trust with his ability to hang on to the ball.
This season, he is going in as the No. 1 back. He’s going to give way to Riddick on third-down plays, and both Zach Zenner and rookie Dwayne Washington are going to get time in short-yardage situations, but he needs to establish himself as a solid featured tailback.
If he doesn’t, the pressure on Stafford will probably be too much to bear.