Detroit Lions  

 

Smith's versatility out of backfield gives Lions' offense diversity

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Carlos Osorio/AP
Lions RB Kevin Smith exploded for 201 total yards and three touchdowns against the Panthers in Week 11.


 

The Lions found an unlikely remedy for their offensive woes Sunday, turning to running back Kevin Smith in the middle of their 49-35 win over the Panthers.

Left unsigned by the Lions after a disappointing three-year run, Smith spent the first half of the 2011 season working out in hopes of reviving his pro career. That chance came three weeks ago when Detroit re-signed Smith to bolster its running game, with starter Jahvid Best on the shelf indefinitely with a concussion.

While most are pointing to Smith's performance (140 rushing yards, 60 receiving yards, three touchdowns) as a one-game wonder, I believe he could be the guy who helps the offense regain its swagger heading down the stretch. Here are three ways Smith will pay huge dividends for the Lions in the coming weeks:

Smith adds juice to the running game

The Lions were lacking consistent production on the ground prior to Best's injury, but his absence has also eliminated explosive plays from the run game. The unit had only two 20-plus runs in the first three games following Best's injury and averaged 100.3 rushing yards in those contests.

Smith, however, produced two 20-plus yard runs and added a pair of 19-yard bursts Sunday. Although he's not a speedster in Best's class, Smith is a decisive runner with a smooth style that catches defenders off guard. He slithers through creases between the tackles and flashes a burst getting to the second level. His ability to avoid tacklers in the hole turned potential negative runs into big plays and sparked the offense.

That is particularly impressive considering Smith was signed as a street free agent, and never really displayed those traits during his previous stint with the Lions. He only totaled 11 runs of 20-plus yards during his first three seasons in the league, and wasn't expected to have much burst following several significant leg injuries.

However, Smith looked noticeably quicker with the ball in his hands against the Panthers. His explosiveness was apparent when the Lions utilized their spread formations to take advantage of the Panthers' lack of respect for their running game.

In looking at his 43-yard run (see video, right), Smith was able to exploit the Panthers' six-man box against their three-receiver set. After stepping initially to his left on an inside zone play, Smith quickly worked his way to the backside to slip into a crack created by a blitz. His ability to identify and explode through the hole resulted in a big gain.

With opponents intent on taking away the Lions' potent passing game out of their spread formations, using Smith as the feature back gives Detroit's fast-break offense an effective counter to their slow down tactics.

The screen pass will return

One of the overlooked aspects of Best's absence has been the Lions' inability to use the screen pass. The play was a staple during the first half of the season, but offensive coordinator Scott Linehan hadn't utilized it much with Best out. Part of the reason can be attributed to the limited explosiveness of Maurice Morris and Keiland Williams. Smith, on the other hand, is slippery in space and getting the ball into his hands in the open field with a convoy of blockers could produce big plays.

Against the Panthers, Smith produced a few big plays on screens, including a 28-yard score (see video, right). On the play, the Lions used a fake reverse before slipping Smith into the flat with multiple blockers providing an escort. Smith wisely followed his blocks to get past the initial wave of defenders before making a few nifty cuts to find his way to the paint.

Opponents have been willing to drop seven or eight defenders in coverage against the Lions to stifle their aerial attack, so having a versatile running back provides Detroit with an effective counter to the tactic.

Stafford with checkdown options is dangerous

In the three-game span following Best's injury, Matthew Stafford had two of his worst performances of the season. He forced balls into tight coverage and didn't distribute the ball well. Unlike the first six weeks of the season, when he typically incorporated seven or eight receivers into the mix, he relied heavily on Calvin Johnson and Nate Burleson to carry the load without Best.

With Smith able to convert short passes into first downs, Stafford was more willing to take the checkdown pass, which led to more manageable situations on later downs. In addition, the utilization of the running back stretched the Panthers' coverage horizontally and led to big plays to the receivers and tight ends.

The presence of a dynamic running back on underneath routes allows Stafford to take advantage of linebackers running out to cover intermediate areas in zones. This can result in huge gains on easy dumpoffs, which helps the offense stay ahead of the chains.

Follow Bucky Brooks on Twitter @BuckyBrooks

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