Racking up 191 total yards on 25 touches in the Detroit Lions' 34-24 win over the Minnesota Vikings, Bush was sensational as a runner/receiver on the fast track at Ford Field.
In my prior life as a scout for the Seattle Seahawks, I certainly bought into Bush's talent as he was coming out of USC, giving him the highest grade of my scouting career and suggesting he would become a Marshall Faulk-like playmaker in the NFL. Although Bush hasn't lived up to the lofty expectations that accompanied his arrival as one of the most decorated players in college football history, he definitely has shown flashes of brilliance throughout his career. After all, Bush helped the New Orleans Saints win a Super Bowl as a multi-purpose threat. Additionally, he displayed the ability to carry an offense as the Miami Dolphins' workhorse back over the past two seasons.
On Sunday, though, Bush put on a jaw-dropping display in his first regular-season game with the Lions, showcasing the speed, quickness and burst that made him the second overall pick in the 2006 NFL Draft. Detroit's offense was in desperate need of an explosive presence in the backfield, and Bush certainly fits the bill, as evidenced by his dynamic showing in Week 1. I'm convinced that, in his eighth NFL season, Bush finally has an opportunity to blossom into the dominant playmaker many expected to see when he first entered the league. Most importantly, he will make the Lions' offense better in a variety of ways. Here's how:
1) Bush is the explosive runner this Lions offense has been lacking.
After struggling to find his way as a traditional rusher during his early years in the NFL, Bush has become a dynamic back capable of running effectively between the tackles or on the perimeter. The growth in his game helped Bush average 1,036 rushing yards over the past two seasons with the Dolphins. While this figure doesn't appear to be that significant on the surface, the fact that Bush is now a credible runner -- in addition to being the explosive pass catcher he's always been -- makes it difficult for opponents to craft an effective game plan for slowing him down.
Ever since concussion issues sidelined Jahvid Best in 2011, the Lions have lacked a versatile threat out of the backfield. This changed the way opposing defenses attacked Detroit in recent years. But Bush's arrival via free agency gives the Lions a multi-faceted running back with the skills to score from anywhere.
At age 28, Bush still has the speed and burst to run away from defenders on outside runs, but he also shows the quickness, instincts and vision to make hard cuts in the hole and gain positive yards between the tackles. As a result, the Lions suddenly have a weapon in the backfield capable of exploiting the soft-coverage tactics opponents use to take away Calvin Johnson and Co. in the passing game. Most importantly, the Lions have a legitimate runner who alleviates some of the pressure on Matthew Stafford to carry the offense on the strength of his right arm, and a guy who also protects the quarterback from taking a battering at the hands of a defense intent on rushing the passer.
This audible results in an 11-yard gain and a fresh set of downs.
With opponents entering the game intent on taking away Detroit's explosive aerial attack, the Lions have the opportunity to inflict damage with quick-hitting runs to Bush.
2) Bush's skills as a receiver add another dimension to the playbook.
Bush has been the NFL's most prolific pass-catching running back since entering the league 2006, racking up 376 career receptions. He is a valuable weapon in the passing game, particularly as a safety valve from the tailback position or as a slot receiver in open formations. The Lions capitalized on Bush's receiving skills by featuring him prominently in the screen game. Whether with quick screens to Bush in the slot or on a number of slow or middle screens with Bush darting between the hashes, Detroit made it a point to get Bush the ball on the perimeter against Minnesota, putting the electric athlete in position to make plays in space. Here are two examples:
Stafford quickly fires the ball to Bush, who takes possession behind the line of scrimmage with a convoy of blockers in front of him in the open field:
In the next screengrab, the Lions are in a trips formation, with Bush aligned as the feature back in an offset position. He will run a middle screen after the snap to get the ball on the move between the hashes, with three blockers leading the way:
With the Vikings' defensive line flying up the field to get after Stafford, Bush sneaks behind the pass rush to field the screen on the run:
Bush weaves through Minnesota's secondary, turns on the jet boosters and takes the ball to the house for a 77-yard touchdown.
The Lions are committed to getting Bush the ball in the open field on an assortment of quick routes and screens -- the team is putting its new toy in prime position to make big plays. That's a scary proposition for defenders around the NFL.
3) The Bush factor allows other playmakers to thrive in the passing game.
The All-Pro receiver doesn't need much help getting open, given his immense talent, but having another dynamic weapon in the lineup certainly helps create opportunities in the passing game. Bush is regarded by defensive coordinators as one of the most explosive playmakers in the NFL, and linebackers track his whereabouts on every play. Thus, lining Bush and Johnson up on the same side of the field creates a dilemma for the defense. By positioning these two playmakers in close proximity, the Lions are able to keep opponents from neutralizing their top threats through double-coverage tactics. Additionally, the use of a play fake in that direction lures linebackers to the line, creating bigger windows for Johnson at intermediate areas of the field.
In the following screengrab, the Lions are aligned in a dubs formation, with Bush and Johnson on the same side of the field:
After the snap, Stafford fakes an inside handoff to the Bush while Johnson runs a quick slant. The play fake to Bush lures the linebacker to the line of scrimmage, leaving a void for Johnson to exploit:
Stafford delivers a dart to Johnson in the open window:
This results in a nice 9-yard pickup on first down.
Bell is expected to play a critical role as a complementary back for the Lions, having earned the job with a strong preseason. Although the local Wayne State product possesses a versatile and effective skill set of his own, he becomes even more potent when Bush is on the field at the same time. Bush's presence at slot receiver removes defenders from the box and creates bigger running lanes between the tackles for Bell. Additionally, sending Bush in motion forces defenders to aggressively pursue in his direction, leaving open voids for Bell on the back side on screens and delays.
In the screengrab below, Bush aligns in the slot before executing orbit motion into the backfield to threaten a reverse:
Stafford fakes the ball in Bush's direction while Bell steps up and eventually slips out the back door to set up a screen:
With multiple defenders running in Bush's direction, Bell is able to catch the screen behind a convoy of blockers:
The threat of Bush as an impact player forces defenders to overreact to his every movement, creating big-play opportunities for other Lions. With offensive coordinator Scott Linehan adept at drawing up plays that will exploit those chances, the Lions could get tremendous production from multiple players in the passing game.