To make a playoff run, Lions need more third-down runs

When the Lions and Broncos square off Sunday in Denver, the stakes will be high for Detroit. A loss would make three in a row, with the inevitable "here we go again" carryover from a decade's worth of Lions' failures.

Although Lions quarterback Matthew Stafford hasn't played quite as well as he did early on, there's little reason to be nervous about his ability -- unlike his opposite number in Denver, Mr. Tebow. But you can be nervous about the Lions' franchise player based on what's going on around him.

Detroit's aversion to running the football (yes, even before Jahvid Best's injury) is a real head-scratcher. If the Lions keep up the aerial assault, it will become difficult to keep Stafford up -- as in, upright.

There's no question Stafford has been productive, with 1,912 yards and 16 touchdowns through seven games. Yet, does anyone with a vested interest in 2009's No. 1 overall pick recall that he only played 13 of a possible 32 games over the previous two seasons due to injury?

Constantly putting the game on Stafford's shoulders means he is always in a vulnerable position. And how about opposing pass rushers, who rarely are threatened with a well-timed draw play or trap, and can just sprint toward Detroit's quarterback on every play?

The game of Russian roulette that Jim Schwartz's staff is playing can be seen most clearly on the middle-of-the-road third-down play (third down and 4-to-6 yards). While every team in the league is usually going to throw the ball in that situation, a draw or some form of delayed handoff is also a common play call in that scenario. First, because it occasionally springs a big play, and second, because it takes some of the onus off the quarterback and pass protection.

The Lions avoid the run like Mel Gibson avoids O'Doul's. Coming into this weekend's game in Denver, they had passed the ball 96 percent of the time with that down and distance (see chart). So was it really that surprising to see Stafford get banged up last Sunday?

The guy has been fantastic, but Detroit won't make the playoffs with Shaun Hill at quarterback. The loss to Atlanta packed the NFC Wild Card race that much tighter, and if there's any team in that conference that needs a playoff berth, it's the Lions, who haven't seen the postseason since 1999. I'm afraid their quarterback won't live to see a playoff race if they don't start running the rock.

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