by Michael David Smith
In Pro Football Prospectus 2005, we projected Kevin Jones of the Detroit Lions as the NFL's leading rusher. We've been hearing about it ever since.
True story: My wife, who's in law school, came home one day last week and told me that one of her fellow students â€œtold me to tell you that he has Kevin Jones on two fantasy teams and he's not happy about it.â€?
Jones scored two touchdowns in Sunday's 35-17 victory over the Baltimore Ravens, which gave him a bit of fantasy value. But he gained only 58 yards on 26 carries, bringing him to a whopping 2.9 yards a carry for the season. Last year, no other running back had a higher percentage of his yards on double-digit runs; this year, Jones has just two runs over 10 yards and none over 15. There's something happening here, and we don't know what it is, do we, Mr. Jones?
After watching all 26 of his carries against Baltimore -- some good, most not so good -- I've identified seven reasons why the man who led the league in rushing over the second half of his first season hasn't accomplished anything through the first quarter of his second season. Here are some of the problems, which are related to Jones himself, his teammates, and his coaches:
1. New guard Rick DeMulling looks lost.
After a Dre Bly interception gave the Lions the ball on the 25-yard line to start their second possession, Jones took a handoff on the first play and Ravens safety B.J. Ward drilled him behind the line of scrimmage for a loss of three yards. Ward ran into the Lions' backfield directly through a spot vacated by DeMulling, who never saw him coming. The play called for Jones to run to the right, which means DeMulling should have taken a hard first step with his right foot and been in position to stop Ward dead in his tracks. Instead he took a lackadaisical step to the left and didn't do much of anything.
Later, on a first-and-10 from the Lions' 19, DeMulling pulled left to lead Jones on a sweep. DeMulling's job was to block Ray Lewis, and he never laid a finger on him. Lewis nailed Jones at the line of scrimmage.
DeMulling signed a two-year contract with the Lions this off-season after spending his first four years in the league with Indianapolis. The Lions expected him to be a major upgrade to their line. So far, he hasn't been.
2. New offensive coordinator Ted Tollner's play calling is too predictable.
After another Bly interception, the Lions had first-and-10 from their own four-yard line. The Ravens were playing run all the way, thinking the Lions wouldn't dare call a pass and risk a sack in the end zone for a safety. The Ravens were right. Jones took the handoff and, facing eight in the box, got nowhere. On the next play, second-and-9, the Ravens again lined up in an eight-man front and held Jones to three yards. On third-and-6 Joey Harrington's pass was incomplete, and the Lions had to punt. Tollner's philosophy seems to be risk avoidance at all costs, and he doesn't seem to realize that there's nothing as risky as doing exactly what the defense expects.
Tollner's reputation as a coach who likes to stretch the field hasn't been borne out in his first season with Detroit. The Lions' passing game just can't connect on long balls, which means Harrington and the receivers aren't keeping the opposing safeties honest. Tollner and Steve Mariucci are longtime friends who have worked together in the past, and so far Lions fans like Mariucci's decision to appoint him as offensive coordinator about as much as conservative bloggers like George W. Bush's decision to appoint his longtime friend Harriet Miers to the Supreme Court.
3. Fullback Cory Schlesinger is out with a broken leg, and Paul Smith isn't up to the task of replacing him.
On first-and-10 from the Lions' 35, Smith lined up in front of Jones in the offset I formation, and Smith was supposed to lead Jones through the hole on the left side of the line. This is the type of play where, last season, Schlesinger would have exploded into an opposing linebacker and cleared a hole for Jones. Instead, Smith got to the line of scrimmage and stopped. Jones could either slow down or run into Smith, and he chose the former, which allowed Lewis to tackle him for a gain of a yard.
4. New right tackle Kelly Butler isn't ready to be an NFL starter.
On second-and-9 from the Lions' 36, Jones was alone in the backfield. He took a handoff and tried to run to the outside of Butler, but Butler didn't get any push at all, and when Jones couldn't turn the corner Ravens linebacker Tommy Polley stopped him for now gain.
The Lions drafted Butler in the sixth round in 2004 and kept him on the sidelines for the entire season, even though they knew they were going to allow last year's starting right tackle, Stockar McDougle, leave as a free agent. It would have made a lot more sense to give Butler some on-field experience as a rookie and figure out whether he's ready to play. He isn't.
5. The Lions' receivers look like pampered stars who think blocking is someone else's job.
On second-and-10 from the Lions' 32, Jones took a handoff and Ravens linebacker Adalius Thomas was on top of him almost immediately, ready to tackle him behind the line of scrimmage. But Jones did a great job of breaking Thomas's tackle and could have turned a negative into a long gain. Unfortunately for the Lions, rookie receiver Mike Williams never bothered to block cornerback Dale Carter, and Carter tackled Jones for a gain of a yard. The Lions have invested three Top 10 picks in three receivers â€“ Charles Rogers, Roy Williams, and Mike Williams â€“ who were the stars of their college teams. When you're the star, sometimes the coach looks the other way when you don't block, and that can be a tough habit to break. Jones is paying the price for the way his receivers were pampered in college.
6. Jones isn't finding holes.
On second-and-10 from the Lions' 42, Jones took a handoff and the Lions' line, for one of the few times on the day, opened a big hole on the left side. But Jones didn't follow his blockers, instead running directly into Ravens tackle Aubrayo Franklin. The best running backs are smart enough to understand that the biggest hole isn't always where the playbook says it will be and fast enough to get to the right place when the play develops unexpectedly. (Five years ago Marshall Faulk was unparalleled in his ability to find holes.) Jones looks like he decides in the huddle where he's going to run.
7. Jones isn't lowering his shoulder and initiating contact in traffic.
Anyone who saw the highlights of Jones' touchdown in Tampa Bay two weeks ago knows that he's capable of dishing out punishment, as he did to the Bucs' safety, Jermaine Phillips. But when Baltimore penalties allowed Jones to have four attempts from the one-yard line Sunday, he didn't put that skill to use. On one of his four carries, he tried to jump over the line and was met in mid-air by Lewis, and on the other three he kept his upper body completely vertical. In goal-line situations, a running back should be low to the ground, like he's pushing a car, not upright like he's going for a jog. After Jones' fourth attempt from the one-yard line he left with an injury, and on the next play backup Artose Pinner pushed his way through for the touchdown. (The Ravens challenged the play and lost; none of the TV cameras had as good a view as the official who signaled the touchdown.)
Before I conclude, a bit of a digression as I make three points about the Ravens:
- I like the new 46 defense implemented by new Baltimore coordinator Rex Ryan, son of Buddy Ryan, the inventor of the 46. The tackles, Kelly Gregg and Ma'ake Kemoeatu, are doing a better job of keeping blockers off Lewis than any tackles have done since Tony Siragusa and Sam Adams helped the Ravens win the Super Bowl, and Lewis played the best game I've seen from him in a couple years. Actually, at times they did too good a job of keeping blockers off Lewis; each was called for holding twice when they grabbed Lions linemen to keep them away from Lewis.
- If you have the chance to watch R.W. McQuarters' 49-yard punt return, keep an eye on Baltimore's No. 83, Daniel Wilcox. He had a clear shot at McQuarters, could have tackled him, and instead ran right past him to shove the Lions' Wali Rainer. What he was thinking, I can't imagine, but I've never seen anything like it.
- Much has been made of the officiating, which included 21 penalties against the Ravens and a bizarre play where all 22 players thought Joey Harrington had thrown an incomplete pass, but all seven officials thought he had fumbled. (Jones was the first player to realize what the officials were thinking, and he advanced the ball to the 2-yard line.) Referee Mike Carey went to both sidelines in the first half and warned the coaches that he would be strictly enforcing personal fouls. Steve Mariucci, never known as a disciplinarian, did a much better job of keeping his players under control than did Brian Billick.
Back to Jones, and the question most people want to know: If I have him on my fantasy team, am I screwed? I don't think so. Schlesinger should be back from his broken leg soon, and Butler and DeMulling should get a better handle on how to play in Tollner's offense. The defenses on the Detroit schedule get a lot easier at mid-season, with games against bad run defenses (Falcons, Bengals) and bad overall defenses (Packers, Saints, Cardinals, and Vikings twice).
The other key is Jones himself. With 205 yards after four games, it's unlikely Jones will lead the league in rushing, but missing holes and failing to get low at the goal line are correctable problems. Jones' rookie year was characterized by a slow start and a fast finish. There's no reason his second season can't be the same.
Each week, Michael David Smith looks at one specific player or one aspect of a team on every single play of the previous game. Standard caveat applies: Yes, one game is not necessarily an indicator of performance over the entire season. If you have a player or a unit you would like tracked in Every Play Counts, suggest it by emailing Contact Us.