As Lions Find Their Missing Piece, Tate Likes What He Sees

"It’s something we’ve been wanting for a long time now," he said.

Will Burchfield
September 28, 2018 - 5:29 pm

© Raj Mehta-USA TODAY Sports

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Not that it was ever much of a mystery, but Golden Tate settled on Friday a debate he ignited last season. 

It was toward the end of the year that Tate said the Lions were one piece away from owning the NFC North. Out of respect for his teammates, he left that missing piece unnamed. 

“I have it in my head,” said Tate, “but I don’t want to throw anyone under the bus, so I’ll just keep it to myself.”

A few theories made sense, but it was pretty clear Tate's frustration lied with the run game. The Lions ranked among the bottom five teams in the league in rushing in each of Tate's first four seasons in Detroit, finishing dead last in both 2015 and 2017. On Friday he confirmed the obvious. 

Was it the run game? 

"Yeah," he said matter-of-factly. 

At long last, the Lions are starting to turn the corner. Week 1 brought more of the same old struggles, but in Week 2 the Lions rushed for an efficient 98 yards versus the 49ers and in Week 3 they churned up 159 yards versus the Patriots. 

They rank 16th in the NFL with 98.7 rushing yards per game -- it's early, but that's the highest they've ranked since, yes, 1998. More significantly, they're tied for eighth in the league with 4.5 yards per carry. 

For Tate, it's a sight to behold. 

"We love seeing it, it’s something we’ve been wanting for a long time now," he said. "But we have to come back and do it consistently. It doesn’t matter what we did last week if we don’t come back and run the ball efficiently this week. That’s what we want to do, and that’s a collective effort from head to toe. I believe if we run the ball well it’s going to open it up for us." 

The awakening of the run game owes to a number of factors, starting with personnel. The Lions spent their first two picks in this year's draft on an interior offensive lineman and a running back, and on Sunday they reaped the rewards. Kerryon Johnson became the team's first player to rush for 100 yards in nearly five years and Frank Ragnow put forth the best performance of any left guard in the league, per Pro Football Focus. 

To no surprise, Matthew Stafford also had his best game of the year. 

If the run game performs all season the way it did in Week 3, it's tempting to wonder just how good Detroit's offense can be. Tate smiled at the idea. 

"Really good," he said. "We’re able to do a lot of things. I think it’s going to open up the playbook even more."

Stafford has now been the beneficiary of an 100-yard rusher eight times in his career. He's 7-1 in those games with a passer rating of 99.05. The more defenses have to respect the run, the more often Stafford can burn them with the pass. 

The Lions were actually one of the best teams in the league last season on play-action. It's hard to figure given how bad their run game was, and Tate, for his part, can't explain it. It's like hitting home runs with a weighted bat. 

Think about how dangerous they can be when those weights come off. 

"The sky’s the limit," said Tate. "Those down-the-field passes become more open because of the play-action pass. The linebackers are coming up to play the run but then they realize it’s a pass and now they have to drop back. By then, with our quarterback and the speed we have on the outside, you can can kind of have your way with teams." 

Tate witnessed first-hand the value of the run game during his time with the Seahawks. In each of his final two seasons, when they went 24-8 and won the Super Bowl in 2013, Seattle ranked among the top four teams in the league in rushing. They were led by the bruising Marshawn Lynch. 

The Lions signed their version of Lynch this offseason in LeGarrette Blount. But the most exciting addition was Johnson, last year's SEC Offensive Player of the Year. Within the fanbase, he was immediately hailed as the answer to the team's run game. 

Tate was careful not to get that carried away. 

"No offense to Kerryon, but I wasn’t going to hold our run game in a rookie’s hands before I’d even laid eyes on him," he said. "But Kerryon’s been phenomenal." 

Through three games, Johnson has rushed 29 times for 161 yards (5.6 yards per carry) and added 10 receptions for 52 yards. He's been every bit the all-purpose back the Lions hoped he'd be. Add Blount and Theo Riddick to the mix, and Detroit's backfield is right there among the most versatile groups in the league. 

It's another refreshing sight for Tate. 

"We got a power back, we got a quick back, and we got a guy who looks like he’s running slow but he’s really running really, really fast in Kerryon," Tate said with a laugh. "We got some good players back there and obviously we drafted pretty high to go get some guys that could help us this year along with what we’ve done in free agency over the last few years, so it’s been a priority for sure." 

It all looked good last week. Another opportunity awaits Sunday in Dallas. 

"Let’s not get too overly excited," said Tate. "It’s still a long season and lot of things can happen. We ran the ball well one game. We have to be consistent, that’s what we’re looking for."