What's behind Adrian Peterson's Detroit decline, and how the Lions can fix it

DETROIT -- Adrian Peterson started off as a good idea for the Detroit Lions. He offered the team’s young running backs a football legend to learn from. Considering the team’s rushing woes -- going back years -- a potential consistent force in the backfield even as an older player was a good thing to have.

And there’s been consistency. Just not the kind the Lions likely wanted.

Ever since Peterson’s Lions debut, where he ran for 93 yards and 6.64 yards per carry against Chicago, his numbers have declined. Sure, some of the stats have looked decent, particularly in the early weeks against Green Bay (5.86 yards per rush) and Arizona (75 yards, 3.41 yards per carry).

But the production has slipped. Each week, Peterson has averaged fewer yards per carry than the week before, going all the way from 6.64 to 1.4 yards per carry on Sunday against Indianapolis, the fifth-worst yards-per-carry game of Peterson’s career.

The Lions have slowly noticed as rookie D’Andre Swift’s snap percentages have started to rise -- including 45 percent of offensive snaps against the Falcons and 62 percent against the Colts -- Peterson’s play has not been commensurate with the work he’s been getting.

Perhaps it’s time for Detroit to go back to its old leading rusher, Kerryon Johnson, who hasn’t had a carry since Jacksonville in Week 6. Not that Johnson had run well this season -- 25 attempts for 80 yards -- but the Lions do need to find a productive balance to Swift, who should be the lead option for Detroit at this point, as both a receiving back and a rusher.

There’s another piece of this when it comes to Peterson. The Lions have felt more predictable when Peterson is on the field. According to ESPN Stats and Information, Peterson has run up the middle on 39 of his 85 carries this season, averaging 2.9 yards per rush. He’s then gone toward the left guard 25 times (4.64 yards per rush), the right guard 12 times (1.42 yards per rush), the right tackle five times (10.2 yards per rush) and the left tackle four times (6.0 yards per rush).

It’s been an issue, because it’s turned into something that’s expected, especially on first down where 25 of his 51 carries have gone up the middle. When those outside an NFL team can expect it, you know for sure an opponent knows it’s coming. When Peterson is on the field, Detroit has run the ball 58 percent of the time and passed 42 percent of the time.

So it’s possible Peterson could still be a more effective back if Detroit diversified how it used him.

Contrast this with how the Lions have used Swift, at least in terms of his position: Fourteen of his 41 carries have been up the middle, 12 have been to the right guard, seven the left tackle, five the left guard and three the right tackle. That's still largely inside -- but a bit more diverse. They’ve been a bit more predictable when Swift has been on the field, in that they’ve passed 70 percent of the time, but some of that has to do with situations because of Swift’s ability as a pass catcher.

On Sunday, neither Peterson nor Swift were helped by a porous offensive line playing its worst game of the year against one of the NFL’s top run defenses. Other than Frank Ragnow, who posted a 100 percent run block win rate against the Colts, every other offensive line position group posted below-average numbers.

The guards won a season-worst 59.1 percent of their blocks. The tackles won 68.2 percent -- their third worst win-rate of the season and the 65.3 percent total was the team’s second-worst percentage of the season. Their average 4.27 run blocks win per play was the worst they’ve had all season.

So it’s part of the reason for the poor performance. So whether it’s personnel or play-call, something needs to change to boost Detroit’s rushing performance.