The Detroit Lions understand all of the caveats.
It was one game against a decimated Indianapolis Colts defense.
Given that small sample size, though, the Lions appear to have discovered the big-play running game that they have so desperately needed.
In Sunday’s wild 39-35 victory, Ameer Abdullah and Theo Riddick combined for 108 yards rushing, 120 yards receiving and three touchdowns. Rookie Dwayne Washington added a 1-yard touchdown.
Last year, the Lions ranked last in the NFL in rushing yards, but things changed drastically in the first game with offensive coordinator Jim Bob Colter’s full offense. Cooter replaced Joe Lombardi midway through last season but wasn’t able to fully install his system until this year.
It didn’t take long to show that things had changed. On Detroit’s first drive, Riddick scored on a 21-yard run - something he didn’t have in his arsenal a year ago as a receiving specialist. Later in the game, Abdullah also showed new versatility, coming out of the backfield to catch a touchdown pass.
That, alone, is a huge breakthrough for the Lions. Last season, their offense was predictable from the tailback - Abdullah was the runner and Riddick was the receiver. If both players can handle both roles this year, Cooter can give his opposing coordinators sleepless nights.
Jim Caldwell understands that as well as anyone, but he’s not getting overly excited.
“We got a little better, I think,” he said Monday. “We still have a long way to go. Obviously, having a run game that’s effective helps us all the way across the board. It helps your passing game and keeps down the wear and tear on your quarterback.”
Sure enough, with the help from his backs, Matthew Stafford went 31-38 for 340 yards and three touchdowns - two of them to Riddick and Abdullah.
“The most important thing is that Jim Bob and the guys on offense do a nice job of getting those guys the ball in ways where they can utilize their talents,” Caldwell said. “That’s not always handing them the ball. They both were over 100 all-purpose yards, and I think that’s who they are. They are effective out of the backfield, but you have to mix it up for them.”
Abdullah agreed with his coach that two versatile backs will be a huge boost for the offense.
“It is pretty sweet that we have an abundance of guys who can come in,” he said. “We can change up without missing a beat.”
A lot of the credit for Sunday’s performance belongs to the offensive line. The team brought back four starters and a rookie left tackle from the unit that was one of the league’s worst a year ago, but they opened holes for the runners and protected Stafford.
Laken Tomlinson struggled again at left guard, but center Travis Swanson took a big step from last season, and Taylor Decker played well in his NFL debut at left tackle.
If the running game performs at that level for another 15 games, the Lions have a serious shot at a second postseason win in 59 years. Unfortunately for them, they won’t be facing the Colts defense on a weekly basis. It isn’t likely the Vikings or Packers will be quite as generous.