Zach Zenner has proven enough to be Lions lead back rest of way

ALLEN PARK, Mich. – For months now, the Detroit Lions have been searching for a consistent running game. Injuries and inconsistency have plagued the Lions at running back ever since Ameer Abdullah went on injured reserve after a foot injury in Week 2.

Theo Riddick has been unable to stay healthy, including missing Detroit’s last three games. Dwayne Washington has dealt with ankle injuries and has been inconsistent when he has played.

The Lions signed and then cut Justin Forsett, who barely got any work. They signed Joique Bell, too, but haven’t used the veteran at all.

So that leaves one guy: Zach Zenner. The second-year pro had one of the best performances of the season in the first half against Dallas on Monday night. He had 64 of his career-high 67 yards and two touchdowns in the first 30 minutes.

He ran hard. He ran smart. He ran like a player who should be Detroit’s top running back the rest of the season, whether that’s one game against Green Bay or further into the playoffs.

Zenner also showed his receiving prowess, catching two passes for 25 yards.

“We ran the ball well,” Zenner said. “The first half went well. But when you have a second half like that, the first half, it just kind of fades away.”

Zenner was used often in the first half, carrying the ball 10 times. In the second half, he had two rushes for 3 yards. When Lions coach Jim Caldwell was asked why they went away from Zenner after a productive first half – a rarity for Detroit on the ground this season – he said things changed in the course of the game.

“Zach has always been a good, steady guy for us and a tough competitor, smart,” Caldwell said. “Zach can make plays. He’s a workhorse and he’s consistent. We like what he does.”

That’s a long way from the first two weeks of the season, when he was a healthy scratch in favor of Washington when Abdullah and Riddick were both healthy.

The 25-year-old has been a mostly effective piece of a struggling Lions running back group whenever he has gotten opportunities this season. Zenner has 68 carries for 265 yards this season, a team-best three rushing touchdowns and is averaging 3.9 yards per carry, better than any Lions back other than Abdullah.

He has the same amount of yards as Washington in 22 fewer carries and also has 155 receiving yards, second among Lions running backs to only Riddick, who has 371.

He’s actually seventh among running back in the league in yards after first contact per rush at 2.22 yards per carry, behind Ty Montgomery, Jalen Richard, Eddie Lacy, DeAndre Washington, Jay Ajayi and Rob Kelley.

“He’s a guy that when he gets the ball he’s going to take the run into the correct hole and the correct read and finish,” quarterback Matthew Stafford said. “He’s a big dude. He finishes downhill. That first 20-yarder he had, or whatever it was, he was pulling people at the end and moving the pile.

“So he’s done a really nice job for us, kind of been a jack of all trades for us.”

That hss been his role during his two years in Detroit. He often has been the fill-in guy whenever someone gets hurt. And he has typically done that role well. But this week, with the Lions needing a semblance of a running game in a divisional title game, he might get placed into a much larger position.

He might be the guy Detroit will need to partially count on to try and get a win.