When the Detroit Lions happily gave Reggie Bush a $16 million contract this offseason, hopes were that the multi-talented running back could provide the offense a legitimate threat as a runner and second weapon alongside Calvin Johnson.
But even the Lions couldn't have expected a debut performance as dreamy as the one Bush put together during Sunday's 34-24 win over the Minnesota Vikings.
The 28-year-old back ran for 90 yards—the most by a Lions running back since Week 3 of last season—and also caught four passes for a team-high 101 yards and a touchdown.
In the process, Bush became the first Lions running back to tally at least 90 rushing yards and over 100 yards receiving in a single game since Barry Sanders in 1990, per ESPN Stats and Information.
The performance, by all accounts, was the product of a perfect football match; a player-team combination that was almost too good to be true. A running back who excels in space, playing on an offense that has craved balance but still wants to throw the football more than most. On Sunday, the Lions got their first taste at what their offense could be with Bush on board.
For most of the afternoon, the Vikings were content playing two-deep safeties to provide bracket coverage on Johnson. Minnesota's defensive plan worked in that regard—Johnson caught just four passes for 37 yards, his lowest totals since Week 6 of last season.
A year ago, shutting down Johnson so effectively would have been a death sentence for the Lions offense. In the three games he was kept under 60 yards, the Lions averaged just 14.7 points a game.
The script was flipped against the Vikings.
Despite Minnesota taking Johnson out of the equation, the Lions still scored 34 points and racked up 469 yards of total offense. Over 76 offensive plays, Detroit had 43 passing attempts and 33 runs, which allowed the offense to pick up 28 first downs (10 rushing) and dominate time of possession (36:19-23:41).
Bush was the catalyst from the very start.
On the Lions' very first drive, Bush took his debut carry for 12 yards, and later caught a 13-yard pass on 3rd-and-6. He consistently chewed up yards while putting the Lions in more manageable third down situations (Detroit was 5-for-13 on the all important down Sunday).
The screen shots below are examples of the defensive fronts Bush was facing for most of the afternoon:
In the first, we see both Vikings safeties playing 15-or-so yards off the line of scrimmage.
Minnesota technically has six players in the box and a cornerback playing Johnson in the slot. It's a front the Lions struggled to run against last season, but on this play, Bush finds a hole inside and cracks off a 12-yard run on first down.
In the next shot, we see another outmanned front from the Vikings.
The Lions come out in a three-receiver set out of the shotgun, and Minnesota responds with two deep safeties (you see Harrison Smith at the top of the picture in bracket coverage on Johnson, the other safety is out of the frame), and two linebackers behind a four-man defensive line.
The Lions attack this look with a draw to Bush, and he picks his way for a quick seven yards on first down.
Finally, the Vikings give another six-man box against a three-receiver, single-back offense. The safeties are again 15 or more yards off the line of scrimmage, and shaded towards Johnson.
Bush slices his way through the Minnesota front, using an athletic jump cut to evade the initial push and then speed to outrun Vikings linebacker Chad Greenway to the outside. It's an 11-yard run that the Lions simply couldn't have completed last season.
The Vikings seemed content to take away Johnson and force Bush and the running game to beat them. Overall, the Lions rushed 33 times, their highest single-game total since attempting 34 rushes against the Jacksonville Jaguars in a blowout win during Week 9 of last season.
The volume was also matched with execution, as both Bush (4.3) and Joique Bell (4.2) finished the game over 4.0 yards per carry.
While Bush's contributions in the running game allowed the Lions to control the football and dominate the line of scrimmage, it was his added dimension in the passing game that really sparked Detroit at times.
The Lions were creative in their usage of Bush on screen plays. Overall, Matthew Stafford completed three of his four passes to Bush via screens, but no play was designed the same.
The first of the screens came on Detroit's first series. On third down, the Lions went with three receivers and both Bush and Brandon Pettigrew split out in each slot. The Vikings stayed in their nickel defense, which matched Greenway up on Bush one-on-one.
Bush's athleticism and the execution of the play make the call work. Bush hesitates outside before darting towards the middle of the field, where the Lions have blockers ready to clear out a running lane. Greenway is left in pursuit while Bush weaves his way past the sticks for an easy Lions first down.
In the third quarter, a similar style of screen gave Detroit a 10-point cushion. And again, the back-breaker came on third down.
The Lions line up with three receivers and Pettigrew as the in-line tight end. Bush is flanking Stafford in the shotgun, but the Lions still appear to have Greenway spying the running back in a Cover-2 shell.
Bush again uses slight hesitation to allow the screen to develop, and Stafford hits him in stride on the middle screen. With three blockers ahead of him and only the safeties left to beat, Bush is off to the races. His long speed turns the short pass into a 77-yard touchdown and a 27-17 lead.
The Lions likely had Sunday's game plan in mind when they signed Bush to a four-year deal on the second day of free agency in March.
In theory, his 2,000 yards rushing over the last two seasons in Miami would bring respectability to Detroit's running game, while an ability to make plays in space as a receiver would allow Stafford an underneath option when defenses heavily shaded coverages toward Johnson.
The Lions got all that and more during Bush's debut against the Vikings. And while no one is expecting Bush to near 200 yards of total offense every week, the Lions must now feel confident in their ability to move the football and score when Johnson is taken out of a game.
Arguably the best combination of need and player in free agency came together when the Lions snagged Bush on the open market.
Through one week, Bush certainly has a case for being the offseason's most dynamic free-agent addition.
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