Here’s how Detroit Lions can win big in 2020: Keys to success

Detroit Free Press

Few people are giving the Detroit Lions much of a chance this season.

You would be hard-pressed to find many prognosticators who see something other than an NFC North basement finish for a team coming off a 3-12-1 season.

Dave Birkett’s picks: They have enough to make expanded playoffs?

The national narrative, and perhaps even the local one, goes something like this: “Yep, Matthew Stafford has a strong arm and he can be really good if he’s healthy. And Kenny Golladay is really good.”

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But there is a way for the Lions to succeed this year. There’s a way for them to stay in the hunt for the expanded playoffs and change the narrative.

They just have to listen to me.

So here are my three keys to victory for the Lions in the 2020 NFL season.

A healthy Matthew Stafford

Let’s start with the most obvious one. Seems simple, right? He’s the franchise, keep him healthy.

But it’s not. Years ago, Jim Schwartz had to try to save Calvin Johnson from himself by telling him to dial it down in practice and not dive for every ball. Johnson told Schwartz that was the only way he knew how to practice and get better.

[ Stafford thinks he’s an NFL MVP candidate in 2020 ]

Managing an elite athlete is a tricky thing. Curbing competitiveness doesn’t always work. But, if it hasn’t happened already, coaches need to tell Stafford to be extremely judicious about taking extra risks on the field.

The offensive line is transitioning, with three new players this year. No one knows how good it will be, but no one outside of Allen Park is expecting elite play across the board. That means Stafford is likely to take his share of licks just standing in the pocket. So he has to help himself avoid injury by limiting his scrambling and getting rid of the ball faster.

Yeah, I know. Everyone likes Stafford’s toughness. We like QBs who hang tough in the pocket. Blah, blah, blah. Did you love Stafford’s toughness when he wasn’t playing the second half of the season? He’s 32 years old and even though the Lions signed a capable backup in Chase Daniel, they don’t have a realistic chance at sustained success without Stafford.

For subscribers: Scouting the Lions’ offense: Just how potent will it be?

The Lions get criticized and ridiculed for trying to be the Patriots. But how about if they borrow this philosophy from the Patriots: Don’t let your QB run. Tom Brady almost never ran in New England. That’s why he’s 43 and still playing.

If you compare how much Stafford and Brady have run over their past seven full seasons, it’s not even close: Stafford had 250 rushes and Brady had 199. That means Brady had 51 fewer rushes than Stafford over those seven seasons. With a yearly average of 28.4 carries in that span, Brady eliminated nearly two seasons’ worth of rushing compared to Stafford.

Call it what you want. Smart football or living to fight another day. Stafford is a highly intelligent player. He should recognize the few moments in a game that call for him to unavoidably put his body in harm’s way by running for a first down or making a play near the end zone at a crucial point in the game.

More defensive pressure

The Lions’ defensive problems started up front last year. They struggled to mount pressure on opposing quarterbacks and that created problems for the back seven, which had to cover receivers way too long.

[ Scouting the Lions’ defense: Changes everywhere, but for the better? ]

The Lions had the NFL’s second-worst sack rate, allowed the most passing yards per game and had the league’s worst interception rate in 2019. It all starts up front. If you give NFL quarterbacks and receivers enough time, they’ll get pick apart any defense.

The good news is that one of the main culprits is gone. Defensive tackle Damon Harrison had been a savior during the 2018 season but he was a major disappointment last year. The Lions were counting on him and he let them down — after he signed an extension that paid him $2.2 million more, said his body wasn’t willing after the final game and then claimed he never felt comfortable in Matt Patricia’s defense and wanted out. Now he’s making rumblings about wanting to sign. My advice to interested NFL teams: caveat emptor. And no, that’s not a free-agent Italian kicker.

A’Shawn Robinson, who played well in spurts but never lived up to his potential, also is gone. Losing highly productive linebacker Devon Kennard could be a problem. But he’s been replaced by Jamie Collins, who’s also productive and brings more versatility.

From the little I’ve seen during training camp, it appears Nick Williams and Danny Shelton are upgrades over Harrison and Robinson. As a bonus, Shelton seems to have a lot of fun playing and Williams comes off a polished professional both in his work ethic and with how he deals with reporters.

For subscribers: Breaking down the defense: How close is Jeff Okudah to contributing?

I don’t have as much concern about the secondary, even if as many as three new players start this season. If the D-line holds up its end and defensive coordinator Cory Undlin gets creative about manufacturing pressure, it’s hard to imagine the defense not improving this season.

Receivers must be great

Every year an NFL team goes into the season expecting to rely on a key component of their game plan. Then disaster strikes. Everything unravels and the season is lost.

This year, that component for the Lions would be their top three receiving threats: Golladay, Marvin Jones and Danny Amendola. They were lethal last year and everyone’s expecting nothing less this season.

Simply put: The Big 3 of the Lions’ receiving corps can’t have a slow start or take a step back or traffic any other disappointing platitudes. They. Must. Be. Great.

That’s it.

[ Lions release 2020 depth chart and there are a few curious listings ]

If one of them misses significant time, there isn’t much chance the offense can be as potent as it needs to be.

Sure, Adrian Peterson and the running backs might help make up for any problems with the Big 3. Maybe T.J. Hockenson and Jesse James deliver this year.

But the run game and the tight ends aren’t being counted on to be great. If they are, that’s a bonus. But there are only two established units with a history of success on this team: The passing attack with the Big 3 and the kicker Matt Prater.

We all know every player is one injury away from missing the rest of the season. There’s certainly a fair amount of luck involved when it comes to health. But otherwise, it’s on these three receivers and their coaches to make sure they’re in the best position to be as productive as they were last year. The season depends on it.

Contact Carlos Monarrez at and follow him on Twitter @cmonarrez. The Free Press has started a new digital subscription model. Here’s how you can gain access to our most exclusive Lions content. 

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