Detroit Lions will climb back into playoff race if these 3 groups buckle down

Detroit Free Press

Carlos Monarrez
 
| Detroit Free Press

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Starting with this week’s game at Jacksonville, the Detroit Lions enter a favorable part of their schedule over the next seven games.

But they still need to improve in some key areas. Here are three position groups the Lions need to step up if they want to go on a run and give themselves a chance at playoff contention:

Defensive line

The run defense — which allows 170.3 yards per game and ranks dead last in the NFL — has become a vulnerable weakness every opponent wants to attack. That falls mostly on the defensive line, specifically on the tackles.

The Lions can talk all they want about how the pass rush is complementary and how rush and cover work together. Yeah, the hip bone’s connected to the back bone. Blah, blah, blah. We get it. But as a coach explained to me a long time ago, the defensive line is the engine of the defense. It makes everything else work. You can have prime Deion Sanders, Darrelle Revis, Charles Woodson and Ed Reed in the secondary, but if the D-line can’t stop the run, the offense can move the ball at will.

The Lions’ problem is they have exactly one elite player on the defensive line: Trey Flowers. But he gets canceled out too easily because the offense doesn’t have to pay extra attention to another defender at the line of scrimmage. That means the Lions then have to commit an extra defender in the box to stop the run. Then that compromises the pass coverage.

In New England, Matt Patricia ran a defense that used a holistic approach to stopping the run, and the Patriots were among the NFL’s best at doing it. But you can’t forget that the Patriots also had elite nose tackles such as Vince Wilfork and Alan Branch who were the catalysts for making it all work.

Even with the Lions, we all remember what a difference Ndamukong Suh, Shaun Rogers and Damon Harrison (at least in 2018) made. These types of players get paid for a reason. They eat space, they’re disruptive and they wreck offensive game plans. No disrespect to Nick Williams or Danny Shelton, but they just aren’t at that elite level.

Quarterback

Let’s be clear: Lions quarterback Matthew Stafford hasn’t played terribly and he’s far from the weakest link on the team. But as a 12-year veteran and one of the organizations highest-paid players, he’s counted on to be better than “not terrible.”

Stafford has just looked off on his throws. It’s hard to explain his general lack of sharpness, but it should be obvious to anyone who’s watched him this season, especially when you compare him to how he played last season.

My suspicion is that Stafford’s struggles are somewhat related to coming off two straight years of back injuries. Lions coaches have recently been very cagey when asked about Stafford’s back. And with a huge roster bonus coming up next year, Stafford has 10 million reasons to be less than truthful about how healthy his back really is.

I don’t blame Stafford for obfuscating the truth, but I also don’t trust him or the team to divulge the exact reasons for his struggles. Offensive coordinator Darrell Bevell just suggested Stafford needs to improve his footwork. Umm … OK. But anyone who’s ever had a bad back knows it affects your whole body, especially anything related to precise foot placement.

I mention all of this because if Stafford’s back is worse — and perhaps a lot worse — than he’s letting on, it would be unfair to expect much improvement out of him. But that’s what the Lions need. They need elite quarterback play to make up for deficiencies on defense.

So I don’t buy any of this footwork stuff as being the key problem. At most, his poor footwork is a symptom of other problems. The good news is Stafford doesn’t seem too far off from playing at a higher level. He’s still moving the offense, especially early in games, and he’s mostly making good decisions. And, oddly, his mobility during games is impressive. Of course, NFL teams are better than anyone at pain management on game days.

If Stafford can avoid serious injuries the rest of the season, his veteran savvy combined with Bevell’s extensive experience should give him a good chance to raise his game where the team needs it to be.

Offensive line

When it comes to quarterback struggles, you immediately have to consider the offensive line.

My colleague Dave Birkett recently wrote an incisive article examining why Stafford’s sacks where so high this season. He looked at all 12 sacks and concluded that at least five of them could be blamed on the offensive line. He also cited an ESPN metric said the Lions win on 61% of their pass-block snaps.

That paints a somewhat rosy picture of the offensive line’s performance. But the unit has had clear miscommunication errors on blown assignments. Even offensive line coach Hank Fraley recently admitted there also have been some good, old-fashioned “boneheaded mistakes.”

Injuries have kept the offensive line from having any consistency in the lineup. That’s no one’s fault. But it explains why the unit hasn’t been great and part of the reason the Lions rank 24th in rushing defense and 23rd in sacks per pass attempt.

There’s also an NFL Next Gen stat called “time to throw” for quarterbacks, and Stafford’s average of 2.61 seconds is seventh-worst in the league. This seems like the best quantifiable explanationof why the offense seems to sputter once the scripted plays stop after the first couple of drives. Once the automatic play calls are done, and Stafford and the offensive line have to adjust to the defense, the Lions quickly run out of time for adequate protection.

Unfortunately, like the defensive line, the Lions’ offensive line doesn’t have truly elite players. Taylor Decker and Frank Ragnow might one day be Pro Bowlers, but they aren’t currently considered among the NFL’s elite.

The offensive line, though, should be good enough to at least achieve some modest improvement if players can stay healthy. Players always want the bye week to come later so they heal up and rest. But an early bye is actually more helpful for coaches who need to fix problems. Better health and a little more time playing together should go a long way to help the offensive line.

Contact Carlos Monarrez at cmonarrez@freepress.com and follow him on Twitter @cmonarrez. 

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