Open thread: How can the Lions improve in 2021?

Pride of Detroit

To say this 0-5 start has been an emotional ride would be an understatement.

The Detroit Lions have experienced the entire spectrum of heartbreak. They’ve gotten hammered (vs. Packers). They’ve fallen short in a comeback (vs. 49ers). They’ve been fleeced by officiating (vs. Ravens). They’ve gotten unlucky (also vs. Ravens). They’ve succumbed to a record-setting field goal (also vs. Ravens).

To cap off this Week 5 game against the Minnesota Vikings, the Lions had their hopes raised and quickly dashed. A late fumble deep in Vikings territory led to the Lions taking the lead with under a minute to go. The game fittingly ended on a Vikings game-winning field goal to keep Detroit winless.

Barring a comeback for the ages, the Lions are not competing for the division or the playoffs this year. However, you still want to see some success in 2021—nobody wants to be the infamous first team to go 0-17, and certainly not Detroit. The Lions should be able to string together a win or two, right?

Right?

Today’s Question of the Day is:

How can the Lions improve in 2021?

My answer: Obviously the goal of football is to win, but getting those wins will be a challenge for these Lions. This is a very open-ended question, students, and there is no right answer.

I think that the Lions need to rewrite their second down playbook.

It might seem odd to pinpoint second down as an area to improve when the Lions are converting a mere 32.1 percent of third downs, but I think there is a good reason. The Lions had 21 second down attempts against the Vikings. Ten of them led to a third-and-5 or greater. Another two of them led to turnovers. On over half of their second down attempts, they were putting their offense in a bad position on third down, if they even got to third down. If you want to be successful on third down, you need to be successful on second down too.

But five yards should be doable, right? Unfortunately, the Lions offense is far from average. They can be streaky, as seen with the late rallies in recent weeks, but that’s a symptom of their problems: you cannot trust the offense. The offense requires training wheels. The Lions completed only four second down attempts that were greater than five yards. Not only are the Lions often failing to convert second-and-long, but they haven’t been setting themselves up for easier third downs either.

It’s easy to say the Lions can improve upon Jared Goff, but for 2021, there is no solution. A trade is not happening, nor would it be wise for Detroit. David Blough is not an upgrade over Goff. The coaches have to accept what they have in him and adjust to it. I think Anthony Lynn has coached his butt off so far, but there is still room for improvement.

The strength of the Lions offense has been their running game, but they aren’t breaking off explosive plays. The Lions’ longest run has come courtesy of Jared Goff at just 26 yards. Asking them to gain five yards a carry every down isn’t realistic, despite what their 4.3 yards per carry says—the mean of their runs is greater than the median of their runs.

The Lions need to stop running on second-and-long as often. This seems counterintuitive given that rushing is their strength, but until they can rip off chunk plays on a consistent basis, a third-and-5 is going to be a problem. That puts Goff into a do-or-die situation, and as we’ve seen so far, it’s more die than do. If you’re throwing on second down, at least you give Goff two shots at moving the chains. It highlights how important a competent passing attack is. On average, you simply gain more yards by passing than running. The reward of a good pass outweighs the reward of a good run.

Goff doesn’t have to take risky shots downfield either. Screens have been very effective for the Lions so far, and I think they could stand to incorporate them more often. A pass to D’Andre Swift is more valuable than a run by D’Andre Swift. While you can’t abandon the run completely, I think putting the ball in the hands of Goff ironically makes it easier for Goff. Short passing is Goff’s strength. Let him make the safe plays he feels comfortable with. Running the ball on second down has too often felt like a waste of a down.

Maybe I’m crazy, but I think an overhauled second down playbook could drastically help out the Lions. Not enough to make the playoffs, but enough to avoid infamy.

Your turn.

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