Allen Park — It’s starting to sound a little bit like a broken record, but the Detroit Lions are still looking for ways to unlock their downfield passing game.
“I don’t think we have that problem keeping everyone else involved,” offensive coordinator Anthony Lynn said on Thursday. “It’s just trying to push the ball down the field a little bit is what I like to do a little bit more. That’s something that’s an emphasis that we’re working on.”
After Sunday’s game against the Los Angeles Rams, Lions quarterback Jared Goff now ranks 33rd, last among qualifying quarterbacks, in depth of his target. His average pass is traveling 6.13 yards beyond the line of scrimmage, well behind Atlanta’s Matt Ryan, who is next on the list at 6.73 yards. Baltimore’s Lamar Jackson is pacing the league, with an average pass depth of 10.57 yards.
Earlier in the season, the Lions could live with the lack of downfield throws because they were still generating their fair share of explosive plays in the pass game. Through five games, they ranked seventh in the NFL with 19 gains of 20 or more yards.
Despite managing to add five more explosive gains the past two weeks — including a season long of 63 yards on a screen pass to D’Andre Swift — the team dropped to 13th in the stat category, tied with the Kansas City Chiefs.
Swift’s scoring play is a prime example of how the Lions have been able to manufacture many of their big plays, with production after the catch. Among quarterbacks, Goff’s playmakers rank sixth in that category. But the more defenses are able to sit on the short passing game, without a reliable threat of a deep component, the more difficult those extra yards will be to manufacture.
“I can tell when some people play us a little differently, absolutely, and that’s up to me,” Lynn said. “That’s when you have to take those calculated shots. We’ve done that, at times, and we haven’t been successful. We haven’t held up in protection for whatever reason, but I have to do a better job of knowing when to take those calculated shots though.”
Through seven games, Goff has attempted 27 passes of 20 or more yards beyond the line of scrimmage. He’s completed just six of those throws, according to Pro Football Focus.
Veteran inside linebacker Alex Anzalone got off to a sluggish start to the season, although he was consistently praised for his effort and leadership by the team’s coaching staff, particularly Dan Campbell.
Anzalone’s biggest struggles came in coverage, when he allowed nine completions on nine targets through the first two weeks. But in the past five games, he’s been far more effective in that department, limiting opponents to seven catches on 12 targets for just 58 yards. He also came away with an interception on a deflected ball against Minnesota.
“I don’t know if you can say turnaround,” defensive coordinator Aaron Glenn said. “I just think during the course of a season, you’re going to have ups and downs. The thing is he’s a smart player, he’s an aggressive player. He’s a player that really understands football. I think as the season progresses, each player gets comfortable and you see that with all of our players. They start understanding exactly what we’re asking of the scheme.”
Anzalone’s improvement coincided with the team’s decision to part ways with Jamie Collins after Week 2. In the defense’s current setup, where Jalen Reeves-Maybin and rookie Derrick Barnes are splitting the reps that formerly belonged to Collins, Anzalone switches responsibility based on who is on the field.
“When Derrick comes in, he plays more of the middle linebacker and I go to the weak side,” Anzalone said. “And when Jalen comes in, it’s flipped. I think that’s really the only difference, but I think they both bring great energy to the defense and they’re playing well.”
Best on the best
Despite the recent emergence of Kalif Raymond, there’s little question tight end T.J. Hockenson and running back D’Andre Swift are Detroit’s top weapons in the passing game.
Through seven weeks, the dynamic duo has combined for 40.7% of the team’s targets, 40.8% of the yardage and half the touchdowns. As that trend continues, opponents will continue to explore ways to take it away, including the Rams’ strategy of assigning All-Pro cornerback Jalen Ramsey to situationally cover both players.
“I’ve seen that before,” Lynn said. “I mean, why not? Those are the guys that you’re trying to target. You put your best players on our best. I would imagine we could see that some more.”
Hypothetically, Hockenson should at least have the ability to win some of those matchups by being more physical than a cornerback, but the speed and quickness advantage Swift has when covered by a linebacker or safety is largely negated.
“Oh man, it’s different,” Swift said. “I have to be on my game, be on my Ps and Qs going against a player like Jalen Ramsey. I know he’s going to bring it every time, so am I. I just have to be on my ‘A’ game.”
The Lions were down two cornerbacks during Thursday’s practice with Jerry Jacobs missing the day due to illness and nickel cornerback AJ Parker out with the neck injury he suffered in the second half of Sunday’s game against the Rams.
In addition to the two defensive backs, outside linebacker Trey Flowers (knee), Hockenson (ankle/knee) and running backs Jamaal Williams (thigh) and Swift (groin) were limited.
… The Lions waived defensive end Eric Banks, whom they acquired off waivers from the L.A. Chargers on Oct. 1. He didn’t appear in a game during his brief stay with the team.