Bob Quinn made a lot of moves this off-season to stem the outflow of talent that has been occurring since the 2014 season ended. Faced with a reasonable amount of cap space but a large number of holes to fill, Quinn chose to gamble on other teams’ rejects and draft busts rather than high profile signings. The proof in the pudding can be seen where the rubber hits the road though. Here is what I think of the Lions’ performances on defense in 2016.
Defensive Coaching: B-
There are two ways to look at the topic of Teryl Austin’s coaching this season. The first is that the Lions defense has been awful in it’s worst moments, and average in it’s best moments, meaning that Austin has been terrible. The second is that this team has started players like Thurston Armbrister, Kyle Van Noy, Asa Jackson, Johnson Bademosi, Rafael Bush, Brandon Copeland, and had four of it’s top four players missing or limited by injury for significant chunks of the season and remained competitive. I fall in to the second camp; I think Teryl Austin has done as much as any coach could have with a dumpster fire of a roster. The Lions were right in the middle of the league in points allowed, yards allowed, rushing yards allowed, and passing yards allowed.
Defensive End: F
The Lions’ defensive line has been unable to pressure the quarterback this season, generating the second fewest sacks in the NFL. Ziggy Ansah was injured in a manner that often robs a player of his explosiveness until long term rest is possible, and no other player stepped into that role. Kerry Hyder did generate some pass rush, but at the cost of all other responsibilities, and after a red hot start to the season, managed only three sacks in the final 12 games of 2016. Devin Taylor has been so terrible in the pass rush that Austin has resorted to dropping him in to coverage. Anthony Zettel appears to have a future in the NFL, something that is not a given for a sixth round pick, but despite flashes of brilliance he is still a work in progress. The defensive end position has been the greatest weakness of the Lions’ defense all season.
Defensive Tackle: C
At defensive tackle the Lions were stout against the run, but disappeared completely in the pass rush. The only player for whom that was surprising was Tyrunn Walker, who had been billed as a disruptive gap shooter, but looked like a player that was not yet all the way back from the horrendous injury that cost him the 2015 season. The rest of the Lions’ defensive tackle group are secondary pass rush threats in their best moments. Stefan Charles, Khyri Thornton, and A’Shawn Robinson could not apply less pressure on the quarterback if they tried. Robinson was a rookie adjusting to a scheme that could not be more different than his collegiate experience, but the other two just did exactly what they are capable of. Haloti Ngata was the best of the Lions’ defensive tackles, but at age 32 his best days are long behind him.
Tahir Whitehead performed well overall in his first season as the Lions’ undisputed starter at middle linebacker. Whitehead has his limitations in man coverage against skilled receiving tight ends, but that has not been the Lions’ scheme in 2016. The Lions were not a fantasy gold mine for tight ends once Teryl Austin realized this. The outside linebacker spots have been among the worst in the league all season. Late season re-additions of Josh Bynes and DeAndre Levy have brought the linebacker corps to an almost respectable level, but Bynes is a back up level player, and Levy has yet to regain his pre-injury form.
Antwione Williams had moments of competence, which is all you can ask of a day three draft pick in his rookie season. The team finally jettisoned Kyle Van Noy, a square peg shoved in to a round hole for his entire career, but not before he put some of the worst play of his career on the field. Even with the defensive ends playing as poorly as they have, were it not for the stout play of Tahir Whitehead the linebackers would have been the worst position group on the field.
Darius Slay, and then everyone else. Slay stepped in to his nick name; personally icing multiple games for the team in 2016. “Big Play Slay” was the lone bright spot for the team in 2016 at the corner spot. Nevin Lawson showed he belongs in the NFL, but has not been good as the second outside corner. Teams were able to target Quandre Diggs at will before his injury with quick slot receivers. It would likely be best for the team if both of those players were pushed one spot lower on the depth chart before the 2017 season begins. Johnson Bademosi showed that he is clearly a fourth option ideally as an outside corner, ranging from barely acceptable to legitimately awful at times. Behind that was a revolving door of names that we don’t even need to bother remembering.
Glover Quin has been solid as expected. The surprise of the year for the Lions has been the emergence of Tavon Wilson as a legitimate strong safety. Rafael Bush showed early that he was not really up to the starting job, but has filled in nicely in big nickel situations throughout the year. Miles Killebrew is a freak athlete with a unique skill set, but has had the rookie moments that you would expect from a kid trying to jump from southern Utah to the NFL. His upside showed itself on numerous occasions. Quin played every snap of the 2016 season, the only Lions’ defender to do so. After figuring out the proper slotting of their depth chart, the Lions’ safeties became the best position group on the defensive side of the ball.
Overall Defensive Grade: C
The Lions ended the year as an average defense after opening as the worst in the league after four games. They sustained an incredible number of injuries to key players on the defensive side of the ball, which left us wondering what might have been. Austin scraped together a successful game plan more often than not, and gave Matthew Stafford the opportunity to perform his miraculous work.
Special Teams Coaching: C
Andre Roberts continually takes kicks from four yards deep and brings them out of the end zone. This typically costs the Lions about five yards. An average Lions’ drive in 2016 was 35.7 yards according to football outsiders. An average Lions’ drive from a touchback would put them in range for a 52 yard field goal attempt if the drive started at the 25 yard line.
Specifically in the first Chicago game at 3:34 in the third quarter Roberts returned a Chicago kickoff from four yards deep. Johnson Bademosi was penalized on the return, so the Lions started their drive on their own ten. They lost fifteen yards rather than the usual 5-8. That drive stalled at the Lions’ 46 yard line. In a game where the Lions were down 10-6, they should have been on the Bears 39 yard line considering a 52 yard field goal attempt. The Lions lost that game by three points, making that net loss of fifteen yards the play that potentially cost the Lions the game, and eventually the division.
Roberts did occasionally return the ball beyond the 25 yard line from the end zone, but the vast majority of the time he was stopped short. The Lions kick coverage units were very good however, so special teams coordinator Joe Marciano gets a passing grade.
Matt Prater and Sam Martin have been good to great all year. Prater’s clutch field goals and Martin’s booming punts have played an underrated role in this team’s road to the playoffs. Don Mulbach once again went an entire season without a single bad snap.
Andre Roberts has been the Lions’ primary return man, having averaged 22.64 yards per kick return, and 12.3 yards per punt return. Roberts was the only player in the NFL to return 30+ kickoffs. Among the top twenty returners in yardage, his average return was sixteenth but was about average across the league.
His punt return numbers however were exemplary. Roberts had the third highest punt return average in the NFL and returned punts for touchdowns. Only Tyreek Hill and Marcus Sherels equaled that feat in 2016. Roberts was the third best punt returner in the NFL for 2016. This grade puts the blame for the Lions’ tendency to return kicks out of the end zone on the coaches shoulders, as were it not their idea, Roberts surely would have had his kick return duties taken away.
Coverage: B –
Johnson Bademosi, Don Carey, Miles Killebrew, and Brandon Copeland were very good in kick and punt coverage in 2016. The Lions allowed an average punt return of only 6.0 yards, good for fifth in the NFL. The kickoff team did not fare as well, however, allowing 21.5 yards per return which was good for fifteenth in the league. Any of the four players listed above would have been worthy of a special team Pro Bowl trip, but alas the Lions’ fanbase is not one of the largest in the league.
Overall Special Teams Grade: B
Poor coaching decisions were really the only hole in the Lions’ special teams performance in 2016. The players held up their end almost without fail, allowing no return touchdowns of any kind, and stifling returners the majority of the time. Andre Roberts had an excellent year and should definitely be brought back next season. The only question mark is the mystifying regularity with which an otherwise habitually conservative coaching staff rolled the dice with field position. It is surprising to see a Jim Caldwell coached team not playing the averages.
Jim Caldwell: B
Love him or hate him, Jim Caldwell led this team to a winning record in 2016. Many pundits were picking the Lions to be fourth in the division and contending with the Browns and 49ers for the top draft pick in 2017. Injuries stole the Lions’ running game and the second level of their defense for the majority of the season.
Still the Lions managed to come out on top more often than not and found a birth in the playoffs. The Lions managed a mere 3-3 record in their own division however, and that cost them a playoff home game. A head coach is judged primarily by the team’s record in relation to their expected record. Jim Caldwell’s Lions won five more games than a lot of people who get paid a lot of money picked them to win. If they had pulled out a division title he would have been a legitimate coach of the year candidate.