The Lions’ fanbase needs to be more forgiving of the national media. What we need to remember is that these people have to cover 32 NFL teams, not just one. To be perfectly blunt the Lions were completely irrelevant to them by week six of the 2015 season. Other than the late season outside possibility that they might make some noise in the wildcard race, after which the Lions went back on the irrelevant list, their eyes were elsewhere until the pre-draft coverage. What that means is that they did not see what those of us focused more on one team than the entire league saw. They watched the phoenix burn itself out spectacularly, but did not see it’s rebirth in to something beautiful, only glancing in the Lions direction briefly as some striped shirted hunters took the beast down with before it could escape their range.
What the national media did not see was Devin Taylor taking Jason Jones’ job on the field with his play (ending the year with more total snaps), or Nevin Lawson playing more than adequate football across from Darius Slay after bigger names failed to do so. They did not see Quandre Diggs looking right at home as the slot corner, or journeyman Isa Abdul-Quddus proving that when the Lions defense gets some pass rush going, pretty much anyone can fill the strong safety spot as long as they don’t skip the off-season program trying to get a pay raise they don’t deserve and miss the scheme changes. The national media did not watch the night and day performance change between the Lombardi offence and the Cooter offense, only pointing at Matthew Stafford‘s improved statistics as the result of the swap.
It seems that if I write an article on a topic and don’t make it a top five list, another site will just read it and turn the article in to a top five list lacking in thought or depth, scatter gunning a topic so that at the end of the season they can stand on the mountain top and shout that they “called it,” so here are the top five things that the national media have missed in their assessment of the Lions, causing them to believe that the team is doomed in 2016.
5 – DeAndre Levy Really is That Good
It can not be overstated how important DeAndre Levy was to the 2014 defense. The coverage abilities that Levy (and to a lesser extent a healthy Stephen Tulloch) brought to the table allowed Teryl Austin much more freedom in designing coverages and blitz packages. With the defensive line that they had the Lions did not need to blitz to generate pressure on the defense, but when they did blitz the effect was devastating to the opposition’s running and passing game. Against the run, there are few players in the NFL who can match Levy’s sideline to sideline play, and in coverage there are one or two linebackers in the NFL who match Levy’s acumen. The national media barely recognized Levy’s talent before he lost last season despite his statistical performances, but they will be reminded in short order what was missing from the Lions defense in 2015.
4 – The Lions’ Pass Rush is Very Dangerous
The Lions did not let Jason Jones go because he wanted too much money, and they did not sign a replacement for him because they did not need one; Devin Taylor was already on the roster. Along with Ezekiel Ansah, Taylor forms a duo of pass rushers which combined for 21.5 sacks last season, putting them among the league’s better duos in terms of pass rush production. Tyrunn Walker was also brought in last year based on his ability to penetrate in to the backfield, which he did right up until his leg was annihilated. Those three players will be the lament of offensive coordinators across the league in 2016. To top that all off, Ngata struggled with injury and scheme adjustment last season. After a career of playing a two gap technique in Baltimore, being limited in the 2015 off-season, and with little or no competent play from the rest of the position group, Ngata was taken out of most games with double teams on the majority of plays. That may happen again this season, but if it does, there will be either Walker or Robinson there to take advantage, as opposed to Caraun Reid or Gabe Wright. If the national media can’t see an improvement there, it’s because they’re not looking, and have not been looking for a long time.
3 – The Lions Will be Able to Stop the Run
The Lions already had Haloti Ngata in the middle to plug up running lanes, and drafted A’Shawn Robinson in the second round to further fill the role of the run stuffing defensive tackle. With Tahir Whitehead and DeAndre Levy as the primary duo of linebackers, the Lions’ run defense should be back to near 2014 levels of proficiency, the last time those two played together as the weak side linebacker and middle linebacker respectively, with a competent defensive line in front of them. Devin Taylor was the second best defensive end the Lions had against the run last season, having trailed only the departed Jason Jones in terms of the percentage of tackles he made on running plays for which he was on the field. That is a statistic in which Wallace Gilberry exceeded any 2015 Lions defensive end, despite his terrible PFF run stopping grade (telling you all you need to know about the relevance of those) leaving the Lions in a pretty good place in terms of run defenders. The Lions may have some issues from the strong safety position in pass coverage, but the run game is where Rafael Bush and Miles Killebrew are likely to shine. Winning the down and distance battle is something that the national media tend to underplay, because the plays that force third and long don’t make the highlight reel, and require more explanation than other stats, but it is probably the biggest difference between good defenses and bad ones.
2 – The Lions Will be Able to Run the Ball
The improvement of Ameer Abdullah statistically after the bye week was remarkable. In the first eight weeks of the season, before Cooter got some time to really make changes to what the team was doing during the week nine bye, Abdullah averaged 3.5 yards per carry. In the second half of the season, with better play calling, and a simplified, much more effective blocking scheme, Abdullah averaged 4.7 yards per carry in the second half the season as the Lions’ primary running back. Joique Bell also showed improvement, just not to the same extent, but that does allow me to say that the Lions’ two primary ball carriers both showed improvement under the influence of Cooter. That fact coupled with improved personnel on the offensive line will result in an improved Lions running game, whether it is Abdullah, Ridley, or Zenner toting the rock for the Honolulu blue and silver in 2016. That improvement should offset the expected decline in production from the Lions’ passing game. Abdullah is currently sidelined, making him unlikely to carry the load early in the year, but that is the reason that a player like Ridley was brought in. The national media have short memories, and Ridley has missed time due to a 2014 ACL tear during both of the last two seasons, taking him far from their gaze. He was a useful player before the injury, and given adequate time to heal should return to form.
1 – Calvin Johnson is Not as Big a Loss as They Think
How dare I blaspheme in the church of Megatron? How can the Lions possibly do without the presence of Calvin Johnson? The team can obviously not replace him, but what are they actually missing? Matthew Stafford does not seem concerned by the loss, responding to reporters questions on the subject by saying that he is over it while strongly implying that they should be too; and he is right in that assertion. Limited amounts of tape were previously available for Stafford to watch, because teams simply did not play their base defense against the Lions. “Teams were scared of Calvin or those type guys, so they make adjustments that you really don’t see in games when they play guys and teams that don’t have that guy.”, Stafford said regarding the slight downside of having a player like Johnson on the roster. “It will definitely be different with him being gone now, I’m sure the looks will be a little more standard.” What that means is that the Lions will be able to game plan ways to attack a defensive scheme, rather than obsessively finding ways to get a single player the ball.
How Little Wide Receivers Matter
Sterling Sharpe’s injury-shortened career is by far the best analogue for the Lions’ current dilemma, and looking at the effect that his loss had on the Green Bay Packers shows exactly how peripheral the wide receiver position is. The effect that losing one of the most dominant receivers in the league had on Green Bay’s passing game in 1995? Favre threw for 600 more yards than the previous season, and that was without a single receiver on the team that had previously hit the 1000 yard mark in the NFL. They brought in rookies, veterans, and filled the gap through quantity of targets, as opposed to quality of targets. Exactly the same process that the Lions have used this off-season.
In 1997 Jerry Rice played two games and there was no ill effect on the 49ers offense, a decline in passing yardage sure, but injuries to the quarterback are as likely to be the culprit there; losing the all time greatest WR in NFL history for a year was not a hindrance to the team’s record, they figured out how to go 13-3.
In 2010 the New England Patriots’ Randy Moss had the wheels suddenly completely fall off. He was in one year a shell of his former self, made a huge stink on his way out the door, and lasted only four games in to the season before being traded. The Patriots went 14-2 without a single receiver on the team reaching the 1000 yard mark.
In 1999 the Dallas Cowboys lost Michael Irvin four games into the year. While the team’s record was worse in that season, 8-8 compared to the 10-6 of 1998, it was not because of the loss of Irvin. Free agent acquisition Raghib Ismail had more catches, yardage, and touchdowns than Irvin had managed in 1998, filling the void at the top of the receiving depth chart quite nicely. The Cowboys did not suffer from the loss of Irvin on the field. The point of these examples is that in the recipe of a winning team an all world wide receiver is pretty close to the bottom of the ingredients list, yet is being listed as a major stumbling block for the 2016 Lions to overcome.
What the National Media Forgot in Their Assessment of the Lions
That recipe by the way is still as it always has been: run the ball, stop the run, win the turnover battle, know what the opposition is going to do before they do it, and hide what you are doing from the opposition until it’s too late for them to stop it. Calvin Johnson did none of those things, and yet somehow the national media have dubbed the Lions a 4-12 team of losers, and will be shocked when their prediction does not come true. The national media just tell you that the Lions are doing the things in the recipe above and that’s why they’re winning games, completely ignoring that their predictions of failure were based on a house of cards that had nothing to do with how teams win football games. When Greg Rosenthal says that every time he looks at the Lions roster it just looks worse it’s because on paper, these players did nothing last year to indicate that this is going to be a good team, and that’s the way Greg Rosenthal sees football; on paper. When PFF say the Lions are terrible, you can remind yourself that the people they hire to grade games have no idea what they’re looking at, never having played or coached the sport on many occasions.
Keep drinking the Kool-aid and grab yourself a spot on the bandwagon. It’s going to get crowded in about week eight. I can see the Lions being 5-2 pretty easily going in to their game against the Texans on October 30.