It’s time for the Detroit Lions’ quarterly appraisal…
The Detroit Lions are three and one. In the end that is the only thing that matters. Have they been aided by receivers who suddenly did their best Karch Kiraly impression when catching the ball would be a better move? Yes, they have. Is the defense’s turnover rate unsustainable? Yes, it is. Does the Lions’ offense need to start moving the ball for the team to keep winning? Yes, they do, but the Lions are three and one. In the end that is the only thing that matters. Let’s discuss a bunch of other things anyway.
The Lions Offense Has Been Below Average
The Lions offense is 24th in total offense. They are 50.8 yards per game from the bottom and 124 yards per game from the top. Early in the season a single good or bad game throws the numbers wildly off so reading too much into that right now is foolish. The Lions’ offense has had three consecutive bad games, however. There was only one team in the NFL in 2016 that gained fewer yards per game than the Lions have this season. The Lions have played some good defenses to start the year, nobody should have expected them to look great right now. but 24th in offense, 19th in passing and 19th in rushing are not the numbers of a winner. 6.4 yards per pass and 3.6 yards per run are not numbers that lead to sustainable winning.
The Lions have gained fewer yards than the average allowed by their opponent in three of four games. The Arizona Cardinals have allowed an average of 302 yards. The Lions gained 285, and that was without Deone Buchannon in the lineup. The Vikings have allowed 318 yards per game. The Lions only managed 251. The Giants have allowed 359 yards per game. The Lions picked up only 257 with Janoris Jenkins sidelined. The Lions did exceed the Falcons average yards allowed by six yards, but the yardage gained vs. yardage expected is negative 45 yards per game on average.
The Players Have Been Below Average
No Lions receiver is on pace to reach even 900 yards. Marvin Jones is on pace for a 32 catch and 520-yard season. Eric Ebron is set to make 44 catches and gain. 348 yards. Matthew Stafford is on pace for a 3548-yard season. That is 709 yards less than his lowest 16 game total. He is seeing a lot of pressure, but that cannot hold if the Lions are going to win games. Only Ameer Abdullah is on pace for 1000 yards from scrimmage.
Even Abdullah’s performance, by far the best on the offense, is plagued by inconsistency. He has had between 14 and 20 carries in each game but had gained between 30 and 94 yards per game. On balance, he is at 3.9 yards per carry. That is below the acceptable range for a starting running back. Sadly Abdullah’s performance is the best among Lions’ ball carriers not named Stafford or Redfern. Theo Riddick is averaging less than two.
Overall in four games, the Lions have scored eight touchdowns on offense. That is good for a piece of 20th in the NFL. The team is tied for tenth in scoring though. They are the NFL leaders in return and defensive touchdowns. If there are two things you cannot count on in the NFL, they are defensive and return touchdowns.
The Lions have missed Taylor Decker, but they are far from the only team in the NFL with a bad left tackle. To be perfectly frank, other than the first half of the Giants game, Greg Robinson has been about on par with what they got from Riley Reiff before Decker got to Detroit in 2016. The loss of a single player is not the problem. It is a problem, but that is not the issue. The problem is that there is not a single player who is having a really good year on offense. Rick Wagner is probably the best player on the Lions’ offense right now, and the best thing you can say about him is that you never notice him.
The Scheme Has Been Below Average
These are not bad players for the most part. Many have track records of success. Many have been successful with this team. The problem is with their current utilization. Is there a single fan that doesn’t cringe when they see the Lions offense run an outside zone concept run of any kind? The team is not good at it, and yet the vast majority of the game if the team runs the ball outside the tackles, that is how they do it. Only after that fails, and it always fails overall, do they move to other concepts.
Such plays have no value. They do not gain yardage. They do not set up play action later in the game. All they do is waste downs. They make Matthew Stafford’s and Greg Robinson’s lives more difficult. Even Ameer Abdullah’s poor performance in yards per carry can be laid at the feet of this terrible play call. This two-yard loss to two-yard gain play is not helping his yards per carry.
The Coaching Has Been Below Average
For four years the Lions have been failing to run this play. Jim Bob Cooter gets a lot of hype as a good up and coming offensive coordinator, but the team’s greatest offensive weakness has not been addressed in his two years at the helm. The Lions are not running the ball better, they are running the ball more often. They are actually averaging slightly fewer yards per attempt than they did last year. That number was slightly worse than the year before.
In Jim Bob Cooter’s first few games with the Lions, he was given a pass on some glaring issues. He inherited an offense that had been underachieving terribly and a quarterback who had played so poorly that he was benched. Not benched for an up and coming draft pick, but for Dan Orlovsky. The quarterback was benched for a player that has only started multiple games for teams that got the first overall pick of the draft in the following season. That benefit of the doubt cannot last forever though. The Lions offense needs to get better.
Stafford has thrived, in a manner of speaking, under the tutelage of Cooter. He has certainly stopped turning the ball over at a team-killing pace. Cooter has asked Stafford to do less with his arm, and do more with his mind. Whereas previous coordinators used Stafford’s cannon to get the ball downfield, Cooter has asked Stafford to get the ball to players in space. Whether that means rifling a ball to Golden Tate two yards behind the line of scrimmage or checking down to Theo Riddick out of the backfield, Stafford is accomplishing more by doing less. He is no longer a threat to throw for 5000 yards or 40 touchdowns, but he is not going to throw 20 interceptions either.
But Not All is Lost
If Matthew Stafford is not going to be a 5000-yard quarterback, if he is not going to throw for 40 touchdowns, then Jim Bob Cooter needs to find another way to move the ball. I will use some football outsiders stats to illustrate my point. The Lions are 29th in the league in average drive distance. That is, however, somewhat misleading because of all the turnovers the defense has created. The Lions have scored 47 points off turnovers. They have scored 99 total points. Despite the defense’s incredible turnover production, however, the Lions are 21st in the NFL in points per drive. The Lions offense is also only 21st in the NFL in drive efficiency. 34.3% of their drives have not resulted in a first down, or touchdown. They have had the best average starting field position in the NFL and still been unable to score touchdowns.
The Lions offense has not been a complete failure, however. The Lions have not needed to drive very far to get to field goal range, and they are notoriously conservative when inside field goal range, but outside the red zone. They are perfectly content to score a field goal rather than entertain any risk a turnover. Many of these statistics are contextually not that big a deal. This is not a bad offense. This is not a bad coaching staff. These are not bad players. Both need to be better than they have been, and they will. It is actually difficult to imagine this group collectively doing any worse than they have. Things are looking up for the Lions offense in Motown. The Detroit Lions are three and one. In the end that is the only thing that matters.