For The Detroit Lions, Improvement Is Needed In Several Different Areas In Order To Seriously Compete As A Real Contender This Year. I Look At Where The Detroit Lions’ Improvement Is Necessary And Rank Those Issues By Importance.
After a successful start to the 2017 NFL season, the Detroit Lions have struggled on both sides of the ball. The bye week could not have come at a better time for the Lions. They have been dealing with a host of injuries, and need an injection of life into an offense that has been inefficient and ineffective for weeks now.
There are a lot of different areas that fans hope to see trending in the right direction coming out of the bye week. It may be unrealistic to see tangible improvement in every area, but fans can remain optimistic that the Lions will look better after the bye week. After this upcoming game against the Steelers, the Lions’ schedule gets much easier. The Lions need to show improvement down the stretch and show that they have the ability to dominate lesser competition. The NFC North title is still very much in reach. The Lions just need to play more consistently the way that they flashed the ability to play early in the year.
I came up with the areas that I think are most important for improvement and rank them in terms of how important I see those areas to the Detroit Lions’ success post-bye week.
8. Tight End Production
Eric Ebron has not taken the step forward this year that fans had hoped for. Fans anticipated that Eric Ebron would play better once he had the opportunity to work primarily as a receiver and spend less time as a blocker. While he has spent less time as a blocker, his receiving production has not improved in the way many had hoped.
Darren Fells has played a lot of snaps this year. Early in the season, he played almost exclusively as the blocking counter part to Eric Ebron’s receiving ability. After some early season struggles by Ebron, Darren Fells started to get some work in the passing game. He performed well in limited opportunities, but those opportunities have been just that, limited.
This is an area that I hope to see some improvement. Whether it is Ebron or Fells, even rookie Michael Roberts, The Lions could definitely use some production out of their tight ends. Admittedly, this is more of a luxury than a requirement. There are plenty of teams that excel without an elite tight end. The Lions have had above average production from Ebron in the past, even if his on the field performance hasn’t reflected his numbers. Despite this, there have been stretches where Eric Ebron barely shows up on the stat sheet. The Lions have survived those stretches. This is why I have tight end production ranked as the Lions’ eighth most important area of improvement.
Penalties are becoming a problem for the Lions. Penalties have long been something that the Lions have been on the wrong side of from the fans’ perspective. It’s not as bad as it seems every year. This year is bad. A lot of the problem has to do with an inexperienced or an ineffective offensive line, but the team needs to be more disciplined if they hope to have a successful run this year.
The Lions are getting penalized at an excessive rate and they are not getting the benefit of penalties against the other team. This is something that, while not of the utmost importance, has the potential to kill drives and push a team over the edge in close games. The Lions are not good enough right now to give teams yards. They have to get better at this.
I have this ranked as the 7th most important improvement for the Lions, because the Lions have had penalty issues in the past. They have overcome penalties in the past. While penalties are an important part of the game, and the Lions have struggled in that area this week, they can succeed if they improve in other areas.
6. Receiver Separation
The Detroit Lions receivers have not managed to create consistent separation from defenders. They’ve struggled with this all year, and it shows more and more as Matthew Stafford deals with injuries and the offensive line continues to spiral. This is something that needs to change regardless. I don’t expect a significant amount of positive change this year specifically, but it is something that needs to change.
Matthew Stafford is in it for the long haul. He is going to be a Detroit Lion for a very long time, hopefully until he retires. If the Lions hope to capitalize on his talent, they need to have receivers that can create consistent separation. It doesn’t matter how accurate a quarterback is. If his receivers can’t get open, his numbers, production, and functional success will suffer.
Stafford has dealt with receivers that don’t separate from defenders before. He has had success with them. I have this ranked as the sixth most important area of improvement because this is something that is much more difficult for a quarterback to overcome. Penalties and tight end production are things that many teams survive without. Lack of consistent separation is something that is much more rare for successful NFL quarterbacks. Stafford’s performance should improve drastically if the Lions can start getting open.
5. A Running Game
This is another facet that the Lions have been lacking for a long time. The Lions have a lot of problems that have been long term issues. These issues, need to improve for this team to reach the next level. These are the issues that have been consistently holding the team back. Paramount among these is the Detroit Lions’ running game.
Everyone has seen that brutal graphic that is played on prime time television of the wheels falling off. I’ve said that it is unnecessary, but the Lions haven’t had a running game in so long that, at this point, I feel like it is justified. The running game has been atrocious this year. It has been absolutely abysmal. The fault falls on the shoulders of Jim Bob Cooter. It falls on the shoulders of Ameer Abdullah. It falls on the shoulders of the offensive line. The fault can pretty much fall on anyone right now. There are a lot of different aspects of this running game that need to be fixed, and I’m not sure where the team even needs to start.
The Lions haven’t had a running game in a long time, but this is one of those situations where it is not a luxury. Most successful teams have a successful running game. The Lions are probably going to struggle to be a serious contender as long as their running game struggles to pose any semblance of a threat. I don’t have this ranked higher, because the Lions have several areas that are vital to the Detroit Lions’ improvement.
4. Pass Rush
The Detroit Lions’ pass rush looked good for a couple of weeks. Ansah looked like he was back to his usual form. The team was getting good production out of Zettel. Since the first couple games, the pass rush has disappeared. It has been essentially non existent. We saw last year what the lack of a pass rush can do. We are seeing it again this year.
The secondary and the linebackers looked really good in the first couple weeks of the season. Their performances have been strongly coorelated with the performance of the defensive line. Everything starts up front. If the quarterback is under pressure, everything is easier for the defense.
On the flip side, we have seen what the defense can do when the pass rush is on point. Crucial turnovers happen. Sacks happen. Defensive backs don’t have to cover as long. Everyone looks better when the defensive line looks good. The flip side is true as well. When defensive backs are playing well, the pass rush looks better. The defensive backs have had a really good year so far. For the pass rush to look this bad, it has to be really bad this year.
3. Pass Protection
Stafford and Cooter have been pretty good at handling pressure in the past. The sample size is really just last year, but they excelled in this area last year. The offensive game plan changed to account for the lack of protection. Under this game plan, Stafford had one of his most efficient seasons. Even under pressure, Stafford succeeded.
This year, the game plan has changed. Stafford has not played under pressure the way that he did last year. He has not adapted. The pass protection has been really bad, beyond anything that most fans anticipated going into the year without Taylor Decker. The healthy return of Decker should help to alleviate a good amount of this pressure.
Nothing is working on offense right now. The pass protection is to blame for a large part of this. While Taylor Decker’s return should help the protection, the rest of the line needs to step up as well. The team can’t count on one player to save the entire offensive line. This needs to be a group effort. To me, this is the third most important area of Detroit Lions’ improvement coming out of the bye week.
2. Play Calling
For me, the second most important area of Lions’ improvement coming out of the bye is Jim Bob Cooter’s play calling. My distaste with Cooter’s predictability is well documented. I think that, if I know what is coming, defensive coordinators who are paid a lot more than me to know this stuff know it too. Beyond the play calling, the execution of the plays has been predictable as well.
While the play calling was predictable at times last year, it didn’t look like this. This year, the play calling has been egregious. After last year, I know that Cooter is capable of calling a good game. I know that he is capable of drawing up a game plan that can work. He just hasn’t really done it this year.
This is the second most important area of Lions’ improvement for me. Cooter needs to be better. He has been better. If the opposing defense knows what is coming, it almost doesn’t matter what you try to do. If the opposing defense knows what is coming, there is very little chance for success. If the Lions’ improvement out of the bye week doesn’t extend to play calling, very little else matters. We’ve seen the difference that the Lions’ improvement in play calling can make for the team. The Lions’ improvement with the change from Lombardi to Cooter was significant and immediate. The Lions need that same sort of radical change now.
1. The Health and Effectiveness of Matthew Stafford
Stafford has been off this year. He has not been himself. I’m fully prepared to blame his lack of accuracy and decision making on his injuries and lack of confidence in himself based on those injuries. I don’t believe that a player his age can really regress as much as we have seen from last year to this year. I also don’t believe that his performance last year was fool’s gold.
Before anything else, Stafford needs to get healthy. He has dealt with a myriad of injuries this year, and they all likely play a role in his regression. It is disappointing to see him having to play through injuries the year after he signs his mega-contract. I think most Lions’ fans were looking forward to him proving the critics wrong and coming and out and having an amazing year. That hasn’t been the case this year.
Beyond his injury issues this year, he has had to deal with all of the issues previously mentioned in this article. Individually, Stafford overcame each of them in previous years. This year, he has all of them at once. That is a lot to ask of a quarterback, and it has affected him. Even from a clean pocket, without pressure, Stafford has failed to loos like himself.
Beyond getting healthy, the Lions’ improvement depends entirely upon the adaptation of Matthew Stafford to the current and persisting issues of the Detroit Lions.