The Detroit Lions, man. Say what you want about the Cleveland Browns — at least they are hilariously bad. The Lions may be the single most boring team in the league. They lose to good teams, they beat bad teams, they finish in the Jeff Fisher Zone almost every season, and they just never, ever seem to get over the hump. This season returns mush of the roster from last season with a few key differences, and a new head coach in Patriots’ defensive coordinator Matt Patricia. Will any of this work? Will the Lions actually do something interesting? Will Matt Patricia fix a middling, blah blah defense? Well…
The Lions’ offense never seems to live up to the sum of its parts. They were undeniably good last year, scoring 410 points, and Marvin Jones and Golden Tate formed one of the best receiving tandems in football. Jones is particularly underrated, finishing 2017 3rd in DVOA and serving as one of the league’s premier deep threats. Tate is one of the best slot receivers after the catch, and if Kenny Golladay can build on a promising rookie campaign and stay healthy, the Lions may have one of the best sets of wideouts in the NFL.
Matthew Stafford is still a good, if not great quarterback. Once a compiler of fantasy counting stats, he’s become more efficient under Jim Bob Cooter, who retained his position as offensive coordinator. Stafford finished 11th in DVOA in what was a bit of a down year for quarterbacks. Russell Wilson led the NFL with 34 touchdown passes last year, and Stafford finished 4th with 29. 29 is, simply, not that many, and in 2014, 29 touchdowns would have ranked 10th, just ahead of Jay Cutler. So, while Stafford had a good year relative to the rest of the league, the league itself was a bit down in terms of scoring via the pass, and his 10 picks, while certainly not terrible, look a bit worse when combined with his 11 fumbles. In any case, Stafford isn’t really the issue with the offense, many teams would take him in a second, and he’s absolutely good enough to win a title. The problem with the Lions’ offense is all about the run.
Drew Brees had a career-low 23 touchdown passes last season, but the Saints scored 38 more points than the Lions. The reason for this is that the Saints scored 23 rushing touchdowns, ranking first in the NFL in that category, while the Lions tied for 21st with 10 rushing touchdowns. Even though Stafford outplayed Brees in many way, the Saints’ ability to punch it in in several different ways was a huge advantage. I generally don’t really care much for the running game, but the place it can make the most impact is in goal-to-go situations. The Lions simply couldn’t deliver any value at all running the ball.
The Lions’ line excels at keeping Stafford upright, but they get almost no push in the run game, and a stable of substandard backs don’t help matters. Ameer Abdullah received the majority of carries in 2017, and while he’s extremely athletic, he’s a bit undersized, and seems to lack vision. Theo Riddick is an excellent receiving back, but not someone you can count on for valuable carries, and Tion Green was just a guy. Enter LeGarrette Blount and Kerryon Johnson. While the fundamental problem for the Lions in short yardage is the line, Blount is at least capable of winning a one-on-one battle for a yard or two. The real reason to be excited is Johnson, an athletic, potential 3-down back out of Auburn. While it’s unlikely that the Lions will suddenly turn into a dominant running team, it’s also unlikely that they’ll be worse than last season, and if they can grind out a few more short yardage first downs and touchdowns, and just not put Stafford into terrible situations, the offense can take a step forward.
As long as Matt Patricia leaves the offense alone, they’ll be fine. The big question on this team is the defense.
Nick Perry, the talented, but perpetually injured outside linebacker for the Packers, recorded 7 sacks in 2017. That’s not a great total, but it’s even worse when you consider that he mostly fattened up on a truly horrific Seattle offensive line, and the Bears. In context, Nick Perry was pretty terrible last season, even when he was on the field. Ziggy Ansah, who was franchised for $17 million this offseason, is more like Perry than most would like to admit. Ansah had 12 sacks last season, but 9 of them came against the Bengals, the withered husk of Eli Manning, and Brett Hundley. Ansah isn’t the elite edge rusher he’s paid to be, and while there is still potential there, he’s not going to anchor a defense.
Washington allowed the most points in the NFC last season with 388, and the Lions allowed the 6th most, with 376. The fact is that the Lions were a few bounces of the ball away from allowing the most points in the league, and while they did finish a respectable 19th in DVOA, their 19 interceptions and 13 recovered fumbles (out of 19 total fumbles by opponents) are the main reason for that respectability, and it is unlikely to happen again. Darius Slay, who is a very good corner, had 8 picks last season while never having more than 2 in any previous season, and while he did get Matt Ryan and Drew Brees for 3 of those, the remainder came against DeShone Kizer, Brett Hundley, Jameis Winston, and Mitchell Trubisky.
The Lions also had no ability to stop the run, ranking 28th in DVOA, and nothing has changed in terms of personnel to suggest a quantum leap forward for the defense. They’ll rely on the defensively-minded Patricia to inject some life into the defense, but that’s going to be a tall order given upgrades to common Lion opponents and a bizarre draft that saw the team take only two defensive players, one of which was a safety. It’s likely the Lions once again field a bottom-third defense, and fail to support the offense.
The Lions just keep on Lionsing. Patricia may work out, but Belichick disciples have a spotty record at best, and the front office doesn’t seem to realize what the team’s weaknesses actually are. There are some good pieces on the team, but if they’re going to roll with this level of defense, Stafford is going to need to compete for an MVP, and while he’s a nice quarterback, he’s simply not in that league. The Lions should finish third in the NFC North due to the presence of the Bears, and while the offense will keep them in games, that’s all it will do. If your defense needs an overhaul, you can’t just slap a band-aid on it.