Needs much more obvious than answers for Detroit Lions
Three of the four teams reaching conference championship games during the 2017 NFL season were .500 or below the year before - Philadelphia, Minnesota and Jacksonville.
So it’s possible the Lions, with a solid off-season of roster building by general manager Bob Quinn, and a new head coach Matt Patricia infusing energy, could do the same, right? The Lions wouldn’t be coming that far. They won nine games in ’16 and ’17, and have averaged nine wins the last four campaigns.
Of course, it’s not that simple, but possible. The Lions have a good nucleus. A rebuild is not in order.
Defense and running the football are the keys. In fact, how obvious they are is stunning.
Minnesota allowed the fewest yards and fewest points in the NFL last season. Jacksonville was second in both categories. The Super Bowl champion Eagles were fourth in yards and points allowed per game.
The other conference finalist was traditional power New England, whose defensive coordinator was Patricia. The Patriots were 29th in yards allowed, but just fifth in points yielded per game.
The Lions’ defense was 27th in yards and 21st in points allowed per game.
The Lions’ defense features a solid secondary (Glover Quin, Darius Slay and Quandre Diggs), which kept them in games by forcing a lot of turnovers. The Lions were fourth in the NFL in interceptions with 19 (tied with Philadelphia), but just 20th in sacks with 35, and 27th in passing yards allowed. They were 20th in run defense, allowing 4.2 yards per carry. It’s a very telling stat in comparison to their rushing offense. The Lions were last in the NFL in rushing yards, averaging an NFL-worst 3.4 yards per carry.
The Lions will have a prolific passing attack. Matthew Stafford is a franchise quarterback and in his prime, and there are no signs wide receivers Golden Tate or Marvin Jones are slowing down. Given the base of the passing attack, all promising young receiver Kenny Golladay and tight end Eric Ebron have to do is hold onto the ball. Stafford will find them, and they should be open.
But you must run the ball. Jacksonville led the NFL in rushing, Philly was third, Minnesota seventh and New England 10th.
In 2016 Jacksonville was 22nd rushing, the Eagles 11th and Minnesota dead last - 32rd. It was no coincidence what running the ball meant to the win-loss record.
Think New England doesn’t run the ball effectively and relies totally on Tom Brady. Think again. The Patriots have been seventh (’16) and 10th (’17) in rushing yards the past two years.
The Lions need more than one running back. The Vikings drafted the sensational Dalvin Cook last season, but would have been lost if they didn’t have steady veteran Latavius Murray after Cook was injured. LaGarrette Blount was a genuine difference maker for Philadelphia. First-round draft pick Leonard Fournette’s impact on the Jaguars is indisputable.
Quinn has a lot of decisions to make this off season. Can he wait past the first round and still select the right running back? How good are the linebackers available? Will any at 20th overall merit a first-round pick? Quinn was really good signing mid-level free agents his first year, not-so-good his second. Can he regain his Midas touch in that regard?
Seems obvious Patricia, one way or another, is going to can the Lions’ wide-nine concept, which has been the staple of their defense since Jim Schwartz was head coach. Where does pending free agent end Ziggy Ansah fit into that? How about tackle Haloti Ngata? If Lions are running a 30 front, is Ngata still a bonafide two-gap nose? Can A’Shawn Robinson become one? If the the Lions’ re-sign Ngata, what would be the cost? He was paid nearly $12 million combined the last two seasons for limited production and he’s 34.
There are a lot more questions than answers at this point.
What is crystal clear, however, is what the Lions must do in order to genuinely improve.
For proof, check out the Eagles, Vikings and Jags.