PFF Preview 2011 – Detroit Lions

| August 22, 2011

For the first time in recent memory, the Detroit Lions didn’t finish at the bottom of the NFC North. With their young and talented offense looking as lethal as ever, moves were made in free agency to help improve their defense. In fact, there is so much optimism surrounding the Detroit Lions that even our fearless leader, Neil Hornsby, thinks that they will make a serious push towards the playoffs this season.
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There are reasons to believe that this team will be a playoff contender in 2011, but it’s perhaps equally likely that they’ll fall apart like so many Lions teams have in the past.
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Five Reasons to be Confident
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1) Quantity and Quality on the Defensive Line

During the 2010 season, the Lions had seven defensive linemen with a positive pass rush rating, and the only player that they lost to free agency was DE Turk McBride. With that being said, the Lions filled McBride’s spot by adding first round pick Nick Fairley to their young group. Only Cliff Avril and McBride had negative run defense ratings – not only can the Lions rush the quarterback effectively, but they can stop opposing running backs as well.

While the addition of Fairley and the overall maturity of the defensive line are reasons enough for optimism, we cannot ignore the fact that the quality of the NFC North’s offensive lines have become worse at pass protection on a whole. Bryant McKinnie, Daryn Colledge and Olin Kreutz all had positive pass block ratings in 2010 for their respective teams, and all of them are now out of the division. This young defensive front should take advantage of that throughout the season.

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2) One Man Offense

Last season, Calvin Johnson was a large part of the team’s offense, having had at least four catches in 12 games and at least 50 yards in 13 games. His PFF receiving rating has gone up each year, and there is no reason to believe that he can’t continue the trend. In addition to Johnson’s great play, whoever ends up as the No. 3 receiver to replace Bryant Johnson should also provide an upgrade. Having a potentially improved Calvin Johnson and a better third option at receiver can only make their passing game more explosive.

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3) Improved Linebacker Corps

Last year, the linebacker position wasn’t exactly one of the Lions’ strengths, as they relied on DeAndre Levy to play middle linebacker for the second half of the season, Julian Peterson at one outside linebacker spot, and a number of different players at the other outside linebacker spot.

This year, we’ll see Levy joined by two proven veterans in Justin Durant and Stephen Tulloch. With a +15.5 run stop rating, Durant is a clear upgrade over anyone that the Lions have had playing linebacker in recent years despite the fact that he is likely to be taken out in nickel packages due to his inability to defend against the pass. Unlike Durant, Tulloch is the complete package, as he received a +10.5 run defense rating and a +8.3 coverage rating last season. This linebacker group, coupled with their talented defensive line, has the potential to give the Lions one of the best front sevens in the NFL.

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4) Contributors Replaced

The players who had 200 or more snaps in 2010 and are no longer with the team this year are WR Bryant Johnson, OLB Julian Peterson, DE Turk McBride, LB Landon Johnson, and S C.C. Brown. Each of those positions saw an upgrade in the offseason, which should point to a better 2011 Lions team.

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5) A Healthy Matt Stafford

While Shaun Hill was one of the league’s most accurate quarterbacks in 2010, Lions fans all over the world hope that Matthew Stafford will remain healthy throughout the course of the season. Although he had a terrible rookie year, where he threw for just 4.3 yards per attempt under pressure and 6.6 yard per attempt when not pressured, he looked much improved in his the two full games he played in 2010. Since we haven’t seen him play well on a consistent basis, it’s hard to know how much of an upgrade he will be over Hill, but the potential is there for Stafford to be a great NFL quarterback.

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Five Reasons to be Concerned
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1) Who’s in Coverage?

In order for the Lions to be a truly competitive team in the NFC, they will need to stop some incredible passing offenses. Forcing quick throws is one part of the equation, but the other part of that equation is providing tight coverage. The Lions had eight defensive backs play 150 or more snaps last season, and each of those players had a coverage ratings worse than -1.5.

This offseason, the Lions brought in Eric Wright to take over a starting cornerback spot and Erik Coleman to serve as a backup safety, but neither of these players provides a significant upgrade. Last year in Cleveland, Wright’s coverage rating of -11.9 was worse than anyone on the Lions’ roster (although a large part of that was on off game against the Baltimore Ravens). In just five games for Atlanta last year, Coleman was able to accumulate a -4.1 rating which leaves the Lions secondary right where it started.

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2) Running Problems Part 1 – the Running Backs

In some cases, rookie running backs have the ability to immediately produce, but unfortunately for the Lions, that was not the case with Jahvid Best. Last season, the former California Golden Bear had just 3.3 yards per carry, with just 1.8 of those yards coming after contact. While you can expect those numbers to improve, the depth behind Best is just as bad, as RB Kevin Smith wasn’t retained over the offseason and rookie Mikel Leshoure expected to be out for the entire 2011 season.

When Leshoure went down, the Lions decided to bring in two running backs that could be considered worse than Best. Both Mike Bell and Jerome Harrison, who ironically enough were traded for each other last year, were added to provide depth at the position. However, a combined -9.0 run rating in 2010 between the two veterans means that the best rusher on the roster is Maurice Morris.

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3) The Offensive Line

The good news for the Lions is that all five of their starting offensive linemen will return this season. If you’re a believer that stability is the key to a great offensive line, you can skip to the next section, but if not, then the Lions’ returning linemen pose a problem. All five players had negative run block ratings last year, and the interior of the line averaged a rating below -10.0. In order to score points, the Lions will be very dependent on their passing game.
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4) Difficult Schedule

Unfortunately for them, the Lions live in a division that houses two teams that squared off against each other in the NFC Championship game. In addition to having to face their division, Detroit will also have to face each team in the NFC South, which is home to some of the best quarterbacks in the league. Between Josh Freeman, Matt Ryan and Drew Brees the Lions will have to step up their pass coverage significantly. In order to make the playoffs as a wild card team, Detroit will likely need to get a handful of victories in their first 10 games.

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5) Penalizing the D-Line

While the Lions have one of the best defensive lines in terms of production, they are also one of the most penalized lines in the league. In the middle of the line, Corey Williams and his 15 accepted penalties was by far and away the most for any defensive tackle, and Ndamukong Suh’s nine accepted penalties was third most. At defensive end, Cliff Avril and Kyle Vanden Bosch had six accepted penalties each, which tied them for eighth most for 4-3 defensive ends. These penalties could come back to bite the Lions in a game or two, and that is the difference between making the playoffs and an early vacation.
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There is clearly optimism in Detroit and for good reason. The team looks better than it has in recent years, and has the makings of a young powerhouse. The question will be whether or not these improvements are enough to get the Lions into the playoffs.

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Follow Nathan on Twitter: @PFF_NateJahnke and check out our main Twitter feed too: @ProFootbalFocus
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