Last season was the breakthrough that Detroit Lions fans had been waiting more than a decade for. After years of abject misery, interspersed and exacerbated by the occasional teasing of a new dawn, Detroit had a successful football team to be proud of, a playoff team no less. It wasn’t always pretty, it wasn’t always conventional and it wasn’t always popular. In their own way the Lions went about their business and registered their most successful season since 1995. The offense led by the combination of Matthew Stafford and Calvin Johnson was explosive while the defense offered enough big plays to allow that offense to win games rather than fight to keep their head above water in shootouts.
The next step for the Lions is to make last season repeatable and feed off of their bad boy image rather than being dragged down by it. In the last two seasons the Lions have stepped past the Bears and Vikings in the NFC North, but one season will not placate a fan base that was starved for success for so long. Now Stafford and Johnson must lead a Detroit team that remains as a contender in the division and looks to take strides to be a contender in the entire conference.
Can the Lions maintain and improve on their standing in the division, marking a new era in Detroit? Or was last season a high water mark for Detroit? Will the Bears and Vikings move back to and past the Lions as their inconsistencies and ill-discipline catch up with them?
Five Reasons to be Confident
1) Magnificent Megatron
There are a host of superlatives that could be used to describe the season that Calvin Johnson put together for the Lions in 2011 and how important he was to them. Matthew Stafford may have snagged the 5,000 yard passer and the Comeback Player of the Year Award, but there can be little doubt that Johnson was by far the most important player to the Lions. That should continue moving forward and by and large the Lions’ success will hinge upon Johnson’s continuing exceptional performances. Teams knew last season that he was the focus of the Lions passing game, with everything important going through him (26.7% of the regular season offensive yards). Even considering that teams couldn’t shut him down and with Stafford willing to put the ball up to Johnson in any situation, and against any coverage, Johnson simply had to deliver and did. Unless injury makes a cruel intervention in the Lions star wide receiver’s season there is little reason to believe that Johnson won’t be as difficult to cover in 2012 as he was in 2011.
2) A Clean Bill of Health
Don’t shout it too loudly but Matthew Stafford stayed healthy last season. Lions fans will now be scrambling for their four leaf clovers and lucky rabbits feet to ensure that I haven’t just jinxed the signal caller’s fitness for 2012. As good a backup situation as the Lions have with the competent Shaun Hill, the Lions’ passing game is completely different with Stafford under center and far more in tune with the identity of the team. While he makes more mistakes and his decision making is at times baffling, his willingness to simply let go and trust Calvin Johnson allows the Lions to make plays that they shouldn’t. The difficulty is balancing the sometimes absurd decision making with not talking yourself out of targeting Johnson when he is “covered”. With Stafford under center for 16 games as in 2011 the Lions have a punchers chance every time they take to the field.
3) Defensive Line Safety Net
If you play aggressively and far up the field on the defensive line you need to have a linebacker who is able to knife through traffic and clean up the mess that can be left behind. The Detroit Lions are coming off just such a season and in spite of dangerously flirting with losing him to free agency have the perfect player for that linebacker spot in the form of Stephen Tulloch. The Lions allowed Tulloch to test the open market and only a surprisingly stagnant linebacker market in free agency saw Tulloch return to the Lions. With players like Kyle Vanden Bosch, Cliff Avril, and Ndamukong Suh charging far upfield, someone needs to be able to cover ground laterally to limit the gains when those upfield players are caught in the wrong spot. Tulloch’s development from a downhill thumper to an athletic tackle-to-tackle lateral run defender–without losing that ability to come downhill–will once again be crucial to the continuing development of the Lions’ defense.
4) Tight Ends are a Quarterback’s Best Friend
One quality tight end is a great thing for a quarterback to have; having two that can be used simultaneously by an offense is the modern NFL’s dream offense. The Lions have just that in the passing game with Brandon Pettigrew and Tony Scheffler offering the safety valve and the athletic threat that adds a much needed extra dimension to the Lions’ passing game. Neither is a positive contributor to the running game but when the Lions pass, as they did on 67.5% of their offensive snaps last season, these two are key contributors. Scheffler’s play in particular exploiting the middle of the field will again be crucial for Stafford. If Scheffler can equal or build upon the 18 completions and three touchdowns that he registered between the numbers last season, the Lions will have that area of their passing game well in hand.
5) Keep on Kicking
He may be entering his 21st season at the age of 42, but Jason Hanson can still kick it and kick it well. While other teams like the Ravens have moved on from aging kickers, the Lions have stuck with Hanson and have been well rewarded by a player who continues to be metronomic on makeable field goals. The end may not be far away as his leg strength has started to fade. Hanson was only 7 for 11 on field goals beyond 40 yards, but inside of 40 yards he is still a dependable kicker. With an explosive offense like the Lions have, the knowledge that you have three points guaranteed from every good drive is a powerful thing.
Five Reasons to be Concerned
1) Creating Running Room
As explosive as the Lions’ offense was last season their lack of balance and inability to generate a consistent running game was alarming. As well as their offensive line pass protected they were utterly miserable at giving their backs room to run. In fact, only Jeff Backus graded positively as a run blocker and it wasn’t a dominant effort on his part either (+0.8). The introduction of rookie Riley Reiff to one tackle spot may help in one area, but their guards, Rob Sims and Stephen Peterman, simply must recover their form from prior seasons. Both guards last season graded -7.5 or worse as run blockers as the Lions averaged less than 4 yards per carry off guard. Both players have been capable run blockers in the past, Sims earned a +3.2 run block grade in Seattle in 2009, while Peterman earned a +3.9 grade that season, but their recent form has been quite disappointing. If the Lions don’t see a marked improvement in their running game in 2012, their passing game will need to be as good as it was in 2011. How likely is that?
2) Deploying their Defensive Ends
The Detroit Lions’ roster of defensive ends and their depth of talent may not make this an immediately obvious concern but the Lions’ player management and snap management in this area will be tested in 2012. With starters Cliff Avril and Kyle Vanden Bosch, the Lions have two players that Defensive Coordinator Gunther Cunningham likes to leave on the field all game, but that is not necessarily the best use of either player. Vanden Bosch for instance is far beyond his best and really should not be a starter for the Lions anymore. His eight sacks last season may suggest all is well but as an all-round pass rusher he is barely average right now, and with advancing years that should only continue to decline. Meanwhile, Avril on the other side is nursing disappointment over not getting the long term deal that he wanted and is not the stiffest of run defenders. Deploying these two in an every down and every drive aspect constitutes a questionable use of personnel at the least. Backups Willie Young and Lawrence Jackson need to see the field for more than 274 and 374 snaps respectively in 2012 if the Lions are to get the most from their stable of defensive ends.
3) Addition by Subtraction? Not Yet…
The Detroit Lions haven’t lingered over the loss of Eric Wright to the Tampa Bay Buccaneers in free agency. While Wright undoubtedly has real talent, his inability to consistently transfer that into his on-field performance would have made his departure one of the Lions’ easier personnel decisions this offseason. The only hindrance to proposing that Wright’s loss is addition by subtraction for the Lions are the names waiting to replace him. While Chris Houston can capably hold down one corner spot opposite him you find players like Jacob Lacey (who very rarely impressed during three years in Indianapolis), Alphonso Smith (who has never looked like justifying the price Denver initially paid for him before offloading him to Detroit) and a pair of rookies. The Lions may yet profit from Wright’s departure, but right now the second starter at corner is a major question mark in an already mediocre secondary.
4) Inadequacy at LB
While Stephen Tulloch might be a pillar of strength at middle linebacker, the Lions’ second three down linebacker spot is still a real weakness. Outside of some rare positive blips, DeAndre Levy has looked like a consistent weakness both inside and outside for the Lions yet they continue to stick with him. He misses tackles and struggles to make an impact in run defense and while his coverage is for the most part solid he is prone to the sort of breakdowns that can kill a defense. Two down linebacker Justin Durant is not a viable alternative to take over from Levy as his coverage is even worse, though he is a far better run defender. Lions fans will be left hoping that Levy can rediscover the form he showed in the second half of 2010 when he earned a +5.9 grade for Week 10 to Week 17.
5) Complementing Megatron?
Playing the No. 2 spot on the Lions’ wide receiver depth chart should be one of the easiest jobs for any wide receiver in the entire league right? Picking up favorable coverages with the threat of Calvin Johnson on one side and the Lions’ tight ends in the middle should make life very easy for the Lions’ other wide receivers. In spite of that, it is still unclear who will be lining up opposite and inside of Johnson and to what effect they will be? Nate Burleson ate 1,038 snaps last season without really breaking loose and exploiting favorable coverage. Meanwhile, the only part of being the next DeSean Jackson that Titus Young has achieved is being a complete and utter headache for his coaching staff. Rookie Ryan Broyles has drawn some interest among fans, but can he contribute coming off of reconstructive knee surgery late in his senior season at Oklahoma? The Lions’ other wide receivers are offering more questions than answers at this point.
What to Expect
The Lions proved that they could live up to their potential last season. After years of drafting at the top of the draft they have some outstanding game breaking talents who with a downhill run can pull their team to the playoffs. However, the balance is still somewhat lacking as both sides of the ball have an alarming element of boom or bust tendencies. Also, the off-field issues the coaching staff has had to deal with isn’t exactly beneficial to the overall team chemistry. In the NFL if you’re standing still you’re going backwards and while the loss of Eric Wright might be addition by subtraction, there are still plenty of concerns on defense and the lack of balance is still a concern on offense. With that in mind, and with the strides that Chicago has made this off-season, the Lions will have done very well in 2012 if they are able to duplicate their 10 win mark from 2011 and maintain their standing at second place in the NFC North.
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