2014 Preview: Detroit Lions
The 10th team in our Team Previews series is the Detroit Lions. The Lions won six of their first nine games in 2013 and appeared capable of taking the NFC North crown until a late-season meltdown left them 7-9 and out of the playoffs.
The collapse was the last straw for head coach Jim Schwartz, and the Lions brought in Jim Caldwell to lead a team known for its inconsistency and discipline issues over the past several years. Detroit also made several interesting personnel decisions in the offseason, including the acquisition of Golden Tate and the releases of Nate Burleson and Louis Delmas, creating somewhat of a new look for the team in 2014. With a talented roster, the Lions once again face the challenge of putting the pieces together and sustaining a high level of play throughout an entire season. Will a new coaching staff and several new players help them reach their potential and return to the playoffs for the first time since 2011?
Five Reasons To Be Confident
Calvin Johnson remains one of the most feared players in the NFL, and he led the league (among the 75 receivers with at least 60 targets) last year with 2.72 Yards Per Route Run. The Lions have long needed a stronger second option in the passing game, and they got it with the signing of Tate this offseason. The former Seahawk possesses some of the best hands in the game, with his 3.9% Drop Rate since 2011 being the lowest of any wide receiver in the NFL with 100 targets or more in that span. Tate is also explosive with the ball in his hands, as he topped all receivers in missed tackles forced last season with 21 and averaged an absurd 7.9 yards after the catch. In the backfield, Joique Bell and Reggie Bush remain an impressive and versatile duo, especially if Bush finds a way to avoid the fumbles that plagued him in 2013. Though Lions fans may be fed up with Brandon Pettigrew, the emergence of Joe Fauria (+7.0 PFF grade last year) and drafting of Eric Ebron give the team several viable options at tight end.
Matt Stafford’s Development
Lions fans enamored with Stafford’s talent but frustrated by mistakes in critical moments will be happy to know that both Caldwell and new Lions offensive coordinator Joe Lombardi are quarterback coaches by trade (along with Jim Bob Cooter, the team’s new acting quarterbacks coach). The Lions’ organization has clearly made a bet that investing in Stafford’s development will elevate the offense, and while he finished 2013 with a strong PFF grade of +18.6, there were several areas in which his performance left plenty to be desired. Stafford posted just a -4.3 grade when pressured and a -6.3 against blitz pressure, but was one of the league’s top performers with a clean pocket. With a fairly clear idea of where situational improvement must occur, a bigger season could be in store considering both the weapons and teachers at his disposal.
Suh and Fairley Playing for Millions
While their financial situations may be worrisome for Lions fans thinking about the long term, the uncertainty surrounding Ndamukong Suh and Nick Fairley should also serve to bolster the Lions’ interior defensive line in the short run. Detroit made a controversial decision not to pick up the fifth-year option on Fairley and has failed (thus far) get a long-term deal done with Suh. While that makes next offseason a scary one for the defensive line, it also puts extreme pressure on two of Detroit’s most talented players to produce this season. Suh graded at a dominant +32.8 in 2013, with a +34.3 pass rush grade. Fairley struggled with fitness and injuries, managing just a +0.4 overall grade and a -4.6 against the run after +15.1 overall and +6.3 run defense grades 2012. With so much on the line now, expect both to do everything they can to play at a high level.
Tulloch and Levy Lead the Linebackers
Stephen Tulloch isn’t the flashiest or best-known mike linebacker in the NFL, but he excels in both run defense and pass coverage and we named him the team’s Secret Superstar after a 2013 season — one that saw him post a +18.7 grade and finish fifth and sixth in Run Stop Percentage and Tackling Efficiency, respectively, among inside linebackers. With the Lions transitioning to a new defensive system under coordinator Teryl Austin, Tulloch’s role in the middle will remain pivotal to the team’s success. Weakside linebacker Deandre Levy will also hope to buoy the defense after a breakout season in which he recorded a +9.3 overall grade and a +9.8 in coverage, making six interceptions along the way. Levy allowed just one reception for every 11.9 snaps he played in coverage, putting him second among 4-3 outside linebackers who played at elast 300 snaps in coverage. If Tulloch and Levy can sustain their 2013 production in Austin’s new scheme, it will bode well for Detroit’s defense.
Warford and Raiola Anchor the Offensive Line
One of the bright spots in Detroit’s 2013 season was the incredible play of rookie guard Larry Warford, who posted a +24.2 and earned PFF’s Offensive Rookie of the Year award. But Warford wasn’t the only strong performer on the line. Veteran center Dominic Raiola played excellent (+21.1) as well. Largely because of their performances, the Lions were able to post the league’s third best Pass Blocking Efficiency rating as a team. Warford produced the third best individual PBE of all Offensive Guards with a 98.3, while Raiola finished second among centers with a 98.7. Given his astonishing rookie season, Warford could be a star for years to come, and if Raiola can duplicate last year’s performance with another year of tread on the tires, the Lions will have two studs in the middle of their offensive line for another season.
Five Reasons To Be Concerned
Question Mark at Corner
The cornerback position is seemingly one of uncertainty every year for the Lions, whose highest-graded player at the position last year (Rashean Mathis, +6.2) will enter this season having turned 34. Darius Slay, last year’s second-round pick, had a tough rookie year, and while there are several other candidates for a starting spot, no one stands out. Slay did improve when he saw the field in the latter part of the season, but it is clear the Lions have no reasonably young players with sustained success playing the position. In a division that features the intimidating passing attacks of the Packers and the Bears, that is a major concern.
Quarterback and Wide Receiver Depth
While evaluating backup quarterbacks can be difficult due to lack of playing time, the data we have on Dan Orlovsky does not bode well for the Lions if Stafford were to suffer an injury. Orlovsky hasn’t played meaningful regular season snaps since 2011 when he posted a -1.3 while playing for the Indianapolis Colts. Early in the preseason it looks like 3rd stringer Kellen Moore could end up beating out Orlovsky for the backup role, but Moore himself has not played meaningful snaps in an NFL game. Shaun Hill, now with the Rams, inspired more confidence. Meanwhile, beyond Johnson and Tate, the Lions also don’t have a reliable third wide receiver, or one they can count on to step up if either member of the duo goes down. Kevin Ogletree or oft-injured Ryan Broyles could emerge but have yet to prove themselves. At both positions, Detroit is an injury away from a major offensive setback.
Who Will Pressure from the Edge?
While Suh and Fairley are very effective pass rushers from the defensive tackle spots, the Lions lost their best edge rusher this offseason when Willie Young (+7.5 pass rush grade in 2013) left to join the Chicago Bears. Rookie Ezekiel Ansah had nine sacks last year, but that number overstated his true impact, as those were often of the “clean-up” variety and his pass rush grade was a disappointing -2.8. Ansah could certainly develop into a solid pass rusher, but until he does, the Lions have no one with a proven track record of significantly impacting the passing game from the edge.
Offensive Tackle Pass Protection
Reilly Reiff, the Lions’ first-round pick in 2012, has proven himself as a run blocker, but his -7.0 pass block grade in 2013 and seven sacks surrendered validated concerns over his ability to protect the quarterback. LaAdrian Waddle, who played the majority of snaps at right tackle, registered a -0.2 pass protection grade. Both players are better in the run game, so the Lions will get less out of their many skill position weapons if they are unable to give Stafford time in the pocket.
The NFC North
Detroit’s division itself is a serious cause for concern as the strengths of their opponents relate directly to the weaknesses on their roster. The Lions’ defense does not have players with great experience pressuring the quarterback from the edge or defending from the cornerback position. With Alshon Jeffrey emerging in Chicago to give the Bears a frightening passing attack, and with Aaron Rodgers and the Packers’ offense likely to return to form, there could be some shootouts in store. While Detroit went 4-2 in the division last year, one of those wins was against the Packers without Rodgers. The Lions will need defensive players to step up if they want to keep it together for a full season and make the playoffs.