3 reasons for optimism: Detroit Lions

The Lions have leaned on their offensive line, Matthew Stafford, and CB Darius Slay in the second half of the season

| 11 months ago
(Jeff Haynes/AP Images for Panini)

(Jeff Haynes/AP Images for Panini)

3 reasons for optimism: Detroit Lions

After a heartbreaking, Hail Mary loss to the Green Bay Packers, Detroit’s playoff chances are close to elimination. Looking a little closer, though, the Lions have still won four of their last seven matchups, with all three losses coming against very good teams, including the surging Chiefs and Vikings.

Detroit has looked like a different team over the middle of the season compared to their early form, and there are three definitive reasons the franchise has been able to turn things around.

1. Better offensive line play.

One of the main reasons for Detroit’s postseason berth in 2014 was how well the offensive line played. So far in 2015, left tackle Riley Reiff and right guard Larry Warford have regressed some, and right tackle LaAdrian Waddle has regressed significantly. However, in recent weeks, the line has shown signs of progress. One key factor is first-round rookie LG Laken Tomlinson. Over his first four games, Tomlinson had a -9.4 PFF grade and was hurting Detroit’s flow on offense. During the following five games, he improved much closer to average at -2.4. And now, his last two games, the rookie has graded out at a solid +3.5. Need further proof of his turnaround? Tomlinson allowed 13 pressures over his first four games but just 12 pressures allowed over his last eight.

At right tackle, the Lions have found a solution in Michael Ola, who has a +5.1 grade over these past two games. He has allowed just two pressures in each of his last three games. Warford, who we noted had a few rough games early in the season, has had three of his best four games of the season in recent weeks, totaling a +5.3 grade in those three contests.

2. The “good” Matthew Stafford has returned.

Five weeks into the 2015 season, Stafford was PFF’s worst-graded quarterback at -17.0; the next lowest quarterback checked in at -9.8. Since the dreadful beginning, Stafford has played at a top-10 level (+9.1).

One area he’s enhanced throughout the year is his performance under pressure. He’s been under pressure a little less than 38.3 percent of pass plays to 35.1 percent, which has helped. In turn, Stafford’s also found much more success throwing deep. Over his first five games, the 27-year-old only completed 3-of-12 passes for 99 yards. Since then, he’s completed 10-of-27 for 351 yards and three touchdowns. In mid-October, it seemed like this season would be Stafford’s last with the Lions, but if you connect the dots, it looks as if Detroit could return to playoff form with Stafford still in command come 2016.

3. Future All-Pro cornerback Darius Slay.

When the Lions stumbled out of the gates, Slay was not one of the reasons for Detroit’s struggles, but he also wasn’t a reason the team was successful. Over the first five weeks of the season, he allowed a few big plays down the field, but also had some solid ones to make up for it. Since then, Slay has been playing at an All-Pro level.

Weeks 1–5 6-7 8-13
PFF grade -0.8 2.1 11.5
Thrown at 22 12 13
Receptions allowed 17 7 4
Completion % allowed 77.3 58.3 30.8
Yards surrendered 271 93 35
Avg. yards allowed 15.9 13.3 8.8
Yards after catch surrendered 58 46 7
Longest reception allowed 49 30 12
Touchdowns surrendered 3 0 0
Interceptions 1 0 0
Pass defenses 1 3 3
NFL rating 138.45  82.99 40.22

In his two games against Aaron Rodgers and the Packers, he didn’t allow a single catch. In his three most recent games not against Green Bay, he has allowed a combined 35 yards. Despite the leisurely start to the season, Slay has impressively worked his way up to being our fourth highest-rated cornerback with an 88.6 total grade.

| Director of Analytics

Nathan has been with Pro Football Focus since 2010. He is the Director of Analytics, an NFL analyst, and a fantasy writer.

  • Kyle Ferguson

    if only they played like this during the beginning of the season. I see Jack Conklin or Vernon hargreaves in their future

  • crosseyedlemon

    Unfortunately Stafford is the poster boy for inconsistent play and the odds of him performing as a top QB for any extended duration of time are very slim. Regardless of what you think of Suh he did provide the Lions with a defensive identity which they sorely need.