There are significant roadblocks that the 2012 Detroit Lions will have to clear if they are to challenge for the NFC North division title. If the Lions want to win the division, they will have to win a few games that look to be losses right now. Any stumbling would cause the Lions to fall too far behind the Chicago Bears, Green Bay Packers and the surprising Minnesota Vikings.
The Lions put themselves behind the rest of the division with the 2-3 start. The Bears are 4-1 and have come out of the gate strong. The Packers have struggled, but they appear to be getting it together after Sunday's destruction of the Houston Texans. The Minnesota Vikings have surprised the entire league with their play, and they are 4-2.
Let's look at the biggest challenges the Lions face as they attempt to win the NFC North for the first time since 1993.
The Lions are in a particularly tough situation in regards to the remaining opponents on the schedule. We are talking about the Lions winning the NFC North, and an examination of the schedule is a reason for concern.
The Lions' remaining opponents currently hold a 40-22 combined record entering Week 7. The Bears' remaining opponents are a combined 35-28. The Packers' opponents hold a combined 30-25 record. The Vikings face teams that have won 34 games and lost 22.
A closer look at the schedule shows that the Lions only play two games against teams that don’t have a winning record. Even the games against those two teams (Jacksonville and Indianapolis) are not locked in victories.
The schedule is tough. The Lions have games against Seattle, Houston and Arizona. They also have to play the Chicago Bears and the Green Bay Packers twice. These are tough football games to win, and games that they play in their division will be critical to determining the winner of the NFC North.
They are going to have to surprise some folks by beating a few teams that most consider games they can’t win. An upset over an NFC North rival would help the cause tremendously.
The Lions have the toughest remaining schedule of all of the teams in the NFC North. In fact, the Lions will be in a dogfight almost every week they play the rest of the way. The schedule is the biggest roadblock to any success the Lions will have in 2012.
The Detroit Lions special teams unit has cost them football games in 2012. They allowed four return touchdowns over a two-week span. The Lions special teams units spotted the opponent 14 points against the Minnesota Vikings and Tennessee Titans. They aren’t good enough to dig themselves out of such a hole.
According to espn.com, the Lions rank third-worst in the NFL, allowing 30.3 yards per kick return. They are allowing a league-worst 19.6 yards per punt return. There have only been 11 touchdowns scored in the entire league on special teams, and the Lions own four of them.
It’s not just the scores either, as the coverage has been horrendous the entire year. The Lions have missed tackles, taken bad angles and not been disciplined with the integrity of the lane in which they are running. They have gotten outplayed in this aspect of the game.
The Lions have enough talent on their roster, and they should not be allowing these monumental, game-shaping plays. If there is success for the Lions in 2012, it will come from a much better all-around performance from their special teams groups.
The Lions are struggling to finish drives in the red zone. They are settling for field goals far too often, and kicker Jason Hanson is really earning his money through six weeks. He has attempted 17 field goals in 2012, converting on 16 of them.
According to teamrankings.com, the Lions' red-zone touchdown scoring percentage is 52.63 percent. That puts the Lions in the middle of the pack at No. 15 overall. In 2011, the Lions' red-zone touchdown scoring percentage was 66.13 percent.
It represents almost a 14 percent drop in efficiency, and in a league where games are decided by just a few plays, the drop in touchdown efficiency matters. The Lions need to get back to where they were last year when they were destroying the opposition in the red zone.
The Lions have not come out of the tunnel ready to play this year. They look hung over to start games, and they have dug themselves gigantic holes, sometimes too big for them to overcome.
In Week 1, the Lions trailed the Rams 13-10 at the half. In Week 2, they trailed the 49ers 14-6 at halftime. They trailed the Tennessee Titans 20-9 through two quarters in Week 3. In Week 4, they trailed the Vikings 13-6 at halftime. In Week 6 after the bye, they trailed the Eagles 7-6.
It is clear that the Lions are struggling to start football games, mostly on offense. Let’s look at quarterback Matthew Stafford’s statistics by the quarters.
In the first quarter, Stafford is 24-of-45 for 217 yards while completing 53.3 percent of his passes. He has thrown two interceptions and zero touchdowns in the first quarter with a quarterback rating of 48.1.
In the second quarter, Stafford is 32-of-48 for 312 yards while completing 66.7 percent of his passes. He has thrown three interceptions and zero touchdowns in the second quarter with a quarterback rating of 58.7.
In the third quarter, Stafford is 21-of-34 for 217 yards while completing 61.8 percent of his passes. He has thrown zero interceptions and zero touchdowns in the third quarter with a quarterback rating of 80.1.
In the fourth quarter, Stafford is 57-of-89 for 714 yards while completing 64 percent of his passes. He has thrown zero interceptions and four touchdowns in the fourth quarter with a quarterback rating of 103.9.
It is obvious that Stafford is struggling to start games, and the Lions need to find a way to get him going earlier in games.
Lions quarterback Matthew Stafford is struggling with his accuracy, and he is not placing the ball as well as he did in 2011. He has missed open receivers running down the seam, and the Lions have suffered in the red zone because of Stafford’s accuracy issues.
According to espn.com, Stafford is 12-of-28 in the red zone. He is completing 42.9 percent of the passes he has thrown in the red zone. Stafford’s quarterback rating in the red zone is 61.2, and he has thrown for a touchdown on 14.3 percent of his red-zone throws.
In 2011, Stafford was 50-of-100 in the red zone. He completed 50 percent of his throws and his rating was 87.3. Stafford threw for 18 red-zone touchdowns for a rate of 18 percent.
Stafford’s mechanics look to be off in 2012, as he looks to be throwing the ball from too many different arm angles and he is not setting his front foot before he throws the ball. He is relying solely on his arm strength, and his mechanics have not been great in 2012.
The Lions need to get Stafford straightened out sooner rather than later. They need Stafford at his best as they enter the meat of their schedule, a schedule that we have already laid out as very tough. The Lions need the Stafford of last year and this year’s fourth quarters to show up in the first three quarters.
If Stafford continues to struggle with accuracy, the Lions’ season-long slumber will continue. If they can get his mechanics straightened out, the season is going to get very interesting.