Detroit Lions: 5 Ways Team Can Get Back to Its Winning Ways
A day after their baseball brethren suffered a heartbreaking defeat in the World Series, the Detroit Lions awake wondering where their winning ways have gone as well.
Following a playoff-worthy 10-6 campaign in 2011, the Lions aren’t even on pace to earn six wins this year. This saddens me because I picked them as the first wild card team in the NFC.
At 2-4, Detroit is the only team in the division with a losing record. The aforementioned opponents each have five wins, while the Packers are steadily rising behind Aaron Rodgers’ berserk quarterback play as of late.
Matthew Stafford—the Lions’ own occasionally prolific QB—needs to revert to 2011 Stafford and carry this team on his back as it trudges forward. He’ll need to do so without his top underneath possession receiver Nate Burleson, who’s out for the year with a broken leg.
The defense, for its part, suffers from just as many deficiencies as the offensive side of the ball. Both units must vastly improve in unison for the Lions to have a fighting chance.
Only kicker Jason Hanson is free from reproach with his 94.1 percent field goal accuracy.
Let’s now dig into the Lions’ issues that have plagued this team into a miserable standing. Tough love is in order.
Acknowledge the Brutal Schedule
Before getting down and dirty into the systemic issues, the Lions must come to terms with something right away.
Their schedule is positively brutal.
With the risk of sounding completely apocalyptic, losing nine out of the next ten games is entirely possible. Casting the lowly Jaguars aside, the Lions must face four more divisional games against opponents that they haven’t proven they can beat.
Yes, any team can be beat on any given Sunday, but it works both ways. Andrew Luck or not, the Colts took down the mighty Rodgers-led Packers earlier this year. Indianapolis makes a stop in Detroit in Week 13—the Lions had better be prepared.
In any case, head coach Jim Schwartz must use these tremendous obstacles as a rallying cry for his Lions to prove the world wrong. If they succumb—and not overcome—this season could get ugly in a hurry.
Eliminate the Penalties
Whether or not the Lions want to believe it, this team must do everything in its power to clean up its act. Sloppy play pervades their games and the public just isn’t buying that the media has created a faulty perception about them.
Where the Lions encounter their most problems is on the road. They commit more penalties than any team in the league at just under 10 per week. That is entirely unacceptable, especially when they are called for just four per game at home.
Winning away from home is challenging as it is; digging an even deeper hole with penalties that negate big plays is often too difficult to overcome.
Even though the Lions mitigated this problematic tendency somewhat in Chicago last week, they’re still 1-3 on the road for the season.
Hopefully a home matchup against the ‘Hawks will help eliminate the hindrance to a winning Week 8.
Win the Turnover Battle
Now to more football-related matters for a change.
The Lions unfortunately rank near the bottom in a very significant category. At No. 25 in the league, the Lions have a turnover ratio of -5. The Vikings are the only other team in the division with a low number, and -1 is not nearly as crippling.
In comparison, Green Bay is +2 and the Bears are the class of the NFL with a phenomenal +13. It’s no surprise this team owns the third-best record in the league.
At least the Lions can take solace in the fact that multiple areas of the team share blame. It extends to both offense and defense.
First and foremost, quarterback Matthew Stafford has thrown more interceptions (6) than touchdowns (5). He is the field general of the club; when the leader falters, so often does the people below him.
In this case, one of his favorite weapons in tight end Brandon Pettigrew has lost a fumble. Purported No. 1 running back Mikel Leshoure has coughed up two and his running mate Joique Bell also has one. The last fumble occurred at the goal line when the Lions were finally about to penetrate the otherwise impenetrable Bears defense.
Did it cost them this crucial divisional game? Well, neither the fumble nor Stafford’s interception helped very much.
So far the count is at -11.
Furthermore, the defense does little to push that number back into the positive zone. The unit that’s ultimately guided by defensive-minded Coach Schwartz ranks dead last with two interceptions—and is saved only by its four fumble recoveries
The Lions D certainly deserves a break with the rash of injuries affecting this part of the team. But moving forward, the defense must become more aggressive and opportunistic. Negative ratios are generally indicative of losing teams.
The first place Bears’ 21 takeaways really puts it all into perspective.
Forget the Yards, Focus on Scoring
At first glance, the Lions hold two seemingly lofty rankings.
Stafford’s crew has generated 406 yards per game on offense, good for fourth-highest in the NFL. Their defensive compatriots have limited opponents to 319 yards per game, the eighth-fewest and just two spots down from Chicago.
But don’t let these statistics mislead you. They are the most overrated in all of football.
To wit, while pushing the ball up and down the field for 400-plus, it has only amounted to 22 points per game for the Lions (No. 21 in the NFL). Even the Christian Ponder-led Vikings score more on a weekly basis.
Stafford must focus solely on delivering the ball to his playmakers in the end zone, and not racking up empty yardage (more on this later).
The same applies to the defense, but inversely. It must do everything in its power to keep opponents out of the end zone. Giving up yardage in a bend-but-not-break fashion is perfectly effective.
What is not conducive to winning is allowing 25 points per contest. That amounts to six more than the second-place Vikings and nearly double what the Bears surrender.
The Lions must shore up their passing defense in the secondary and not allow those eight touchdowns through the air to increase any further.
Get the Ball to Megatron
Last, but certainly not least, the Detroit Lions must get the ball into the hands of their best, if not the most dynamic playmaker in the NFL.
Megatron, Calvin Johnson, CJ—the nomenclature is irrelevant. What is most pertinent, and entirely criminal at the same time, is that Johnson has but one touchdown on the year.
Allow me to repeat: Johnson has found the end zone only once in 2012, and it was a pass thrown not by Stafford, but the backup QB.
At this point last season, Megatron had an unbelievable 10 total touchdowns. He hauled in two per game for the first four weeks.
Stafford was equally dominant for the first seven games. He threw 16 touchdowns and at least two per week for the first six.
Both of these elite players need to realize—Stafford especially—who they are and what they can bring to the NFL. Like Kobe Bryant recently telling Alex Rodriguez never to forget his legendary status, Stafford and Johnson must cut the nonsense and explode onto the scene from here on out.
The offensive line is a top-10 group (giving up just 12 sacks) and gives their quarterback ample time to deliver it downfield.
Meanwhile, the coaching staff must orchestrate a balanced offense with a consistent running game so that Stafford can attack opposing defenses off play-action, It must foster the scenario where Megatron can take the tops off defenses deep downfield for touchdowns.
For that to materialize, backs like Leshoure, Kevin Smith and Bell must operate as the three-headed monster that they supposedly are. They need to establish themselves as a dynamic rushing corps who can push the piles and break off big runs.
Moreover, receiver Titus Young must realize his immense talent and draw coverage away from Johnson. Rookie Ryan Broyles could also contribute to the wide receiver position with his great hands and speed. And tight ends Pettigrew and Scheffler need to keep things moving underneath as well.
Is this easier said than done? Why certainly.
But with the immense talent on this team, the Lions do not have any excuses to do anything but force the issue for the remainder of the season.
Who knows—maybe they’ll even make good on my prediction for a wild card berth in the postseason.
Follow me on Twitter @jlevitt16