Where Did the Season Go Wrong for the Detroit Lions?
It's a new year, but a pretty familiar story for the Lions.
After a tremendous 2011, Detroit virtually imploded this season, scraping together a mere four wins and being outscored by 65 points, a shocking number given what this offense managed in 2011.
Where did it all go wrong for Detroit this year?
Let's take a look.
As I broke this down, I had a segment for penalties, off-field issues and other similar problems but it's all linked together really under the heading of discipline.
While the Lions improved overall in terms of penalties, they acquired too many penalty yards per game, ranking 26th out of 32 teams with an average of 59 yards per game.
On a positive note, you can see on the accompanying chart that over the final three games, that number dropped considerably to just 37.3 yards a game.
Given how high the average was despite that, the first 13 games were certainly problematic.
As you can also see, the Lions averaged just over nine yards a penalty, meaning they pushed themselves back almost another full 10 yards and likely cost them a first down quite often.
The length of penalty yards appears to say that more than a few were bigger penalties, not simple the five-yard false start or neutral-zone infraction varieties.
What it doesn't tell us is when the penalties happened—if they killed drives or extended them for the opposition, if they were foolish ones (such as Ndamukong Suh's notorious "stomp" from the 2011 Thanksgiving game) or if they were bad calls (and there were a ton this year in the NFL even after the regular officials return).
They're also only part of the picture.
For another angle, let's look at the curious case of Titus Young.
Something had to be going on long before Young was suspended—though one can imagine that lining up in the wrong spot multiple times in a game on purpose would do it all by itself.
However as far back as his fight with Louis Delmas during the summer, Young was one big red flag. Sure, the team built him up in August, but all season long it was the same old Young—plenty of potential and flash, very little production.
Things like throwing a fit by lining up incorrectly during a huge game against a division foe to show your displeasure isn't something that "just happens." It doesn't come out of nowhere.
It had to be building and, while we weren't privy to them, there had to be signs of discontent and friction.
This is discipline?
Exactly how is Young going to walk back into that locker room?
It's no wonder reports have surfaced that the team is concerned with whether Jim Schwartz can control this team and of the character of players GM Marty Mayhew has put together.
You can't win on the field when you're an absolute mess off of it. And when you're a mess off of it, you have a hard time avoiding things like penalties on it.
We can just start with the red-flag incident on Thanksgiving.
Yes, Justin Forsett's knee was down. However as it's a scoring play, it would have been replayed and overturned.
By throwing the challenge flag, Schwartz negated that review before it happened and the officials had to let the play stand.
Now, it's a foolish rule that will get changed this offseason. It's also a rule Schwartz should have known about, and because he forgot, he cost his team.
As Jay Glazer put it on Fox, Schwartz has to know that rule. It's his job—and as Glazer points out, happened in front of him last season.
It's not just Schwartz though—it's the whole team.
Not shockingly, Schwartz was a little stunned. Logan was removed from return duties after that. We'll talk more about special teams in a second.
Of course, can we have a discussion about bad choices without talking about Suh's Thanksgiving Day kick to Texans quarterback Matt Schaub's groin?
Suh kicking someone on Thanksgiving is a holiday tradition we can all do without, by the way.
Looking at the kick, it's hard to tell if it was intentional. On the one hand, the way his foot thrusts out does seem like it was on purpose. On the other, and as Ron Jaworski put it, with your head down on the turf you'd have to be a ninja to aim that kick.
Still, Suh continues to make decisions that hurt the team and, after the fact, never shows any concern or remorse. He's a very smart player who is, in my mind, unjustly painted as a dirty player but is really a guy who plays hard and occasionally does something incredibly dumb.
We could talk a little about Matt Stafford's choices, but he gets a whole section later on.
Moving back to Stefan Logan and returning kicks and punts—why did it take the team 16 weeks to decide he wasn't getting the job done?
Logan's tenure as a kick returner was a horror show of mistakes yet it took him kneeling down against the Falcons in a game that was already lost before the team decided enough was enough.
How insane is that? There had to be someone who could return a kick or punt and do so with a lower percentage of error. Heck, even though he was a mediocre returner at best, Mike Thomas wasn't doing anything most games.
He couldn't have been worse.
On the other hand, was it Logan's fault when his own player ran into him and caused a fumble?
You can't just pin all the special-teams problems on Logan—the Lions unit embarrassed itself all season long.
For example, the two returns they gave up to Tennessee in Week 3.
The first was a perfect replication of the Music City Miracle. On the play the Titans sucked all the Lions over to one side of the field, leaving a single player open on the opposite side, since Detroit didn't leave anyone to cover him. It was a brutal mistake, but one which was understandable given how unexpected it was.
The second return was a more complete breakdown.
Just like during the first play, the Lions headed right toward the middle of the Titans' blockers, likely assuming that the returner would head straight up the gut behind his blockers. Instead, the Titans' returner—Darius Reynard, the gentleman who threw the ball in the Miracle play we just spoke of—shifts to his right and cuts upfield behind a single blocker.
The entire Lions' unit is out of position, save one guy who is subsequently destroyed by the lone blocker.
While most miscues weren't that brutal, they were all painful.
Detroit gave up the seventh-most yards on kickoffs but was 20th in punt return yards allowed. Though admittedly the defense often struggled to stop teams from scoring, so the attempt total was a little low. It was ranked 29th in total kickoff return yards when kicked to and 22nd in punt return yards.
Overall, this unit failed to put the Lions—either offense or defense—in a position to succeed.
Matt Stafford regressed
The sidearm delivery is something he's always had—but the angle of it has become more severe over time.
These two shots are from 2011. Not that the release point is high and the arm more vertical.
This third shot is from this year and shows the more severe arm angle and a more shallow release point—something we have seen a lot of this season.
In 2011, Stafford completed 421 passes out of 663 attempts—or 63.4 percent of his passes. This year Stafford completed just 435 out of 727 attempts, dropping his percentage to 59.8 percent.
On top of that, he ended up with fewer yards (4,965 vs. 5,038) than last year and half the touchdowns (20 vs. 41) on more attempts.
It didn't help that he ended up with a slipshod group of wide receivers by the end of the year. Injuries to Ryan Broyles and Nate Burleson were hard to overcome, and Young's implosion just exacerbated it.
However, it's hard to overlook the fact that there is something off about Stafford's throwing motion, which was already awkward to begin with.
The defensive line brought the pressure, but the secondary never lived up to expectations due to a combination of both injury and lack of talent.
Chris Houston is a decent cornerback, ranked 23rd out of 112 by Pro Football Focus (premium stat), but aside from him there was no consistent presence at the other corner position. Jonte Green is ranked 58th but with less than half the snaps of Houston (408 vs. 931), then Jacob Lacey (62nd) and Drayton Florence (84th).
Again, none of them at more than about half the snaps Houston took.
That lack of consistency due to injury and just plain inability to play hurt the Lions quite a bit, contributing to a defense that allowed 26 passing touchdowns and an average of 223 yards a game.
In truth that puts them in the middle of the pack in terms of passing defenses, but the lack of talent also gave them just 11 interceptions, good for only 23rd in the league.
It's one of the top needs going into the 2013 season.
It's fair to say that given what has gone on with Titus Young, Ndamukong Suh, Nick Fairley and Mikel Leshoure that the scouting department needs to examine how it makes its recommendations.
Or Mayhew and Schwartz need to start listening to what they say more closely.
Three of the above players came with big red flags. Young has been close to a disaster both on and off the field, while Suh has made a reputation for himself both he and the team would like to change.
Fairley made some mistakes off the field last winter and it remains to be seen if he can avoid them again.
Meanwhile, Jahvid Best's concussion history has been an issue (he had one brutal one in college that scared teams off) and Ryan Broyles' second ACL tear just after recovering from one (different leg) that ended his college career early has raised a few eyebrows.
There are some potentially big misses among those players, the type of misses which can set a team back.
Character is a concern in Detroit now, and injuries should be.
It might be time to put some real thought into changing how they do things in the scouting department.
Odds and Ends
A lot of other small things contributed to the bad season: injuries on both sides of the ball, the absence of Jahvid Best and the lack of preparation to replace him should his concussion issues remain (which led to a mediocre run game).
All that and more resulted in a hole that was dug early in the season and from which they never could crawl out of.
The Lions have a whole offseason to determine what they can do to avoid another year like 2012.
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