It was only two years ago when Detroit Lions head coach Jim Schwartz took the franchise to the playoffs for the first time since 1999. It was one of the NFL's most remarkable stories after the team hit an all-time low under previous head coach Rod Marinelli. Following the 2011 playoff season, the Lions were expected to take the next step and become full-time contenders but they didn't.
The 2012 season was a tough one for Schwartz and his team. They were ravaged by injuries, had too many turnovers, were one dimensional offensively and struggled with the mental side of the game in all three phases. It led to a 4-12 record and a seat in the basement of the NFC North.
Going into the 2013 season, Schwartz and his staff have to make sure that the same issues don't happen again if they plan on making the playoffs.
Schwartz can't control the health of his players, as it's part of the game and can happen to any team, but he can control his players not turning the ball over and avoiding mental mistakes in general.
Last season, the Lions were the third-worst team in the NFL in turnover differential, according to ESPN.com. They had 16 more turnovers than they forced, which is not part of a winning game plan, as Schwartz explained to the team's website. (via detroitlions.com)
We turned the ball over too much. I think the bottom line of this league is score points and scoring enough points to win. For an offense, bottom line for the team is winning, but an offense needs to put points on the board. Whether it's a four down turnover or a fumble or an interception, we've had too many of them this year. We haven't scored enough points for our liking, which has led to not winning enough games.
Quarterback Matthew Stafford can be blamed for some of the turnover woes on the offensive side of the ball. He threw 17 interceptions last season, and many of them were either bad decisions or bad footwork. Sometimes a combination of both.
One example is against the Arizona Cardinals in Week 15. It was 3rd-and-15 and the Lions had possession at their own 43-yard line with 35 seconds left in the first half.
They were down one touchdown and couldn't afford to give the Cardinals any further momentum going into the half. In these situations, the quarterback is taught to get rid of the ball out of bounds or to his outlet receiver if there's no one open downfield. In other words, he can't afford to turn the ball over.
With that in mind, Stafford took a quick five-step drop from shotgun and watched tight end Tony Scheffler run a curl route from the slot. Defensively, the Cardinals played Cover 3, which is four underneath, three deep zone coverage.
Cover 3 meant that strong safety Rashad Johnson was going to rotate down and cover Scheffler as a "hook" defender. This was significant because Stafford watched Scheffler run his route the entire play. He never appeared to take his eyes off of him, which made it easy for Johnson to cover.
When Stafford reached the top of his drop and fired the ball out, he failed to rotate his hips and shift his weight forward. Instead, he leaned back and threw the ball with his upper body strength. In most cases, throwing with only the upper body results in a lack of velocity on the throw.
Stafford's lack of velocity and poor use of his eyes combined for a very poor pass that ended up in the hands of Johnson, who jumped the route and took the ball to the end zone for a pick-six.
In Stafford's defense, a big reason why he made many mistakes last season was because the offense was one dimensional.
The running game produced only 4.1 yards per carry, which was in the bottom third of the league, but that's expected to change with a boost from newly signed running back Reggie Bush.
In 2011, Bush averaged five yards per carry and ran for more than 1,000 yards. In 2012, his average yards per carry fell to 4.3 but that was largely because of a change in the Miami Dolphins' scheme, as they went from man blocking to zone blocking.
Nonetheless, it was mistakes like the above that cost the Lions in 2012. Then there were others that are still unexplainable, like kick returner Stefan Logan's kneel down at the 4-yard line. It prompted a response from Schwartz that could be easily understood with a quick read of the lips.
Perhaps the biggest issue with the mental mistakes that the team made on offense and special teams was that it affected the defense, which was already dealing with tough injuries and had some issues in pass defense.
The Lions were better than average in passing yards allowed per attempt but gave up a quarterback rating of 91.7, according to pro-football-reference.com. A combination of bad pass defense and field position hurt them, leading to 27.3 points given up per game.
Fortunately, the team re-signed cornerback Chris Houston and acquired strong safety Glover Quin from the Houston Texans in free agency. The two players are starting material, with the latter excelling in covering the slot.
Quin is a good step in the right direction for Schwartz's team but the team still needs more help. It'll have to find pass-rushers in the draft and hopefully get help from the ones that are currently on the roster, such as Willie Young.
If the team is able to add edge rushers in the draft, establish a balanced offense and cut down on the mistakes it made last season in all three areas of the game, it'll have a chance of getting back into the playoffs. It will have the opportunity to surpass the Minnesota Vikings and Chicago Bears, both of whom are undergoing changes, and compete with the Green Bay Packers for the division title.