But then that same team took a step back in 2012—a huge step back. More like a leap, really. Detroit went 4-12, and suddenly, a team that was on the upswing reverted back to old form.
It’s safe to say that heading into the 2013 season, the Lions have some problems to address. It’s that time of year when camp is looming, and now is the time to go about fixing last year’s debacle.
This article contains the top 10 biggest issues the Lions must deal with. These are problems that cropped up during the 2012 season and ones that must change in order for the Lions to get back to their 2011 form.
The defensive line troubles, Swiss cheese of a secondary and pass-happy offense are all in there. But the No.1 issue isn’t any of those and might be the hardest to fix.
Curious? Read on.
*Note: All stats, unless otherwise noted, come from espn.com/nfl/statistics
Not surprisingly, there are more than 10 issues that the Lions face this offseason. These are some that were just outside the top 10 but still merited mentioning.
Jason Hanson, the Lions' kicker since coming into the league in 1992, retired in April. The Lions hadn’t had to find another full-time kicker in 21 seasons, and finding one half as reliable as Jason Hanson doesn’t come easy.
Calvin Johnson, maybe better known as Megatron, set the single-season NFL receiving record with 1,964 yards in 2012. And he did all that with broken fingers. There were also rumors of a concussion and nerve damage during that same season. Lions fans should be hopeful Johnson holds up for the 2013 campaign and beyond, as 2012 took quite a toll.
Schwartz has three more years on his deal, but it seems like he might already be on the hot seat. He had better get his act together quickly, or rumblings might turn into actions.
The Lions have three running backs, all of whom deserve touches in the 2012 campaign and one of whom who has been promised a starting job. Yes, while wooing Reggie Bush to come to the Lions this offseason, Detroit told him he would start over Mikel Leshoure.
Bush is a running back in the Jahvid Best mold, a speedster with receiving prowess who can run effectively but is most deadly in the open field and on the edge. Signing Bush gives the Lions that option they had been yearning for since Best has had his concussion issues.
Leshoure, on the other hand, proved to be a solid back but of a different mold. Detroit’s second-round pick in 2011, the 227-pounder ran hard between the tackles, collecting 798 yards and nine touchdowns.
Joique Bell might not have the heralded past like those other two, but that doesn’t mean he wasn’t productive. He amassed 899 yards from scrimmage on 134 touches, giving him an average of 6.7 yards per touch—impressive for a guy who went undrafted.
How will the Lions manage this situation? They have three backs who deserve touches, and running a three-back system requires careful handling. The last thing the Lions need are three pouting backs.
What? This unit was good for the Lions though! Yes, it was good in one aspect—great even—but pretty poor in the other.
Football Outsiders has the Lions line ranked as the most effective pass-blocking unit in the NFL for the 2012 season. It allowed only 29 sacks, good for ninth in the league. But quarterback Matthew Stafford also set the NFL record for pass attempts in a season, making that number even more impressive.
What the line couldn’t do was run-block. OK, it can run-block adequately but not enough to set the running backs free.
According to Football Outsiders’s advanced stats, the Lions line-blocked well enough to get backs four yards per carry, a nice number. But they also ranked 20th and 27th in the league for blocking in the second level and open field, respectively.
Where backs like Bush and Bell excel is at the second level and in the open field. If the Lions want to have even a semblance of a running game—something they’ve been faking for two years now—they have to improve in these areas.
Fans who watch the Lions on a regular basis know that they’re especially good at this. In the first half of games, the Lions scored 10.4 points (21st in the NFL), and their opponents scored 13.4 points (29th in the NFL). In fact, they trailed at halftime in 11 of their 16 games.
This partially explains why Stafford set the record for pass attempts in a season, why they led the league in pass-play percentage with 66.29 percent and why Calvin Johnson was targeted 204 times.
This was a problem in 2011 as well, as the Lions were outscored in the first half but outscored their opponents by a whopping 5.3 points per game in the second half. Their defense improved, and the offense lit up the scoreboard.
Either teams caught onto this trend or the Lions lost their second half mojo from 2011 couldn't carry over to 2012. Either way, the Lions would be in much better shape if they didn’t always have to come out of the locker room playing catch up.
Remember that Titans game? The Lions outplayed the Titans in every which way, yet Tennessee won in overtime—well, every which way except for special teams, where the Titans scored not one but two return touchdowns. Yikes.
The Lions allowed the most non-offensive touchdowns in the NFL as well as ranking 26th in kickoff-return yards allowed. They were also 29th in kickoff-return yardage and22nd in punt-return yardage.
To sum it up, they allowed the most special teams touchdowns, were bad at covering kicks and were also pretty dreadful at returning kicks and punts. Oh, they also didn’t score any return touchdowns.
It's safe to say this unit has to improve mightily for the 2013 season, even a mediocre improvement would be markedly better.
When the Lions drafted Oklahoma’s Ryan Broyles in the second round last year, there was public disappointment. He was added to a crowded receiving core that already included Johnson, Nate Burleson and Titus Young.
One year later and it seems that position didn’t have enough depth. Burleson was lost to a broken leg, Young began to misbehave so badly he was banned from team facilities and placed on injured reserve, and Ryan Broyles tore his right ACL in December.
By the end of the year, the receivers on the roster were Johnson, Kris Durham, Kassim Osgood, Brian Robiskie and Mike Thomas—so much for too many wideouts.
Now Burleson is healthy, and Broyles is almost there. But Burleson will be 32 before the season starts, and Broyles has a checkered injury history, starting with a torn ACL in his final year at Oklahoma—not to mention Johnson’s bumps and bruises from last year.
The Lions offense wasn’t the same without the playmakers on the outside, as in their final five games (all losses), their second leading receivers were a mishmash of Tony Scheffler, Joique Bell and Kris Durham.
If the Lions offense wants to regain 2011 form, they’ll hope the starters remain healthy. But just in case that doesn’t happen, they need to make sure their receiving core has qualified backups.
This part is very basic. In 2012, Detroit ranked 30th in the NFL in turnover differential with a minus-16. In 2011, it was in the positives at 11 and fourth in the league.
Turnover differential is a statistic that on its own is very indicative of who the good and bad teams are on a year-to-year basis.
Looking at these numbers a little more, it becomes apparent how bad the problems are. The defense didn’t create as many turnovers, from 34 in 2011 to 17 in 2012. And the offense was sloppier with the ball, turning the ball over 11 more times in 2012 than in 2011.
What’s the problem with the offense? It was fourth in the league in yards per game, third in first downs per game,second in plays per game and 16th in points per game. Wait, that last part seems a bit out of place. Only 16th in the league with 23.2 points per game?
Yeah, the Lions were great at getting extra yards when they got down, which was quite often. The 2012 Lions were fantastic at digging themselves in a hole, which is very similar to what the 2011 Lions did. Except when the Lions were good, they could climb out of the hole. This past year, not so much.
They passed 66 percent of the time, and not surprisingly, they weren’t very effective doing so, averaging only 6.7 yards per attempt, good for 15th in the NFL. The Lions need a run game to keep the defense honest. Or they need to at least pretend they have a run game to force the defense to halfheartedly respect whomever is in the backfield.
The offense is what makes this team go. When the Lions get a lead, they can let their pass-rushers loose. Creating pressure should create turnovers, and with turnovers come wins. Fixing the offense needs to be a top priority.
Always a work in progress, this unit has been ravaged by injuries as of late. In 2012 it ended with Bill Bentley, Chris Greenwood, Jacob Lacey and Amari Spievey on injured reserve.
Now none of those names would single-handedly explain why the Lions secondary was routinely shredded, but group them together and it significantly hurts depth. It forces guys like Jonte Green (a 2012 sixth-round pick) and Don Carey (cut three times in four years) into starting jobs.
It also doesn’t help that Louis Delmas, Detroit’s best defensive back, can’t stay healthy. He played only eight games in 2012 and was largely ineffective in the ones he did play.
The good news, though, is that if the Lions can somehow keep their secondary healthier than in years past, they will be fine. Not great, probably not good but fine. They have enough depth and young talent that they can work through it.
But these guys have shown no ability to stay on the field, so that “if” about staying healthy becomes a rather large “if.”
You know how the Lions can take some pressure off that beleaguered secondary of theirs? Reinvigorating their once daunting pass rush. According to Football Outsiders, the Lions had the 29th ranked pass rush in the NFL.
Football Outsiders uses a statistic called adjusted sack rate to measure pressure. It counts sacks and intentional grounding penalties per pass attempt and adjusts for things like down distance and opponent in order to acknowledge especially easy or difficult sacks.
Detroit’s adjusted sack rate fell off by 1.5 percent. That doesn’t seem like much, but the entire league varies by about 4 percent. So put in those terms, that’s quite a drop-off.
And stats aren’t the only thing to back up the contention that the line didn’t play well. Ndamukong Suh wasn’t creating much pressure, and Cliff Avril and Co. couldn’t seem to come up with sacks like the year before.
In 2011, the Lions could be counted on to turn up the pressure and to wreak havoc when needed. They could come up with meaningful sacks or even give the quarterback happy feet.
In 2012, that kind of pass rush was rarely seen. The secondary needs to have some of the pressure lifted off its shoulders, and this pass rush is what made the Lions defense acceptable in 2011. It needs to come back in full force for 2013.
The cornerstone of the franchise, the 2009 No. 1 overall draft pick Matthew Stafford, is the biggest issue facing the Lions.
Before we get into performance, let’s look at his contract. Spotrac breaks it down, and it is really ugly. In 2013, Stafford is scheduled to make $20.82 million—roughly one-sixth of Detroit’s salary cap.
Also, that contract is second largest in the league. But it’s okay, his salary gets lower in 2014. It drops to $19.32 million, good for fourth in the league. That helps, right?
Now it would be one thing to be paying that money for 2011 Matthew Stafford—he of a 5,000 yard season with 41 touchdowns and a QB rating of 97.2.
It’s another thing entirely to be paying for 2012 Matthew Stafford, who threw 727 times with only 20 touchdowns and a QB rating of 79.8—not to mention Stafford’s injury history on top of that. Yes, he has played all 16 games for the past two years, but his injury woes cannot simply be ignored.
And those 727 passes in one season aren’t helping matters. There’s evidence his arm got tired as the season went on, as his accuracy dipped in the last eight games from 63.6 percent to 56.4 percent, and his interceptions climbed as well.
Stafford playing to his potential can cover up most of the blemishes the Lions have. With him, they can be a playoff team. But with 2012 Stafford, they might be bound for another top-10 pick in the 2014 NFL Draft.
Bottom line, Stafford is what makes the offense, and thus the team, go. He sure would love a running game, but he was able to lead this team to the playoffs without one in 2011. Without him playing at his best, his contract becomes a real abomination, and the Lions lose a franchise QB. This franchise can’t afford either of those missteps.