Despite a preseason in which the Detroit Lions' first-team offense was far from sharp, little reason exists for assuming the struggles of a unit missing key components in August will carry into the regular season.
In fact, there's more evidence to suggest that the Lions are looking at a rebound on offense in 2013.
Detroit's addition of Reggie Bush—a match of running back and team made in football heaven—stands as the most significant reason for optimism. But there's also the likely bounce-back season in store for quarterback Matthew Stafford, who saw a severe dip in scoring production in 2012 that is without many equals in the recent history of the NFL.
Factor in the return of all-world receiver Calvin Johnson for Week 1, and the Lions can all but forget about the inconsistencies that plagued the first-team offense during the exhibition schedule.
However, the preseason did offer individual instances of contained worry.
Over the first two exhibition games, the Lions' first-team offense scored just six points—on two field goals—and tallied just seven first downs over seven series in which Stafford captained the unit. Detroit also averaged just over 19 yards a drive when Stafford was in the game.
The third and all-important preseason game saw the Lions finally come to life, as the first-team offense scored 16 points, including its first touchdown, in the opening 30 minutes. Yet Stafford was somewhat erratic accuracy-wise (12 of 25 passing), and Bush's 67-yard scamper off a screen play was the only time the Lions scored on a sustained drive that wasn't set up by a turnover.
Any tangible progress made against the New England Patriots was dashed by regression in the preseason finale. Stafford completed just one of his six attempts and was intercepted once (although it came on a pass that went off a receiver's hands). He also overthrew receiver Patrick Edwards twice on passing plays that should have resulted in big yards.
Overall, the first-team offense played 16 preseason series and scored just 22 points. Stafford finished the exhibition schedule completing 27 of 55 passes (49.1 percent) for 310 yards (5.6 yards/attempt), one touchdown and one interception (64.9 passer rating).
Preseason results are often over-analyzed, in large part due to those who view the four games in August under the same microscope typically reserved for the regular season. Under that lens, the Lions' struggles this preseason could be seen as a precursor to another regression on the offensive side of the football.
However, it's certainly not fair to judge Detroit's offensive efficiency on vanilla game plans that didn't feature the game's most talented receiver.
Johnson, who caught 122 passes for an NFL-record 1,964 yards in 2012, sat out three of the Lions' four preseason games with a bruised knee. He played just 11 overall snaps, per Pro Football Focus. If there's any reason to throw out the results of nearly everything Detroit did on offense over the past month, it's the fact that Johnson was in sweats on the sidelines nearly every time the Lions' first-team unit took the field.
The Lions offense obviously looks significantly different without their All-Pro receiver.
Behind Johnson, the Lions have Nate Burleson and Ryan Broyles—two receivers recovering from season-ending injuries in 2012—plus Edwards, Kris Durham and Michael Spurlock.
The depth will look much better once Burleson (73 catches in 2011, broken leg in 2012) and Broyles (22 receptions over three starts in 2012, torn ACL) are back to full health. Edwards, who stands just 5'9" but impressed in August, will also get a legitimate chance to make an impact alongside Johnson. Only a couple of misfires from Stafford this preseason kept Edwards from being one of Detroit's exhibition standouts.
However, there is still no receiver behind Johnson worthy of the No. 1-option designation. Having him available should make all the difference for a passing game that sputtered at times during preseason drives. Stafford should be better, and so will the secondary receivers benefiting from more favorable coverages, especially when each is put back into their natural positions (Burleson in the slot, Johnson on the outside, etc.).
Bush's impact can't be understated, either. Without him in the lineup, Stafford struggled during the preseason finale.
Again, it's rarely prudent to look too deeply into preseason results, but it's fairly clear that the Lions are going to be featuring Bush in their pass-heavy offense. Over three preseason games, Bush caught 10 passes—including five each in games 2 and 3—for 147 yards. Early on against the Patriots, Detroit continually fed Bush the football via runs, screens and dump-offs.
Below is Bush's catch-and-run off a well-designed screen and Stafford's smartly placed pass versus New England:
Bush's ability to create in space has always been his go-to skill, and it appears that even as he enters his eighth season in the NFL, that talent hasn't eluded him. The 67-yard jaunt was vintage Bush.
While mostly conjecture over a limited sample size in meaningless games, Bush certainly appeared to be Stafford's go-to option with Johnson on the sideline. And why not? Possibly no free agent signed this offseason fell into a more perfect situation.
Bush, who leads all NFL running backs in catches since 2006 (via Pro Football Reference), enters an offense that has led the league in passing attempts in each of the last two seasons. There's a legitimate chance Bush could catch upwards of 70 passes in his first season with the Lions. He twice caught more than that number while with the pass-happy New Orleans Saints.
He might even be able to kick-start an otherwise dead running game, as Bush rushed for more than 2,000 yards and 12 touchdowns over two seasons with the Miami Dolphins. The Lions surprisingly haven't had a 1,000-yard rusher since 2004 (Kevin Jones).
Bush also averaged 4.7 yards a carry over 443 attempts while in South Beach. Detroit averaged just 4.1 as a team in 2012, good for 18th in the NFL.
The Lions will certainly like the matchups Bush can create. As a defensive coordinator, do you match a linebacker up against Bush, regardless of down? Or do you take a bigger player off the field for a faster cornerback in hopes of better containing Bush the receiver? In either situation—passing against a linebacker in coverage or running with an extra corner on the field—the Lions should feel confident in their ability to find an advantageous play-call.
Bush's presence could also help springboard Stafford back to the cusp of the NFL's elite quarterbacks.
After throwing for 41 touchdowns on 663 attempts in 2011, Stafford saw his attempts rise to more than 700, while his touchdowns dropped to just 20 (18 other quarterbacks threw for more) last season.
Stafford certainly wasn't as efficient in 2012 as the year prior. He completed only 59.8 percent of his passes (63.5 in 2011), and his average yards per attempt fell to 6.8 (7.6). As a result, Stafford's passer rating dropped from 97.2 in 2011 to 79.8 last season (22nd in NFL).
But his historical drop in touchdowns might have an explanation.
According to ESPN's Stats and Information, only Stafford and Peyton Manning have had one-year drops of as many as 21 touchdown passes since 1978. Stafford's severe fall in scoring plays has both rational and unlucky reasons why.
ESPN found that the Lions rushed more in the red zone in 2012 than 2011 (eight percent increase). Even more telling, on 23 different occasions last season, Lions receivers were tackled at or inside the opponent's 5-yard line. Johnson, who caught just five touchdowns after hauling 16 in 2011, was stopped eight times inside the five, which led all NFL receivers.
Overall, Stafford threw seven fewer goal-to-go touchdowns in 2012 than in 2011.
However, with a few inches here or there, Stafford's touchdown numbers likely would have looked a lot better last season than they actually finished.
The unluckiness might have also played a hand in Detroit's drop in scoring average. After finishing with the fourth-highest scoring offense in the NFL in 2011 at 29.4 points per game, the Lions fell to 17th last season. The team scored just 23.2 a game, or a full six points less.
The missing inches could tell the story. The Lions actually attempted seven more field goals in 2012 (36) than 2011 (29). Those opportunities when Detroit had to settle for three points instead of seven, especially when the offense was stopped close to the goal line, factored into the scoring-average fall.
Luck remains a variable that is impossible to predict or quantify, but it would certainly seem that Stafford is due for an uptick in touchdowns this season. If that's the case—and the Lions receivers find the end zone at a higher rate than in 2012—it's only reasonable to expect Detroit to rank much, much higher on the NFL's scoring list by the end of 2013.
And if Bush can provide a viable rushing threat (along with backup Joique Bell, who averaged 5.0 yards a rush last season), while also becoming a dangerous underneath receiver, Stafford and the offense as a whole should become a more efficient outfit.
At the very least, the unit that lines up against the Minnesota Vikings this Sunday should be a far cry from the one that struggled its way through most of the preseason.
Any remaining worry will be rightfully eliminated if Stafford, Johnson and Bush spearhead the start of Detroit's likely bounce-back season on offense in Week 1—the start of games that actually matter.