Detroit Lions: What You Need to Know Heading into Week 9

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Detroit Lions: What You Need to Know Heading into Week 9

After the thrilling 31-30 comeback win over the Dallas Cowboys, the Detroit Lions head into a bye week. The win improves Detroit's record to 5-3 while dropping the Cowboys to 4-4. 

As much as it would be nice to keep the momentum rolling forward, the Lions sorely need the week off to get healthier. It's also a valuable opportunity to reassess what is working and what needs improvement heading into the second half of the season. 

 

NFC North Division Standings

Team Win Loss Points For Points Against
Green Bay Packers 5 2 212 158
Detroit Lions 5 3 217 197
Chicago Bears 4 3 213 206
Minnesota Vikings 1 6 163

225

 

The Lions kept pace with the first-place Packers and pulled ahead of the idle Bears with the win over Dallas. If the season ended today the Lions would hold the second wild-card position in the NFC, according to ESPN. 

Green Bay all but knocked out the reeling Vikings with an authoritative 44-31 beating on Sunday night. Even with their myriad injuries, the Packers keep on rolling. They have won four in a row and will next host the fading Bears on Monday night.

Chicago must find a way to cope without quarterback Jay Cutler, linebacker Lance Briggs and several other starters. The Bears should be rested coming off their bye week, but it's hard to envision them staying afloat with so many injuries. They have dropped three of four after starting out 3-0.

Minnesota travels to Dallas, where it will face a Cowboys team that just suffered a tough last-second loss in Week 8 to the Lions. The issues at quarterback are really holding back the rest of the Vikings team. 

 

Injury Update

The Dallas game took a real physical toll on the Lions. This bye week is much needed to get several of the walking wounded some rest and recovery for the stretch drive. 

Player Position Injury
Ryan Broyles WR Achilles
Nate Burleson WR Arm
Jason Fox RT Knee
Riley Reiff LT Hamstring
Rashean Mathis CB Groin
Corey Hilliard RT Knee
Reggie Bush RB Knee

The biggest news is unfortunate and unwelcome:

This is a big blow to the offense. Even though Broyles had put up modest production, he is the primary slot receiver and played on one-third (192 of 581) of the offensive snaps this year. 

For Broyles, this is the third season in a row with a major injury. He tore one ACL in 2011 at Oklahoma and proceeded to tear the other in his rookie campaign in Detroit. It's not premature to wonder if this latest setback is a career-ending injury.

Coach Schwartz did not talk much about injuries in his weekly press conference. Because it's an off week, it's hard to speculate on the status of several players nursing what are considered day-to-day injuries. We will know a lot more next week. 

Two players to watch when the Lions get back on the practice field are running back Montell Owens and wideout Nate Burleson. 

Owens has been on injured reserve with a designation to return since injuring his knee in the preseason. He doesn't figure to factor much in the base offense, but Owens is counted upon as a major part of all special teams units. He will be free to return any time.

Burleson has had his cast removed and could be back as early as Week 10 against Chicago. The Lions desperately need him to get back as soon as possible. The wide receiver likes to provide his own injury updates, and here is his latest:

 

What Needs to Improve

While the players get much of this week off, the Lions' coaching staff will be busy self-scouting. Here are three things that stand out to me after watching Lions games at least twice.

First, the team needs to get off to quicker starts on offense. As I wrote in this week's game takeaways, the inability to produce points early in games has put undue pressure on the team later in contests. 

One way to change things up would be opting to go on defense first. Jim Schwartz always chooses to take the ball off the coin toss when given the choice.

It's unconventional to choose defense on the opening possession. Yet taking the ball first clearly isn't working for Detroit. The Lions have had the ball first in every game this year. Maybe it's time to try a different course.

Secondly, the passing offense has to find a way to create opportunities for people not named Calvin Johnson. With Ryan Broyles now lost for the season and Nate Burleson still recovering from his car accident, the offensive coaches need to get more creative.

Kris Durham has played better than expected, but he's a bit limited as an option in the passing game. Brandon Pettigrew appears to be over his ball-security issues, yet he is even more plodding than Durham. 

I strongly advocate using Reggie Bush more in the slot. He presents a serious mismatch for linebackers in space. Defenses must account and adjust for his presence.

Another option is to lean more on rookie Theo Riddick. The sixth-round pick played some wide receiver at Notre Dame, and he has worked in the slot in both preseason and practice, as Justin Rogers of MLive.com noted back in September

It would be nice to see more of Joseph Fauria as a receiving option, but the rookie tight end really struggles with his blocking. He also lacks the seam-stretching speed to be more of a factor in anything but red-zone and short-yardage situations. 

Burleson's return will help mitigate a lot of the issues, but it's not a panacea. As awesome as it was to see Megatron rack up 329 yards against Dallas, throwing the ball up for grabs and hoping Johnson can work his magic is not a viable weekly strategy. If you need an example, take the Green Bay game which Johnson missed; in his absence, Detroit failed to score a touchdown until garbage time.

The third area the Lions can focus on is building upon the defensive creativity they showed in earnest against Dallas. Defensive coordinator Gunther Cunningham has sprinkled in the occasional wrinkle in earlier games, but he broke out the mad-scientist cap to great effect against the Cowboys.

Holding Tony Romo and the Cowboys offense to 268 total yards and 13 first downs is very impressive. Doing that while bodies rotated in and out with various maladies is masterful. 

Two looks that the Lions have experimented with need to become a bigger part of the overall defense.

Foremost, I love the inverted defensive line. Putting the ends inside and sliding the tackles to the normal end positions has proven quite effective in limited doses. It works in part because Ndamukong Suh is quick enough to handle playing end and both Willie Young and Ziggy Ansah have enough strength to be effective inside. 

Suh's versatility is something the Lions can use to spark the pass rush. He lined up at just about every possible spot on the defensive line against Dallas. While it didn't produce the desired sacks, it worked quite well against the run. 

There is a general sense the Lions need to blitz more frequently, but the two primary linebackers are not adept at it. Neither Stephen Tulloch nor DeAndre Levy are natural blitzers, and it shows when they are asked to try. 

The Lions do have a good blitzer in slot corner Bill Bentley, as he showed against Dallas. Even though they were run blitzes, his uncanny ability to press the corner and flatten to the target translates naturally to attacking the quarterback. 

The goal isn't to overhaul the scheme, because by and large the defense has improved. But making it more unpredictable to opposing offenses is something which I believe could produce even more improvement across the defensive front. 

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