Where Exactly Did It Go Wrong for the Detroit Lions?

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Where Exactly Did It Go Wrong for the Detroit Lions?
Hannah Foslien/Getty Images

When a team collapses as egregiously as the 2013 Detroit Lions, there is a search for answers to some difficult questions. Any time a team crashes from a 6-3 start to a 7-9 finish, lots of questions must be asked.

Foremost among those is: Where did it go wrong?

The quick answer is that the bye week sucked the momentum out of the team. Detroit won just one game after the Week 10 break, which came on the heels of a dramatic comeback win over Dallas.

The more correct answer is complex and layered. However, there are three main points that deserve the lion’s share of the Lions’ blame.

The Increase in Turnovers

During the successful first half of the season, the Detroit offense did a good job protecting the pigskin. Through the first eight games, the Lions had just 12 giveaways. While that's not great, it's not a crippling number. 

For some reason, that attention to ball security went away. In the inglorious slide at the end of the season, the Lions became a giveaway machine.

Detroit committed at least three turnovers in six straight games.

Opponent Giveaways Takeaways Ratio
Pittsburgh  3  0  -3
Tampa Bay  5   0   -5 
Green Bay  4   3   -1 
Philadelphia  3   1   -2 
Baltimore  3   0   -3 
New York Giants  3   2   -1 

If the Lions want to improve under the new coaching regime in 2014, one of the easiest ways will be an increased emphasis on taking care of the football.

Fourth Quarter Woes

Even though the Lions lost six of their final seven games, they were competitive in every one. In fact, they held a fourth-quarter lead in every single loss down the stretch.

The final period devolved into a recurring nightmare, as both sides of the ball played their worst when the game was on the line.

The defense really struggled late in games. Detroit allowed 37 touchdowns on the season, and 17 of those came in the fourth quarter.

Pass defense in particular became a real issue. Here are the season splits by quarter, courtesy of Pro Football Reference

Quarter Completion Percentage Yards/Attempt TD INT Sacks QB Rating
1st 62.9 7.0 4 1 4 93.2
2nd 59.9 6.9 7 8 10 74.8
3rd 53.1 6.5 4 3 12 73.9
4th 60.5 7.7 12 3 7 100.7

If it was just one side of the ball struggling, the Lions probably could have still eked out a couple more wins. Instead, the offense also struggled.

The rushing attack ground to a halt, averaging just 3.0 yards per carry. They netted at least 4.1 yard per carry in every other quarter.

Matthew Stafford also played worse in the final stanza. Witness this rather disturbing statistic from the end of the Baltimore game, courtesy of ESPN:

Stafford had his lowest completion percentage (54.4), lowest QB Rating (80.2), took more sacks (7) and threw more interceptions (6) in the fourth quarter of games. Four of his five December interceptions came in the fourth quarter.

One of the things that general manager Martin Mayhew stressed in his press conference on Dec. 30 was the need to find a coach who inspires confidence, as noted by team insider Tim Twentyman.

Instilling confidence and execution in the fourth quarter of games should be a high priority in the search for the next coach.


Perhaps the biggest failing on Jim Schwartz as a head coach was his utter inability to instill personal discipline into his players. Schwartz’s Lions continually committed far too many mindless, senseless penalties throughout his tenure.

Any hope of change in 2013 was quickly vanquished by Ndamukong Suh’s illegal block of Minnesota center John Sullivan in the opener. Whether or not the play was dirty is debatable, but there is no arguing its stupidity.

Leon Halip/Getty Images

There were encroachment penalties by both Willie Young and C.J. Mosley that wiped out turnovers, and Ziggy Ansah negated one of his own strip-sacks with another.

Louis Delmas earned a nonsensical taunting penalty. He also merited a couple of personal foul hits for foolishly launching himself headfirst into opponents.

Just for good measure, he knocked out his own teammate, Bill Bentley, on another one of those.

Then there is Nick Fairley. His reputation for undisciplined play is so extreme that he was flagged for a perfectly clean hit, just on principle. Fairley led the Lions with nine penalties, per NFL Penalties.

Nick Fairley Penalty Breakdown
Encroachment Neutral Zone Unnecessary Roughness Roughing the Passer
3 2 2 2

NFL Penalties

While No. 98 can be a dynamic force in the heart of the defense, he’s also a loaded shotgun pointed straight down at Detroit’s own feet. He might have gotten his act together off the field, but cleaning up the appalling lack of discipline on the field remains a major challenge.

The overriding positive here is that all these major issues are correctable. The Lions didn’t fail because they lacked talent; the execution and mental toughness simply were not good enough. That gives whomever the new coach will be a lot to work with and a golden opportunity for immediate success in 2014.

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