Taking Stock of Detroit Lions Ahead of Week 9 Bye
The NFL has tiers.
The second tier has a few hopefuls but is mostly occupied by the possible wild-card winners and most of the NFC East.
Then there's the third tier. It houses the chaff that's been shaken off through the first half of the season as fodder for easy wins.
There have been a few bright spots, but the darkness of a 1-7 record has swallowed the Lions whole. Let's see if we can extract those rare diamonds while dissecting the muck.
Much like everyone else on the team, this was supposed to be Matthew Stafford's year.
His touchdown total dropped by seven last year, but his interceptions fell at the same rate. The hope was Stafford would apply his newfound restraint to a more aggressive passing system, resulting in points, fireworks and championships.
Yet much like a piece of furniture from one particularly frustrating manufacturer, somebody skipped a step, and the flimsy notion of a high-octane aerial attack has collapsed under the weight of expectations.
Instead, Stafford leads the league in interceptions, having tossed just one fewer than he did during the entire 2014 campaign. While he is on pace to throw four more touchdowns, he's failed to take that next step that so many thought was coming.
The running game can be summed up quickly: It's the worst in the league.
In fact, Stafford has the highest average among Lions with at least 10 carries. Theo Riddick leads the way among running backs with a 3.7-yard average, while Ameer Abdullah leads the team with 225 yards on 3.6 yards per carry.
Unfortunately, the rookie also leads the team with three fumbles, stalling any progress he hoped to bring to the ground attack.
On the outside, Calvin Johnson has himself squarely in the top 10 in receiving yards, with his 659 being good enough for ninth. It should be noted, however, that only Demaryius Thomas has fewer touchdowns than Johnson has (three) among that group.
While Golden Tate has registered 40 receptions, he isn't shaking free this year and only has 377 yards to show for his efforts. That's a far cry from the 1,331 he put up last season when he broke tackles at a rate usually reserved for running backs.
Tight end Eric Ebron is the only other notable player. He is tied with Johnson and Lance Moore (not a typo) for the team lead in touchdowns with three and only needs to stay healthy to find some second-half success.
Matthew Stafford and the rest of the skill players receive a slight pass this year. It's impossible to truly evaluate any of them when the focus on every play is survival instead of execution.
If only the offensive line had an offensive line to blame.
Pro Football Focus put together its latest weekly rankings of offensive lines and found that Detroit's wasn't the absolute worst in the league. Just the second-worst. Khaled Elsayed wrote that right tackle LaAdrian Waddle "has the lowest grade of any tackle and doesn’t look like the player who impressed as a rookie."
Riley Reiff has had a few moments of serviceable play, but too often he's been offering his services to the opponents, ushering them into the backfield so often that he's tied with Waddle for the team lead in hurries allowed (24).
The protection calls have been abhorrent as well, which presumably have come from second-year center Travis Swanson.
The only saving grace—if we can call it that—has been Laken Tomlinson's and Larry Warford's recent play. Both have turned in solid performances the past two weeks, providing some hope for the future.
Ezekiel Ansah is one of the few non-disappointments on the roster.
The former first-rounder has been a menace on the right side. Not only does he lead the team in every pass-rushing category, but he also leads all 4-3 defensive ends in pass-rushing productivity, per Pro Football Focus.
His bookends, Jason Jones and Devin Taylor, have also played relatively well, probably because of the attention Ansah demands. Both have always been adept at stopping the run, and this year they've combined for seven sacks, five quarterback hits and 21 hurries.
While nobody expected the interior to remain stellar, the Lions have desperately missed Ndamukong Suh. Haloti Ngata hasn't been healthy, although he has been productive when rushing the passer, piling up 17 quarterback pressures to rank third among defensive tackles in pass-rushing productivity.
Unfortunately, Tyrunn Walker's broken leg cut his season short. While Caraun Reid has improved, he isn't good enough to be a quality starter. He's more of a solid rotational piece, which has left Detroit short-handed.
The loss of DeAndre Levy in the preseason—he's now been placed on injured reserve—crippled this unit.
If you had Josh Bynes penciled in as Detroit's best linebacker prior to the season opener, raise your hand. Now slap yourself with it and get some counseling.
Plus, Bynes hasn't been great. He's merely been average with occasional bouts of goodness.
Stephen Tulloch is the team's leading tackler with 39, which is seven ahead of Bynes, yet nobody has been happy with the captain's return. His inability to cover anybody has resulted in an opponent's passer rating of 130.5 when targeting Tulloch, although Bynes hasn't been much better with an allowed rating of 110.4.
Meanwhile, Tahir Whitehead has lost the team's confidence, which has led to Travis Lewis seeing too much playing time. Oh, and Kyle Van Noy has only played nine more snaps than Levy's 17, and he has been healthy all year.
Perhaps no unit has been as disappointing as the secondary, and that's truly saying something considering the funk this team finds itself in.
Darius Slay has been decent more often than he's been bad, but his bad has unfortunately cost Detroit dearly. Everyone remembers the jump balls he lost to Demaryius Thomas and Emmanuel Sanders. And it's tough to see through the lack of big plays (irony defined) to notice the six passes defensed.
Yet he's still been the best player in the defensive backfield for the Lions.
Rashean Mathis (35) is starting to crack with age. Offenses are picking on him, making him chase younger receivers across the formation where they easily lose him.
And the back line of Glover Quin and James Ihedigbo has lost its mojo. Save for a couple of good games for Ihedigbo, he's mostly been as silent as Quin, who has made his mark by missing big tackles instead of picking off passes.
The only thing left to decipher this season is where the blame lies between the players and coaches. The players have made plenty of mistakes and looked downright lost at times, but the sideline-dwellers seem intent on getting their due as well.
Offensive coordinator Joe Lombardi has already been shoved onto his sword and rightfully so. The former New Orleans quarterbacks coach never adapted to the players on the roster or adjusted to a defensive scheme, making himself an easy target.
Sadly, defensive coordinator Teryl Austin hasn't done much better. The talent he's lost doesn't justify going from first to worst in so many categories.
And Jim Caldwell gives off the aura of a dead man walking. He recently complained about how negative the local media is in Detroit, which seems a bit like a kid saying anything to detract attention away from the fact that he kicked his sister.
If the Lions are a stock that you're still holding, there's no point in selling now. You may as well take the honor of going down with the ship because there isn't any value left to squeeze out of your investment.
All advanced stats, grades and positional rankings are courtesy of Pro Football Focus.