Last season the Lions played nine games against teams with a total defense ranked among the top 10 in the league. The result was six losses for Detroit against three wins.
In 2011, the Lions are scheduled to play eight games against teams that were ranked among the top 10 defenses last season. This time around the result is likely to be in Detroit’s favor.
And not just because they are scheduled to play one less top ten defensive team.
Earlier this month, Kerry J. Byrne published a piece on the SI.com website entitled, “Why the Lions will contend in 2011,” that cited some very interesting statistics.
Byrne pointed out that the Lions improved from 26th in total offense in 2009 to 17th in 2010. He also pointed out that Detroit moved from dead last in total defense in 2009 to 21st in 2010.
Lions fans will recall that Detroit went from 2-14 in 2009 to 6-10 in 2010, and that six of their losses in 2010 were by five or fewer points.
Is there any reason to believe that the trajectory of improvement that Byrne has pointed out will continue and get the Lions into the playoffs?
Actually, there are several reasons.
Reason Number One: Matt Stafford
Matt Stafford played in only three games last season.
Stafford has since had successful shoulder surgery and gone through 10 weeks of a first-rate, post-surgery upper body strengthening regime. He was recently quoted by Chris McCosky in the Detroit News saying that his throwing shoulder is now “better than ever.”
Stafford’s teammates have also chimed in on the issue.
Kowalski notes that new teammate wideout Titus Young, the Lions second overall pick of this year’s draft, said after working out with Stafford at a recent, well attended player-organized workout at Detroit Country Day school:
“It's ridiculous, man...I'd been warned about his arm. I would think he had surgery to make his arm stronger.”
Chris McCosky again, quoting Nate Burleson:
"Yeah, he looks really good," Burleson said. "It's good to see Matt out here zipping that ball around. It's what I saw and felt when I first got to Detroit last season, which was Matt at his best. He's looking pretty good right now."
Both Shaun Hill and Drew Stanton played very well as stand-ins last season. However, if the Lions are going to the playoffs this season, it will be because Matt Stafford stays healthy, and there’s every indication now that he will.
Reason Two: The Lions Running Game Will Be Much Better This Year
Last season, the Lions ranked 23rd in rushing yards, primarily because of lingering injuries to running back Jahvid Best, right guard Stephen Peterman and right tackle Gosder Cherilus.
All three of these players will be healthy again when the 2011 season begins.
There’s even better news for Lions fans: Detroit moved back into the second round of the draft this year to select Fighting Illini running back Mikel Leshoure.
Ty Schalter at roarreport.com has done a story on Leshoure in which he quotes the following report by sidelinescouting.com. It’s a pretty typical assessment of Leshoure:
“Positives: Great size, very strong build...Plays faster on tape than timed speed...Does a great job holding the football close to his body...Very quick feet, reaches his top speed almost immediately which makes him a big play threat...Gets his first 15-20 yards in a hurry, tough to contain...
"Runs through tackles, does a great job getting through trash and running between the tackles... Keeps his legs moving at all times, very hard to slow down...Runs with low pad level, delivers hits rather than absorb them...
“Great vision, waits for his blockers...Soft hands, is growing to be a capable receiver out of the backfield...Put up big numbers against tough Big 10 defenses, had only one game this year with less than 75 rushing yards...
“One of the few backs in this class that has the potential to be a true workhorse.”
Early indications are that Leshoure is capable of being the perfect between-the-tackles power running back needed to compliment the speedy and elusive Best. Detroit will now have potent “flash-bang” weapons in the backfield.
Whether you believe that a team runs to set up the pass, or passes to set up the run, the fact is that after this last draft, the Lions ability to do both has improved considerably. And that means that Detroit will be able to improve its total offense in 2011.
Being able to run the football successfully to move the chains also allows a team to be able to control the pace of the game on offense. Being in control of the clock is second in importance only to scoring more points than your opponents.
Reason Three: Nick Fairley
With their first overall pick of the 2011 draft, the Lions selected Auburn’s Lombardi Award winning defensive tackle Nick Fairley. He dominated the SEC in his senior year, which is no small accomplishment.
Before selecting Fairley, Detroit’s D-line rotation was already formidable.
In 2010, the Lions used their first overall pick of the draft to select Ndamukong Suh, who went on to become Defensive Rookie of the Year and was invited to the Pro Bowl.
The Lions also added Pro Bowl defensive end Kyle Vanden Bosch and defensive tackle Corey Willams to their roster last season.
Adding Fairley to the Lions D-line rotation this season has the potential to make it scary-good, perhaps the best in the NFL.
Being able to apply consistent pressure on opposing quarterbacks all game long, and stuffing the run with your front four, takes a lot of pressure off of your linebacker and secondary units.
It also means that opposing quarterbacks will often have to attempt pass the ball into seven man coverage.
Add it all up and it’s a good indication that the Lions will be able to improve their total defense ranking in 2011
The Whole is Greater Than the Sum of the Parts
Consistent winners consistently have good offensive and defensive units.
That’s not to say that even a Super Bowl winner doesn’t have weaknesses.
It does mean that in general, if your team has enough talent and wit to successfully exploit your opponent’s weaknesses more effectively than they exploit yours, chances are you’ll win the match-up.
As it stands now, the 2011 Detroit Lions appear to have reached critical mass. They have enough offensive and defensive talent available to exploit other team’s weaknesses on a fairly consistent basis.
The Lions also have a smart, experienced and cohesive coaching staff that knows how to game plan and adjust their schemes on the fly to take full advantage of unforeseen game day opportunities that the other team presents.
Synergies tend to have a multiplying effect.
A solid offensive line makes a good quarterback better. A solid running game reduces the chance of injury to quarterbacks and opens up the passing game. A good quarterback that has receivers who can spread the field and create separation will gain more aerial yardage and open up the run game even more.
In a similar fashion, an opportunistic defense will prevent opponents from scoring. They will score points themselves, and also give their offense more chances to score and control the pace of the game. Each strong defensive unit helps make the others stronger.
Detroit has accumulated enough pieces of the playoff puzzle to make a serious run at the postseason.
The Lions have improved significantly in high-impact areas, yet have maintained more than enough continuity to establish important synergies once the league year finally begins, even with a shortened preparation period.
In short, the Lions are on a playoff trajectory that could also take them to all the way to their first Super Bowl well before most people expect them to be there.