The optimism surrounding the Detroit Lions has reached levels not seen since the early 90s, and while there are plenty of signs pointing towards a significant improvement, the Lions simply have too many holes on defense to challenge for a playoff spot.
The Lions have invested mightily in their defensive line and that should cover up their significant weakness in their back seven. The problem is that offenses these days are able to better scheme for other teams’ weaknesses, and this is where the issues for the Lions will come in.
Unless the Lions are able to significantly upgrade their outside linebacker positions in free agency, I see teams relying on short quick passes and outside runs to counteract the Lions’ ferocious pass rush. I don’t care how good Suh, Fairley and the boys are, they are not going to get there if the quarterback is taking a three step drop and immediately firing the football.
In 2010 Detroit’s linebackers ranked in the bottom third of the league in passes defended, interceptions, tackles for a loss and sacks.
The sack number is irrelevant to me; the Lions didn’t blitz their linebackers because they didn’t need to. The other numbers are reasons to worry. In a division that features top flight tight ends and running backs, the linebackers will be counted on heavily to produce. As it stacks up right now, Detroit’s outside linebackers are weaker in 2011 than they were in 2010.
Their formula is complicated but in a nutshell they assign points based on situations. If an offense gets eight yards on third and ten, they get fewer points than if they got eight yards on first and ten. Only two teams ranked lower than the Lions made the playoffs, the Indianapolis Colts and the Seattle Seahawks.
There are obvious reasons why those two teams managed to overcome bad defenses and make the playoffs — the Colts with Peyton Manning and the Seahawks in a bad division. The Lions have neither of those advantages.
Football Outsiders also ranks how well teams do against certain type of receivers. In their rankings Detroit ranked 29th against tight ends and 20th against running backs. This is a reflection of bad linebacker play.
This is not to say that the secondary is off the hook. They did not fare well either. Detroit’s pass defense ranked 27th or lower in the following categories: completion percentage, passer rating and yards per attempt.
Using football Outsiders’ DVOA, the Lions ranked low against number one wide receivers at 26th. Interestingly the Lions were the second best team against number two wide receivers. Here is what this tells me, the secondary played poorly, but by the time the quarterback got to his secondary read the defensive line was in his face and he was forced into a bad throw.
Enough about the pass defense, for as bad as that is, the run defense is where the real worry lies. Overall Detroit ranked 24th in rush defense, but a closer look at the numbers tells a different story.
The 24th overall ranking is due almost entirely to the defensive line. If we look at DVOA for run defense we see that linebacker play again, is far below average. In these ratings the Lions ranked 17th overall against the run.
In short yardage situations the Lions were seventh best. They were also in the top half of the league in stuffing the run, where the running back is either tackled at or behind the line of scrimmage. The problems for the Lions, once again, came in when the back seven had to make a play. In plays that got to the second level of the defense, the Lions ranked 26th in the league, in plays that made it to the open field the Lions came in at 23rd overall.
It is that type of performance from the back seven that makes me weary of the Lions’ 2011 chances. All is not lost however, because it is assumed there will be some kind of free agency when the lockout ends. If the Lions are to challenge for a playoff spot they will have to significantly upgrade their linebackers, which is more important than the secondary. If they are not able to, unfortunately I don’t see the Lions winning more than seven or eight games this year.