Detroit's March to the 2011 NFL Playoffs: Little Things Count the Most
Every football fan in America is thrilled when their team creates big plays, especially game-changers.
That’s how excitement is built and thunderous cheers are born.
After a disappointing decade, Detroit Lions fans sure don’t take big plays for granted.
A 15-yard lightning sprint up-field by Jahvid Best or a leaping 20-yard sideline catch by Calvin Johnson makes our hearts beat faster. Ndamukong Suh bagging a quarterback causes fist-pumps all over Motown.
And when the Lions score a touchdown?
You can hear the roar of delighted Detroit fans all the way to the International Space Station and back.
However, the truth is that even though a few big plays during a game get fans pumped up and standing on their feet, the difference between having a decent season and getting to the playoffs is more often the result of doing a lot of little things right, play after play.
At this time of the year, it’s natural for hopeful fans to speculate on the impact of high-profile changes to their team, like the addition of new draft picks, free agents and trades.
But beyond spending time on roster-building, smart coaches will also be looking for other meaningful ways to improve their teams.
They will sift through a mountain of statistics from the previous season searching for a few key trends and patterns that need correcting that might yield the greatest return on their investment in coaching focus.
After examining statistics compiled by a number of sources, including NFL.com, teamrankings.com, pro-football-reference.com, and footballoutsiders.com, three key not-so-glamorous targets of opportunity for the Lions present themselves this season.
Individually, improvements in these areas will pay solid dividends. Cumulatively, they may be the difference between an incremental improvement in the Detroit’s season record in 2011, and a legitimate run at the playoffs.
Last season, the Lions were penalized 1,018 yards on offense (fourth worst record in the league) and 854 yards on defense (10th worst). That’s a combined loss of 1,872 yards, not counting the positive yardage gains that were erased by offensive penalties.
By contrast, last season the Lions gained a total of 5,422 yards on offense.
In other words, for every 5.3 yards the Lions gained on offense last season, they were penalized a yard. That’s about five steps forward, and one step backwards on every play, not exactly a recipe for success, folks.
While it’s impossible to precisely quantify how a reduction in penalties translates into future yardage gains, it’s not unreasonable to postulate the effect.
A 25 percent reduction in offensive penalties might translate into at least an additional 350 yards of offense, which is roughly about what Mo Morris gained in rushing yards or Tony Scheffler gained in passing yards during the entire season last year.
Without making a single roster move, is there a better way to improve the Lions offense?
A 40 percent reduction in offensive penalties is entirely achievable, and would put us in the ball park with Green Bay (the Lions primary rival in the NFC North), in terms of yardage lost to offensive penalties in 2010.
Improving Field Position
In 2010, the Lions average starting drive began at about the 29-yard line (19th best average in the league). By comparison, the Bears average starting drive began at about the 33-yard line (first best ranking).
At first glance, the four-yard difference between Detroit and Chicago might seem trivial.
That is, until you realize that in 2010 Detroit tallied 192 starting drives.
Then you realize that the four yard difference between the Bears and the Lions gave Chicago roughly a 535-yard advantage over the course of the season.
That represents more passing yards than Jahvid Best accumulated (487 yards) during all of last season.
Is there an easier way, short of drafting another Jahvid Best and fitting him into your offensive scheme, to increase the Lions’ prospects for making the playoffs?
Detroit’s Stefan Logan was the fourth-leading kick-return specialist in the NFL last year. By contrast, Chicago’s leading kick-returner, Danieal Manning, ranked 19th. Devin Hester ranked 40th.
Since Jim Schwartz became head coach of the Lions in 2009, he has placed significant emphasis on improving Detroit’s special teams performance.
He fired Stan Kwan after the 2009 season and replaced him with a much more aggressive Danny Crossman.
Schwartz has made it clear that in most cases, a player’s ability to contribute at multiple positions, including special teams, is a key determining factor in who makes the Lions’ 53-man roster.
In 2011, the Lions emphasis on upgrading its special teams performance ought to really begin to pay dividends.
The NFL has recently changed the rules governing kickoffs, first in 2010 regarding wedge blocking, and then in 2011, by moving the ball from the 30-yard line to the 35 on kickoffs.
However, with an ace returner returning to the team this year, and improved blocking talent, Detroit can and should continue to focus on narrowing or eliminating the gap between itself and their second-most worrisome NFC North rival, Da Bears.
Increasing Time of Possession
Last season the Lions average time of possession was 29:28 minutes a game, the 23rd best stat in the league. By contrast, last season’s Super Bowl champ, Green Bay, averaged 32:17 minutes of possession a game (third best).
Controlling the clock is second in importance only to scoring more points than your opponents.
A proven, time-tested formula for winning football games is to establish a lead over your opponents and then consistently move the chains up the field by running the ball. Passing the ball always carries the risk of interceptions. Incomplete passes stop the clock.
With the additions of this year’s first three draft picks, Nick Fairley, Titus Young, and Mikel Leshoure, Schwartz and GM Martin Mayhew have formed the nucleus of a team that is built to score early and often, and control the pace of the game.
The potential the Lions now have to spread and attack defenses cannot be understated.
Adding Leshoure, a workhorse power running back who rarely fumbles, to a backfield that includes lightning quick juke-artist Jahvid Best, means that Detroit’s ability to control the clock and increase time of possession has been enhanced enormously.
The Lions should now be able to match or exceed Green Bay’s time of possession stats. That is, if the Lions can make things click, on both offense and defense, like they should now be capable of doing.
Show Time or Go Time—Sizzle vs. Steak
Fortunately, flash-bang, knock your socks off, get to your feet and roar plays and the less glamorous improvements that a team has to make to get to the playoffs are not mutually exclusive.
The Lions are certainly poised to provide excitement on both offense and defense this coming season.
And if Detroit’s coaches are as smart and capable as many fans believe they are, we’ll also see a decrease in the number of offensive and defensive penalties the Lions are charged with in 2011, along with better average starting field position, and a healthy increase in time of possession per game.
Despite three very good consecutive drafts, and any other positive roster moves yet to come, anything less would be a disappointment.
Given the trajectory of the Lions since 2009, fans most likely won’t be disappointed this season. However, they may be pleasantly surprised by how well their team performs if the coaching staff does its job.
After all, it’s really the little things that count the most.
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