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Detroit Lions: 5 Biggest Threats to Playoff Hopes

Chris MaddenAnalyst IIOctober 25, 2011

Detroit Lions: 5 Biggest Threats to Playoff Hopes

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    The Detroit Lions sure are a streaky team, aren't they?  After starting the NFL regular season on a five-game win streak, the Lions are now staring down the barrel of a two-game losing streak. 

    Talk about Jekyll and Hyde.

    The result has been an emotional roller coaster of a season for Lion fans.  Joyous disbelief, elation and confidence have now been replaced by confusion, frustration and doubt.

    Because of  the historical ineptitude of the Lions, there might be a tendency among some fans to jump ship and revert back to the "same old Lions" routine. 

    Make no mistake; I am not condoning that.  This team is definitely not the same old Lions.  But they are young, and they are still learning how to be a good team. 

    To borrow an old cliche: "Rome was not built in a day."

    That being said, the Detroit Lions have issues with their football team that need to be addressed.  Hopefully fans will realize that this is normal in the NFL.  Good teams lose every week.  Heck, good teams lose multiple games every year. 

    It's true!

    The Detroit Lions are a good team despite their recent streak, and I believe that at the end of the year, they will have definitive proof of that.  They will make the playoffs.

    In order to do that, though, they need to correct a few things. 

    These are what I consider to be the biggest threats to the Detroit Lions playoff aspirations.

5. Defensive Penalties

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    The Detroit Lions' defensive unit is really fun to watch.  It's capable of shutting offenses down—both the passing and running games.  It's capable of getting big plays, and it can really get after the quarterback. 

    The Lions' defense has an attitude, a swagger that has not been seen in Motown for a very long time.

    However, sometimes swagger can be taken too far.  That swagger has gotten the team into penalty trouble almost every game.

    Is this a case of simply having to accept the bad with the good?  Should penalties be expected with the type of aggressive style that the Lions play?

    I say, no.  There has to be a middle ground.

    I have seen too many unnecessary roughness, roughing the passer, face mask and unsportsmanlike conduct penalties to be excused.  You cannot just chalk it up to bad calls by the officials or the officials unfairly targeting Lions players. 

    There is no way to sugarcoat it.  The Lions have demonstrated a pattern of committing stupid penalties, which has given opposing teams yardage they have not earned. 

    But, there is another pattern developing also: behavior that doesn't get penalized but probably should.

    Jawing with the other team is one thing.  Throwing a football in the face of the opposing quarterback is another.  It is uncalled for, and it very easily could have resulted in a penalty. 

    Ndamukong Suh pushed an Atlanta Falcons player to the ground after the whistle—also very lucky this was not a penalty.

    And, if the rumours are right about Cliff Avril and Suh taunting Matt Ryan when he lay on the ground injured, I can only say one thing: Shame on you. (I really hope that is not true.)

    This unit should have a swagger. It should be intense and aggressive.  But the players should not be dirty or out of control.  Especially now, when the officials are potentially targeting them. 

    They need to focus, keep their mouths shut and just play.  Focus on stopping the other team, not trash talking with them.  The Lions should intimidate with their smart play, not their smart mouths.

    It is possible to play with emotion without letting that emotion get the best of you. 

4. Defensive Penchant for Giving Up the Big Run

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    I know, it happens to the best defenses.  But, for the Detroit Lions' unit, it happens much too often.  There have been one or two big plays a game that seem to come out of nowhere and get the opposing offense rolling.

    The surprising thing is that these plays are mostly rushes. 

    Coming into this year, everyone thought the Lions' run defense would be the strength of the unit.  But, the secondary has shown massive improvements.  According to ESPN, the Lions' pass defense is rated seventh in the NFL, giving up only 205 yards a game.

    No, the weakness so far has been giving up long runs to players like Frank Gore and Michael Turner.  Great players, but Detroit has the ability to shut them down.  And, they do for most of the game.

    ESPN highlights Detroit's difficulty stopping the run against Atlanta.  With eight defenders in the box, the Lions only allowed 22 yards on 14 carries.  But when the Lions defenders shifted to the secondary, resulting in seven or less players in the box, Turner gained 100 yards on only 13 carries. 

    Sixty-six yards were gained after initial contact.

    Usually, big runs occur when opposing backs start out going up the middle, then bounce it outside because Suh and company are clogging up running lanes. 

    But, Detroit's ends and linebackers have a habit of breaking contain.  This allows the running back to get to the open field, where they can make people miss and get up the field fast.

    This was the case with Turner's 50-yard run on Sunday.

    I know this is the NFL.  Every offense in the league is capable of big plays.  Even the Baltimore Ravens' defense gives them up from time to time. 

    But, Detroit's defense can do better.  It can improve its consistency and eliminate the mental mistakes that allow these plays to occur so often.

3. Overreliance on Calvin Johnson

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    News flash: Calvin Johnson is really good.  He's a Pro Bowler and arguably the best receiver in the game today.  I think even Cris Carter would admit that much.

    But, even the most ardent Detroit Lions fan will tell you that Calvin Johnson can't win games by himself. 

    NFL coaches and defenses are smart.  They have devised ways to limit Johnson because he is the Lions' most dangerous weapon.  We've already seen defenses double and triple teaming him on most plays.  When he does draw single coverage, the Lions must strike. 

    And, they have.  But, not with the success rate of the first five weeks.

    We haven't seen any games, like in previous years, where Calvin is shut out of the offense completely.  Even against the 49ers he was involved and racked up yardage—even if he didn't reach the end zone. 

    So, it is good that he is always involved.

    But, it seems like the Lions have gotten into a pattern of waiting around for Calvin to make a big play.  They either keep forcing the ball onto him, settle for rushing plays that go nowhere or short screen passes that net two to three yards. 

    Substantial passing plays to other receivers have not been as successful during the last two weeks.

    The great thing about the Detroit Lions during their win streak was that the offense was able to spread the ball around.  You never knew who Matthew Stafford was going to target.  Nate Burleson, Titus Young, Brandon Pettigrew, Tony Scheffler and Jahvid Best were all very involved.  That kept the defense honest, and they were not able to key on Calvin Johnson as much.

    The Lions have to figure out a way to get back to that.

2. Matthew Stafford's Decline

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    I have one question for the man who has started at quarterback for the Detroit Lions the last two weeks: "Who are you, and what have you done with Matthew Stafford?"

    Let's be honest, Stafford does not look like the same player that wowed us during the Lions' five-game win streak. 

    Sure, there were momentary lapses then; hiccups, if you will.  An interception here, an overthrown ball there.  But, overall, Stafford was dynamic—more importantly, accurate—during those weeks.

    But, when you look at the last two weeks, something has changed.  The most observable changes are Stafford's body language and facial expressions.  He doesn't look like he is having any fun.  This is a guy who was known for his energy and emotional exuberance as much for his arm. 

    If the Lions were getting blown out during these games, Stafford's personality change might be more understandable and easily attributed to frustration.  But, the Lions are in every game up until the final seconds. 

    Someone needs to help Stafford find his happy place.

    Maybe the cause of this change is Stafford's own performance.  The Lions gunslinger has been disarmed.  And, you really can't point to a dominating opposing defense as the reason.  Stafford has just been off.

    He is not in sync with his receivers.  Yes, even Calvin Johnson at times.  But, mostly Nate Burleson and Titus Young. 

    The most recent example was the near interception in the end zone against the Falcons that was intended for Young.  I will agree with Brian Billick, who said the miscommunication laid squarely on the shoulders of Stafford.

    Stafford's throws are high, low and behind, most often resulting in one of two outcomes:  an incomplete pass or a completion—but, the receiver has to slow down or break off his route to catch the ball.  This limits the chance for yards gained after the catch.  Neither outcome is desirable.

    It is clear that his accuracy has trended down since the Monday night game.  Against the Bears, he completed 73 percent of his passes.  Against the 49ers, he completed 56 percent and against the Falcons, below 50 percent.  His passer rating on Sunday was a meager 75. 

    Who does he think he is? Kyle Orton?

    Can we blame the offensive line? Sure, go ahead.  Is that fair or realistic? Unfortunately, no.

    The Lions' offensive line is not great, but it's serviceable.  The line is not solely to blame for Stafford's troubles.  But, it would be a lot easier to explain his decline if it was.

    His performance has likely suffered due to a variety of reasons.  Reasons that the media and the coaching staff are able to identify, as well as reasons that only Matthew Stafford knows. 

    Whatever the reasons, one thing is for certain.  The Lions cannot reach the level of success they desire without Stafford performing at a high level. 

    Something has to change.

1. Lack of a "Home Run" Rushing Threat

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    It would be easy to look at all the Detroit Lions' troubles these past two weeks and say it is because of an inconsistent running game.  You could make a valid argument to support this.  Everybody knows that a good rushing attack opens up the pass game and vice versa. 

    Conventional wisdom would suggest that a good NFL team has to have a reliable rusher that averages over 100 yards a game and is capable of getting the tough yards when needed.

    But, guess what?  The Lions won five games in a row without such a rusher.  That is why I don't believe they need a consistent running game to be successful.  What they do need is a threat. 

    Jahvid Best was that threat.

    Best gave them the potential for a big play at any time, whether it was an 80-yard touchdown run or a 10-yard scamper for a first down.  Both are key plays that can be huge on any given drive.

    When the Lions were at their best, they were getting these types of runs from Best.

    With Maurice Morris and Keiland Williams, that threat is gone and defenses can adjust accordingly.  Morris and Williams are good backs.  They are consistent and rarely lose yardage.  They'll give you the occasional long run—against the Falcons, Williams had runs of 10 and 18 yards and Morris had one for 31 yards.  But, more common are the two- and three-yard variety. 

    Jahvid Best's status is still uncertain.  I wouldn't be surprised if he is out again. 

    If I were the Lions, I would be very cautious.  Best is a big part of the Lions' future.  Until they can find a complementary running back to lighten his load, or until Mikel Leshoure is healthy, they might want to consider shutting him down for the season. 

    I know Lion fans may not want to hear this, but it is a real possibility.  It might be the best scenario for the Lion's future and for Best personally.

    The bottom line is nobody knows when Best will return. 

    Morris and Williams might be all the Lions have for awhile.  If the Lions can figure out ways get some big plays out of them, the offense might start firing on all cylinders once again.

    Look on the bright side, Lion fans.  Detroit faces the Denver Broncos next Sunday. 

    The Broncos and Tim Tebow could be just what the doctor ordered to cure all of the Lions' ills.

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