Where Can the Detroit Lions Improve Most for 2013?

Scott Kacsmar@CaptainComebackContributor IJune 5, 2013

NEW ORLEANS, LA - DECEMBER 4:  Head Coach Jim Schwartz talks with quarterback Matthew Stafford #9 of the Detroit Lions during a game against the New Orleans Saints to score a touchdown at Mercedes-Benz Superdome on December 4, 2011 in New Orleans, Louisiana.  The Saints defeated the Lions 31-17.  (Photo by Wesley Hitt/Getty Images)
Wesley Hitt/Getty Images

Just when you thought the Detroit Lions finally had a plan for success, they returned with a disappointing 4-12 season in 2012.

It was the team’s 10th season with double-digit losses since 2001. The Pittsburgh Steelers, considered a pillar of consistency since the merger, have eight such seasons since their inception in 1933.

In typical Lions tradition, they made an incredible season from their skill position player the bright spot.

Wide receiver Calvin Johnson set an NFL record with 1,964 receiving yards, though it was marred by the team’s record and quarterback Matthew Stafford’s record number of drop backs.

For Detroit, it’s not about getting back on track. It’s still about building a track to success.

Losing the Close Ones (Again)

What made the Lions a playoff team in 2011 was winning the tough games they tend to lose.

Past Detroit teams would have folded on the road, down by 20-24 points in the second half against Minnesota and Dallas. Instead, Detroit won those games, becoming the first team in NFL history to win consecutive games after trailing by at least 20 points.

The Lions also came back from a 17-point deficit to beat Carolina, and Stafford led two late touchdown drives to beat Oakland.

That’s the difference between another 7-9 season versus 10-6 and in the playoffs.

So what happened in 2012? The Lions reverted back to losing the close ones, going 3-8 in games where they had the ball in the fourth quarter/overtime and were tied or down by 1-8 points.

Detroit’s eight close losses were the most in the league. The only games that were not competitive late were a win over Jacksonville and a bad loss in Arizona. The Lions lost their final eight games of the season after starting 4-4 with three comeback wins.

Stafford began 2012 with one of the best records in the clutch. Now he sits at 9-14 (.391) at game-winning drive opportunities, which is right behind Mark Sanchez (12-18).

Winning just enough close games is what puts many teams over the top year after year. Even the terrible teams are competitive most of the time, but those are the teams who continue to find ways to lose close games.

Detroit knows all about that. The Lions have played 208 regular-season games since 2000. They have been tied or within one score and possession in the fourth quarter/overtime in 108 of those games (51.9 percent).

More often than not, Detroit is close. More often than not, Detroit loses.

When you’re 25-76 (.248) at fourth-quarter comeback opportunities and 29-79 (.269) at game-winning drive opportunities, you know it’s been a bad franchise with issues at the top (coach and quarterback).

The three best seasons the Lions have had since 2000 were the only times they were at .500 or above at game-winning drive opportunities.  

Even the historically bad 0-16 Lions of 2008 were close in nine games, but lost them all.

The Lions have lost 30 games in which they held a fourth-quarter lead. Last season was the fourth time they blew at least four such games since 2000.

In 2012, Detroit found just about every way possible to lose a close game:

  • There was a comedy of errors in Tennessee, and overtime was only possible after a miracle Hail Mary touchdown to Titus Young.
  • The offense could not figure out Minnesota’s defense in a season sweep.
  • Jason Hanson missed a game-winning field goal attempt in overtime on Thanksgiving in a game against Houston that would not end.
  • Mike McCarthy’s Green Bay Packers only have 10 game-winning drives since 2008. Five of them have come against the Lions, including one in three straight meetings.
  • Detroit’s defense could not stop Atlanta from scoring, could not get the ball back from Chicago late, and suffered a stunning 12-point comeback at the hands of Andrew Luck and the Colts in Week 13.

It’s not a surprise this team’s expected win total was 6.5. They greatly underachieved in close games.

After some impressive comebacks early in his career, Stafford was not up to par in 2012. When you consider the quality of opponent Stafford was beating in 2011 when he threw 41 touchdowns, you start to wonder if he has the consistency to beat the good competition.

Including the playoff loss in New Orleans, Stafford is 1-23 in his career against teams with a winning record.

This is not what you want to see after four seasons out of a No. 1 overall pick. The positives are that he’s improved since his rookie season, he’s had some good games individually, the offense has started to score more points, but the wins just aren’t coming yet.

Maybe the Lions are putting too much on Stafford’s plate at this point.

Offensive Imbalance

Last season Stafford set NFL records with 727 pass attempts and 791 drop backs.

After struggling to stay healthy his first two seasons, we can safely put those concerns aside given his 1,512 drop backs without any significant injuries in the last 32 games.

This is a high-volume quarterback with 10,005 passing yards since 2011. The problem is you would like to see more efficiency in his game as the mechanics get sloppy, leading to incompletions and mistakes.

Right now he compares favorably to another high-volume quarterback taken first in the draft: Drew Bledsoe. NFL.com’s Gregg Rosenthal has also made that comparison.

Bledsoe could throw his team into a competitive game, but he could also lose it for them just as easily.

The Lions are no strangers to watching a pass-happy offense. They have four of the 10 offenses with the highest pass ratios in history, all coming since 2006:

Obviously these teams were not very successful. Even with Warren Moon at quarterback, playoff success is hard to come by when you have to keep throwing.

Not only did the Lions have an offensive imbalance in terms of the run versus pass, but their passing game was heavily skewed towards Calvin Johnson.

Sure, he’s the best receiver in the game, but a big part of his record-breaking season is because he had 204 targets. He had that many targets thanks to the Lions setting an NFL record with 740 pass attempts.

With that many pass attempts, the close games and the shortage of other quality wide receivers, it was a perfect storm for Johnson to break the receiving yardage record.

The Lions did not expect Titus Young to be such a basket-case. Rookie Ryan Broyles came out of Oklahoma with a torn ACL and was not ready to make a big impact. Nate Burleson missed 10 games with an injury. Even Brandon Pettigrew missed two games and did not have a great year at tight end. 

It had to be Johnson dominating, which he did. However, single-receiver domination is not the way to win big in today’s NFL.

It is the same strategy that fails the Houston Texans with Andre Johnson. You need at least two quality wide receivers. Houston drafted one this year, while the Lions are going to hope Broyles, a second-round pick, shows up as the productive player he was in college. Young is obviously gone.

Outside of a breakout year by Broyles, it still looks like 2013 will be another opportunity for Johnson to exceed 1,500 receiving yards.

The Lions need more variation in their offense. Last season, Stafford threw 612 of his 727 pass attempts (84.2 percent) from the shotgun.

It is a wonder teams do not blitz Stafford more as he failed to throw a single touchdown against it in 2012. That is staggering when you compare it to some of the best quarterbacks in the game, according to STATS:

Also, according to Pro Football Focus, Stafford had just two touchdown passes on 106 play-action passes and a 71.8 passer rating. That rating ranked 25th among the 27 qualifying quarterbacks.

With this limited offense, defenses know where Stafford’s going to be most of the time, and they know who he is likely to throw it up for (Johnson). It gets too predictable without the threat of a run or another receiver stepping up.

There is talent in the backfield with Joique Bell, Mikel Leshoure and maybe the return of Jahvid Best. The offensive line is getting younger with high draft picks.

Offensive coordinator Scott Linehan first enjoyed NFL success in Minnesota (2002-04) where he had a physical freak in Randy Moss. Johnson is the closest thing to Moss these days, but Linehan spoils the offense by relying on that one player so much.

Detroit doesn’t need a “Calvin Ratio” and it also doesn’t need to rush for 2,000 yards. What the Lions need is an offense with more formations and more sharing of the ball. You can still let Stafford throw 600 times, but it’s in every offense’s best interest to expand the number of attack points.

Between Barry Sanders and Calvin Johnson, Detroit will have had two of the greatest skill position talents in NFL history. It will also be two wasted eras should the Lions not find the pieces to complement that player instead of continuing to watch in awe as they dominate during another 10-loss season.

Departures and Arrivals: The 2013 Roster

Adding new pieces to a team that played much better than its record suggests last year should help. The Lions were very competitive for a 4-12 team, but the inability to close teams out and the one-dimensional offense hurt them too often.

Running back Reggie Bush was the flashy signing for Detroit this offseason. He has not lived up to his status as the No. 2 pick in 2006, but he has been a productive player. Putting him in Detroit’s shotgun-heavy attack, he should have some favorable looks at formations and catch his share of passes.

The injuries to Jahvid Best have really sapped the running game in Detroit, but look for Bush to try to establish himself again in a new city. Just don’t expect those Barry Sanders-type plays he had at USC.

The defense added veterans in defensive tackle Jason Jones and safety Glover Quin. Jones will be playing defensive end in Detroit.

Long-time kicker Jason Hanson has retired after 21 seasons with the team. David Akers comes over from San Francisco. The team still gets younger at kicker, however, Akers will be 39 this season and struggled last year with 13 misses.

The trenches have also undergone changes. Offensive tackle Jeff Backus retired after 12 seasons. This is why you draft Riley Reiff in the first round in 2012. Gosder Cherilus, the other tackle, signed with the Colts.

On defense, Cliff Avril, who led the team with 9.5 sacks in 2012, left for the Seahawks while veteran Kyle Vanden Bosch was released.

However, with the 2013 draft the Lions had a strategy of continuing to strengthen the defensive line with the fifth pick going on BYU defensive end Ezekiel Ansah. It’s a risky pick on a player with little-to-no track record, but if he’s the edge rusher the team expects then it should work with Ndamukong Suh and Nick Fairley in the middle.

Detroit also added cornerback Darius Slay (Mississippi State) and guard Larry Warford (Kentucky) with its next two picks.

Add it all up and this is a projected starting depth chart for Detroit this year (credit to Ourlads):

If Stafford should get hurt again, do not sleep on backup quarterback Shaun Hill. He is one of the best backups in the league.

This remains a team relying on its passing game and the defensive line to succeed. Rookies will be expected to contribute, but expectations are also higher on 2012 rookies like Reiff and Broyles this year.

Conclusion: Another Tough Year?

Detroit cannot expect the NFC North to get any easier in 2013. One could argue the Lions are the worst team in the division, though there are enough uncertainties with the Vikings and Bears to hold off on that claim for now.

Detroit will play eight games, have a Week 9 bye week, then finish the last eight games. Right now on paper, neither half seems particularly tougher than the other. A good start is key.

There is no reason the Lions cannot get to 9-7 with the talent they have, however, it may not be enough for the postseason.

Big wins continue to elude this team, but right now ownership would settle for a winning record any way it can get it.

Schwartz needs to win to keep his job. Another season with 10 losses and he would be staring at a 28-52 (.350) record after five seasons. That is worthy of dismissal.

Tied to the hip with Schwartz is Stafford, who enters the next-to-last year of his rookie contract. It’s dangerous territory as Stafford has not been bad enough to be a bust, but not great enough to deserve a huge extension. As one of the few remaining quarterbacks with a monster contract under the old CBA, Stafford will have to play well to earn a reasonable second contract from the Lions.

If Stafford regresses in 2013, the team may want to cut bait instead of making a large investment in this current quarterback market.

With one playoff win in the last 55 seasons, we must temper expectations for this team. Looking up from the cellar, men in key positions will be playing for their jobs in Detroit.

In the end, it sounds like another typical year for the Lions, who must stick on the path they have set out on and start winning the close games again.

Scott Kacsmar writes for Cold, Hard Football Facts, NBC Sports, Colts Authority, and contributes data to Pro-Football-Reference.com and NFL Network. You can visit his blog for a complete writing archive, and can follow him on Twitter at @CaptainComeback.