It’s amazing that just a few years ago this team didn’t win a single game. They were completely devoid of talent and in just a few short years, Jim Schwartz and Martin Mayhew have reversed years of terrible decisions by the Matt Millen regime. In 2008 they didn’t win a game and in 2009 they won just 2. However, in 2010, they won 6, including their last 4 and last year they won 10 and made the playoffs for the first time since 1999.
Can the Lions take the next step in 2012 and become a legitimate Super Bowl contender? Some would say yes, but doing so would require the team to improve its win total for the 4th straight year, something that hasn’t happened in the NFL in over a decade. This team also finished the year just 5-7, including playoffs, after starting the year 5-0. Even in their 5-0 start, they needed two massive comebacks and they needed another one to beat Carolina later in the season. In fact, they needed 4 comebacks of 13+ points last year, an NFL record.
Defense was a major issue as they allowed 24.2 points per game, 23rd in the league and worse that the much scrutinized defenses of the Packers and Patriots. The 29.6 points per game they scored on offense, 4th in the league, helped bail them out, but they can’t keep counting on their offense to execute huge comebacks after the defense puts them in a hole early. They are also a very young and undisciplined team on and off the field, leading the league in penalties and personal fouls last season, while having 7 players arrested this offseason.
One thing that’s certainly not a problem for the Lions is their passing offense and that’s a very good thing in today’s NFL. Matt Stafford was the quietest of the three quarterbacks to surpass 5000 yards last year, but he did indeed do so, answering questions about his health and his ability that existed before the season. Heading into 2011, Stafford had missed 19 games in his first 2 NFL seasons and had completed just 54.5% of his passes for an average of 5.9 YPA, and 19 touchdowns to 21 interceptions.
However, last year, he played all 16 games and completed 63.5% of his passes for an average of 7.6 YPA and 41 touchdowns to 16 interceptions. His passing stats are inflated some by the fact that his 663 passing attempts led the NFL, but he’s still clearly a franchise quarterback. The one thing Stafford will have to avoid in 2012 is injuries. I know he made it through last season unscathed, but he does have an injury history and while backup Shaun Hill is a decent quarterback, their passing offense is too important to their team for them to lose Stafford for an extended period of time.
Wide Receivers/Tight Ends
Matt Stafford certainly has no shortage of weapons to throw to. While Stafford answered questions about his health and ability in 2011, Calvin Johnson answered a different question: what happens when he has a health and able quarterback under center? Johnson’s answer: 96 catches for 1681 yards and 16 touchdowns. He simply has no holes in his game. He’s the type of wide receiver you create in Madden when you want to cheat. Speaking of Madden, Johnson is on the cover this year, which normally spells doom. However, I wouldn’t be too worried.
Megatron isn’t their only receiver, but he certainly makes life a lot easier for the other receivers. 2011 2nd round rookie Titus Young will compete for the #2 receiver job with Nate Burleson. Young is fully expected to win that job over Burleson. Young is an athletic receiver waiting to break out, while Burleson is just a marginal player at this stage in his career.
Titus Young caught 48 passes for 607 yards and 6 touchdowns as a mere rookie last year, despite 84 targets. Burleson caught 73 passes for 757 yards and 3 touchdowns on 110 targets. If Young had Burleson’s 110 targets last year, he would have caught 63 passes for 795 yards and 8 touchdowns if you extrapolate his numbers.
Heading into his 2nd season in the league, he could surpass even those numbers and maybe even approach 1000 yards. Burleson, meanwhile, will be a solid slot receiver even in his age 31 season. It’s not impossible that Burleson will be pushed for even that job by 2012 2nd round pick Ryan Broyles later in the season, once Broyles is fully healthy again. Burleson likely won’t be with the team in 2013 and the Lions will go into 2013 with 3 young and very talented wide receivers and be able to air it out with the best of them.
Stafford also has two tight ends to throw to. Brandon Pettigrew caught 83 passes for 777 yards and 5 touchdowns last year and Tony Scheffler caught 26 passes for 347 yards and 6 touchdowns as the “move tight end.” Stafford has plenty of options in the receiving game and the Lions pass more than any team in the league.
One of the reasons that the Lions led the league by passing on 65.2% of their offensive snaps (not counting sacks) last year was simply that they couldn’t run. Injuries took their toll at the running back position and the Lions basically didn’t even try to establish a successful running game. Jahvid Best led the way with 84 carries and 4 different players had between 58 and 84 carries.
The Lions received their 1st blow in the offseason when 2011 2nd round pick Mikel Leshoure tore his Achilles, leaving him out for the season. Concussions ended Jahvid Best’s season 6 games into it, after he began to look like a true feature back early in the season, rushing for 390 yards and 2 touchdowns on 84 carries, while catching 27 passes for 287 yards and another score. Kevin Smith took over from there, but even he struggled with injuries and the Lions were left giving key carries to Maurice Morris and Keiland Williams down the stretch.
It’s no coincidence the Lions were 5-1 when Best was looking like a feature back, but can they run well enough this season to have that kind of well rounded offense all year? The Lions either think so or don’t care because they didn’t draft a running back. Mikel Leshoure will miss the first 2 games of the season with a suspension, but he’ll be the lead back when he returns. Best will be utilized in a Darren Sproles type role, in order to keep him healthy and best utilize his speed and pass catching abilities. Smith will provide extra depth. If Leshoure, who doesn’t have an injury history prior to last year, can be a true feature back and Best can stay healthy, the Lions’ offense could be even better in 2012, but those are big ifs.
Of course, if Matt Stafford is injured, the Lions have no chance of improving their offense in 2012. I’ve mentioned Stafford’s injury history in the past. The offensive line will have an important job keeping him from hitting the turf. They did their job in 2011. Though they permitted 36 sacks, they did so even though they led the league in passing attempts. ProFootballFocus ranked them 4th in pass blocking efficiency, while Stafford was only pressured on 24.2% of his throws, less than every eligible quarterback (50% of their team’s snaps) other than two (Ryan Fitzpatrick and Matt Hasselbeck). They were pretty bad as run blockers, however, another reason that I don’t expect the Lions to have a good running game in 2012.
Jeff Backus is still their left tackle. He allowed 7 sacks, 4 quarterback hits, and 36 quarterback pressures last year, which sounds bad, but think about how often they passed. He wasn’t a bad run blocker either and he graded out very middle of the pack with a -2.1 rating on ProFootballFocus. However, he’s heading into his age 35 season so I don’t know how much longer he can do this.
With that in mind, the Lions used the 23rd overall pick on Riley Reiff. Reiff will play the right side in 2012 and compete with Gosder Cherilus there. However, Cherilus is a free agent this offseason and Backus might not be brought back in 2013 at age 36 at a salary of 2.75 million, so Reiff will get plenty of opportunity in 2013 and beyond. In 2012, he could beat out Cherilus. Cherilus allowed 9 sacks, 5 quarterback hits, and 27 quarterback pressures, which actually isn’t too bad considering how much they passed. However, he’s below average as a run blocker. It’ll be an interesting battle to watch in camp.
On the interior, both guards Rob Sims and Stephen Peterman graded out above average with ratings of 6.5 and 3.0 respectively. Neither run blocked well, but they ranked 7th and 14th respectively at their position as pass protectors. Sims allowed 1 sack, 9 quarterback hits, and 11 quarterback pressures, while Peterson allowed 2 sacks, 6 quarterback hits, and 13 quarterback pressures.
Sandwiched between them is Dominic Raiola, another solid pass protector, allowing 4 sacks, 1 quarterback hit, and 10 quarterback pressures. However, he ranked 31st at his position out of 35 as a run blocker. Like Backus, he’s no spring chicken as he heads into his age 34 season. The one issue for the Lions upfront is depth. Reiff can step in at either tackle position and they probably wouldn’t miss a beat, but all 5 starters missed a combined 2 starts last year and aside from the 5 starters, their backups got to play just 173 snaps. If a player or two gets hurt, it could have a noticeable effect on the Lions’ line.
However, if everyone stays healthy again, there’s no reason why the Lions can’t continue to protect Matt Stafford well. It would help if they could run a little bit more and throw a little bit less, but their offensive line doesn’t run block well and they have a bunch of unproven and/or injury prone players at running back. Stafford has plenty of receivers to throw to so the Lions should have a top-5 offense again, but I don’t think they’re quite on the level that Green Bay or New England is or New Orleans was last year (a lot of unknowns with that team this year).
But offense was not the problem with this team last year. Their defense is the reason why they had to mount 4 comebacks from down 13 or more to win. Until they get things fixed on that side of the ball, they won’t be serious Super Bowl contenders. They ranked 23rd in the league in scoring defense last year, worse than even Green Bay or New England.
One thing the Lions have going for them is a great pass rush. They ranked 10th in the league in sacks with 41 last year, after 44 the year before. They have a lot of depth on the defensive line and rotate guys often. Ndamukong Suh is the biggest name and one of their leaders in snaps played in 2011 with 839. He did that despite missing 2 games with suspension after stomping on a Packers offensive lineman.
Suh will have to control himself. He was also penalized 8 times, on top of that 2 game suspension. In 2010, he had 10 penalties. Another thing he’ll have to work on is his play against the run. That’s an issue for the Lions’ defensive line as a whole as they ranked 24th against the run with 4.5 YPC. He is a good pass rusher, however, with 5 sacks, 5 quarterback hits, and 28 quarterback pressures on 520 pass rush snaps, for a solid 7.3% rate.
Suh will start opposite Nick Fairley, the 13th overall pick in the 2011 NFL Draft. Fairley didn’t play much in 2011 thanks to injuries, but he had a 7.4 rate on 274 snaps last year on ProFootballFocus. The upside is definitely there. The issue is he’ll likely begin the season with a 2-3 game suspension thanks to his offseason antics.
Corey Williams will start in his absence as he did last year. Williams was pretty mediocre as a starter last year. He’s a solid run stuffer, but committed 8 penalties and didn’t contribute much as a pass rusher. On 451 pass rush snaps, he had 3 sacks, 3 quarterback pressures, and 19 quarterback hits, good for a rate of 5.5%. Sammie Lee Hill is a similar player. Once Fairley is back, Williams and Hill will be rotational players behind two talented starters, which is better for the Lions’ defensive line.
Outside at end, the Lions also will rotate 4 players, Cliff Avril, Kyle Vanden Bosch, Lawrence Jackson, and Willie Young. Avril and Vanden Bosch played the bulk of the snaps last year. Avril will continue to do that again this year. Avril has yet to sign his franchise tender and is planning to skip at least the early part of Training Camp. He won’t miss any games, but he could struggle some if he fails to stay in shape on his own, like Chris Johnson and Darrelle Revis in the last 2 years. At his best, Avril is a great pass rusher and a poor run stuffer. Last year he had 12 sacks, 9 quarterback hits, and 41 quarterback pressures last year, good for a sack/pressure/hit on 11.5% of all pass rush snaps. He was penalized 12 times.
Vanden Bosch, meanwhile, should see fewer snaps this season. There are a few reasons for that. The main one is that he struggled last year. He was ProFootballFocus’ 3rd worst graded 4-3 defensive end with a -10.5 rating. The second reason is his age, as he heads into his age 34. The third reason is how well backups Willie Young and Lawrence Jackson played last year. On 410 combined pass rush snaps, they had 8 sacks, 7 quarterback hits, and 35 quarterback pressures, good for a 12.2% pass rush rate. They also held up against the run and had a 12.4 rating and an 11.6 rating respectively. It’s always risky to give guys more playing time, because they might not play as well, but the Lions have to give it a try.
Vanden Bosch had 8 sacks, 7 quarterback hits, and 28 quarterback pressures on 495 pass rush snaps, good for a rate of 8.7%. He struggled against the run as well. Only 2 players at his position did worse in that area. The Lions have a talented pass rushing defensive line, but they don’t stop the run well and they’re often penalized. They should be better this year, however, with Fairley, Jackson, and Young getting more playing time.
The Lions also have a solid bunch at linebacker. Stephen Tulloch is one of the league’s best middle linebackers with a 17.8 rating, good for 9th in the league. He’s equally good in coverage and against the run. They resigned him long term this offseason, but he has been dealing with leg problems this offseason, so that’s something to monitor in Training Camp and the Preseason.
On the outside, they have Justin Durant and DeAndre Levy. Durant is an alright two down run stuffer who comes off the field on passing downs and 2-linebacker sets. He struggles in coverage, but stops the run well enough to grade out above average with a 3.3 rating. Levy, meanwhile, stays on the field most of the time, but struggled last year. He was better in 2010 as a middle linebacker, but his -8.1 rating was 34th out of 42 4-3 outside linebackers last year after the position change. He’s a free agent after the season and should leave to go somewhere where he can play the middle.
The secondary is the Lions’ worst group on their roster and the biggest reason why they struggled to stop anyone last year. Their pass rush can make them look alright, but if the Lions are serious about winning the Super Bowl, they’ll have to do better than Chris Houston and Aaron Berry at cornerback. With that in mind, they used a 3rd and a 5th round pick on the position, taking Dwight Bentley and Chris Greenwood, but they won’t have any impact until 2013, if ever.
Chris Houston is a good player, who allowed 46 completions on 87 attempts (52.9%) for 593 yards (6.8 YPA), 4 touchdowns and 5 interceptions, while deflecting 5 passes and committing 2 penalties. However, Aaron Berry has never been a starter in the NFL. He played alright on the slot last year, but he’s definitely unproven. Meanwhile, Jacob Lacey will play on the slot, unless he can beat out Berry for the starting job, which is unlikely. Lacey struggled as a starter for the Colts last year.
At safety, Louis Delmas is solid in coverage, but really struggled against the run last year, ranking 3rd worst at his position against the run. His overall -8.5 rating ranked him 66th out of 84 players. Next to him, Amari Spievey is even worse, with a -16.1 rating, good for 81th at his position. He struggled both in coverage and against the run.
The Lions ranked 23th in scoring defense last year with 24.2 points per game allowed. In 2010, they ranked 19th with 23.1 points per game allowed. They don’t have a lot of talent in the secondary and they can’t stop the run. They rush the passer well, which helps their pass defense look better than they are, but this isn’t a very good defense. I don’t expect them to be much better this season. Nick Fairley, Lawrence Jackson, and Willie Young will play more, which should help, but this team suffered very few injuries last year, so that could hurt them in 2012. They also didn’t use a draft pick on defense until the 3rd round and none of their rookies will have much impact in 2012, based on where they are located on the depth chart right now.
Jim Schwartz deserves some blame for the Lions’ immaturity on and off the field, but he also deserves a ton of credit for the Lions’ turn around. He took over a winless team in 2009 and has won 18 games in the last 3 years and got them to the playoffs with a record of 10-6 last year. He’s definitely a solid coach, but if the Lions struggle this year, his job could be on the line because of how often the Lions are penalized and how much they struggle with discipline off the field.
The Lions have improved their win total in each of the last 3 years. I don’t expect them to do so this year because they would mean they’d have done it in each of the last 4 years, which hasn’t happened with any team in at least a decade. To improve your win total that much, you need to have a lot of things go right.
So what will go wrong for the Lions this year? It could be a number of things. Maybe Matt Stafford will miss a few games with injuries. Maybe their penalties will do them in. Maybe their defense won’t improve and they won’t be able to come back from 13 point deficits 4 times. Maybe all of their offseason distractions will be too much for them. Maybe they will continue the play that caused them to go 5-7 after a 5-0 start last year, including playoffs. Maybe a tougher schedule will do them in (they didn’t beat a single team with a winning record in 2011, going 0-6 in those games, including playoffs). Maybe the Madden Curse will strike down Calvin Johnson (only half kidding).
Speaking of that schedule, they have to face Chicago and Green Bay 4 times, obviously. I think both of those teams are better than them, so while they could sweep Minnesota, I have them going 3-3 in the division at best (last year, they were 3-3). Outside of the division, they host St. Louis, Seattle, Houston, Indianapolis, and Atlanta. St. Louis, Seattle, and Indianapolis are all winnable games, but Houston and Atlanta will be tougher, especially after the latter beat them at home last year. They also have trips to San Francisco, Tennessee, Philadelphia, Jacksonville, and Arizona.
They play 6 teams who had winning records in 2011 and 8 teams I project to have winning records in 2012. They didn’t beat a single team with a winning record last year and their only win against a playoff team came against the 8-8 Broncos. I could definitely see them winning 7 or 8 games, given all of the things that could go wrong.
Projection: 7-9 3rd in NFC North