Since Barry Sanders retired in the mid ‘90’s, the Lions were bad at their best and 0-16 at their worst. Coaches came and went. Top draft picks fizzled one after another. Until now. A fast start has Detroit thinking playoffs.
Jim Schwartz and three home run picks in the first round have the Lions on the right path. But are Matthew Stafford, Calvin Johnson, and Ndamukong Suh enough to carry Detroit to the postseason in 2011?
I’m glad you asked. Consecutive losses to the 49ers and Falcons make the Lions look vulnerable. I’ve shied away from the Lions all season because I didn’t trust their undefeated record. Come-from-behind victories over Minnesota and Dallas were impressive, but raised flags. The aforementioned losses to San Francisco and Atlanta, at home no less, exposed fatal flaws. Plus, the team and its head coach are inexperienced. So yeah, you could say I’m not high on the Lions reaching the postseason.
Back to those home losses in Weeks 6 and 7. Against the 49ers, Detroit surrendered 203 rushing yards at 7 yards per carry. A week later, Michael Turner rushed for 122 yards at 4.5 yards per carry. The 49ers successfully battled battle back in Week 6 thanks in large part to a punishing ground game, and Atlanta closed out their victory this past Sunday in similar fashion. In fact, had Minnesota continued running Adrian Peterson in the 2nd half against the Lions and Dallas committed to the run at all, the Lions would probably be 3-4 right now instead of 5-2.
For all the talk about Detroit’s defensive greatness, especially Suh’s, the Lions rank 28th in the NFL against the run. FOXSports’ Jason Whitlock had an interesting take on Suh’s regression this season, arguing the lack of physicality permitted in practice hampers Suh’s development. Whitlock’s point makes sense, but that won’t help Detroit when teams pound them with the run.
You see, failure to stop the run is a double-edged sword. Not only does it thrash your defense, but it shortens the game, too. Fittingly, the Lion offense can’t run the football. Without a running game or a superstar quarterback, it’s hard to sustain drives. Stafford and the offense need as many possessions as they can get. Despite the perception that Detroit has a great offense, they’re painfully one-dimensional and rely heavily on big plays, mostly by Calvin Johnson.
Another reason the Detroit offense struggles is its inability to convert on 3rd downs. Compare Detroit’s 3rd down conversion rate (27.7%) with the truly elite offenses of the Packers (48.8%) and Patriots (53.6%). It’s not even close. Well, those are the best offenses in the NFL, so comparing them isn’t really fair. Alright then. How about the Eagles (43.4)? Still, the Eagles are a more talented offense. Fine. Take a look at the anemic, one-dimensional Bears offense (29.9%). Or, how about the Rams (28.7%), who rank dead last in points per game? Even the Jaguars (29.2%), owners of the worst ranked offense in the league, convert better than Detroit.
If you can’t stay on the field, you can’t win. It’s as simple as that. You can sneak by with a poor 3rd down conversion rate or a defense that struggles against the run, but not both. Add the offense’s struggles to run the football (now compounded by Jahvid Best’s injury) to that equation, and Detroit’s playoff chances look bleak.
Lastly, I’m staying away from the Lions because of the team’s persona. Head coach, Jim Schwartz coaches with a swagger. He’s not shy with his emotions or trash talking opposing coaches from across the field. Granted, Schwartz’s fiery attitude was necessary at first and a major reason the franchise turned around. However, there’s a reason the NFL’s best coaches (Bill Belichick, Mike Tomlin, and Sean Payton) stay out of the news. They don’t inflate their team’s collective ego, either. Arrogance will be Detroit’s downfall. They’ve lost all humility after their 5-0 start. I blame Schwartz. He’s responsible for Detroit’s excessive swagger. That swagger has led to foolish penalties, undisciplined play, and a bad boy mentality that’s only weakened the team. As much as we loathe Andy Reid’s “you’re never as good as you think and it’s never as bad as it looks” approach, it’s effective over a long season at keeping players focused.
Right now, the Lions look content. They act like they’ve already achieved something. The Packers are 7-0. The Patriots 5-1. Neither team is strutting. They both know there’s too much work left to do. The season is too long to celebrate a fast start or a big victory. The Lions haven’t been here before, so they don’t understand how early season hype can scuttle an entire season. It’s the coach’s job to make them understand. But instead of focusing his team, Schwartz is letting his rowdy and borderline out of control style sidetrack the talented Lions.
At best, I see the Lions finishing 10-6, but 9-7 or even 8-8 seems more probable. Matthew Stafford is struggling, the Best injury will haunt Detroit, the defense talks better than it plays, and the overall lack of professionalism due to poor leadership will ultimately keep the Lions out of the playoffs.