By Dan Durkin-
(CBS) Coming off their first postseason appearance in 12 years, expectations are high in Detroit, but are they justified? That’s debatable.
When you dig deeper into the Lions 10-6 record in 2011, it becomes less impressive. Of their ten wins, none came against a team with a winning record. Of their six losses, all but one came against teams with winning records. Thus, the Lions weren’t – and still aren’t – among the NFC elite, they’re more on the top end of the muddle of mediocrity.
The Lions have a top-heavy roster. Meaning they have blue-chip talent at a few positions, but the balance of the roster is comprised of marginal players. This makes the Lions reliant on dominant individual performances from a small group of players to win games. Such a formula can be problematic over the course of a 16-game (ideally longer) season.
Considering the bevy of busted top-overall quarterback selections, the Lions appear to have gotten it right with Matthew Stafford. Stafford is a gifted quarterback prospect with elite arm strength and a quick release.
Due to a streak of unfortunate luck early on in his career, Stafford has had to overcome a stigma about his toughness. The reality is, Stafford’s porous protection is more to blame, as he’s shown plenty of poise in the pocket under duress.
Injuries cost him 19 games over his first two seasons, so he is still learning the nuances of playing quarterback in the NFL. To aide Stafford’s apprenticeship, offensive coordinator Scott Linehan has kept things simple in terms of personnel groupings and formations. The Lions typically line up in:
● 2WR-2TE-1RB (Johnson, Burleson, Pettigrew, Scheffler, Leshoure/Bell)
● 3WR-2TE (Johnson, Burleson, Young, Pettigrew, Scheffler)
● 3WR-1TE-1RB (Johnson, Burleson, Young, Pettigrew, Leshoure/Bell)
Of course, you can get away with being vanilla on offense when you have the deadliest weapon in the NFL, wide receiver Calvin Johnson. With Johnson and Stafford, the Lions feel they can just line up and beat most defenses with their talent alone.
Johnson has a unique combination of size and speed and the catching radius of a two-car garage. He is a coverage-dictating receiver who requires extra attention over the top on every snap. Even with defenses dedicating safety help, Johnson averages 111 yards per game and leads the NFL with 12 receptions of 20 or more yards.
Wide receiver Nate Burleson and tight end Brandon Pettigrew are emerging as the top secondary options for Stafford. Pettigrew has worlds of physical talent, but seems to struggle with mental lapses that manifest in the form of dropped passes, fumbles, and penalties. The Lions have had success with play-action rollouts involving Pettigrew. 2011 second-round pick Titus Young flashed big play ability in college, but this season is struggling to gain yards after the catch.
An answer in the Lions’ backfield remains elusive. The Lions traded back into the first-round in 2010 to draft Jahvid Best, hoping he could be their big-play threat in the running game. Best never really panned out and is now at a career crossroads due to lingering concussion symptoms.
The Lions spent a second-round pick in 2011 on Mikel Leshoure. Leshoure was drafted to be the thunder to Best’s lightning, but an Achilles’ injury cost him his rookie season. Leshoure has been inserted into the lineup this season and given his workload, he appears to be “the guy” in the Lions backfield. With teams forced to play more Cover-2 to defend Johnson, Leshoure could flourish as an in-between the tackle runner.
The Lions offensive line still has more questions than answers. Center Dominic Raiola is the anchor and heart and soul of this group. At this point in his career, Raiola gets by on guile. Left tackle Jeff Backus is nearing the end of a solid, yet unspectacular career. Right tackle Gosder Cherilus is powerful, but lacks foot speed and has yet to live up to being a first-round pick.
The Lions 2012 first-round pick, Riley Reiff, is forcing his way onto the field. It’s surprising that the Lions didn’t find a place for him somewhere in their starting five to begin with. Instead, the Lions featured Reiff as a third tackle in their “jumbo” package this past Sunday, where he was very effective. His insertion to the game is somewhat of a tell, as the Lions primarily run out of this personnel grouping.
In a passing league, the Lions have talented building blocks in place. However, until they add more talent on the offensive line and find a better balance with their running game, this offense is too reliant on Johnson.
Defensively, the Lions have a fearsome, deep defensive line. Their ability to get pressure with their front four alone allows defensive coordinator Gunther Cunningham to play a lot of Cover-2. However, with a questionable secondary and occasionally undisciplined linebackers, this unit is susceptible to big plays.
Ndamukong Suh is one of the most disruptive defensive tackles in the NFL. While his play slipped in his second season, he has a rare blend of quickness and raw strength. Being able to cave the pocket from the inside requires extra attention, which opens up single block opportunities for his linemates. The Lions compliment Suh with Corey Williams and Nick Fairley, giving them great depth at the position.
Defensive end Cliff Avril’s dominant performance as a pass rusher in 2011 earned him the franchise tag designation. Avril is fast off the edge, good with his hands, and is a mismatch for most right tackles. On the opposite side, Kyle Vanden Bosch is powerful and relentless.
The Lions run a “Wide-9” technique with their ends. In this alignment, the ends line up on the outside shoulder of the tight end, putting pressure on offensive tackles to take a greater depth, and allowing defensive ends to take a straight shot to the quarterback’s eight-yard drop point. This alignment requires dominant play inside, which the Lions have, but also puts a lot of pressure on the linebackers.
The second level of the Lions defense has taken a step forward in 2012. In 2011, the Lions gave up six runs of 40 or more yards, which was the second worst mark in the league. A lot of this was due to poor run fits and a lack of gap discipline by the linebackers. This year, the trio of DeAndre Levy, Steven Tulloch, and Justin Durant have been stout in “cleaning up” plays, and are the leading tacklers on the team.
It was surprising to see the Lions not make a more concerted effort to improve their secondary which has struggled for several seasons. In their last two games of 2011, the Lions gave up a staggering 946 passing yards and 9 touchdowns. Matt Flynn should certainly have the Lions on his holiday card list, as they helped him secure $10 M guaranteed this offseason.
The return of safety Louis Delmas is a huge boost to the Lions secondary. Delmas is great in coverage, physical in run support, but is also the Lions best blitzer off the edge. Having Delmas back in the lineup will allow Cunningham to get more creative in his pressure packages.
At cornerback, the Lions are thinned out. Jacob Lacey suffered a concussion against the Eagles, so he must pass the proper protocol to play against the Bears. Thus, the Lions have only two healthy corners, Chris Houston and rookie Bill Bentley, putting them in a disadvantageous position as they prepare for Monday.
The Lions special teams haven’t been special at all. They gave up two return touchdowns in back-to-back games, costing them a victory against the Vikings. Against the Eagles, their coverage units were improved, but with Devin Hester looming, this is another problem area. NFC North teams are evenly matched, so special teams typically play a huge role in the outcome of games.
The Lions are a dangerous team simply because of the difference-making talent they have at critical positions. However, football is the ultimate team game. As a team, the Lions aren’t complete, and their undisciplined play seems to be a reflection of their head coach Jim Schwartz.
With another offseason to collect more talent and address needs, the Lions could be closer to making some noise in the playoffs, but currently, they aren’t ready for sustained success.