Durkin: Know Your Opponent – Detroit Lions
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By Dan Durkin
(CBS) Hall of Fame coach Bill Parcells famously said, “You are what your record says you are.”
Since arriving in 2009, Lions head coach Jim Schwartz is 24-44, with one playoff appearance sandwiched between three double-digit loss seasons. So, how much longer does Schwartz get to prove that he isn’t the losing coach his record says he is?
What’s even more curious is the rigid approach Schwartz has taken with the team’s philosophy. Every season, he’s used the same coordinators to run the same schemes with essentially the same talent core.
If it’s not fixed, don’t you have to break it?
Schwartz’s first season coincided with the team using the first overall selection of the 2009 draft on quarterback Matthew Stafford. Stafford is only 25, yet has 48 starts and two 4,900+ yard seasons.
Armed with a compact delivery and a howitzer attached to his right shoulder, Stafford has all the physical gifts needed to excel. However, he occasionally relies too much on his arm strength. Stafford’s confidence in his ability to fit a ball into a tight window leads to lapses in mechanics and delayed decision-making, forcing throws he shouldn’t make.
Offensive coordinator Scott Linehan caters to Stafford’s strengths by running a one-back spread offense, lining him up in the shotgun two-thirds of the time.
From the gun, Stafford has a wider pre-snap read of the defense and is deeper in the pocket. The downside to heavily using the shotgun for a still-developing prospect like Stafford is it doesn’t force him to improve upon his footwork in the pocket, which can be sloppy as he waits for routes to come open.
Stafford’s favorite target is the uber talented Calvin Johnson, the epitome of a coverage-dictating receiver. Johnson possesses a rare size-speed ratio, uncanny body control, leaping ability, and a catching radius the size of a two-car garage. In 2012, Johnson set an NFL record with 1,964 receiving yards, yet his team only mustered four wins.
There are a variety of reasons as to why the Lions have failed to convert the best weapon in a pass-happy league into wins: the lack of a complementary receiver, instability at running back, and porous protection.
After turning the page on Jahvid Best and the subsequent six pack of running backs, the Lions brought in free-agent Reggie Bush. The fit is natural. Bush is a gifted pass receiver, who improved as an in between the tackles runner in Miami.
Johnson’s presence forces teams to keep safety help over the top, which creates room for Bush to operate underneath against linebackers. Linehan uses Bush out of the slot, on option routes, and screen passes, that is when he’s healthy enough to play. Bush’s talent is unlimited, but durability has always been an issue.
It’s hard to understand why the Lions haven’t made finding a second receiver to take advantage of single coverage a bigger priority.
Nate Burleson – second on the team in targets, receptions, and yards – was emerging in that capacity, but was lost indefinitely in the most Lions-y of ways. Burleson reportedly reached to stop a pizza from falling off the passenger seat, crashing into a median and breaking his arm in the process.
Ryan Broyles made his season debut last week, and is the logical next man up in terms of targets. Broyles is a clever route runner out of the slot, but knee injuries have plagued him throughout his career. Tight end Brandon Pettigrew looks the part, but has yet to distinguish himself as anything more than a safety valve.
The offensive line has been revamped with two new edge protectors – left tackle Riley Reiff, right tackle Corey Hilliard – and rookie right guard Larry Warford. In terms of pass protection, this group has performed well, allowing only one sack. But in the run game, they’ve struggled to open holes, averaging 2.9 yards per attempt, the NFC’s second lowest mark.
Schwartz is a defensive-minded head coach, but you wouldn’t assume that after looking at the Lions production during his time in Detroit. They’ve twice ranked in the bottom five in points allowed, and bottom 10 in yards allowed.
Gunther Cunningham has honed in on a Cover-2 scheme with his defensive ends in a wide-nine alignment (outside shoulder of the tight end). This technique creates a straight path to the quarterback’s launch point, singles the end up, and puts stress on the tight end or tackle to increase the depth and angle of their kick slide.
To effectively run this scheme requires stout defensive tackles, which the Lions have, and linebackers who can effectively fill the open gaps, which the Lions don’t have.
Defensive tackle Ndamukong Suh is a household name both for his talent and his recklessness. Suh is brutally strong at the point of attack, relentless in pursuit, but his extra curricular activities are earning him an undesirable image among his peers. Football is a violent game, but the participants operate by a code, which unfortunately, Suh fails to honor.
Suh is paired with Nick Fairley, another first-round talent with rare quickness and burst off the ball. Fairley and Suh are the most disruptive pair of defensive tackles in the league. They press the pocket from the inside and force quarterbacks throw on the move. However, their aggressive upfield pursuit can also be used against them with traps and counters.
The Lions took a gamble on BYU defensive end Ezekiel “Ziggy” Ansah in the first-round this past April. Ansah is a boom-or-bust prospect, short on experience, but long on athleticism. After losing defensive end Jason Jones this past Sunday to a torn patellar tendon, Ansah, Willie Young, and Israel Idonije will carry a heavier load in the defensive end rotation.
At the second level, the Lions have an ordinary group of linebackers. Last season, they gave up 4.5 yards per carry, and their best run defender – Justin Durant – is now a Cowboy. Weakside linebacker DeAndre Levy got off to a quick start, but is only adequate in pass coverage.
After years of inconsistent play due to a lack of talent and injuries, the Lions made a concerted effort this offseason to bolster their secondary. They retained safety Louis Delmas, cornerback Chris Houston, used free agency to sign safety Glover Quin (Houston), cornerback Rashean Mathis (Jacksonville), and drafted cornerback Darius Slay in the second-round.
Delmas is a willing hitter in run support and is versatile in coverage, his issue has been staying healthy. Quin was an instrumental piece of the Texans defense, providing solid run support in the box and the ability to man-up on tight ends.
Losing has become a habit in Detroit. This organization has two winning seasons in their last 16, and one playoff win 56 years. Three double-digit loss seasons under Schwartz doesn’t happen by accident.
The Lions have enough talent to compete, they simply play an undisciplined brand of football, which is a reflection of their lack of leadership. Short of a playoff berth – and possibly a playoff win – it may be time for ownership to call Schwartz what he is.
Follow Dan on Twitter: @djdurkin