Lions Preview: Spice Things Up, Already
Remember last year at this time, when the Detroit Lions were the edgiest team in pro football and coming off a re-energizing playoff season? They played with swagger and a black-and-blue aggression that tight-roped the line between gritty and dirty. It was Detroit Bad Boys, Part II.
Not anymore. Where the Lions once generated controversy, it’s now only indifference. That’ s what a 4-12 season will do. Those still talking about this team are no longer talking postseason—they’re discussing whether Jim Schwartz will soon join the Motor City’s legions of unemployed.
The hot seat is warranted. Yes, Schwartz inherited an absolute mess in 2009 and in two seasons got the team to the playoffs for the first time in 12 years. But that season, the Lions started a white hot 5-0. They finished 5-7 the rest of the way. From that perspective, Schwartz’s Lions appear less like a rising franchise than like the same old downtrodden one that has just one playoff victory since the 1950s.
There’s speculation that Martin Mayhew, who took over as general manager midway through 2008, could also be on thin ice. But the problem in Detroit isn’t talent as much as it is how the talent is being used. If you’re the Lions, look at it this way: your best player just broke Jerry Rice’s single season receiving record and you still finished at least six games back of every team in your division. Doesn’t that suggest something is wrong in your approach?
Under coordinator Scott Linehan, the Lions take a very distinct approach to offense. Generally, they line up in a shotgun formation—which they used an NFL-record 68 percent of the time last year—and do little, if any, disguising, motioning or shifting. When a team plays static like this, it’s essentially saying our players are better than your players. In the NFL, rarely is this statement true week in and week out. The only offense in recent years that has had sustained success with this sort of execution-based approach was the Colts’ under Peyton Manning.
The Colts took an extreme approach by not only staying static but also lining up their wide receivers in the same position almost every snap. They did this because a) It gave them added control for running their hurry-up and b) their once-in-a-generation quarterback preferred to get as still a picture as possible for reading the defense.
The Lions employ their static shotgun for similar reasons. The problem is, Matthew Stafford is not Peyton Manning. Stafford’s superior arm strength and quick, compact release enable him to make a few highlight throws that Manning can’t make. But from an overall standpoint, Stafford is not in the same quarterbacking zip code as his fellow former No. 1 pick.
This isn’t to say the 25-year-old can’t become the franchise quarterback Detroit envisioned. Stafford is a capable-enough progression reader and has all the raw tools. In some ways, those tools might be too good, as they’ve allowed Stafford at times to get away with undisciplined mechanics and decisions. Last season Stafford threw 17 interceptions and completed just 59.8 percent of his passes. His inconsistency was a big reason Detroit finished third in total yardage on offense but just 17th in scoring.
What the Lions need to ponder is how much benefit Stafford is really getting from reading defenses out of static sets. When Manning did this, he spent most of the 40-second play clock identifying ways he could exploit the defense. Stafford spends more of his presnap time just trying to figure out what the defense is showing. This is not due to lack of acuity, it’s due to the Calvin Johnson effect. Johnson is the most freakishly gifted wide receiver in history. Defenses often go to unprecedented extremes in how they double- and triple-team him. This leaves Stafford sometimes having to recognize bizarre coverages. These extreme coverages are not easy to prepare for because, more often than not, they’ve never shown up on film.
There are ways the Lions can counter this. One is to make it harder for defenses to disguise coverages by aligning Johnson in a variety of spots. Linehan started doing more of that last season, as Johnson caught 41 passes from the slot after having just 18 such receptions each of the previous two years. Another counter is to spread the ball to your other targets. The Lions have tried to build their offense around this approach. In 2010 they signed ex-Viking Nate Burleson, whom Linehan loved having opposite Randy Moss when he was the offensive coordinator in Minnesota. In 2011, they spent a second-round pick on Titus Young. In 2012, they spent another second-rounder on Ryan Broyles. Sadly, they have little to show for all those moves. The 31-year-old Burleson is facing an uphill climb back from a brutal broken leg suffered last October. After a promising 2011 season Young became a disciplinary issue and was released last February. Broyles is recovering from a second major knee injury in two years. The only certain ancillary wideout on the roster is Mike Thomas, and part of what’s certain about him is he’s too small and limited to play a significant fulltime role.
There’s a third counter to the extreme coverages thrown at Johnson that Detroit has not yet taken: incorporating motions and shifts into their play designs. Instead of staying static and forcing Stafford to react to what he sees, why not use Johnson—or other receivers—in ways that make the defense have to react? At the very least, Johnson would present more threats for opponents to prepare for, which would leave defenses less room for installing extreme coverages during the week.
The Lions were still able to feed Johnson last season, but their offense as a whole never seemed to have much rhythm. And Johnson’s numbers were a bit illusionary, as more than 20 percent of his yardage came in the fourth quarter when the score’s margin was eight or more.
Of course, it’s possible that Detroit’s lack of rhythm last year had less to do with its wideouts and more to do with its backfield. This shotgun system was originally built with Jahvid Best in mind. In 2010 Mayhew traded back into the first round to draft Best because he recognized that the 5-10, 199-pound Cal star’s superb quickness, agility and receiving skills could give some unique dimensions to Detroit’s space-oriented attack. Especially when you consider that Best would not only be on the field with Johnson, but also with two flexible tight ends: one a viable run-blocker and slow-but-smooth short-area pass catcher (Brandon Pettigrew) and the other a lanky, nimble all-around receiving threat (Tony Scheffler).
When concussions derailed Best’s career, part of the Lions offense went with him. The only five games in 2011 for which he was completely healthy happen to be the same five games Detroit won to start the season. Best averaged 19 touches and 112 yards from scrimmage in those contests.
With this in mind, the significance of the Reggie Bush signing is hard to overstate. Some see the eighth-year veteran as a disappointment given that many thought he’d one day warrant his own wing in Canton. But Bush’s inconsistencies aside, his skills have always commanded special attention from defenses, which is valuable to an offense. Those skills are nearly identical to what Best offered. What’s more, in his two years with Miami, Bush became a respectable between-the-tackles runner. There’s not really a demand for that in Detroit’s system. However, there is a demand for more of a run mixture in Linehan’s play-calling. That can now be met, as Bush has the initial quickness and acceleration needed to run out of shotgun.
The question is, will Bush get the blocking? For that matter, will Stafford? The Lions had a much better offensive line last season than people realize, though that’s not relevant now with new starters at right guard and both tackle spots. Many are surprised Mayhew elected to fill Jeff Backus’s left tackle spot with Riley Reiff. But what did people think Mayhew had in mind last year when he selected Reiff 23rd overall? At a lithe 311 pounds, the light-footed Reiff is much more cut out to play the left side than right side.
The notion that the Lions are taking a dangerous risk in trusting Reiff to protect Stafford’s blind side (and, indirectly, his once-delicate shoulder) is silly. In the shotgun Stafford can already see most of the field. And he won’t be taking a lot of seven-step drops. The real concern is whether he can get enough time with either Jason Fox or Corey Hilliard blocking on the right side. Fox, entering his fourth season, has played in only five games, with no starts, and Hilliard has been unimpressive when forced into starting action.
Between the tackles, most likely, third-round rookie Larry Warford will be counted on to replace veteran Stephen Peterman. Warford offers better size than Peterman did, but some think he’s not that much better an athlete. And he won’t immediately have the chemistry that Peterman had developed with center Dominic Raiola or left guard Rob Sims.
Just as on offense, the Lions take a fairly vanilla, execution-based approach on the other side of the ball. While coordinator Gunther Cunningham has recently scratched his creative itch with some amoeba blitzes and varied fronts in passing situations, the Lions stick mostly to the wide-nine, two-deep 4-3 zone concepts that Schwartz prefers.
This approach requires a dominant front four. Mayhew knows this. Since his first day on the job, he has told anyone who will listen that his top priority is keeping the defensive line stacked. His first pick as a GM was spent on Ndamukong Suh. His first-rounder the next year was spent on defensive tackle Nick Fairley. His first pick this past spring was used on end Ziggy Ansah.
Taking Ansah at No. 5 amounts to a colossal gamble. The Ghana native has immense talent and only three years of football experience. He started just nine games at BYU. The hope is he can become the next Jason Pierre-Paul. The Lions need him to make that leap almost right away, as Mayhew’s decision not to re-sign Cliff Avril left this front four bereft of its only consistent edge player.
The Lions are also taking a small gamble in betting that free agent pickup Jason Jones can thrive as a defensive end. Even though he’s more of a natural one-gap tackle, Jones should be an upgrade over what the Lions got in this spot from the rapidly declining Kyle Vanden Bosch last year—that is if Jones can avoid the injuries that have hounded him the past few years.
Jones should get opportunities to line up at tackle in nickel situations. That would buttress Detroit’s speed inside and outside, as replacing Jones at end would be fourth-year pro Willie Young, who has an extremely fast first and second step. The Lions would presumably also like to find some reps for last year’s fourth-round pick, Ronnell Lewis, and this year’s fourth-rounder, Devin Taylor.
When Jones slides inside, he’ll usually take the place of Fairley, as Suh played a hefty 85 percent of the snaps last year. Suh’s personality will forever keep alive the ongoing debate about his “dirty play” (for what it’s worth, he drew only three flags last year). More important is the debate about whether Suh is really the game-changing force he was as a rookie. Since having 10 sacks and 49 tackles in 2010, he has had 12 sacks and 50 tackles total. But to a certain extent, Suh’s shrunken numbers belie his actual impact. As a rookie, he primarily shot gaps from the three-technique. More recently, he has selflessly lined up at the one-technique, where he’s practically guaranteed to draw a double team from the guard and center.
Just going by body types, the stouter Fairley, not Suh, should be the one playing nose-shade. However, he hasn’t demonstrated the consistent tenacity or necessary technique to fight two blockers on a down-by-down basis. He has, however, shown a scintillating athletic burst that illustrates why he was once projected to be drafted first overall. Fairley is in line for more first and second down snaps at three-technique, but he’ll have to earn them. The Lions have good veteran depth inside in newcomers C.J. Mosley and Israel Idonije (who can also play defensive end).
A persistent problem with Detroit’s front four is that their all-out aggressiveness leaves them vulnerable to trap runs and other forms of misdirection. Stephen Tulloch and DeAndre Levy are also at risk here. The speed and assertive open-field hitting that makes them solid, occasionally spectacular, three-down linebackers can also leave them susceptible to over-pursuing against misdirection runs and screen passes.
Part of this is just a consequence of playing fast in Detroit’s run-and-chase zone scheme. Over the past two years, part of it has also been a consequence of not having a healthy Louis Delmas. The fifth-year pro cleans up a lot of messes, both as a swarming attacker in the box and rangy help-defender back in coverage.
The hope is Delmas can stay healthy after missing 13 games over the last two years with knee problems. If he can’t, the Lions have made provisions. After suffering through the likes of Amari Spievey, Ricardo Silva and Don Carey at safety, they wisely invested $23.5 million over five years ($5.25 million signing bonus) in free agent Glover Quin. The ex-Texan is a solid run stopper and capable pass defender from either the third level or box. His arrival should stabilize the starting strong safety spots and improve Cunningham’s gradually expanding sub-package concepts. Quin will have to adjust to more zone concepts after mostly playing man-to-man against tight ends in Houston, but that shouldn’t be a problem in this fairly straightforward scheme. To buttress their porous safety depth, the team signed Chris Hope, who can back up Quin and Delmas.
The Lions also are likely to be better at cornerback with last year’s third-round pick, Bill Bentley, now healthy in the slot and second-round rookie Darius Slay starting opposite either Ron Bartell or, more likely, Chris Houston. The youth at this position is a little concerning given that corners in a Cover 2 have to rely more on making reads and less on athleticism. But the risks in playing youngsters there don’t begin to outweigh the benefits of having improved athleticism in these spots.
For the first time since the dawn of the Clinton Administration, someone other than Jason Hanson will be the kicker in Detroit. For this season, that someone will be maligned veteran David Akers. There’s also a new punter, Sam Martin, who was drafted in the fifth round. And, fittingly, there will also be a new returner since Stefan Logan was not re-signed. If receiver Michael Spurlock makes the final roster, he figures to get the job. On rare occasions, you’ll see Reggie Bush handle punts.
The offense hasn’t been the problem in Detroit, but it also hasn’t been strong enough to carry this team the way it was built to. If the arrival of Bush can’t fix a lot of the miscellaneous problems, the Lions will have to make schematic adjustments to better capitalize on their weapons. If that can’t be done, another double-digit loss season is in store.
Andy Benoit is diving deep into each team's prospects for 2013. Read what he's done so far.