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Know Your Division: Detroit Lions

The Detroit Lions went 11-5 in 2014. They were 7-1 at home and 4-4 on the road during the first year of Head Coach Jim Caldwell’s regime. Detroit swept the Vikings and Bears and beat Green Bay at home for a 5-1 division record. Detroit won against Tampa Bay, New Orleans, Miami and the Giants at Ford Field. Detroit won at Minnesota, at Chicago, the Jets, and against Atlanta in neutral London. Detroit lost at Carolina, at Green Bay, at New England and at Arizona. Detroit’s lone home loss was to Buffalo after missing 3 field goals in the game.

Stats and Upgrades

Under first year OC Joe Lombardi, Detroit had only the 22nd ranked PPG offense (20.1) adjusting to a new scheme. Stafford threw for 4,257 yards while completing 60.3% of his passes. Stafford notched 22 TDs and 12 interceptions despite limited protection and no run support. Matt had a good season despite what his statistics show. Stafford overcame the odds stacked against him in a new offense due to weapon and offensive line injuries.

The Lions ran for only 3.6 YPC and allowed 45 sacks of Stafford. Reggie Bush was injured almost half the season and Bell had a slow start to 2014. Ameer Abdullah was added in Round 2 of the draft to replace Bush (cap cut). Stafford was pressured on 31.9% of his drop backs. Detroit addressed these issues in the draft adding Laken Tomlinson to play left guard in Round 1 and traded for Manny Ramirez for depth at center/guard. Swanson takes over for long time Lion, Dominic Raiola, at center. Raiola struggled in 2014, as did left guard Rob Sims. The Lions have upgraded their interior offensive line and get LaAdrian Waddle back from a torn ACL at right tackle. Waddle missed half the year and should upgrade the right tackle position, if healthy.

Detroit’s defense was incredible in 2014. The top 3 secondary players in Detroit finally stayed healthy and Detroit allowed only 17.6 PPG (3rd). Detroit’s run defense was a top 10 all-time defense allowing a paltry 3.2 YPC. Detroit had 42 sacks, 75 hits and 195 hurries on the 2014 season. Detroit was 8th in sacks, 3rd in QB hits and 4th in QB hurries. The Lions pressured the QBs with their front four and blitzed 25% of the time under first year DC Teryl Austin. Ndmakong Suh, Nick Fairley and CJ Mosely all left in free agency but Detroit countered; trading for former all-pro Haloti Ngata, signing free agent Tyrunn Walker and drafting Gabe Wright in Round 4.

Strengths

Pass Rush

Detroit still has a very good pass rush despite losing Suh, Johnson and Fairley. Ziggy Ansah was 4th in pass rush productivity in the league and had 7.5 sacks, 20 hits and 34 hurries on the season. The former 5th pick of the draft in 2013 is blossoming into a great DE. The second year of the Austin system should help him grow into a double digit sack man. Haloti Ngata is an underrated pass rush. Ngata earned a +9.3 pass rush grade in 12 games in 2014. Ngata played 3-4 DE and 3-4 nose tackle and could provide even more pressure than 2 sacks, 2 hits and 14 hurries in Detroit’s attacking scheme.

Tyrunn Walker was an underrated free agent addition who matched the production of departed Nick Fairley in similar snaps. Walker had a +5 pass rush grad with 2.5 sacks, 1 hit and 14 hurries. Fairley had only 1 sack, 3 hits and 17 hurries.

Lions have strong blitzers in DeAndre Levy (2.5 sacks and +4 pass rush) and strong safety James Ihedigbo (2 sacks and +2.1 pass rush). Stephen Tulloch returns at middle linebacker after having 2 sacks in 3 games before injury in Week 3. Tahir Whitehead and Kyle Van Noy will battle for the SAM spot and both players have a strong blitzing skillset.

The Lions backups have been upgraded with talent. Larry Webster has big shoes to fill to match George Johnson’s 6 sacks, 5 hits and 27 hurries. Webster is more talented than Johnson and should get his chance in 2015 in his second year. Carraun Reid transformed his body in year 2 at DT. The 5th round pick Princeton grad from 2014 should take the next step in 2015. Gabe Wright has quick first step and good motor added in Round 4 of the draft. The Lions have plenty of backup pass rush firepower. Beware the Lions’ pass rush. It would be foolish to think the Lions got worse at pass rush even with Suh gone.

Weapons

The Lions are loaded with weapons. Calvin Johnson, despite missing 3 games and limited in 2 games, is still the best WR in the league. Johnson had 1,077 yards and 8 TDS in 11 games. This equates to a 1,566 yard pace in 16 games. Golden Tate had a career year giving the opportunity of targets. Tate led the NFL in YAC and tallied 1,331 yards and 4 TDs. Tate caught 69% of his targets and should aid Stafford’s completion percentage in year 2.

Second year and former 1st round pick Eric Ebron has the talent to be a good tight end. Most rookie tight ends struggle. Ebron has the speed and athleticism to be a good 3rd weapon for Detroit’s offense. Detroit added Lance Moore to upgrade the 3rd WR spot and Ameer Abdullah is a dangerous RB receiver in the open field. Theo Riddick is a good RB receiver and added 316 yards and 4 TDs in 2014. Bell has a sneaky skillset on screens and can make tacklers miss. Detroit has plenty of RB receiving firepower.

Coverage

The Lions secondary is severely underrated. Glover Quin had a +10.8 coverage grade and led the league with 7 interceptions. Thirteen of the Lions 20 interceptions were without pressure. Darius Slay transformed into a number 1 CB in year 2 with a strong +4.2 coverage grade. Rashean Mathis is a stead veteran with a great +9.3 coverage grade. Mathis graded as the second best number 2 CB in the league in 2014. Mathis defies his age and is like a second coach on the field. James Ihedigbo was good in coverage until the very end of the season. This was a good showing for an in the box safety. Ihedigbo had a +4.2 grade in coverage and nabbed 4 interceptions on the season.

The Lions lost both their nickels in Week 1 and 2 respectively in 2014. The Lions added veteran Josh Wilson in free agency and Quandre Diggs in Round 6 to solve the nickel issue. Second year pro, Nevin Lawson, should return from his foot surgery and compete for the nickel job. Alex Carter was added in Round 3 to back-up the outside CBs. Detroit is much better at nickel going into 2015 and have a complete secondary with good coverage players and decent depth.

Stafford

Matt Stafford is a good QB despite what the statistics showed in 2014. Stafford makes good decisions and has a great arm. Stafford carries the Lions even without protection, run support, and drop problems. He deserved to have a strong defense for a change in 2014. Stafford gets yards because he moves the chains with first downs. Stafford gets yards because he has to be the one to move the ball without a run game. Stafford is a big reason the Lions won 11 games along with the defense. If Stafford can protect the ball and move the chains like always, the Lions can win double digit games.

Wild Cards

Protection

The Lions had trouble protecting Stafford in 2014 to the tune of 45 sacks and 31.9% pressure. The reason for this was injury at right tackle (8 games plus backup 15 games), left tackle (2 games) and right guard (4 games) and the regression of left guard and center. Raiola and Sims struggled in old age and will be replaced by younger talented players in 2015.

First round pick Laken Tomlinson brings mauling athleticism to left guard and Travis Swanson (2014 3rd round pick) has bulked up in the NFL weight program in year 2. Swanson gets a crack at center competing with Ramirez. Swanson did well at center in 2014 in a huge game during Week 17 but struggled at right guard filling in for an injured Warford. Veteran Manny Ramirez was added in a draft day trade as insurance in case of injury or lack of growth by Swanson or Tomlinson.

Right Tackle was down to the third string player by Week 2 in 2014. The starter, LaAdrian Waddle came back and played 8 games but dealt with knee, concussion and calf injuries. Waddle playing 16 games should be a big aid to Detroit’s pass protection. Waddle didn’t allow a sack in 2013 and had a +4.1 pass protection grade in 8 games in 2014. Riley Reiff is a good left tackle with a +1.6 pass protection grade. Reiff will be motivated after missing a block to end the playoff game. Larry Warford is a beast right guard with a +5.3 pass protection grade in 2014. Detroit can protect Stafford if their starters stay healthy. Backup tackle Cornelius Lucas should be better equipped to handle playing time in year 2 as well.

Weaknesses

Run Game

The Lions struggled in 2014 with only 3.6 YPC. However, Bell finished strong with 4.4 YPC in the last 8 games. Bell can be a solid running back but is battling knee and Achilles injuries. Ameer Abdullah was a flat out playmaker in college and can hit the small holes and make defenders miss with his agility. Abdullah should have more than the 76 carries the injured Reggie Bush tallied in 2014. Year 2 in the Lombardi system should be beneficial for the run game.

The Lions run blocking is an enigma. Riley Reiff had a +2.3 run blocking grade. Larry Warford and LaAdrian Waddle were strong in 2013 but average and poor respectively in 2014 making holes for the RBs. Sims and Raiola were awful run blocking and the talent of Laken and Swanson should be enough for an upgrade.

Tight End Brandon Pettigrew also struggled in run blocking and was not worth his 4 million per year contract signed in 2014. The Lions must get to average in run production to give Stafford proper down and distances during 2015. Four yards per carry similar to 2013 run blocking production should do the trick. The strengths of the 2013 offensive line all return and will need to stay healthy.

Turnovers

Jim Caldwell and Joe Lombardi did a great job fixing this issue in 2014. The Lions only turned the ball over 20 times and had plus 7 turnover differential. This may be the biggest reason Detroit went 11-5. They did not shoot themselves in the foot like in 2012 and 2013. Detroit had 33 and 34 turnovers in 2012 and 2013 and went 4-12 and 7-9 respectively. Detroit must continue to limit the turnovers in year 2 under Caldwell.

Schedule and Outlook

Detroit has a tough schedule like all the NFC North teams. Detroit travels to San Diego, Seattle, St. Louis, New Orleans, Green Bay, Minnesota and Chicago in 2015. Detroit travels to London for the second year in a row for a neutral game against Kansas City. This was a big break not playing at Arrowhead. Detroit gets a bye before heading to Green Bay in November. This was another big break in the schedule for the Lions.

Detroit hosts Green Bay, Chicago, Minnesota, Philadelphia (Thanksgiving), Oakland, Denver, Arizona and San Francisco. Detroit opens the season with 3 of 4 on the road and closes the season with 3 of 4 on the road. Detroit has two three game home stands in the middle of the season and 6 national TV games.

Detroit has a strong, talented and deep roster. They are coming off an 11-5 season and are talented enough to win double digit games again. Year 2 in both the offensive and defensive scheme will aid the players. Detroit will bring good pressure with a good defensive line on paper and have good coverage across the LBs and secondary. A top 5 or top 10 rated Defense is probable for Motown.

The Lions’ offense has the talent and scheme experience to make a big jump in year 2 dependent on the healthy offensive line play. Ebron and Abdullah must turn talent into production. Detroit has a great chance to take division from Green Bay unless they shoot themselves in the foot with turnovers or suffer concentrated injuries. Detroit should finish with 11 or 12 wins in the 2015 regular season and finally win the NFC North.