There has been a lot of criticism leveled at the Detroit Lions for their poor start this season, and rightfully so. Coming into the year the expectations were high that the Lions could build on the success of last season. So far that has not materialized.
Many of the complaints leveled at the Lions have been about play calling and scheme, but that is not what is hurting the Lions the most. Those are the type of problems you look at when the team is playing well but they are not winning. Going to that level of criticism is like complaining about the interior decorating in your house when the walls are about to collapse. You have to fix the fundamental problems before you can worry about the more complex things.
The problems with the offense are not really about play calling or scheme. They are not about running the ball too much. Much of what people are criticizing is a matter of perception. The truth is that the Lions are passing the ball more this season than they did last year. They are also running the ball more. That is because the Lions are averaging more plays on offense this season than they did last year by a significant margin.
In 2011, the Lions offense averaged about 66 plays per game. So far this season, the Lions are averaging almost 74 offensive plays per game. The extra eight plays per game are split between runs and passes. The Lions are averaging about five more passes and three more rushing attempts per game.
The biggest problem for the Lions offense this season has mainly been about stalling short of the goal line. They have been forced to settle for field goals instead of touchdowns and that has caused them to fall behind in games. The drives have stalled mainly because of poor execution on a number of fronts. Inconsistent run blocking and dropped passes lead the list. Both of these problems are about fundamentals. They are about players that do the little things to make plays.
The Lions receivers have had a very strange season. They have caught 66.7 percent of the passes that have been thrown by Matthew Stafford. While that sounds like a good completion percentage, the Lions lead the NFL in the number of passes that they drop per game. So far the Lions have averaged nearly four dropped passes each week. The dropped passes in themselves are bad enough, but they also have come at very bad times. At least two of the drops were touchdown passes and several more of them happened on third down and killed drives.
One more thing that has contributed to the struggles of the offense this season is the inability of the Lions receivers to get many yards after a catch. In 2011, the Lions had more than 5,000 yards gained from the passing game, but roughly 48 percent of those yards were from yards after the catch. This season, it has been unusual for the Lions receivers to break away from tacklers and get big yards after a catch.
The final part of the problem for the Lions offense is just eliminating mistakes. The most obvious mistake, and probably the most costly, was the incorrect snap by Dominic Raiola against Tennessee. It essentially cost the Lions the game. There have not been a lot of drive-killing penalties, but there have been some avoidable ones that have been about mental mistakes. Illegal procedure or illegal formation penalties should never happen.
On defense, the Lions have one simple and all-encompassing problem. They need to tackle far better than they have. The defense is giving opposing ball carriers a lot of extra yards after first contact because of a very high number of missed and broken tackles. This problem is really all about fundamentals. Taking the proper angles to the ball carrier, breaking down properly for the tackle and wrapping up the ball carrier are all basic things that are taught in little league and high school football. The Lions do not seem to have learned them at previous levels of play.
What is even more mystifying is that Lions players seem to be oblivious to the idea of keeping their head up on tackles so that they can watch what the ball carrier is doing all the way to contact. They all want to lead with the top of their helmet and go into missile mode when they tackle. That is not only wrong, it is how you get neck injuries. For how often we hear the players complain about injuries in the game, the Lions do not seem to do much to protect themselves by using proper tackling form.
In truth, every player on the Lions defense knows full well how to tackle properly. They simply choose not to do it. Whether throwing all those arm tackles and weak efforts are a business decision, or not, it cannot be allowed by the coaches. Players that refuse to tackle properly need to be moved off the team. The only guys that might get any consideration at all for trying to make arm tackles are the cornerbacks. Some of those guys are just too small to take on ball carriers head-on.
I will go as far as to say that the NFL should start penalizing players for dropping their head on a tackle. If the players are too dumb to protect themselves by using proper tackling technique then the league should force them into doing it to protect itself from liability for injuries. We have certainly seen that the NFLPA is litigious and would gladly file more lawsuits against the league on behalf of injured players that were too stupid to tackle properly and got hurt.
Another glaring problem on the Lions defense has been the inconsistent play by the defensive ends. For all the accolades that the Lions defensive line gets at times, the defensive ends have not held up their end of the bargain. Most of the pressure on quarterbacks has come from the defensive tackles. Too often the defensive ends are not in position to prevent the quarterback from avoiding the inside pressure by rolling to the outside. The defensive ends played a better game against the Vikings, but they still have a lot of room for improvement.
The most glaring failure of the first four games has been on special teams. I will go as far as to say that poor coverage on kickoffs and punts has already caused the Lions to lose two games that they should have won, against Tennessee and Minnesota. The reasons for the failures on the coverage units revolve around three different issues: players being out of position, inability to get off blocks and poor tackling. The tackling is a common thread that goes back to the defense, and many of the prime culprits here are missing tackles when they are on defense as well.
It will be critical for Danny Crossman to get the special teams units on track for the remainder of the season if the Lions have any hope of making the playoffs. They have already dug the team into a deep hole that will be difficult to get out of. If special teams play costs the Lions another game this season, it is almost certain that Crossman will be looking for new work during the offseason, if not sooner.
There is one common thread to everything I have said in this analysis. All of the problems are about playing sound, fundamental football. To this point the Lions have looked like a team that is not interested in playing good fundamentals. They seem to be unable to focus their attention on the small details that are usually the difference between winning and losing. It is like a bad dream where we are back to talking about pad level.
There is plenty of blame to go around for the slow start by the Lions. The players can be blamed for playing like they don't understand the fundamentals of the game. The coaches can be blamed for not getting the players to focus more on the fundamentals and the small details. The front office can be blamed for seemingly filling the Lions roster with a bevy of attention-deficit players. Everybody shares in the blame. If the Lions are going to salvage this season then every one of them has to take ownership of their mistakes and do better.