Normally this is the time of the week when I would interview somebody from the SB Nation blog for the Detroit Lions' next opponent to help preview Sunday's game. With the Lions on a bye, there isn't a team to preview and there isn't an opposing blogger to interview. Instead, I figured we should just take a look at the Lions this week as a way to evaluate what's happened so far and what to expect going forward.
1. What the hell was that? A 1-3 start? Really?
Ah yes, life in the NFL. At this point in the season, you can divide fan bases up into a few categories. Some of the league's fans are extremely pleased and/or surprised by their team's start. Others are neither happy nor upset (see: fans of all the .500 teams out there). Finally, there's a section of fans who are just plain upset and disappointed. This is where Lions fans are currently categorized. Based on the Lions making the playoffs last season and all of the optimism in the offseason, a 1-3 start was not exactly what fans had in mind, especially based on the schedule.
Based on where things stand in the NFL right now, the Lions have played three good teams and one bad one. The Lions' lone victory came against a St. Louis Rams team that is now 3-2 and is hanging around in what may be the toughest division in football. (It still feels weird to type that.) The San Francisco 49ers are also in that division and are an impressive 3-1. Their only loss came against the Minnesota Vikings, which just beat the Lions and are now 3-1 as well. Really, the Lions' only truly awful loss was against the Tennessee Titans in overtime. Tennessee currently sits at 1-3, with their only win coming against the Lions.
After the first two weeks of the season, the Lions were right where most people expected them to be -- 1-1. The last two weeks is where the real disappointment comes from. The Lions should not have lost to the Titans, especially the way they did. And although the Vikings are clearly a much improved team, the Lions should not have lost that game, either. That's not to discredit what Tennessee and Minnesota did, but take away the special teams breakdowns and, well, the Lions' record would be a lot different right now.
2. Speaking of special teams, is this a problem that can quickly be fixed or are we going to be calling for Danny Crossman's job all season?
Back in the preseason, Jim Schwartz called out the special teams coverage units for their poor play. One week later, it seemed like a completely different unit. Kickoff returns went nowhere and punt coverage was much improved. It seemed that Schwartz's message was heard loud and clear. Then the past two weeks happened and threw all of the improvement in the preseason out the window. The message may have been heard loud and clear in the preseason, but it has since been forgotten based on the four special teams touchdowns that the Lions allowed in their last two games.
According to Schwartz, this isn't a scheme problem, but rather an issue with players not executing. If that's truly the case, then all that needs to happen for the problems to be fixed is for players to start executing. On the one hand, if it's as simple as cleaning up some sloppy play, we could see improvement as soon as next week. Then again, if players are still failing to execute, what's to say anything will be different the rest of the season?
The other possibility is that it is indeed a scheme problem, or at the very least a combination of scheme and execution. Danny Crossman is aware that his coverage units need to perform better, so perhaps he will alter some of his schemes to make sure that happens. Perhaps he won't and will make other adjustments to ensure no more big returns happen. Either way, adjustments need to be made.
I don't exactly think the Lions will give up two touchdowns or even one a game on special teams the rest of the season. As bad as the coverage units have been, that's asking a lot for plays that rarely result in touchdowns in today's NFL. That's not to say there won't still be some big returns in the final 12 games of the season, though. That's where the Lions got burned quite a bit last season -- on returns that didn't score but did put the defense's back against the wall.
If the Lions do surrender more special teams touchdowns this season, well, let's just say "Fire Crossman" will be a common chant at Ford Field.
3. The Lions have gone from having a high powered offense to one that can't score touchdowns on a consistent basis. What's wrong with them?
Oh boy. Where to even begin? For starters, Matthew Stafford has been very inconsistent. Whether it's throwing interceptions at very inopportune times or simply missing open receivers, he has not been as sharp as he was last year. Some have suggested that injuries are to blame, but I believe he's overthinking things far too much, which is resulting in poor reads and a lack of accuracy at times.
To make matters worse for Stafford, the offensive line hasn't been good this season. Pass protection hasn't been a huge problem in recent years for the Lions, but the Minnesota Vikings had no problem putting pressure on Stafford last week. In the running game, the O-line has been a huge issue. Holes are rarely open for long if they are even there in the first place, and there is just a lack of push from the guys up front. When Mikel Leshoure has to dodge two or three defenders just to get back to the line of scrimmage, something is wrong. If this play continues, I wouldn't be shocked if changes are made to the starting lineup sooner rather than later with Riley Reiff waiting in the wings.
The other big issue on offense is the play of the receivers and tight ends. Specifically, there have been a lot of drops, which isn't making Stafford's life any easier. Brandon Pettigrew has taken the most heat for drops, but he is far from the only one with a case of the dropsies.
To sum things up, the entire offense is a mess right now, especially once the Lions get near the red zone. I'm a big Jason Hanson fan, but we have seen far too much of him lately. The offense can't keep having to settle for field goals if it is going to get things turned around.
4. What about the defense? What is their biggest problem right now?
There is a give and take going on with the defense. The D-line isn't getting enough pressure on opposing quarterbacks, which is hurting the secondary. At the same time, the secondary isn't playing well enough to allow the D-line enough time to pressure opposing quarterbacks. The Lions don't have enough talent to play tight coverage, which in turn allows opposing quarterbacks to get the ball off before the defensive line even comes close to forcing a hurry, let alone getting a sack.
Getting Louis Delmas back should help things a bit in the secondary, but it is what it is at this point -- a very average unit. Unless Bill Bentley quickly improves over the course of this season (learning to turn his head would be a good start), this is going to be a problem for the rest of the year.
I'm not excusing the defensive line for their mediocre play, so don't get the wrong idea. The secondary doesn't help, but the fact of the matter is that the defensive line has got to play better football. Both the ends and tackles need to do a better job of fighting through the offensive line to get to the opposing quarterback. If the D-line plays up to its full potential, this unit could be one of the best in football. The problem right now is that they aren't coming even close to reaching that level.
5. So what you're saying is this team is a train wreck, right? Are the playoffs even a remote possibility?
Yes, I'm saying this team is a mess right now. I don't foresee them returning to the playoffs unless they do a 180 in all three phases of the game. Right now, there just isn't a lot going right with the Lions, and their schedule does them no favors, either. To say the least, the Lions will have to play at a much higher level to even be in the playoff conversation later in the season.
From a strictly statistical perspective, the playoffs are certainly still possible even after the 1-3 start. As we talked about earlier in the week, the Lions face long odds, but quite a few teams over the years have recovered from a 1-3 start to make the postseason. Some have even overcome a 1-4 start to make the playoffs. The Lions are certainly nearing the danger zone in terms of having a realistic chance to make the playoffs, but they aren't completely out of the picture just yet.