As we get set to debut the 2014 Detroit Lions season tomorrow night on Monday Night Football at Ford Field, I started thinking about what the Lions will need to do to get back to the playoffs this season. There are obviously many things the Lions need to improve from the 7-9 2013 season, but I narrowed my list down to 5 major keys. Let's take a look at my recipe for Lions success in 2014.
1. Stafford must limit turnovers and bad decisions. With a receiving corps that any quarterback would salivate over and coupled with the ground attack duo of Reggie Bush and Joique Bell, Matthew Stafford must make better decisions with the football. Last year, he threw way too many interceptions (19) relative to the number of touchdowns he was responsible for (29 throwing, 2 rushing). His touchdown-to-interception ratio should be more in the 3:1 range for him to be effective. If he can throw 35-40 touchdowns and limit his interceptions to less than 12, that's really going to help add points to the board in a hurry. Spreading the ball to his many targets--Calvin Johnson, Golden Tate, Joseph Fauria, Brandon Pettigrew, Eric Ebron, Kevin Ogletree and Ryan Broyles--will help Stafford get the numbers up of the offense. Not to mention Bush and Bell can also catch footballs in addition to their rushing game which was a wonderful 1-2 punch. This year, #9 has no excuses. The offense is capable of putting points on the board at will. He needs to be a better driver of the offense and make competent decisions that will put 7 points on the board, not 3-and-outs or worse.
2. The secondary cannot continue to be the weak link. The secondary has been the reason that the hair of so many Lions fans are lost every season. Last year, they were nothing short of terrible at times. Even with targeted upgrades at the defensive back positions over the past few seasons, the secondary gave up too many big plays and drew back-breaking penalties that continued drives or put their opponents in great scoring position. The defense has a tremendous front 7, I'd argue among the best in the NFL when they are clicking. The secondary needs to be counted on to make big plays this season, not give them up. We have a good mix of veterans and youth in the DB group. But, in this pass-happy version of the NFL, the secondary must be able to defend the incredible wide receivers and tight ends that they will face on a weekly basis. Last year, the Lions had only 15 interceptions, with 6 of those coming from LB DeAndre Levy (T-2nd in the NFL). The secondary needs to put themselves in the positions necessary to make more of those big plays with interceptions and fumble recoveries.
3. Suh needs to play NFL football, not XFL football. I love Ndamukong Suh. I love how he plays and love that he's in a Lions uniform. But, he needs to remember that he has a target on his back and eyes are watching. He can't revert to what I call his XFL tactics. Last year, there were 2 interceptions called back, including a DeAndre Levy pick-6, because of Suh penalties where he did something stupid and unnecessary. Now, in a contract year, he needs to show that he can still be the animal on the line and control the line of scrimmage with the front 4 while also playing smart.
4. Everyone on defense needs to play with better discipline. Last year, the Lions had 50 offensive penalties, which was tied for 9th-fewest in the league. However, on defense they had 60 penalties, which was T-3rd most in the league. Those numbers are what lengthens opponents' drives, gives them more chances to score and keeps your potent offense on the bench. The lack of discipline, particularly on defense, was one of the main complaints of naysayers of the Jim Schwartz administration in Detroit. Jim Caldwell will need to restore order to the ship and will need to start with the defense, whose penalties directly cost them at least 4 games last season. If the defense can cut down on penalties, they can spend less time on the field and give more time to the offense to do their work.
5. #DefendTheDen. The good teams take care of their home field. Ford Field is a stadium that can get very loud and can be an asset to the team. If you take care of your home field and go .500 on the road, that usually equals playoffs. This season at home we get the Vikings, Bears, Packers, Saints, Bills, Dolphins, Buccaneers and Giants. There's no reason why we can't go 6-2 or 7-1 against that schedule if we play with intensity and tenacity. It's not a slouch schedule by any stretch, but we can't think playoffs if we're not going to defend our home turf.
The Detroit Lions have a chance to rebound from last year's disappointment and make the playoffs. Their schedule is difficult, particularly their road schedule with trips to New England, to London to face the Falcons and road games in Chicago and Green Bay in December. But, if they can do the 5 things on this list, we'll not only will be watching the Lions in the playoffs in early 2015, that first game will be in the Lions Den of Ford Field and not on the road at Green Bay or New Orleans. What other keys do you see are essential to the success of the 2014 Detroit Lions?