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Finding where the Lions can improve on offense

Last season, the Lions made the playoffs with one of the worst offenses in the last three years of any playoff team. They need to improve this year to make sure they get back, but what kinds of plays have the most room for growth?

Tim Fuller-USA TODAY Sports

According to Football Outsiders DVOA – explained here – the Lions finished last season with the 17th ranked passing offense and 29th ranked rushing offense – 19th overall. When looking at their actual DVOA value, the Lions had the third-worst offense of any team to make the playoffs in the last three years, just beating out two other teams from 2014, the Cardinals and the Panthers.

Though the Lions had a good enough defense last year to make up for their offensive shortcomings, they do not want to expect that to be the same this year. While the defense should be good again, it will probably not be at the same level of last year, so the offense will need to improve to keep the team playoff-relevant.

Beyond just knowing the Lions need to improve both their running and passing game, I was interested at looking at what kinds of plays the Lions had the most room for improvement. To do this, I used pro-football-reference to pull different kinds of plays to see where the Lions finished in relation to the rest of the league in 2014.

Runs to the left (yards per carry)

Left end Left tackle Left guard Total
League Average 4.84 4.27 4.13 4.42
Lions (rank) 4.08 (24th) 3.31 (27th) 5.19 (5th) 3.85 (28th)

The differences may look small, but these are all just to get to league average. The Lions clearly struggled running to the outside, and while those numbers off the left guard are good, it is on the third-fewest attempts in the league. A quicker back like Ameer Abdullah should help in getting to the outside, and whoever takes over at left guard, be it Manny Ramirez or Laken Tomlinson, should provide an upgrade over Rob Sims.

Runs to the right (yards per carry)

Right end Right tackle Right guard Total
League Average 4.85 4.39 4.03 4.43
Lions (rank) 4.13 (22nd) 3.73 (23rd) 3.96 (12th) 3.9 (25th)

Similar to the left side, the Lions struggled noticeably more on runs to the outside compared to the rest of league when going right. The right side of the offensive line is pretty unsettled as of now, with Larry Warford dealing with a high ankle sprain and LaAdrian Waddle just taken off the PUP list. This could be a challenging area to see improvement on early in the season.

Runs up the middle (yards per carry)

League Average 3.96
Lions (rank) 3.68 (19th)

Again, you may look at these and think a few tenths of a yard isn't a big deal, but these can add up. The Seahawks finished first in up the middle runs last year at 5.65 yards per carry, and over the course of 100 runs, this can be a substantial difference. Travis Swanson and whoever is at left guard should both be upgrades to help the Lions get that initial push in the middle. In addition, defenders might have a harder time finding a short back like Abdullah amongst the big guys.

Short passes (minimum 100 attempts, passes that travel less than 15 yards in the air)

Completion percentage Yards/Attempt QB rating
League Average 68.9% 6.4 92.3
Matthew Stafford (rank) 67.1% (30th of 43) 6.6 (15th) 92.3 (22nd)

Even though Matthew Stafford’s 67.1 completion percentage is just below average and doesn't sound too bad, 30th puts him right behind Geno Smith and one in front of Charlie Whitehurst, which makes it sound a little scarier. Stafford did do a good job of taking care of the ball on these throws, with only three interceptions on the sixth-most short pass attempts in the league. Golden Tate is probably the Lions best option here with his ability to pick up yards after the catch. Someone like Lance Moore, who has made a career out of catching these kinds of short passes, could give Stafford a reliable security blanket when teams key on Tate and Calvin Johnson.

Deep passes (minimum 25 attempts, passes that travel at least 15 yards in the air)

Completion percentage Yards/Attempt QB rating
League Average 40.3% 11.5 82.3
Matthew Stafford (rank) 36.3% (29th of 44) 10.5 (29th) 65.4 (32nd)

Though coaches have mentioned that Stafford may get more opportunities to throw downfield and take risks, he actually attempted the eighth-most deep passes last season and tied for the fourth-most interceptions on them. Stafford has had much more success on these plays in the past. From 2011-2013, he completed 43.6 percent of his deep passes for a quarterback rating of 93.2, both marks well above last season. The offensive line needs to give Stafford time for his receivers to get downfield, which is something that they did much better in those previous seasons. More than anything, another year in Joe Lombardi’s system should make things click a little more smoothly.

Oh yeah, and 16 healthy games from Megatron wouldn't hurt either.

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