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1. The Lions had one of the NFL’s top defenses last year, but their most talented defensive player, Ndamukong Suh, departed this past offseason. Just how tough will it be for the Lions to replace his production?
Sterling Xie: Apart from a couple guys residing in Houston and Tampa Bay, there isn’t anyone else in the league like Suh. Only a small handful of interior defenders played more snaps than he did, and Suh had a high rate of play involvement (i.e., tackles, sacks, hits, etc.) despite getting double-teamed virtually every snap. A big theme of my chapter was the Lions’ need to adapt to changing circumstances in 2015, and Suh’s departure was the central tenant of that argument. Detroit still has some excellent defensive cornerstones, but if the defense excels like it did in 2014, it’ll happen because the Lions successfully reshaped their identity around players such as DeAndre Levy, Ziggy Ansah and Glover Quin.
2. On the offensive side of the ball, the Lions have really put an emphasis on improving their running game, leading to them drafting guard Laken Tomlinson and running back Ameer Abdullah and trading for Manny Ramirez. What kind of impact do you think those moves will have on Detroit’s ground game in 2015?
SX: I really liked the Lions’ emphasis on beefing up their offensive line depth. Detroit got hit really hard by O-line injuries last year—our article on offensive line continuity ranked the Lions 30th. They had nine different starting five combinations, and no five-man combo started more than three weeks in a row. Dominic Raiola and Rob Sims led the team in blown blocks last year (according to our charting stats), so their departures could be a case of addition by subtraction on the interior. Coupled with Abdullah’s impressive vision and explosiveness, Detroit’s rushing attack should generate more big plays than last year’s plodding Joique Bell-led ground game.
3. The Lions had one of the NFL’s worst special teams units last year, thanks largely to their kicking woes early in the season. How much of a factor were those kicking woes in their low special teams ranking?
SX: About as big a factor as the iceberg had in sinking the Titanic. Even with Matt Prater’s strong finish to end the season, the Lions lost 19.6 points to placekicking compared to league-average. That wasn’t just the worst kicking rating in the league—it was the worst we’ve measured since the 2003 Jacksonville Jaguars. There were other issues (Jeremy Ross had a down year as a returner), but the first two months of placekicing was as ugly as it gets. The offense is facing a lot of pressure to compensate for the likely defensive regression stemming from Suh’s loss, but don’t undersell the impact a competent special teams unit could have on Detroit’s bottom line this year.
4. By going 11-5, the Lions outperformed their 2014 Pythagorean wins number, which was 9.2. Between that and the Lions’ good fortune in close games, is a step back this season inevitable?
SX: Inevitable might be a bit strong, but the gap between the Lions’ point differential and win total doesn’t bode well. Only the Cardinals and Bengals outperformed their win expectancy by more. And we’re also projecting the Lions to have the third-hardest schedule in the league after their SOS ranked 23rd last year (based on opponents’ DVOA). Still, they could easily find themselves in the middle of a wild card fight, especially given the lack of a strong second tier in the NFC. If the Lions return to the playoffs, I don’t think anyone will consider that a step back.
5. How would you evaluate Jim Caldwell’s first season as head coach of the Lions?
SX: His fist pump game was certainly on point. All kidding aside, Caldwell even demeanor was exactly what this team needed after years of schizophrenic week-to-week showings. He also did an excellent job of hiring and delegating responsibilities to two promising coordinators in Joe Lombardi and Teryl Austin. Caldwell’s challenge now is proving that he’s resourceful enough to elevate the Lions from a playoff contender to a Super Bowl contender. There are still plenty of doubts in this regard, as his message clearly wore thin in Indianapolis. But not many thought the Lions would go 11-5 last year, so Caldwell probably deserves the benefit of the doubt until we see what he does this year.
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