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Five burning questions for Week 12: Lions have a rare opportunity

The NFC North title won’t be decided on Thursday, but this game is going to have lasting effects.

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Jacksonville Jaguars v Detroit Lions Photo by Dave Reginek/Getty Images

Thanksgiving is a helluva holiday. Think of all the components: copious amounts of food that never seem to dwindle no matter how much you stuff down your gullet, the opportunity to nap while Buck and Aikman are gobbling all over the Cowboys and a night cap that probably won’t include one of the league’s premier, young quarterbacks. What more could you ask for?

For as much as the league has struggled in the ratings game, and people have pointed towards the over-saturation of football as it attempts to occupy three days of your week, they’ve struck gold on Thanksgiving. Washington is heading to Dallas in an NFC East matchup that, like the early game, is uber important. This might be the first time games on Thursday have mattered, probably ever.

Really though, the Lions have an awful lot on the line come Thursday. Detroit has been atop the division for just a little over a week, but the Vikings are already getting their rematch, and this one decides who has the lead going into the final stretch. The Bears have PED’d themselves into irrelevancy and might be counting on David Fales to throw footballs for them. The Packers are fraudulent and just not as successful as they thought they were. That leaves just two teams in the NFC North vying for the title, the Lions and Vikings, and it matters.

Here are five burning questions Lions fans want some answers to on Thursday when you’re not oven-stalking that bird:

So Detroit’s defense is getting better?

Well they sure as hell couldn’t have gotten any worse. Mind you, this is the same team that extended the shelf life of Case Keenum, not for just an extra week or two, but for an entire extra month before they brought in Jared Goff.

But is the talent on defense improving, or is Teryl Austin just getting more creative? I think it’s the latter, and I do for a few reasons. For one, you’re not going to find many—if any—teams that improve from a talent perspective over the course of an NFL season; it just doesn’t happen. Teams may get healthier, get injured talent back at full strength, but a defense is really only good as its coordinator sets them up to be. What we’re seeing glimpses of from Austin over the past few weeks is some more creative stuff. We’re seeing him mix it up at the line of scrimmage in terms of stunts and disguised pass rushes. He’s coming up with some interesting packages with Miles Killebrew and Rafael Bush, utilizing talent at one position—safety—to cover up the deficiencies and shortcomings of another—linebacker.

The Lions will need more of what Austin has done in recent weeks to get the most out of this defense.

Marvin Jones: where is he and what does he do?

Through the first four games of the regular season, it became an unquestioned truth based on the observations (and box scores): Marvin Jones was the Lions new primary receiver. Over that four game stretch to open his first season with the Lions, Jones had amassed 23 receptions for 482 receiving yards and two touchdowns. Since then, well, not so much in terms of production: 15 catches for 194 yards and two touchdowns over the past six games.

In the Lions last game against Minnesota, Stafford targeted Jones five times, but only completed one pass to him for 5 yards: Jones’ lowest catch percentage of the season—20 percent. Stafford tested Vikings cornerback Trae Waynes a couple of times when he was covering Jones, and though each pass fell incomplete, they were targets that could have resulted in big plays. It’ll be interesting to see if Cooter decides to use Jones the same way on Thursday.

Ezekiel Ansah doesn’t have a sack this season, is this a problem?

Sort of. Look, it’s hard to judge a player based on a statistic like sacks because it paints a very narrow picture: at some point in the game, this player tackled the quarterback behind the line of scrimmage. Sacks are the cherry on top for a pass rusher, the number that will help net them commas come contract talks, but it definitely isn’t the be-all, end-all in deciding whether or not an edge rusher is successful or not.

Ansah has been battling a high ankle sprain ever since Week 2, and that’s an injury that isn’t very conducive to a player at Ansah’s position being able to explode off the line. However, ever since Ziggy has returned to action, he’s started to look more and more like the guy we saw cause havoc for opposing offenses last season. The traditional stats don’t show it, but the eye-test, and some more advanced numbers do. For instance, last week against Jacksonville, Ansah recorded four QB hits, had an additional pressure and put together three stops according to PFF. Stops, according to PFF’s website, are “.. what [they] judge to be tackles that prevent an offensive success (defined as gaining 40% of required yardage on first down, 60% on second down, and the entire required yardage on third or fourth).” Ansah’s 14.5 sack total last year was definitely a sexy number, but what has made him such a force is his ability to bottle up the run game from the edge as well.

Sure, it’d be great to see Ansah finally bring down Sam Bradford a couple of times on Thursday, but it’s not going to be a problem if he doesn’t. The Vikings offensive line is in terrible shape, maybe even worse than it was when the Lions saw them three weeks ago with Jake Long now on IR. So the opportunity is there, but as I mentioned earlier, Austin is trying to do more with less, and that requires getting a little creative with where and when the pressure is coming from. On more than a couple of occasions, the attention that Ansah draws has opened up sacks for Kerry Hyder, who has seven of them on the season and ranks 15th in that category—and only three back of claiming a spot at the top of the leaderboard.

Will the Lions ever rush for over 100 yards again this season?

Yeah, it’s been awhile since the team has hit the century mark. Week 2 to be exact. To put it plainly, this run game hasn’t been the same since Ameer Abdullah was shelved with the injury to his foot. As evidenced by the game against the Jaguars last week, the Lions eventually almost completely abandoned the run and went with what works instead with their lead back: get Riddick some space in the flats, throw it to him, and let him make people miss. Those don’t count as run yards, but it’s how this Lions offense manufactures a semblance of a run game.

But if this question of whether the Lions can run the ball for 100 yards in a traditional black and blue, NFC North type of way, I don’t think so. Not unless Abdullah, who only got positive news on Tuesday, comes back this season. I don’t think this really hinders their ability to be successful on offense, Cooter does an exceptional job of doing what every coordinator should do: playing to the strengths of his personnel’s skill sets in order to achieve the most success.

In Week 9 in Minnesota, the Lions came the closest they’ve come to hitting that century mark for rushing yards, but that total is sort of inflated by the 42-yard scamper Riddick ripped off—the longest run of his career. This week, the Lions have a chance to run the ball with success, but it’s most likely going to come after Stafford throws the ball forward to initiate it.

The offense has gone three-and-out a bunch this year. Why can’t they sustain longer drives?

You would think drops. And dropped passes do have the power to suck the life force from a drive and often times, it makes it tough to recover. In this Lions offense, where Stafford is relying on receivers to catch, make people miss and move the ball upfield rather than sit back in the pocket and wait for longer routes to develop, one would think facing a third-and-long because of a drop earlier in the series is a difficult task for this team to overcome. But that’s not really all that true with this team: The Lions are actually 9th in the league in third-down conversion rate, converting on 42.9 percent of third downs.

What helps sort of fuel this narrative is not in the numbers, but the perception. When the Lions offense struggles at times, it seems to come in waves: last week against the Jaguars, the Lions had four straight drives in the first half that all went three-and-out. The offense looked anemic. It was brutal to watch. But, the Lions have attempted the fourth fewest third downs in the league. What does this mean? That’s just the wave: when the Lions offense gets moving, it doesn’t see a lot of third downs. When you see it stall out on these three-and-outs, that’s what is represented in the 57 percent of the time the offense is failing on third down.

Take a look at these two drives from Week 9 against Minnesota:

The Lions took two shots deep down the field to Marvin Jones on both of these series. They also burnt a play trying to run the ball and keep the clock moving with a lead in hand because, remember, this was the same game where the Lions put together their most impressive non-fourth-quarter drive of the season: a 17-play, 84-yard drive that lasted nearly ten minutes and ended in a touchdown before the half. The point is, the Lions tried to take advantage of a matchup they liked, Jones v. Waynes, and they tried to make a big play happen. It didn’t work out the way they had hoped it would, but if the offense hits on one of those plays, everything changes.

This goes against the neatly-packaged narrative that this team is all about the short stuff; this offense is willing to take some risks, even on third down. Sometimes they work—Ebron’s 61-yard catch against Jacksonville on third-and-13—and sometimes they don’t as seen above. If Minnesota’s secondary is as banged up as their injury report leads on, look for Detroit to not shy away from taking some chances.

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