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The Detroit Lions and time of possession: Part two of a playoff love story

When the Lions have the ball, it’s usually going to be awhile before the other team gets a hold of it.

Detroit Lions v New Orleans Saints Photo by Sean Gardner/Getty Images

Yesterday, I discussed how the Lions have made the most of their 2016 season by forcing turnovers, limiting their giveaways and what it looks like down the home stretch of the season. Today, it’s all about how Detroit’s been able to control the time of possession.

Slow Ride

Now, picking up from yesterday, what will be paramount in the Lions’ ability to maintain that positive turnover differential is sticking to the model that they’ve built and tested because it works. I mentioned some variation of this on the last couple of PODcasts, but let me put it here where it can breathe on your screen: Detroit’s best defense is their offense.

Now, to be clear, I don’t mean that their defense isn’t talented or capable of coming up with stops. There have been plenty of occasions where the defensive unit has played above their weight class and provided timely stops on third down and even fourth down—the goal line stand at the end of the first half against the Rams in Week 6 comes to mind. However, what has really helped this Lions team has been their ability to dominate time of possession and limit the amount of opportunities the other team has with the football. For all of the intrigue surrounding this team’s offense in the preseason, and their experimentation with the hurry-up offense and speeding up their pace of play, this offense is much better off playing at a slower, methodical pace.

Detroit plays at the third-slowest pace in the league, taking just a shade over 29 seconds per play; only Dallas and Miami take longer out of the huddle to the snap of the ball. And while Detroit plays at such a relaxed pace, it’s not so surprising that the Lions actually lead the NFL in a time of possession per drive (TOP/Dr), holding onto the ball for an average of 3 minutes and 17 seconds each time they get on offense. What is a bit of a surprise is that they also lead the league in plays per drive (Plays/Dr), snapping the ball 6.78 times per drive.

On the flip side, Detroit’s defense, while improved, is having a helluva time getting off the field: The Lions are dead last in TOP/Dr on defense, with teams controlling the ball an average of 3:09 per drive. Only Washington allows teams to run more Plays/Dr than the Lions, who allow opposing offenses to run 6.47 Plays/Dr.

While Detroit’s offense leads the league in TOP/Dr, their defense is dead last in TOP/Dr. This is the recipe for a low-scoring game with so few possessions in a game, and almost always guarantees they have an opportunity to win at the end of the game.

Taking a look at these numbers doesn’t reveal much without having actually seen these teams play, and it doesn’t particularly paint a picture of “what works and what doesn’t work” around the league. It’s tough to say why these numbers are the way they are for each team, but what I can say definitively for the Lions this season, however, has been that dominating the time of possession has spelled success for both the offense and defense. Not only has it resulted in soul-crushing drives like the 9 minute and 45 second one that ended with a touchdown and finished the first half of the Vikings game in Week 9, but it has affected games on a macro level: it’s helped in dictating the way other teams must adjust their play calling when they get the ball.

Back to New Orleans

Think back two weeks to the Saints game for a perfect example of this game plan being executed to perfection. The Lions had the football for 36 minutes and 52 seconds. They wanted no part of shootout with Drew Brees and Co. and I don’t blame them; New Orleans was the hottest offense in the league heading into Week 13 and they’re playing in the Superdome. Instead, the Lions did what they do best, which is possess the football, have Anquan Boldin exorcise it on third down to keep the drive alive and continue to punish the Saints for failing to do the same. And what happened? The Saints were down 16-6 by the time Detroit gave the ball back over 6 minutes into the second half. New Orleans was forced to be more liberal with their play calling, and started to take more shots down the field. Drew Brees ended up throwing all three of his interceptions in the second half en route to his worst game of the season. They were forced to play catch up after the Lions held onto the ball for 24 minutes and 44 seconds before the Saints finally got a hold of the ball in the second half and down ten points.

The Road Ahead

In the immediate, the Giants are a team that plays at, relatively, a much faster pace on offense than the Lions do. New York takes, on average, just under 26 seconds from one play to the next which places them third in pace of play among the rest of the league. For context, Chip Kelly’s 49ers take almost 25 seconds per play on average. While many have made the case that the Giants and Lions style of play makes them similar, their pace of play are almost completely polar opposites.

The Cowboys, on the other hand, are pretty similar to Detroit, although how they achieve similar pace of play numbers are in a different fashion. The Cowboys methodical approach on offense (29.51 Sec/Play) is done on the ground, led by Ezekiel Elliott, and results in Dallas running 6.37 Plays/Dr (5th) while trailing only the Lions with 3:08 in TOP/Dr.

Green Bay, like Dallas and Detroit, rank in the top-fifth of the league in both TOP/Dr (2:59) and Plays/Dr (6.37), but, in a dissimilar fashion to Dallas, the Packers’ offense finds accomplishment through the air.

Things are very much up in the air with the status of Matthew Stafford. Missing starting center Travis Swanson due to a concussion and Theo Riddick doubtful to play on Sunday, this is going to have a definite impact of what the Lions will be able to do on offense. What’s critical to Detroit’s success moving forward is continuing to limit the amount of possessions in a given game.