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Lions Roundtable: How can the Lions win the NFC North in 2017?

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The Lions had the chance to win the NFC North in 2016, but let it loose from their grip. What can the Lions do differently in 2017 to claim their first NFC North title in 26 years?

NFL: Detroit Lions at Dallas Cowboys Kevin Jairaj-USA TODAY Sports

Last week, we discussed who the players the Lions could least afford to lose in 2017.

This week, the question shifts to a question that requires a little bit more reflection than projection.

How can the Lions win the NFC North in 2017?

Jeremy Reisman: Play better... and kneecap Aaron Rodgers.

Mike Payton: Jeremy, you may want to lay low for awhile.

Chris Lemieux: As far back as I could remember I always wanted to be a cornerback. To me, being a cornerback was better than being Robert De Niro. Even before I wandered into the American Coney Island for an afterschool job, I knew I wanted to smother the Packers receivers with a heavy pillow.

Mike: Chris’s mother liked cornerbacks because they were from the same part of Toledo as her. I mean for Chris’s mother, that meant everything.

Kent Lee Platte: Stop playing ball control on both sides, get aggressive, and make teams pay for playing soft. Helps to have the tools to do any of that, and Lions are at least halfway there.

Ryan Mathews: If they’re halfway there, it doesn’t seem like they can do all of those things well enough to get over the hump. With the way their roster is currently constructed, how do they finally hang another banner that matters?

Kent Lee: Falcons had only half a roster that mattered and they made a bowl. Lions can at least content on offensive power alone. Will be frustrating, but winnable.

Ryan: The 2016 Atlanta Falcons had what was perhaps the greatest offense... ever. A Super Bowl, for me, is still a long game. Their “half a roster” was so historically good that it’s not feasible to expect the Lions to match that kind of offensive fire power.

The formula the Lions followed last year was definitely forced by the limitations of their personnel, and even with all of the attention paid to improving their defense through free agency and the draft, Detroit still finds themselves in the position to make small, but specific alterations to their winning formula from a year ago. Of course, not every game should be game planned to come down to the wire and send our collective blood pressure through the roof. It’s all going to rely on the ability to move the football efficiently on the ground.

And with that being said, Ameer Abdullah completely changes the dynamics of their offense, and even though he’s not injury prone, the success of the Lions run game hinges on his ability to stay healthy and on the field—especially when it comes to play calling. Jim Bob Cooter’s offense ran the ball 204 times in the final 8 games of 2015. In 2016, 350 rushing attempts for the entire season.

This defense is still very much a work in progress, and it’s going to require the Lions to hold onto the ball more than their opponents in 2017 to be successful. That can more sustainably be accomplished by hitting their goal of 4.2 yards per carry as a backfield.

Kent Lee: Lions formula was basically just to keep it close and hope you had the ball last. That's not sustainable. Their present defense doesn’t inspire any measure of confidence, but the offense is at a point where we can actually look to outscore opponents and run that uptempo offense rather than snail ball.

Mike: Start Jake Rudock. No, that’s not it. It’s really simple. Run the ball. If the Lions had the 15th ranked rushing attack in 2016, they could have gone deep. That’s all I’m asking for: Be a marginally good running team.

They’ll also need multiple guys to break out on the defensive side if the ball. With potential holes at linebacker and a pass rush that was nearly non-existent in 2016, it’s time for some guys that people who live in North Dakota have never heard of to start making people who live in North Dakota know who they are.

Kent Lee: While Jim Caldwell is head coach, a successful rushing attack is probably 19th, 20th in the league.

Mike: I said 15th. It’s 15th or bust. 15th or the Lions go 2-13-1.

Chris: 15th is relative to what? What would 19th look like? Rankings here are going to be subjective depending on how everything looks across the league, so that’s not a great metric here. I don’t think anyone’s really sitting out fearing pass protection around the NFC North. Minnesota had the best secondary last year, while the Packers allowed 269.2 passing yards per game—the only team that allowed more on a per game average was the Saints. Chicago allowed 224.9, which is coupled with the fact that they have no offense this year. You can beat them in the air. Arbitrary rankings on a run game isn’t going to save or damn the Lions.

Mike: Yards. (I’m currently eating a salad and doing this on my phone. I want this to be noted.) Anyways, yards is what it’s all about. Scoring is a nice bonus, but the ability to move the ball down the field on the ground is all I want. Run to set up the pass. The pass is what this offense excels at.

Andrew Kato: Mike and Ryan pretty much took what I was going to say about the run game. Let me think of something else—be back in a bit.

Jeremy: I want to pump the brakes on the offensive talk for a moment, because as Ryan noted, this isn’t an offense that’s destined for historic greatness... yet. I think Kent hit on something important, and that was the Lions playing ball control on both sides of the ball. The reason for that: having the worst defense in the league.

To improve in 2017, the Lions need to make plays on defense, plain and simple. You look at their collapse in the final five games of last season, one thing sticks out: zero takeaways. None. The best way to change that is through a pass rush, but that seems unlikely given Detroit’s current defensive line. So I’m holding out hope that Detroit’s improved secondary will lead the defense to more game-changing plays.

Mike: I have to disagree there. Slightly. This is an offense that had four receivers go over 500 yards in 2016. Stafford has weapons galore, especially with a returning Theo Riddick. Kenny Golladay gives them another weapon that I believe could be the biggest breakout rookie outside of Jarrad Davis. Add the ability to set up the pass with the run. These guys can be dangerous.

Jeremy: I’m not saying the offense won’t be dangerous, but it won’t be able to carry the team on its own. The Lions tried that last year and it didn’t work when the best of the best came to town.

Mike: Could it be possible that it didn’t work because the offense was one dimensional? I think so. It was the opponent's defense that kept the Lions out of the games against the best, with the exception of Dallas.

Jeremy: The Lions offense was efficient all year, with the only exceptions being against teams with elite defenses (Titans, Giants, Seahawks). A run game would obviously help, but they aren’t going anywhere until they can hold at team below 36 yards per drive—third-worst in the NFL in 2016.

Kent Lee: I'm down for having a great defense, but if it can just be regular bad instead of shooting at historic levels of awful, we're in a better spot. If it can just be consistently meh, but take the ball away more often, that's a realistic recipe for success.

Mike: I’m with Kent here. I’ll take the same approach on the defense that I did on the run game. Mediocre is all this defense needs to be to succeed. This is an offensive driven team and they will live or die based on that. All they really need is a defense that can do enough damage to get the offense back on the field. Bend, but don’t break.

Andrew: I’m going to disagree with Jeremy, but in a different way. I think he’s right that the defense needs to get better and it would be nice to have a pass rush, but it’s not the secondary where I want to see most of the improvement. The big problem on defense—aside from Slay getting injured and lack of a pass rush—was an inability to stop opponents from dominating underneath. Poor linebacker play over the past two seasons has been well-documented, and Bob Quinn did something about that in the offseason. Gone is DeAndre Levy and now we have Paul Worrilow and Jarrad Davis to go with Tahir Whitehead.

Part of the reason nobody can get home to sack opposing quarterbacks is the quick dump routes are always open. Sort of secondary related, but working with the interior of the defense, the level of play at nickel could stand to be a lot better, too. I think we all got spoiled by Quandre Diggs’ rookie season and thought Detroit had that position on lockdown for a long time; now Diggs is in a fight for a roster spot and may lose the job to Hayden.

Kent Lee: It's hard to see much improvement even with better coverage inside since the pass rush doesn't look better at all. For a pass rush to not be giving up all these intermediate routes, we'd have to hope Ezekiel Ansah doesn't get hurt again, Haloti Ngata plays at or above the same level, A’Shawn Robinson improves as a pass rusher, and one of several players who have never been or even projected to have been a full-time starter suddenly become one. Given our heavy rotation on DL, we're also banking on an entire cast of new pieces and Kerry Hyder providing some sort of rotational value, a strategy that only had one success (Hyder) last year, which was fleeting.

Andrew: Well yes, that’s a given. Ziggy getting a significant injury would pretty much doom everything on the defensive line. We’d have to hope Hyder wasn’t a one-hit wonder.

Ryan: Last year’s crop of rotational defensive linemen did only see Hyder rise to the challenge, and the strategy Kent mentions did yield minimal returns. That withstanding, there’s virtually an entirely new crop of players the Lions sought out to churn over that depth along the defensive line. Cornelius Washington and Akeem Spence were two players the Lions targeted immediately at the onset of free agency, and the addition of Jordan Hill later on basically washed out the remaining backend of 2016’s rotation.

Different doesn’t necessitate improvement, but with a new group, there’s at least a chance to see improvement at a position where the team was struggling to tread water a season ago.

Kent Lee: You know what they really need to do differently to win some games? Alter their defensive scheme significantly. Stop running off-man coverage 85 percent of the time, utilize the big nickel package that worked late season, and stop running some variation of prevent defense for 60 minutes. I've been a Teryl Austin fan since his UF days, but he is at his absolute worst with his back against the wall. That's how he schemed from start to finish in 2016, regardless of the actual in-game circumstances.