Hear me out.
While we’ve heard about the close wins in 2016 and the likelihood of regressing back toward the mean in 2017—7.8 wins projected by Football Outsiders for the Lions—let me offer a contrarian view, or rebuttal if you will, as to why the Lions have the chance to actually exceed expectations and make an even deeper run into the playoffs this year.
Last year’s defense was historically bad
Stacked up against defenses of the past, the Lions were historically bad last year, especially their pass defense. According to Football Outsiders’ DVOA calculations (explained here), the 2016 Lions were tied for the 10th-worst defense in DVOA and had the fourth-worst passing defense since 1987.
Worst defenses since 1987 (DVOA)
Worst passing defenses since 1987 (DVOA)
You may remember how porous the Lions’ secondary was in 2009. Well that unit ranked two spots behind the 2016 defense at sixth overall. How about the 2011 Lions that were unable to force the New Orleans Saints to punt a single time in their Wild Card matchup? They didn’t even come close to making this list. The Lions’ passing defense was atrocious last year, nearly as bad as the 2015 Saints that topped the list and allowed a total QB Rating of 116.2 against them.
Last year’s linebacker corps couldn’t cover a paper clip with a blanket, and teams could avoid throwing it Nevin Lawson’s way because they saw Asa Jackson and Thurston Armbrister on the field. You simply have to ask yourself: This year’s defense cannot be as bad as they were last year, can they? No, I refuse to believe it. Not with as many resources the Lions used to improve the back seven this year.
The Lions finally have a balanced offense... on paper
It’s far too early to know just how much the offensive line has improved since last year, but you have to hand it to Bob Quinn for going out and getting two quality starters on the right side—RG TJ Lang and RT Rick Wagner—which has infamously been their weakest side of the line in recent years.
Protecting the quarterback is always the main goal, but the additions that Quinn has made to the offense also focuses on improving the run game, which averaged nearly 30 less rushing yards (81.9) than the league average (108.9) and ranked 25th in DVOA in 2016. T.J. Lang is known to be a much better pass blocker than run blocker—second-best graded pass blocking guard via Pro Football Focus—but his run blocking grade (76.9) isn’t all that much worse than Larry Warford’s last year (81.3). Rick Wagner’s run blocking grade (69.9, nice) is also much higher than Riley Reiff’s last year (57.4).
Not only has the O-line improved on paper, but the Lions were handcuffed last year at tight end, forced to throw Eric Ebron out into a pack of wolves, looking foolish as he attempted to carry out blocks in space. With rookie Michael Roberts already impressing during OTAs, it shouldn’t take him long to solidify his role as the Lions’ primary blocking tight end, and hopefully that means Ebron can focus primarily on running routes and catching the football.
The Jim Caldwell effect
Miraculously, last year’s offense pulled off an astounding number of come-from-behind wins led by Captain Clutch himself, Matthew Stafford. It’s unlikely that the team will be able to pull off so many close wins for a second straight year, but why must the national media knock last year’s Lions for their last-minute heroics and call bullshit rather than praise them for accomplishing a pretty spectacular feat? They managed to make the playoffs with one of the most atrocious pass defenses in NFL history.
Jim Caldwell may not be the smartest coach on the field at all times, but you know damn well his players are going to fight until the very end and do whatever it takes to get him that win. You never want to disappoint a man that wears two watches. The media may call last year a fluke, Same Old Lions fans might label it as luck, I call it Lions football.