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The Lions' 4th quarter defense was the team's unsung hero in 2016

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Are the Detroit Lions really better in the fourth quarter?

Chicago Bears v Detroit Lions Photo by Leon Halip/Getty Images

Much has been made of the Detroit Lions’ late-minute heroics during the 2016-17 NFL regular season. You don’t get called the “4th Quarter Kings” for nothing, after all. Matthew Stafford and the Lions earned that right by setting a single-season NFL record in fourth quarter comebacks (8), previously held by the Manning brothers, who had seven a piece.

Many would assume that with so many come-from-behind-victories, that Stafford and the Lions’ offense were at their best in the fourth quarter, but what if I told you that the exact inverse were true?

Lions Stats by Quarter

Quarter Plays Yds Rush Att Rush Yds YPC Rush TD Cmp Pass Att Cmp% Yds Y/A TD Int Sacks QB Rating ANY/A
Quarter Plays Yds Rush Att Rush Yds YPC Rush TD Cmp Pass Att Cmp% Yds Y/A TD Int Sacks QB Rating ANY/A
1st Qtr 222 6.46 95 433 4.6 2 84 124 67.7 755 6.1 5 0 3 97.3 6.7
2nd Qtr 283 7.85 87 332 3.8 4 118 187 63.1 1356 7.3 8 3 9 92.5 7
3rd Qtr 210 6 84 282 3.4 1 79 117 67.5 744 6.4 3 1 9 89.8 6
4th Qtr 254 7.21 79 255 3.2 2 101 160 63.1 1144 7.2 7 6 15 83.4 5.8
OT 11 7.4 4 6 1.5 0 5 6 83.3 68 11.3 1 0 1 153.5 12.6
1st Half 505 7.21 182 765 4.2 6 202 311 65 2111 6.8 13 3 12 94.4 6.9
2nd Half 464 6.64 163 537 3.3 3 180 277 65 1888 6.8 10 7 24 86.1 5.9
via pro-football-reference.com

As demonstrated by the table above, both the Lions’ rushing game and passing game regressed pretty significantly with each passing quarter. The narrative surrounding the Lions’ offense is that they start slow and finish strong, but looking at these quarter-by-quarter statistics, they averaged nearly a full yard and a half more per carry in the first quarter compared to the fourth quarter, as well a QB Rating of 97.3 versus 83.4 in the first and fourth, respectively.

How does that compare to the rest of the NFL?

NFL Average by Quarter

Quarter Plays Yds Rush Att Rush Yds YPC TD Cmp Pass Att Cmp% Yds Y/A TD Int Sacks QB Rating ANY/A
Quarter Plays Yds Rush Att Rush Yds YPC TD Cmp Pass Att Cmp% Yds Y/A TD Int Sacks QB Rating ANY/A
1st Qtr 239.6 6.83 106.6 469.3 4.4 3.5 81.7 125.7 65 863 6.9 4.9 2.2 7.1 90.6 6.5
2nd Qtr 286 7.16 106.4 463.9 4.4 4 106.8 169.7 62.9 1,141.60 0 7.9 3.5 9.8 74 0
3rd Qtr 240.9 6.99 103 449.7 4.4 2.8 81.9 129.5 63.2 902.5 7 5.3 2.9 8.4 88.1 6.4
4th Qtr 293.4 6.59 113.8 410 3.6 4 103.1 168.2 61.3 1,099.10 0 7.7 5 11.3 68.5 -0.4
OT 8.2 7.66 3.7 16.3 4.4 0.1 2.9 4.3 67.4 35.6 8.3 0.1 0 0.2 100.5 8.4
1st Half 525.6 7.01 213 933.3 4.4 7.5 188.5 295.4 63.8 2,004.60 0 12.8 5.7 16.9 74.2 0
2nd Half 534.3 6.77 216.8 859.8 4 6.8 185 297.7 62.1 2,001.70 0 13 7.9 19.7 69.9 -0.3
via pro-football-reference.com

What’s interesting, is that the Lions aren’t the only NFL team that starts off hot and begins to struggle as they reach the fourth quarter. In fact, the average NFL team’s QB rating takes a dip in both the second and fourth quarter, though their yards per carry stay about the same until they hit the final quarter of the game.

There are a few things that could explain why this is the case for most teams. For one, offenses tend to be more unpredictable in the very early stages of each half. In the first and third quarter, on average, the difference between the amount of rushing attempts and passing attempts is minimal and a lot more balanced than in the second and fourth quarter. When trailing late in the first and second halves of a game, teams face obvious passing situations, and vice versa, when leading, most teams are attempting to run as much time of the clock by running the ball.

In the Lions’ case, they do not see that spike in production with their passing offense in the third quarter. They also don’t maintain close to the same yards per carry in the first three quarters. Instead, as we briefly mentioned earlier, their production dips with each passing quarter in both phases of the game.

What does this mean for the Lions?

Well, this could mean a lot of things. With the Lions trailing in the fourth quarter of virtually every single game last year, that creates a lot of obvious passing situations for the Lions late in the game, meaning more predictable looks that are easier to defend.

The offense also sees a bigger dip in production from the first half to the second half compared to the average NFL offense. One may argue that coaching adjustments—or a lack thereof—could also be a big factor as to why the Lions’ offense struggles as the game goes on.

What about the defense?

Lions Opponent Splits by Quarter

Quarter Plays Yds Rush Att Yds YPC TD Cmp Pass Att Cmp% Yds Y/A TD Int Sacks Rate ANY/A
Quarter Plays Yds Rush Att Yds YPC TD Cmp Pass Att Cmp% Yds Y/A TD Int Sacks Rate ANY/A
1st Qtr 214 6.63 95 432 4.5 2 80 111 72.1 781 7 6 0 7 109.5 7.6
2nd Qtr 258 6.91 88 401 4.6 2 114 158 72.2 1063 6.7 8 1 11 104.5 7
3rd Qtr 215 8.1 94 465 4.9 1 95 119 79.8 1083 9.1 9 3 2 119.3 9.3
4th Qtr 279 6.33 112 403 3.6 3 110 161 68.3 1047 6.5 10 6 6 91.3 5.9
1st Half 472 6.78 183 833 4.6 4 194 269 72.1 1844 6.9 14 1 18 106.5 7.2
2nd Half 494 7.14 206 868 4.2 4 205 280 73.2 2130 7.6 19 9 8 104 7.3
via pro-football-reference.com

Believe it or not, it was the Lions’ defense that actually came up clutch in the fourth quarter last year (at least relative to how they performed in the first 45 minutes). Unfortunately, there isn’t a table provided to us that averages out the rest of the NFL’s opponent splits by quarter for us to compare, but after brief search, this was not the case for most other teams.

The eight come-from-behind victories that Detroit’s offense brought us will live on forever, but let us not forget the Darius Slay interception to seal a win over the Philadelphia Eagles in Week 5, or the Rafael Bush INT against the Rams that very next week that made it two wins in a row and brought them back up to .500. And what about Tavon Wilson’s INT to close out a win against Jacksonville, or Slay’s INT to set Matt Prater up for a game-winning field goal for their season sweep of the Minnesota Vikings?

Although you could make a case for the Lions’ defense being a huge part of the reason why they were playing from behind by the time the fourth quarter rolled around, you have to at least give the defense some credit for cracking down late in the game and coming up huge when it mattered the most.