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The Detroit Lions’ long-ball offense is dead

Matthew Stafford has a cannon arm and the Lions seem content not using it.

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Detroit Lions v San Francisco 49ers Photo by Ezra Shaw/Getty Images

Throw a rock into the cauldron of 2018 NFL takes and you’ll hit 30 different opinions talking about THE FUTURE OF THE NFL and how dynamic passing attacks are taking over the league and head coaches like Sean McVay and Matt Nagy hold the key to success in their hands.

Although I think all of these macro proclamations are premature—strategy moves fast and teams adjust—it’s hard not to get hypnotized by 54-51 final scores and statlines that include nearly 500 yards of passing and six touchdowns.

Heading into 2018, it felt like the Detroit Lions may join this new era of explosive offenses. Just look at the headlines from late last year:

The Detroit Lions own the best deep passing game in the NFL

Alex Smith, Matthew Stafford head top deep-ball throwers of ‘17

Most accurate deep ball passers in 2017 (Stafford 6th)

Last season, Matthew Stafford and the Lions offense were responsible for the most 40+ yards plays through the air—three more than the Rams, two more than the Chiefs. Their yards per attempt (7.8) ranked fourth overall and kept pace with the Saints (8.1), Chiefs (8.0) and Rams (7.8). They were the only team to have two wide receivers with 1,000 yards and Stafford threw more passing touchdowns than all but three NFL quarterbacks.

But those days are over. The Lions’ deep ball attack is dead. Kaput. Over.

The rest of the NFL is exploding in offensive efficiency and the Lions are headed in the opposite direction.

Despite adding another piece to the offensive line and a much-improved running game, the Lions passing attack in steep decline. They’re now just 23rd in 40+ yard passing plays (4) and a mere 25th in yards per attempt (6.9). Stafford has thrown just 17 touchdowns this year—the same number as Browns rookie quarterback Baker Mayfield.

The reasons the Lions offense has been severely neutered are many. Despite the improvements on the offensive line, Stafford is getting sacked at a rate nearly identical to last season. The Detroit receiving corps, even before it was decimated by injury and trades, was failing to get any downfield separation. And after the Lions’ best receivers were gone from the lineup, Detroit’s gameplan clearly switched to a short-yardage attack to accommodate the change in personnel.

But a few of these problems aren’t even new. Stafford has had to deal with pressure his entire career. We already knew that Marvin Jones Jr. and Golden Tate had trouble creating separation prior to the pass.

Somewhere along the way this offseason, Matthew Stafford’s passing chart went from looking like this:

Via NFL Next Gen stats

To this:

Via NFL Next Gen stats

Matthew Stafford is just not looking downfield much anymore, and whether that’s a product of design from offensive coordinator Jim Bob Cooter, a result of worse personnel—like it or not, Eric Ebron helped stretch the field, even when he was dropping passes—or just Stafford being overly cautious, isn’t completely clear. But for now, the long ball is dead in Detroit, and there’s very little chance of it returning in 2018.

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After winning their first NFC North title in 30 years, the Lions have unfinished business this offseason. Stay updated with Jeremy Reisman through Pride of Detroit Direct, our newsletter offering up exclusive analysis. Sign up with NFCNORTH30 to get 30% off after your free trial.