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The Detroit Lions’ third-down offense is killing them

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The Lions are better on first and second down, but somehow worse on third down.

NFL: New York Jets at Detroit Lions Raj Mehta-USA TODAY Sports

Last year, the Detroit Lions’ offense ranked seventh in points scored, yet it was still considered a disappointment, all things considered. Struggles in short-yardage situations and red zone inefficiencies ultimately held the unit back, and defensive and special teams scores inflated their overall numbers a bit.

That was all supposed to be fixed this year. The Lions beefed up their offensive line, added some supreme threats in the backfield, and got a new offensive line coach to make the offense as potent as the talent suggests.

Instead, the Lions are only averaging 22 points per game (t-18th) and one of their five total touchdowns was scored by the defense.

Obviously the problems here are multifaceted. Matthew Stafford’s five turnovers certainly aren’t helping. Neither are all of the dropped passes from receivers and backs alike.

But one of the biggest disappointments from the team has to be their third down performance. On Sunday against the San Francisco 49ers, the Lions scored just once in their first five possessions and it was third down that really hurt Detroit. In all four non-scoring possessions, the Lions failed to convert a third-and-4 or less. Their sixth drive, which ended in a field goal, stalled after a failed third-and-2 conversion.

This got me thinking. We all know of the Lions’ short-yardage issues last year, but with so many negative plays out of sacks and poor rushes in 2017, the Lions found themselves in a lot of bad down-and-distance situations. The Lions have been a more efficient running team and they’ve only ceded two sacks through two games. So is it possible the Lions are converting third downs less often despite setting themselves up better on first and second down?

Turns out, that’s exactly what’s happening.

In 2017, the Lions averaged 7.9 yards to go on third down (29th in the NFL). Despite that, they still converted 39.0 percent of the time (17th).

In 2018, they’re averaging a full yard less to go on third down (6.83, 14th), but are only converting 34.5 percent of the time (22nd).

So what the heck is going on during third down? Let’s break down the Lions’ 29 third-down opportunities.

Third down statistical breakdown

(Thanks to Pro Football Reference for their amazing Game Play Finder)

Third-and-short (3 yards to go or less)

Play calls

  • 11 plays: 9 passes, 2 rushes*

Conversion rate: 3-of-11 (27.3%)

  • Passes: 2-of-9 (22.2%)
  • Rushes: 1-of-2 (50%)

The first thing that sticks out in the Lions’ short-yardage situations is just how heavily the team sticks with the passing game. It seems like the Lions aren’t aware that their running game is, indeed, improved. However, there’s a caveat to be had. In five of these 11 opportunities, the Lions were down by at least two scores. Detroit has found themselves in desperate situations late in games, and abandoning the run is understandable in those scenarios.

Still, a 22.2 percent conversion rate on short-yardage passing plays is absolutely awful and the kind of stat that easily explains why the Lions are so inefficient right now.

Third-and-medium (4-7 yards to go)

Play calls

  • 9 plays: 9 passes

Conversion rate: 4-of-9 (44.4%)

Yep, the Lions are actually a lot more efficient at converting third-and-mediums right now. This isn’t particularly surprising to anyone who has watched this offense over the past couple years. Short yardage routes have been a problem for this receiving corps, while the intermediate and long routes have been the key to this team’s success.

Third-and-long (8-10 yards to go)

Play calls

  • 4 plays: 4 passes

Conversion rate: 1-or-4 (25%)

Nothing too interesting here. Third-and-long is obviously a passing situation and has long odds to convert. With only four plays in this range, it’s hard to draw any big conclusions.

Third-and-extra long (15+ yards to go)

Play calls

  • 5 plays: 3 passes, 2 runs

Conversion rate: 2-of-5 (40%)

  • Passes: 2-of-3 (66.6%)
  • Runs: 0-of-2 (0%)

This is commonly a give-up down for many offensive coordinators. Third-and-15+ is a low percentage play and defenses often create sacks or turnovers if the offenses get too aggressive.

However, when the Lions have actually gone for it, it has worked out more often than not. Twice on Sunday the Lions faced third-and-15 or more and converted: one a touchdown pass to Michael Roberts and the other a 67-yard strike to Golden Tate. Needless to say, their two draw plays weren’t quite as effective.

So it’s clear the Lions’ short-yardage offense isn’t exactly fixed yet. Detroit is getting themselves into better situations in later downs, but they aren’t able to convert. What exactly is the hold up? We probably won’t know until we get a bigger sample size, but it’s undoubtedly a mixture of poor play calling, bad execution and subpar quarterback play.

If the Lions are going to establish themselves as a true elite offense, they better get it figured out on third down, especially in short-yardage situations.