The Detroit Lions’ Week 15 loss to the Tennessee Titans was their ninth of the season. They have officially clinched another losing season — the third in a row after consecutive winning seasons in 2016 and 2017 — and have been eliminated from playoff contention, missing the postseason for the fourth straight year.
2020 will end as another lost year. Another year that will go by without a NFC North title, without a playoff win, without a Super Bowl. The Lions entered this season with more hype than ever, with many high-profile pundits picking them as a sleeper team in the NFC. Instead, they will enter this offseason with a top 15 pick and looking for a new head coach and general manager.
What went wrong for the 2020 Detroit Lions?
Not enough talent to compete
The simplest answer is that the team is just bad.
Detroit’s defense is awful, and none of the players that were expected to take the next step in 2020 did so. Jarrad Davis, the oft-maligned 2017 first-round pick whose fifth-year option was declined before the start of the season, was benched. The man who largely replaced his role, 2019 second-round pick Jahlani Tavai, has taken a huge step back after an impressive rookie campaign. Veteran free agent acquisition Jamie Collins Sr. has had his bright spots, but has not nearly been the impactful player many expected him to be.
The biggest disappointments on defense come in the secondary, where it feels like nobody is playing well despite the sky high expectations they entered the year with. The biggest disappointment is Desmond Trufant. The veteran corner was brought to Detroit from the Atlanta Falcons to serve as replacement for Darius Slay — the best corner the team has had this side of the 2000s — and help develop youngsters Amani Oruwariye and Jeff Okudah. Trufant has been awful this season, and looks borderline unplayable at times. Not to mention, he can’t stay healthy, having played in just six games this season.
The young corners are not without fault either. Okudah could barely stay on the field, and was repeatedly torched by opposing receivers in his rookie season. He now is set to miss the rest of the year with a groin injury. Oruwariye has been the brightest of the three, but even he has had his struggles, including a dismal showing against the Houston Texans on Thanksgiving.
In the secondary, the young safety duo of Tracy Walker and Will Harris have been tasked with replacing Quandre Diggs. Walker has shown flashes, but it is starting to look like he will never live up to his potential. Harris is unplayable and has seen his snap counts dwindle over the season. The veteran presence in the secondary, Duron Harmon, has been fine, but he has not been the game-changing player for Detroit that he was for the New England Patriots.
Detroit does not have enough talent on defense to keep up with an NFL offense, and while their own offense has enough to be average, it is not quite enough to win games when your opponent can march up and down the field with ease on your counterparts.
It has been clear since 2018 that Detroit’s schemes just do not work in a modern NFL.
On defense, they have neglected the pass rush, instead filling up their front seven with slower, bigger players. Guys who are supposed to stop the run, instead of covering the athletic, shifty, running backs and tight ends that have dominated the modern NFL, leave the defense vulnerable on every down.
The players are not capable of stopping the run anyways (see the above section), but even if they were, it may not even matter. Not being able to rush the passer consistently while also not having the personnel to cover half of the receivers on the field means your run defense does not matter if your opponent can just convert on third-and-long anyways.
Detroit did not have a single good coverage linebacker on the roster this season, but it is not the fault of the players themselves. None of them were signed to be coverage aces, and all have primarily made their names playing the run. Tavai, Collins, Davis, Jones — all are run stoppers who have never shown that they can properly drop into coverage.
The issues remain on offense as well. Detroit’s offense was unreasonably conservative until the team fired Matt Patricia after Thanksgiving. Adrian Peterson first down runs became a meme. Run-run-pass into a three-and-out punt became a regular feature for the Lions offense. Things seem to have changed in recent weeks, but the change came too-little-too-late to actually matter this season.
For a majority of the season, Detroit’s coaching staff had a very particular style of football they wanted to play. Whether the system worked or not, every week the team would try the same thing. There would occasionally be a week where things worked out, leading to a huge win over the New England Patriots in 2018, but the NFL is a league of matchups. You cannot play the same way every week and expect to be successful more than a handful of times per season.