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Taylor Decker’s return sparked the Detroit Lions’ offensive improvement

The Lions’ franchise left tackle deserves a ton of credit for Detroit’s offensive turnaround.

Minnesota Vikings v Detroit Lions Photo by Gregory Shamus/Getty Images

Dan Campbell is getting a lot of well-earned praise for the Detroit Lions’ offensive turnaround in the second half of the season. Campbell, with the help of unofficially promoted tight ends coach Ben Johnson, took over play-calling duties at the midway point of the season. Detroit’s offense almost immediately improved, averaging 21.9 points per game in the second half of the season compared to 16.75 in the first eight games, and that’s despite starting a backup quarterback for three of the final nine games.

But can we really really attribute the majority of the improvement to the coaching changes made at the bye week? There are a lot of things that changed at that point in the season, especially when it came to personnel.

So I went searching for a statistical explanation, specifically for the drastic improvement of quarterback Jared Goff. If you need a reminder of just how much Goff improved, may I point you to this post from our own Mike Payton:

Pre-bye week (8 games): 66.9% completions, 6.5 Y/A, 1,995 yards, 8 TDs, 6 INTs, 85.3 passer rating

Post-bye week (6 games): 67.7% completions, 6.7 Y/A, 1,250 yards, 11 TDs, 2 INTs, 101.8 passer rating

When looking for a statistical explanation for Goff’s improvement, one thing specifically stood out. According to PFF, in Goff’s first eight starts of the season, he tallied a total of 10 scrambles or undesigned runs. In his final six games—all after the bye week—he only scrambled twice.

While we’re talking about small sample sizes here, that difference is drastic. Going from over one scramble per game to only averaging one scramble per three games is a huge transformation. It sent me down a rabbit hole.

So did Goff just find more comfort in the pocket and trust his offensive line more? Or did the offensive line step up in the second half of the season? The statistics, again, tell a pretty clear story here. Let’s look at the first eight starts from Goff before the bye compared to the six starts he had after the bye:

Offensive line stats (Week 1-8):

  • 26.8 pressure percentage
  • 2.75 sacks per game
  • 55.5 average PFF pass blocking grade

Offensive line stats (Weeks 10, 12-15, 18)

  • 20.9 pressure percentage
  • 2.2 sacks per game
  • 68.9 average PFF pass blocking grade

So what changed? Did the Lions design better plays with Ben Johnson taking a bigger role as de facto pass game coordinator? Maybe, but there’s one significant change that explains the majority of this improvement.

The return of Taylor Decker

Decker missed the first eight games of the season with a finger injury, forcing rookie first-round pick Penei Sewell to fill in at left tackle and reserve—and inexperienced—tackle Matt Nelson to jump in at right tackle. Combined, those two had one career start at the beginning of the year.

Decker’s return not only improved play from the left tackle position but by moving Sewell back to right tackle—the position he had practiced all offseason—Detroit upgraded both tackle positions. Again, the statistics are staggering (via PFF):

Note: These statistics are only for Jared Goff started games. So there are six games pre-bye, eight games post-bye.

Left tackle

  • Pre-bye week: 60.65 average PFF pass blocking grade, 26 pressures allowed
  • Post-bye week: 74.4 average PFF pass blocking grade, 9 pressures allowed

Right tackle

  • Pre-bye week: 50.8 average PFF pass blocking grade, 34 pressures allowed
  • Post-bye week: 66.3 average PFF pass blocking grade, 13 pressures allowed

So how did that help?

Well, obviously, any time a quarterback is not under pressure, they play better. Goff’s reputation before he landed in Detroit was that he, in particular, was very mistake-prone under pressure, and 2021 was no different. Again, stats per PFF:

When pocket was clean: 73.0% completions, 6.7 yards per attempt, 15 TDs, 4 INTs, 99.9 passer rating

Under pressure: 51.9% completions, 6.3 yards per attempt, 4 TDs, 4 INTs, 69.2 passer rating

But the extra time also afforded Goff the ability to unlock one thing they weren’t capable of doing early in the season: connecting on deep passes. Goff’s average depth of target went from 6.1 in the first half of the season to 6.85 in his final six starts. While both those stats are bottom-of-the-league numbers, it shows a clear change and trend towards a more normal offense (7.6 was the league average in 2021).

And if you were paying attention to Dan Campbell throughout the year, this was something he was saying through the entire first half of the season. He wanted the offense to take more deep shots, but Goff wasn’t given the opportunity as much as he would’ve liked.

Here’s Campbell after the Eagles game:

“My message to him was to really cut it loose, cut it loose. But the problem is—I mean the first time, I don’t want to tell you when it was, but we had one where we were doubling moving early. And now, the guy did a good job covering it, but I was, ‘Hey, throw it.’ Well, he’s got somebody right in his face. We got a blitzer and we’re—it’s—there’s nowhere to go. I don’t care who’s in there. I mean, I guess Tom Brady might throw it, but I doubt it.”

After the Steelers game:

“We did try to make a couple throws down field. We ended up under duress.”

Obviously, there are other factors to consider here, too. Wide receiver play improved drastically in the second half of the season with the emergence of Amon-Ra St. Brown and addition of Josh Reynolds. A ton of credit also goes to Goff himself for clearly feeling more comfortable in the offense and confidence in his own ability.

But none of that matters if the offensive line doesn’t take a big step in the second half of the season, and they unequivocally did thanks in large part to Decker.