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Lions mailbag mini: What got better, worse when Dan Campbell took over as play caller?

We take a closer look at the things that got better—and worse—in the second half of the season.

NFL: Arizona Cardinals at Detroit Lions Raj Mehta-USA TODAY Sports

Every now and then, when we put out a question for mailbag, we get one that deserves a little more attention and thought. Instead of either giving a brief, unsatisfying answer or turning in a long-winded answer that results in a 3,000-word mailbag, we’ve decided to pull them from the mailbag article and give it some individual time and care.

Seeing as this is the offseason, we may do this a couple times a month or maybe even a couple times a week. We’ll kick off this series with a question from @lilmaua on Twitter:

In what areas did the team get better and worse after Campbell took over play calling?

Jeremy: I like this question, because I’ve been on a bit of a stat dive, and I wanted to see if there was anything tangible that the Detroit Lions got worse at after Campbell took over play calling. In terms of offensive statistics, that was nearly impossible to find. Jared Goff got better, the offensive line got better, the running game got better and the wide receiver play certainly got better. Here is just a sampling of stats I looked at:

Passer rating

  • Before: 85.3
  • After: 91.2

Yards per pass attempt

  • Before: 5.4
  • After: 6.0

Yards per rush

  • Before: 4.07
  • After: 4.68

Points per game

  • Before: 16.8
  • After: 21.2

Sacks allowed

  • Before: 22
  • After: 14

But perhaps the biggest feather in Campbell’s hat is situational football, where playcalling likely matters the most. Detroit saw significant improvement on third and fourth down conversions after he took over.

Third down conversion rate:

  • Before: 34.3%
  • After: 35.1%

Fourth down conversion rate:

  • Before: 38.1%
  • After: 65.0%

There was only one statistic I could find that showed even a marginal decline after Campbell took over and that was red zone efficiency. Before Campbell took over, the Lions converted 22 red zone trips into 11 touchdowns (50%). After he took over they converted 22 red zone trips into 10 touchdowns (45.4%). So even there, the regression was minimal. Though it’s worth pointing out that Detroit’s red zone touchdown percentage finished 31st in the league, so there is a ton of room for improvement there.

Erik: Based solely on the eye test, I’d have to say the biggest area the team improved in was its confidence level. There’s not a statistical measurement to back me up on that, but as Jeremy has broken down several times these past two weeks, the team improved despite seeing the roster thin out due to injury and COVID-19 protocols.

Look, when the Cardinals and Packers walked into Ford Field in their respective weeks, they were each atop the conference, and both times they left with a loss to a team that was, on paper, drastically worse. That doesn’t happen unless the team is operating with confidence.

Jeremy: Okay, we got the easy part done. It was blatant and obvious that the Lions got better in the second half of the season, but did anything get noticeably worse?

Perhaps we’re going about this the wrong way. Campbell said himself that one drawback of him calling plays is that he’s pulled away from other aspects of the team.

“I think the cons can be that you’re not as invested defensively and special teams with the totality of your players that you would be able to be if you weren’t so invested in the offense,” Campbell said last week.

Maybe the defense got worse with him occupied on offense. Well, that really isn’t true, as I broke down earlier in the week that the defense actually got much better in the second half of the season, too.

The two exceptions there are the Lions’ run defense, which went from allowing 4.32 yards per carry to 4.54, and third-down defense also got about 4.5% worse. It’s tough to pin those things directly on Campbell or his decision to take over play calling, but it’s another part of the team—along with the aforementioned red zone offense—that needs drastic improvement next year.

Is there anything you noticed that Detroit struggled with down the stretch? Maybe some gameday management struggles—see Bears game—but most of that got cleaned up by the end of the year, no?

Erik: I don’t necessary have an area I think got worse, but more of an area where I thought they stayed stagnant while showing improvements in the areas discussed earlier.

Not to be a Debbie Downer here, but I would have liked to see the team perform as well on the road as they did at home. As good as they performed against playoff teams at Ford Field, the three road losses to the Denver Broncos (7-10), Atlanta Falcons (7-10), and Seattle Seahawks (7-10) left me wanting more. Now, of course, each of those games comes with some big asterisk's. The team was ravaged by COVID-19 in Denver and it was Tim Boyle under center in the other two games, but this is an area I will be watching next season.