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Detroit Lions trying to get a head start on improving critical situation performance

Last year, the Detroit Lions really struggled on critical downs and in high-pressure situations. This year, they’re hoping to get a head start on it.

NFL: Detroit Lions at Denver Broncos Ron Chenoy-USA TODAY Sports

You may have noticed from our organized team activities and minicamp observations that the Detroit Lions are spending a large portion of each practice devoted to critical situations in football. They’ve practiced two-minute drills, one-minute drills, end-of-half drives, fourth-down plays, and even a few desperate situations like driving 81 yards in less than 40 seconds or driving down two scores with two minutes left.

This is by design. Lions head coach Dan Campbell felt this was something Detroit struggled with during the season, in part because they practiced these kinds of situations a little too late in the process of last year’s offseason program.

“I want to get us in more competitive settings early,” Campbell said at the beginning of OTAs. “We’re actually going to kind of start that today, just situationally. Kind of the end of the team periods is just getting into two-minute, getting into half, end of game, just a couple things to put us in some of these more pressure situations. That would be one change that I know I wanted to identify, is we’ve got to get to that earlier. We’ve got to start pressing our guys earlier and feeling a little bit more pressure earlier and see how we respond or get comfortable with being uncomfortable if you will.”

In situational football, the Lions were downright terrible last year. On offense, they ranked 31st in third-down conversion percentage (34.7 percent) and 19th on fourth down (51.2 percent). Defensively, they were 29th on third downs (45.1 percent) and 29th on fourth down (64.3 percent). And in the red zone, Detroit ranked 31st in touchdown percentage both on offense (46.7 percent) and defense (70.0 percent).

Additionally, we saw this team struggle to finish off games they were competitive in. They lost on last-second field goals against the Ravens and Vikings despite go-ahead scores with less than 70 seconds left in the game. They choked away a go-ahead drive in Los Angeles. They lost on Thanksgiving after allowing an 8-and-a-half minute, game-winning drive. In total, the Lions had a 2-6-1 record in one-score games last year.

The Lions don’t have pads on yet, so a true assessment of their growth in these critical situations is not really possible. Not to mention, when the offense succeeds in a critical situation, do we praise the offense or condemn the defense?

Despite those limitations, Campbell believes they have made serious progress this spring.

“I feel like we are further along with the situational work that we’re getting and the adapting to different problems, creating problems, solving problems,” Campbell said last week. “Just I do feel like that we’re better in that regard.”