Detroit Lions: Analysis of the Past Three Weeks

We are three weeks into the 2019-2020 NFL season and the Detroit Lions remain undefeated. If I were to tell you in pre-season that we would have two wins heading into week 4, you wouldn’t think that those wins were against the Eagles and Chargers. I’m giving an analysis of all games. Looking at the good and the bad, also what to make of it.

New Offense Shows Promise.

Detroit is averaging 22.3 points per game, which ranks at 16th in the league currently. Despite the middle of the pack scoring average, we are top 10 with our passing attack. So why are we struggling to score points? Two answers give us understanding for what we need to do better to elevate our offense.

1. We rank 9th in rushing attempts, but only 18th in rushing yards.

We were all excited to see Kerryon Johnson this season. Last year, our run blocking was a key strength from our TJ Lang-led offensive line. This season the run blocking is non-existent, we fail to open up holes. The problem isn’t our running group by any means. Against the Eagles, we saw Kerryon turn a lot of negative yard plays into positive yard plays.

I wrote about this at the start of the season. The offensive line was one of my biggest concerns for this team. To give our offensive line some credit and I will elaborate later in the article, but it’s much harder to run-block in our offensive scheme.

We are running the ball too much for the production we are getting. If we are top-10 in attempts we should be top-10 in rushing as well.

2. Special-Teams/Penalties held the offense back in the first two weeks.

I could sit here all day and complain about the special teams. I’ll try to keep it blunt and straight to the point. In week 1, we had a fumble on a punt return that led to 3 points for the Cardinals. Throughout week 1 and 2, there were multiple penalties on the Lions return team.

Against the Cardinals, we had two drives start behind our 20-yard line, because of special-teams penalties. At home vs. the Chargers, there was 3. In week 3, we only had one special teams penalty. We put up 27 points (should have been 30) on a good Eagles defense, opposed to 27 in overtime against a Cardinals defense which was shredded by Kyle Allen for 38 points in week 3.

It’s much harder to put points on the board when we are starting drives so far down the field.

Jamal Agnew, who fumbled in week 1, made up for it with a 100-yard kickoff return last Sunday.

Offensive Overview

Detroit is forcing the run, which they have to and I understand why they won’t abandon it. The whole scheme relies on predictability. I think struggling against the run is why we are so successful passing.

We saw it against the Eagles and Chargers, not so much against the Cardinals. Both teams were bringing pressure, leaving our receivers with one on one matchups. It comes at a price since we use these bunch sets and 12 personal formations to run and throw. If you bring more people closer to the line, more blitzes are used, and it’s easier to throw deep.

We see it on this Marvin Jones catch, two blitzes come crashing down and every receiver had a one on one matchup.

Eagles overplayed the run here, trusting their corners to win their one on one matchups, which is bold. That gives Stafford an advantage when throwing, but it makes it harder to run the ball when the box is stacked. We use formations like the one above for the majority of our games.

Not being able to run the ball gives opposing defenses an advantage as well. So in hindsight, we are offering an eye for an eye. We will allow you to stop the run by stacking the box, but we will throw all over you if you do so.

The problem is and it’s another reason it slows our offense down is that it puts Stafford in a lot of distinct passing situations. Where the defense knows the play will be a throw. How many times did we see the Eagles run their funky pass defense last week on obvious pass plays?

That’s why we need to be able to run-block even if opposing defenses are stacking the box.

Erik Schlitt, editor for The Lions Wire, points out that Kerryon faces an 8-man or more box more than any running back.

To fix the problem.

We need one thing to happen. Our run blocking needs to improve, and the offensive line needs to work on picking up blitzes and pushing the guy in front of them downfield. When we do that, we will have a dual-threat offense, an offense that could be one of the best in the league.

Using predictability on our side, if we can run the ball in these bunch/personal formations, it makes it much more tougher on the opposing defense to force punts.

To the offensive lines credit, they’ve been amazing in pass blocking, 0 sacks in the last two weeks after that blunder in Arizona. To put this in perspective, our pass blocking ranks 3rd in the NFL, but our run blocking ranks 26th.

Defense isn’t living up to expectations.

There is a specific reason for that, and there is hope for the unit to get better.

The pass-rush is non-existent.

We signed Trey Flowers to a 90 million 5-year deal this off-season. A lot of people seem to want him to be a bad signing. Outside of that week-1 dud, he’s been pretty good. Go back and watch the last two games; Flowers has been double-teamed continuously. He doesn’t get a break, and despite that, he goes 100% on every play.

This actually should give us an advantage, with Flowers taking up two linemen it should lead to a lot of one on one matchups for other pass rushers. When you look at it, who are the other pass rushers? We have Snacks and Robinson, but they are not suitable pass-rushers, they are elite run stoppers, but we aren’t asking them to get to the quarterback.

There is Mike Daniels who was injured early against the Eagles, Devon Kennard who will only rush the passer around half of his snaps, and Kevin Strong a un-drafted rookie. Jarrad Davis and Da’Shawn Hand were missing in our first two games, Davis came back last week, but he still needs to get back into things.

So we’ve been missing some players, it will get better, but the question is to what extent.

Flowers had a great game despite being double teamed on his pass rushes 17 times (give or take) during his 54 snaps (Includes snaps against the run).

The Lions rank in the bottom half of the league when it comes to pressure percentage, they will need other pass rushers to step up.

Why is having a pass rush so important? If you don’t put pressure on the quarterback, he will have an easy time finding an open receiver. It gives receivers more time to get away from defending cornerbacks. The quicker you can put pressure on a quarterback, the more likely he will make a mistake throwing the ball, which will lead to more turnovers.

Defensive Overview

Despite the issues the Lions have rushing the passer, we should be pleased with their performance so far.

Fatigue was the problem in the week-1 Arizona game. In those first three quarters, we played at an elite level. We put our foot off the gas in the 4th, we all know what happened.

We’ve done a solid job stopping the run as well. The Chargers found some success running the ball to the outside (a lot of that had to do with Jarrad Davis being missing), but ultimately couldn’t get things going. Excluding their 40 yard run, they were only able to get 85 yards on 23 carries from their running backs (3.7 YPC). The Eagles struggled too, only getting 94 yards on 26 carries (3.6 YPC)

The most impressive unit has been our secondary.

I’ve probably explained this about a million times already, but it’s ten times harder to cover a wide receiver when the opposing quarterback has all day to throw. Our secondary has been elite, with newcomers Justin Coleman and Rashaan Melvin playing great football.

In our three games, our secondary allowed 69 completions on 126 attempts, that’s a 55% completion rate. What’s even more impressive is that 126 attempts are tied for the most against a defense in the NFL (tied with Dallas). I’ll even double-down here, that 55% completion rate allowed is second-best in the NFL. New England being 1st in completion percentage allowed of course.

That’s a hell of a job if you ask me.

We are allowing 20.3 points per game, which ranks 12th. That number could be 13.3 points per game if we don’t allow the comeback against Arizona, which would rank 4th.

Simply put, if we find a way to provide a pass-rush this could become a defensive unit that is hard to score against.

Recap

To go over the main points, the Lions have a few things to do if they want to become one of the top teams in the NFL this season.

Offensively, get tougher upfront in run blocking. Despite putting themselves at a disadvantage with bunch/personal sets, they need to adjust against pressure and open holes. By doing this, running and throwing in this offense can both be explosive, instead of limiting themselves to one or the other.

Defensively, stay healthy and provide a pass rush. As long as we have everyone on the field, the Lions will stop the run, no doubt about that. But, to become an elite unit, we need to provide a pass-rush for the secondary. For now, our secondary is thriving, even without a constant pass-rush. I worry it won’t last for long. Once Davis is back in playing shape and Hand is healthy, we should see a boost in that department.

Lastly, play disciplined. Stay away from the penalty flags.

I am excited to see how Matt Patricia game plans against the Chiefs. This is one of our biggest tests early on in the season.