It’s gut check time for the Detroit Lions. With the Lions heading into Denver on Sunday, we’ll discover if we have a new version of the “same ole Lions” or it’s going to be different from now on. After winning 5 games in a row to start the season, it appeared our team had finally turned the corner. The last two weeks have brought us back to reality. Reality checks can be good though, and I’m not concerned for several reasons.
The first is the most obvious. I’ve written it before, and it’s still true…did you see the Lions at 5-2 after 7 games? I definitely didn’t. And it’s not like those two losses were against bad teams. The 49ers may have already won the NFC West. The Falcons were 13-3 last year and are definitely better than their 3-3 start indicated. No shame in losing to those two teams.
The problem is they were home losses. Now the Lions have to go on the road for the next two. The good news is they are both winnable games. Sunday, the Lions go to a 2-4 Bronco team that is the height of Tebow-mania. If they can avoid the hype and play the game, they should be able to come away victorious. Face it, the Broncos were on the matt in Miami before the winless Dolphins let them off the hook.
If Detroit can take another road game, they would then head into their bye week at 6-2. They would then head to Chicago to take on the Bears on the 13th. The bye would give them two weeks to prepare for Matt Forte, and I like those odds.
I believe the biggest concern has to be the lack of a running game. The Lions are averaging barely over 90 yards per game, which is in the bottom 5th of the league. Add to that the concussion issues for Jahvid Best, and fans can’t really expect that number to go higher much faster.
Best himself wasn’t exactly setting the world on fire, though. His numbers are deceivingly good. He has 84 carries for 390 yards, good for 4.6 yards per carry. Let’s take out that 88 yard dash against the Bears. Best’s numbers are now 83 for 302 and 3.6 yards per carry. I’m sure a lot of backs would have similar drops if you took away their biggest carry, but a full yard!
Those numbers are forgivable if your offensive line is taking care of your quarterback. The problem is, the front 5 hasn’t been doing that either. During the 5 game winning streak to start the season, Matt Stafford was only sacked 6 times. In the last two games, he’s been sacked 8. Yes, Stafford hasn’t been great, but he’s been hearing foot steps a lot more the last two weeks.
Shockingly enough, the front four defensively hasn’t done anything AGAINST the run. The Lions rank 28th against opponent’s ground game. I understand they are a group of pass rush specialists, but someone has to step up and take care of the ground game. You can’t pin your ears back on every play. There are two parts to defense. You have to play both.
I think for the most part, it’s the chunk plays that have the Lions run defense looking worse than it is. Frank Gore had a 55 yard dash and two others over 10. Take those out of the mix, and Gore has 12 carries for 75 yards. Again, not great, but better than the 141 they gave up.
I don’t mean to tear the Lions down. They have a lot going right. Their pass defense has been terrific, ranking 7th in the NFL. Matthew Stafford has been as good as advertised. He’s only got 4 interceptions, thrown 16 touchdowns, and looked rock solid. The worry is he is day-to-day with the leg, but hey, it’s not a shoulder. Calvin Johnson has been…well…megatron.
I think the biggest problem the Lions have is making the big plays at the right time the last two weeks. For example, Atlanta gets the ball back with 7:33 to go in the fourth up by 7 at their 23 yard line. First play? An 18 yard pass play. You’ve immediately flipped the field. Now granted, the Lions still held, but they ended up getting the ball back at the 13, instead of maybe the thirty.
Another example comes right from the next drive. The two minute offense was off to a great start. They still had all three time outs and were at the Falcon 41 when Stafford threw to Nate Burleson on an out route. Maybe Matt threw it a hair early, but Nate had his hands on the ball. I don’t care what level or what situation, when you get two hands on the ball, you have to make the catch.
I’m going to go with one more example. The Lions get the big play with the interception on Atlanta’s first drive. How do you follow that up on offense? Back to back sacks. The Lions are making a play, but they aren’t finishing. Throw in penalties (and a lot of them), and you’re going to end up missing a lot of great opportunities.
The good news is most of these problems are correctable. The even better news is I still have complete faith that Jim Schwartz is the kind of coach that can correct them. I know it’s still early in his head coaching career, but look what he’s done already (0-16 in 2008 to 5-2 in 2011 is an accomplishment). I believe he will iron these issues out, and the Lions will head into their bye at 6-2.