The 14th-ranked Lions offense held its own primarily thanks to Matthew Stafford’s solid play and an offensive line that held up fairly well all season. Stafford has been carrying the Lions for years and 2020 was no exception. With a bad defense, top receiver Kenny Golladay out with injury for most of the year, and persistent under-utilization of rookie D’Andre Swift, it typically fell on Stafford’s shoulders to try to keep the Lions in games.
The Lions implemented a strong passing game that involved a healthy amount of deep passes while maintaining accuracy. This is a testament to both Stafford and the offensive line, which generally gave him a pocket long enough for plays to develop. But without Golladay, this receiving core was not good. The Lions suffered the 2nd-highest drop rate in the NFL. This cost them dearly, none more than Swift’s drop of a perfect would-be game winning touchdown pass by Stafford with 6 seconds left against the Bears in Week 1.
Stafford is simply one of the best clutch quarterbacks in the league. He has orchestrated 38 game-winning drives, which ranks near the top of the all-time list (at least from when they started tracking the stat). But what sticks out is the percentage of his total wins that required him to deliver in the clutch. Over half his wins involved a game-winning drive, significantly more than any other quarterback on the list.
All-Time QB Game-Winning Drives
|Game-Winning Drives||% of Total Wins|
I added Goff to the table to contrast his effectiveness in clutch situations to Stafford’s. Part of this naturally reflects the quality of defenses each quarterback has played with. Teams with better defenses will win more games without the quarterback needing to come from behind. But part of it reflects what Stafford has been capable of his entire career. Goff has not proven the same capability.
The Lions didn’t run a lot, in part because they were often losing and in part because they were bad at it. Their passing game gained the 12th-highest net yards per pass while their run game was only 25th in yards per carry. Without a run game to speak of for the most part, the Lions failed to take advantage against teams that were vulnerable on the ground.
*Omitted Week 16 v. TB because Stafford played only a few snaps.
This chart tracks Detroit’s offensive Adjusted Rating ranking each opponent by its yards per carry allowed on the season. They showed a downward trend in relative performance against teams that were weak against the run, with two of their worst offensive games against CAR (-1.29) and HOU (-0.62), who were 28th and 32nd against the run, respectively. They just didn’t have the ground-and-pound capability in the run game in spite of their offensive line.
Breaking down their running game shows the issues they faced. They were 7th in the league in yards before contact per carry, but 31st in yards after contact per carry. This is not a perfect indication of poor running back play and good line play, because running back decision-making plays a factor in both categories, but it does illustrate that the running backs likely shouldered most of the blame.
But not all of the Lions’ running backs were equally bad. D’Andre Swift was significantly better than Adrian Peterson and Kerryon Johnson as a runner and contributed more in the passing game.
DET RB Comparison
But Swift also lost two fumbles and dropped that game-winner against Chicago. I understand why the Lions brought him along slowly, and just as his usage was ramping up he got injured. But despite some rookie growing pains, the offense was simply better with Swift on the field. They were more diverse and he brought an element that the offense otherwise lacked.
*Omitted Week 16 v. TB because Stafford played only a few snaps
This chart tracks Detroit’s offensive Adjusted Rating in each game ranked by Swift’s snap count percentage. They generally played better the more Swift got involved, including two of their most impressive offensive performances of the season against TEN (+0.63) and WAS (+0.92), the only two games in which Swift played at least 65% of the snaps. And their two worst performances came in games where Swift did not play.
The Lions spent their early draft capital on another strong offensive lineman, so I expect that Goff will have plenty of clean pockets to throw from. This is huge for Goff, as he has performed much better during his career when not under heavy pressure. I also anticipate the Lions will feature Swift in his second year, knowing he gives them their best shot at winning. The weakness on offense will be the receiving core, which has now permanently lost both Golladay and Marvin Jones. And Goff simply isn’t Matthew Stafford when it comes to football IQ and ability. If the defense is as bad as it was in 2020, Goff likely will not match Stafford’s ability to pull out wins.
Now for the easiest sentence I’ve had to write this off-season: the Lions defense was bad. I graded them as the worst defense in the NFL, although it was close. They did not get pressure and they did not cover well. Injuries played a role in this result, but you do not get anywhere in today’s NFL without stopping the pass. And, without pressure or coverage, it was no surprise that the Lions had the worst passing defense in the league. This led to some massive performances against them by receivers, particularly those players who could turn a small amount of looks into a ton of yards.
Big WR Games v. DET
On the surface they were relatively better against the run, giving up a below-average 4.4 yards per carry on the season. But I am very skeptical of this raw number. Lions opponents were typically playing with a lead, and teams protecting a lead or grinding the clock tend to run for fewer yards per play. There was nothing inherently good about the Lions’ run defense from my view. In fact, when you measure yards per game, they were 5th-worst in the NFL.
The Lions were beating the Bears soundly in Week 1 before Mitchell Trubisky led a massive comeback. That shows you how poor this defense was. But it also set the tone for the season, in which the Lions simply could not finish games defensively. They suffered defensive injuries and realized fairly early they were not a playoff team. They fired their coach and their defense declined over the course of the season, playing its worst football at the end of the year.
*Omitted Week 17 v. MIN with no Dalvin and nothing to play for.
This chart shows the Lions’ defensive Adjusted Rating by game, omitting a meaningless Week 17 game. They trended downwards from around their sixth game against the Falcons. Even their outlier against Carolina is skewed because P.J. Walker played quarterback for the Panthers in that game, and the Lions were still shut out 20-0. They were at their worst in Week 15 and 16 against TEN (-1.57) and TB (-2.17), who scored 46 and 47 points in those games.
So the Lions hired a tough coach who appears set on rebuilding the team’s identity. The problem is that I’m not sure they upgraded their defensive personnel. They could certainly be healthier in 2021, and that would help. But their defense remains a heavy liability that will cost them, particularly without Stafford to bail them out.
Putting it All Together
- Overall, the Lions are fairly rated heading into the offseason. They were really bad in 2020 and they took a downgrade at quarterback. But this is reflected in their projections. They appear to be rebuilding for the future, and 2021 likely will not be their year.
- With strong protection and increased usage of Swift, this offense could offset some of what it loses in the passing game with a stronger running game. Do not completely write off the offense with Goff.
- Do not anticipate a defensive resurgence until they get the personnel to pressure and cover effectively.
- The Lions will likely not win many games in 2021, with a quarterback who has struggled in his career when playing from behind and a defense that remains bad. However, with good protection against soft coverage, I expect Goff will lead a few backdoor covers when given a big spread. Be wary laying a lot of points against the Lions.
Fantasy and Player Prop Takeaways
- Goff is going to have to throw to someone. With good protection and projected to play from behind, I think there will be some receiving production here on the season. I’ll wait and see how the roster shakes out but I’ll have increased interest in Hockenson and whoever projects to catch passes here.
- I like what I saw out of D’Andre Swift as a rookie. I typically avoid running backs on bad teams, but I think Swift is versatile enough to contribute in the passing game and at the goal line, and I believe the offensive line is good enough to sustain a good fantasy running back. I also expect Goff to check down a lot with weak wide receiver play. This could be a breakout year for Swift.
- The Lions defense makes for a DFS stack gold mine. Go crazy.
Application: SharpClarke Bet of the Year
On Thanksgiving Day, the Texans came to Detroit as 3-point favorites. I thought, at full strength, this spread was about right. The Texans were a slightly better team overall and home field meant very little in 2020. But the Lions were already down Golladay and Amendola, and Swift was announced out of the game. They were also missing a cornerback. Watson was set to abuse the Lions’ secondary and I had my doubts that Detroit could take advantage of the Texans’ run defense with Peterson and Kerryon. The Texans had faced a difficult schedule and I expected them to take advantage of a bad team not playing at full strength. I put 2 Units on HOU -3 and they won comfortably, 41-25.