Part 13 of my 32-part series breaking down every team’s performance in 2021. Check out part 12 here: Pittsburgh Steelers. Part 14 available now: Green Bay Packers.
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Expectations bottomed out for Detroit in 2021. After trading Matthew Stafford for Jared Goff and going into the season with a wide receiver corps of Kalif Raymond, Quintez Cephus, and rookie Amon-Ra St. Brown, they were clearly in rebuilding mode. Unsurprisingly, they tried to lean on the ground game and the short area passing game featuring running backs and tight ends to capitalize on their offensive strengths, which theoretically involved an excellent offensive line.
But the offensive line did not stay healthy. Taylor Decker missed almost half the season. Ragnow missed over half the season. Penei Sewell experienced some rookie growing pains without the consistency of having his best teammates available. And on top of that, some of their most important skill players (Goff, Hockenson, Swift) also missed games. It would have been easy for the team to give up, but Dan Campbell insisted they play hard until the last snap of every game.
This attitude pervaded the entire season. If there was any doubt about Campbell’s uncompromising approach to winning meaningless games, that doubt was erased in Week 18 when they came back from a deficit late in the fourth quarter against Green Bay. All they had to do was let Green Bay win and they would have locked up the #1 pick in this year’s draft. Campbell preferred to win. In the long run, I think this type of culture-building move can have lasting positive ramifications, especially because the difference between the #1 and #2 picks this season does not appear significant.
With so much flux on offense there were no noticeable trends about the Lions’ offensive performance per game. But with a strong offensive line and an accurate quarterback when comfortable, they excelled against soft coverage in garbage time when Goff typically had a clean pocket. Every big spread was in danger to the backdoor with this combination of performing well against soft coverage and Dan Campell’s unyielding aggressiveness late in games.
If they head into 2022 healthy, I believe this offense can take a step forward. Rookie wide receiver St. Brown showed flashes of brilliance late, ignored by most outside of the fantasy football community. They run the ball well, particularly when Swift is healthy, and project to have a strong offensive line to keep the quarterback upright. It’s easy to get excited about this offense and its prospects for improving. They should be able to stay competitive to a greater degree than they did in 2021.
Paradoxically, this also presents a challenge. If the Lions are more competitive they will be playing fewer snaps in garbage time, which is when they were most effective in 2021. No matter how much they improve, they will still have either Jared Goff or a rookie quarterback leading the way. There is potential for diminishing returns on how much this team can improve until they find a permanent solution at quarterback. I do think Goff presents the best chance to win now, but it’s to be determined whether that is what Lions ownership wants. If they build the team around him correctly, they could have a prime situation for a rookie QB heading into 2023.
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Ultimately, it’s difficult to get behind the Lions after they managed to field the NFL’s worst defense for two consecutive years. That’s hard to do. Once again, opposing offenses typically did whatever they wanted to against the Lions. You didn’t have to have an elite quarterback or complex offensive concepts. You just needed to take care of the ball and put the ball in the hands of your best players.
They gave up 40+ points three times on the season, to San Francisco, Philadelphia, and Seattle. They also played poorly on defense against the Packers, Rams, and Broncos. These are all teams with a clear offensive identity, primarily wanting to run the ball. San Francisco wanted to run the ball well to set up explosive plays in the passing game. This led to 311 yards on just 26 attempts. Deebo Samuel, George Kittle, and Eli Mitchell accounted for 371 of the 49ers’ 442 offensive yards in that game, so they basically just used their primary options repeatedly and successfully.
Philadelphia was at its best when able to run all day, so they ran 46 times against the Lions and Hurts attempted only 14 passes. If a defense can’t stop a team from consistently running for first downs, it’s going to be a long day. The Seahawks also ran 41 times with an incredible 6.5 yards per carry average. These teams weren’t throwing anything complex at the Lions. They were just winning up front, creating holes, and capitalizing. When you give up 6+ yards a carry, you don’t have much of a chance for turnovers or negative plays. You don’t have much of a chance to win.
It didn’t help that the Lions led the NFL in missed tackles. They also allowed the highest average depth of target to opposing quarterbacks, who were rarely under pressure. These deep passes were successful because they didn’t have great coverage and blitzed a lot, unsuccessfully. Pressuring at the 4th-lowest rate while blitzing at the 9th-highest rate will create problems in coverage for any secondary. It showed the negative impact of the Lions’ aggressiveness on defense without the talent to back it up.
Losing Trey Flowers for most of the season didn’t help their ability to get pressure. But this team has had defensive injuries every year that have knocked them off course. It’s not clear they would be much better even if they were healthy. They can address some of this with their excellent draft capital in the 2022 draft, but it could take a while for them to beef up the edge rush and coverage, which is what they will need. They also need to play more consistently and disciplined. Although stopping the run is not a huge part of success in the NFL, you need to be able to stop the run when you know it’s coming. The Lions could not.
Dan Campbell’s coaching style is well suited for a dominant defense. He is aggressive and emotional. This coaching style can make a good defense better, hyping up big plays and getting the team excited. But it can be a double-edged sword when the defense lacks talent. Constantly getting hyped up only to be disappointed can end up having negative effects on the field. In my opinion, the defense will need to improve dramatically for the Lions for them to take a step forward as a team, even if the offense improves.
When to bet on the Lions: The Lions offense will likely be underrated, particularly if they play with Goff. He is actually a fine pocket quarterback when given time and weapons. He lacked both last year but a healthy offensive line should greatly benefit him. They make great bets as large underdogs due to their success against soft coverage and aggressiveness late in losses.
When to fade the Lions: If they start to get enough credit for these close losses again, it could be time to fade the Lions. Ultimately they are limited in competitive games with defensive liabilities and a quarterback who isn’t good enough to put the team on his shoulders. When matched up against a team like the Eagles that isn’t a top team but can really pour it on a bad team, it’s time to back off the Lions.
What to look for in the offseason: Assuming the offensive line heads into 2022 healthy, I’m looking for defensive reinforcements and the acquisition of one more outside wide receiver to take some of the pressure off St. Brown. If they can add a few defensive playmakers they may be able to get out of the basement on defense and that will go a long way to bringing them back to competitiveness. We saw the Cowboys completely change the narrative on defense with Micah Parsons, so it is possible (but unlikely).
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