The Lions could easily be 3-0 right now. On Sunday, they will have a chance to sit on top of the NFC North if they can get past the undefeated Bears. Though only the 4th game of the season, this might be the biggest game of the Jim Schwartz era.
Detroit has a unique roster. There is serious star power at many positions including wide receiver, running back, and along the defensive line. On their best day, the Lions can beat anybody. On their worst day, they can also lose to anyone. It is this dichotomy that makes them so frustrating to follow.
Why do the Lions have such big highs and dreadful lows? Looking at the X’s and O’s provides some insight. The Lions are a team that simply relies too much on the big play. While big plays are important for any team, depending on them is like a baseball team that sits back and waits for the three-run homer every night. If there isn’t anything sustainable in between the big plays, it’s pretty easy to fall into a routine of inconsistency.
Let’s look at the Lions’ game against Arizona in week 2. In this contest, Calvin Johnson was able to break away from shut-down cornerback Patrick Peterson for a 74-yard TD catch and run. In the second half, DeAndre Levy picked off an errant pass from Carson Palmer and took it to the house for six. Usually big plays like this on the road lead to victory. However, it was the inconsistency between these plays that led to Detroit’s demise.
The Lions simply shot themselves in the foot too many times. Over the past few years, penalties and lack of discipline have hurt Detroit. This was evident again vs the Cardinals, but it was other factors that hurt them in this game as well. On offense and defense, this is a team that has become way too predictable. The receivers run the same patterns time and time again and make it easy for defenders to anticipate and jump routes. As good as Matthew Stafford is as a thrower, he still fails to make subtle adjustments at the line of scrimmage and is vulnerable vs the blitz.
The Lions were smart to add Reggie Bush in the offseason as a way to diversify the offense. However, the Lions are simply not a team that is going to commit to the run, which is necessary if you want to win consistently, especially on the road.
The Cardinals played with six defensive backs basically the entire game against Detroit. Sure, the Lions had a few nice runs against this personnel, but Arizona knew that running the ball was not something the Lions were going to do consistently. This made it easier for the Cardinals to dial up blitz packages and anticipate what Detroit was going to do late in the game. Yes, Reggie Bush was hurt in the 3rd quarter, but the Lions still have Joique Bell, who is more than capable of running against a small front like Arizona was showing.
On defense, the Lions have also struggled to maintain consistency. Blessed with one of the best front 4’s in football, the combination of Ndamukong Suh, Nick Fairley, Jason Jones, and Ezekiel Ansah has the ability to wreak havoc on any offense. However, just as the offense is too dependent on the big play, this defense gives up too many of these big plays.
This is a defense that relies on speed. They play the famous “wide-nine” technique (two Defensive Ends split out wide) and ask their front four to disrupt the gaps and get upfield to make plays. However, when their discipline breaks down, the big plays happen.
Going back to the game in Arizona, Carson Palmer was able to throw into wide open lanes off of play action time and time again since the Detroit linebackers and safeties were biting on almost every fake. The Cardinals were able to break a few big runs as well that set up scoring opportunities.
In Week 1 against the Vikings, the defense allowed Adrian Peterson to break off two huge runs including one for a 78-yard touchdown. He finished with only 93 yards on 18 carries, despite this long run. Detroit shut him down otherwise. This just shows how great the good can be, but how poor the bad can be.
On Sunday, the Lions are facing a Bears team that has lost one of its best run stoppers in Henry Melton. The Lions themselves will be without their second best wide receiver, Nate Burleson. You can bet that the Bears will scheme away Calvin Johnson with double teams and force Detroit to either run the ball, or challenge the middle of the field with Ryan Broyles and Brandon Pettigrew.
Sure, Stafford will still take his shots with Megatron as he should, but to beat the better teams in the league, Detroit must learn to play left handed. Beating up mediocre to bad defenses like Minnesota and Washington is all well and good, but if this team is ever going to take the next step to real contender status, they have to grow up and win in more than one way. This involves discipline and an ability to make adjustments. If they can’t do these things, the Jim Schwartz era may come to an end soon.