The Lions have one of the most confounding offenses in the NFL. They have an extremely talented quarterback, arguably the best wide receiver in the game, and weapons at the #2 wide receiver position, tight end, and running back. Injuries might offer some explanation for why they finished 22nd in the league in points scored this season. The larger issue, however, is that there is no sustaining element to this offense.
The Lions are so frustrating because they flash so much potential. We’ve seen Matthew Stafford fire unbelievable passes into tiny windows with unmatched velocity and Aaron Rodgers-like downfield accuracy. We’ve see Calvin Johnson use his body to make plays no other receiver can. All of this doesn’t always translate to points, though.
Take the Lions’ Week 17 game against the Packers for instance. Detroit had several drives where they ate up big chunks of yards on multiple plays. Several were executed with clinical precision. Many of these drives resulted in no points, though. This is because in between those great plays, the Lions weren’t able to continually move the ball. This is one of the major problems they’ve had all season.
The Lions threw 239 incompletions this season, the 4th most in the NFL. That’s a lot of plays where the ball isn’t being moved forward. Additionally, their running game is one of the worst in the league. The effect of these two weaknesses is a lot of 3rd-and-long situations. Detroit finished 2014 with the 3rd-most attempts in this department. 3rd-and-longs are seldom converted. Even the best team in the league converts less than 40% of these plays. Find yourself in too many of these situations, and you’ll find a failure to keep drives going and put up points.
Much of Detroit’s lack of sustained offense is due to the quarterback. Before we get into the bad, let’s talk about the good, though. Matthew Stafford has improved tremendously this season. The numbers might not clearly show it, but he doesn’t throw off his back foot anywhere near as often as he has throughout his career. He is stepping into his throws more regularly, and this has translated into fewer interceptions. He also finished with the 2nd-highest completion percentage of his career (60.3%). While this was an improvement from previous seasons, he is still somewhat erratic with his throws.
With all that said, it’s time to get into the bad: Stafford still comes up short in his ability to manage the game. This is his biggest issue. The play below from Detroit’s Week 17 game against Green Bay is a perfect example. This was in the first quarter, and the Lions had a 3rd-and-long (no surprise) from their own 10-yard line. The Packers rotated to a single-high safety look.
Stafford had 3 receivers to his left. The underneath coverage rolled to that side to handle those receivers. This left the middle of the field wide open.
Tight end Eric Ebron, the #3 receiver inside, was running a deep crossing route to the middle of the field. Based on his route and where the linebacker over him (Brad Jones) was playing, Stafford had an easy completion that would have likely converted the 3rd down.
But Stafford saw the single high safety, knew he had a 1-on-1 on the outside, and couldn’t help taking a shot.
Stafford chose the low-percentage throw to Corey Fuller instead of working the underneath coverage where there happened to be a wide-open receiver. His mindset was to try for the big play. Deep in your own territory, early in a scoreless game, your mindset has to be conservative. You need to look to pick up yards, hopefully get a first down, but at very least give your punter more room. Stafford didn’t do this. Ironically, had he taken the safer approach, he would have hit his tight end for a pretty big chunk of yards. The Lions gave up a punt return TD on the next play.
When Detroit plays Dallas this Sunday, they’ll be facing the most sustaining offense in the NFL. The Cowboys can beat you with big plays, but in between those, they run the heck out of the ball. They pick up yards consistently through the air. They’re always moving forward, and this keeps them in more manageable situations. It’s no surprise that the Cowboys have faced the fewest 3rd-and-long attempts in the NFL this season. If Detroit wants to escape Dallas with a win, they cannot be a hit or miss offense. They need to keep drives going to put up points and give their defense a breather from what should be a physical and exhausting battle with the best offensive line in the league.