8:30 PM EST, ESPN – Line: Seattle -10
A pair of struggling teams clash tonight in the pacific northwest, as the Seattle Seahawks host the Detroit Lions on Monday Night Football. The 2014 campaign thus far has not been kind to the Lions (0-3, 4th in NFC North), who enter CenturyLink Stadium tonight still in search of their first victory. Tonight’s contest will mark their third road game in their first four outings, which is something that has definitely looked to have weighed upon Jim Caldwell’s charges. Coming off their best campaign in twenty-three years, Detroit endured some heavy losses in the offseason, particularly along their vaunted Defensive Line, with Defensive Tackles Nick Fairley and most notably Ndamukong Suh bolting in Free Agency. Without those massive behemoths wrecking havoc in the trenches and creating opportunities for their teammates, the Lions have taken a visible step back on this side of the ball. Oh what a difference a year makes; in 2014, Caldwell’s defense under Coordinator Teryl Austin was a revelation, yielding the third-fewest points (17.6) and second-fewest yards (300.9) in the NFl, while topping the league in rushing yards allowed (69.3) and yards per carry (3.2). To put things in perspective, Detroit permitted just two 100-yard rushing games all season in 2014. However, in 2015 with Suh counting his money on South Beach, the Lions have been far more forgiving in the trenches; through three tilts thus far, the defense has relinquished an average of 27.7 points per game (29th Overall) on 395.7 total yards (28th Overall), including 111.7 against the run (17th Overall) on 3.7 yards per carry (5th Overall). Top-tier Quarterbacks (Philip Rivers and Peyton Manning) have eviscerated them (388 and 313 yards respectively), while upper-echelon Rushers (Adrian Peterson) have trampled them (134 yards). Simply put, the Lions are missing their teeth. Suh (54 tackles, 8.5 sacks in 2014), and to a lesser extent Fairley, were the foundation of this unit, allowing the likes of Pass Rusher Ezekiel Ansah (7.5 sacks, 3 forced fumbles in 214) and Linebacker DeAndre Levy (155 tackles, 2.5 sacks, 1 interception, 1 safety in 2014) to make plays. Both players are expected to miss tonight’s clash, as the former continues to cope with the lingering effects of a groin injury, while the latter has yet to take the field in 2015 courtesy of an ailing hip. So void of playmakers and leaders, it’s no wonder the Lions have struggled so mightily on defense, but what in the name of Barry Sanders has happened to their cohorts on the opposite side of the ball?
That’s right folks, you didn’t really think that responsibility for Detroit’s listless start to the campaign would solely be on the shoulders of the defense, did you? Oh no, for in many respects it has been the offense that has earned their dubious record, with some surprisingly lethargic play. Simply put, this was a top-tier unit well before Caldwell, a very experienced and respected offensive mind, arrived in the Motor City; the Lions ranked fifth, third, and sixth from 2011 to 2013 in Total Offense, thanks in large to part to the rocket arm of Quarterback Matthew Stafford and the otherworldly exploits of Wideout Calvin Johnson. Explosive would be the word best used to describe this group, but when Caldwell arrived, he was tasked with making them more balanced and efficient. And so he did, which also played a role in the defense’s rise to the league’s elite. But as has been the theme in this column thus far, things have changed dramatically in 2015; through three games, Stafford and Co. have regressed exponentially, averaging just 18.7 points (25th Overall) on 316.0 yards per game (27th Overall), including a league-worst 45.0 yards (32nd Overall) on a scant 2.6 yards per carry (32nd Overall). You read those final two figures correctly, people; the Lions have mustered a mere 135 yards through three games, which is 64 yards less than they permitted Minnesota to rack up against them in Week Two. Injuries along the Offensive Line, particularly to Guard Larry Warford (ankle), have played a sizeable role in their pitiful production on the ground, but a scarcity of attempts has also played culprit in their rushing woes; Caldwell has seen his charges rush the ball just fifty-one times thus far, parlaying to 17.0 attempts per game, second-fewest in the league. Playing from behind will oftentimes force a team to abandon the ground game, and Detroit has seemingly participated sans a lead ever since their second-half collapse at San Diego in the Opener. However, space, or the lack there of, is also a huge factor here, and that can be placed squarely on the Lions’ passing attack; one thing that you could always count on with these guys was that they would air it out as Stafford and Johnson became arguably the most feared passing combination in the NFL, but now that magic has curiously disappeared. With his Net Yards per Attempt checking in at well over 6.0 yards per pass for four consecutive years, Stafford has seen that statistic decline to 5.82 (25th Overall), meaning that he and the Lions are no longer stretching defenses vertically, instead preferring to dink and dunk their way down the field to the ninth-most passing yards in the league (271.3). Granted, he’s taken a beating in the pocket to this point, with the Offensive Line providing little in the way of protection, so checking down has come as a necessity to survival, but it has also negated the talents of Johnson virtually altogether. Megatron as he’s been dubbed, has hauled in twenty balls on thirty-four targets for 199 yards and a score, but his 10.0 yards per reception is easily the lowest average of his illustrious career, while his 66.3 yards per game is his lowest such number since his rookie campaign in 2007. So in the end, the question is what happens to a Lion when you remove it’s teeth and claws? We don’t know, but winless appears to be an appropriate answer.
While not necessarily in the dire straits of their opponent tonight, the Seahawks (1-2, third in NFC West) haven’t been themselves thus far, which has many claiming that their two-year hold on the NFC has come to an end. The two-time defending NFC Champions kicked off the 2015 campaign with an inauspicious 0-2 start, marred by turnovers and poor play on both sides of the ball. Some attribute their problems to the monumental hangover that exists after their debilitating gaffe at the crescendo of Super Bowl XLVIV, leading to defeat at the hands of the New England Patriots. Instead of using the Offseason pondering “what might have been”, Pete Carroll and his charges simply tried to get better; Seattle acquired All-Pro Tight End Jimmy Graham from the Saints in exchange for draft picks and their starting Center Max Unger, while doling out a massive contract extension to Quarterback Russell Wilson. However, minor issues began to grow into glaring weaknesses as the season drew closer, particularly along the Offensive Line, which had been subject to massive upheaval after the departure of Unger, and on defense where Pro Bowl Safety Kam Chancellor continued a protracted holdout in search of a new deal himself. In regards to the Line, Position Coach Tom Cable clearly had his work cut out for him; reshuffling a unit that had been largely responsible for supporting the league’s top rushing offense in 2014 is no easy task, and the results have been evident on the field thus far. Apart from Left Tackle Russell Okung and Guard J.R. Sweezy, the rest of this unit is completely new, with the likes of Gary Gilliam, Justin Britt, Alvin Bailey, and Mark Glowinski, forced to make up the remainder of a unit where continuity and chemistry are often paramount. Surprisingly, through three games they haven’t fared much worse than their predecessors, helping the Seahawks churn out an average of 134.0 yards (4th Overall) on a healthy 4.7 yards per carry (2nd Overall), with three rushers racking up over 100 yards apiece. Depth will be key tonight, for Pro Bowl Tailback Marshawn Lynch is expected to be inactive after tweaking his hamstring in last Sunday’s 26-0 shutout of the Bears. Look for newly-acquired veteran Fred Jackson to see a number of carries in his once-former and now-current teammate’s absence, while the unheralded Thomas Rawls could be a sneaky Fantasy Play for those interested in such things; the undrafted rookie out of Central Michigan exploded against the Bears for 104 yards on sixteen carries.
In regards to the defense, the league’s top-ranked unit two years running, things look to be better now that Chancellor has decided to end his holdout and return to his brothers in Seattle’s vaunted Secondary. Without the hard-hitting Safety occupying his role as enforcer in the middle of the park, Carroll was resigned to filling that void with the likes of journeymen Defensive Backs such as DeShawn Shead and Deion Bailey, the former of which committed a huge Pass Interference penalty in the team’s 34-31 Overtime Loss at St. Loss in the Opener, and the latter of which was promptly released after getting burned in the following week’s 27-17 loss at Green Bay. So back home and with their defensive juggernaut complete once more, Chancellor and his teammates did what you would expect them to do against a sluggish Chicago offense led by Jimmy Clausen and missing a number of players due to injury; simply put, they humiliated them. With the deafening noise from their fans swarming around them, the Seahawks smothered the Bears, relinquishing a mere 146 total yards, including a miniscule 48 versus the pass. Clausen was a scant 9-of-17 for 63 yards, and was sacked twice, while converting on just three of their thirteen attempts on Third Down. Even with Defensive Linemen Brandon Mebane (groin) and Bruce Irvin (knee) likely to miss tonight’s clash with the Lions, you can expect this unit to get after an opponent that has simply failed to build much momentum at all when in possession of the ball. And speaking of possessing the ball, it seems as if the aforementioned Graham is starting to find his footing in the Emerald City; the three-time Pro Bowler caught seven of the eight passes thrown his way last Sunday for 83 yards and a score, bringing his total yardage to 145 on the year. Two weeks ago, Graham voiced his displeasure in his role in the offense, which called for him to block far more than he was ever asked to do in New Orleans, where he was virtually a glorified Wide Receiver, or at least that’s what he and his agent argued when he was hit with the dreaded Franchise Tag. As the Offensive Line has continued to come together, his blocking assignments have decreased, which means that Wilson will be looking to utilize him more frequently as a pass-catcher than as a pass-protector. But hey, if not for nothing, that 1-2 start has uncovered a sparkling new weapon for Carroll and his staff to deploy: electrifying Returner Tyler Lockett. Simply put, the Third-Round Pick out of Kansas State made quite the impression in the preseason returning Kicks and Punts, and thus far has brought a whole new dimension to this team. In the opener at St. Louis, Lockett returned a pair of Punts for 63 yards, with one going for a score, and in last week’s romp over the Bears returned a Kick-Off 105 yards for a touchdown. Through three outings, the Rookie is leading the league at 34.2 yards per Kick Return, while netting 13.4 yards per Punt Return. If we were Jim Caldwell, we may consider kicking away from this kid.