It’s the start of a new era in the Motor City, where the Detroit Lions will be starting over with a new Head Coach, landing the coveted Matt Patricia, the former longtime Defensive Coordinator of the New Enland Patriots to oversee the renovation of this Franchise. After a disappointing 9-7 finish that saw them narrowly miss the Playoffs, General Manager Bob Quinn felt the need for a change, ultimately relieveing Jim Caldwell of his duties. And honestly, it would be hard to argue that the time was indeed right for a makeover in Detroit; going 25-23 over the previous three seasons, the Lions had become dangerously one-dimensional on Offense, running the risk of wasting the prime years of teh career of their Quarterback Matthew Stafford. So Quinn, a longtime scout for the Patriots and thier former Director of both Scouting and Player Personnel settled on a familair face, as this team looks to closer emulate the New England model. With that said, there are a number of things that Patricia and Co. must clean up, which will ultimately dictate just whether or not the Lions will make the leap back into the Playoffs or continue to hover around .500.
For years now, the Lions’ Offense, which despite being productive, has been overly one-dimensional, lacking any semblance of a Running Game. This has had a negative influence on the Passing Attack, and more particularly Matthew Stafford (65.7%, 4,456 YDS, 6.80 NY/A, 29 TD, 10 INT, 61.8 QBR in 2017), who despite possessing one the strongest arms in the league, is oftentimes relegated to getting the ball out of his hands on short-to-intermediate passes. Detroit tried to address this glaring weakness last year, choosing instead to remodel the Offensive Line (which we’ll get into in a bit), though that didn’t have close to the desired effect on the Rushing Attack. Instead of getting better, they bottomed out, averaging a league-worst 76.3 Yards on 3.4 Yards per Carry, while only attempting a miniscule 22.7 Rushes a Game (31st Overall). Former Second Round Pick Ameer Abdullah (165 CAR, 552 YDS, 4 TD in 2017) has been injury prone and as he enters a crucial contract year, while Theo Riddick (53 REC, 444 YDS, 2 TD in 2017) has proven far more effective in the passing game than running inbetween the Tackles. So Quinn and Patricia decided to add some serious muscle to this group, drafting SEC-Leading Rusher Kerryon Johnson, while also adding former Patriot LeGarrette Blount (173 CAR, 776 YDS, 2 TD in 2017), which should really provide a boost for a team that didn’t have a single player rush for 600 Yards or net at least 4.0 Yards per Carry. Granted, some of their problems also came down to Offensive Coordinator Jim Bob Cooter’s scheme, but at the same time, there really wasn’t anyone on the roster equipped to fulfill this function of the Offense. Expect Johnson and Blount to work in tandem with each other, as Cooter mixes Riddick in on Third Down, where Detroit was suprisingly sharp, converting on 38.8% of their Attempts (17th Overall). That figure should only increase with an improved Ground Game.
As we stated earlier, a huge reason that the Lions were so unbalanced offensively was due to the fact that the Offensive Line was a mess, and that was with the Franchise making a concerted effort to improve one of the worst position groups in the league. Last Offseason, they attempted to beef up the right side of the Line, signing veterans Ricky Wagner and T.J. Lang in Free Agency. While the two certainly had some strong showings, they missed three games apiece, which when coupled with injuries to both Center Travis Sawnson (Missed Five Games in 2017) and Sophomore Left Tackle Taylor Decker (Missed Eight Games in 2017), meant that the Coaching Staff was forced to field a different Starting Lineup virtually every week. Quinn let Swanson walk in the Offseason, while this year’s First Round Pick was spent on Frank Ragnow, a promising Center out of Arkansas who excelled in Pass-Protection. It’s absolutely imperative that this unit comes together and stays healthy, for the aforementioned Stafford spent much of 2017 under duress; the Nine-Year Veteran was sacked a career-high forty-seven times last term, or in other words on 7.7% of his dropbacks, which made it all the more remarkable that he managed to average a stellar 6.80 Net Yards per Attempt, his third-highest showing yet. It really leaves one to imagine what this Offense can do with better Pass-Protection, and as we mentioned before, a better Ground Game, for even with those deficiencies the Lions were one of the better teams in the NFL on this side of the football, averaging 25.6 Points (7th Overall) on 337.8 Total Yards (13th Overall). Another year of continuity in Cooter’s system should only help matters for a unit that could be primed to make a major leap in 2018.
With the arrival of Matt Patricia, substantial change is on the horizon for a Detroit Defense that regressed in 2017. The Lions yielded 23.5 Points per Game (21st Overall) on 355.8 Total Yards (27th Overall), including 243.3 versus the Pass (27th Overall) on 6.4 Net Yards per Attempt (22nd Overall), along with another 112.5 Yards against the Run (18th Overall) on 4.2 Yards per Carry (21st Overall). Furthermore, they were abysmal in the Red Zone, permitting a Touchdown on a dismal 61.8% of thier opponents’ attempts (29th Overall), all the while amassing just Thirty-Five Sacks (20th Overall). Their only saving grace was their ability to force Turnovers, compiling a healthy thirty-two (3rd Overall), nineteen of which were interceptions (4th Overall), with a ballhawking Secondary leading the way. Darius Slay (60 TKL, 8 INT, 26 PD, 1 FR in 2017) earned his first All-Pro nod after leading the league in Interceptions (8), while Glover Quin (84 TKL, 3 INT, 6 PD, 1 TD, 4 FF, 1 FR in 2017) continues to be one of the most underrated Safeties in the game, with the likes of Quandrae Diggs (54 TKL, 1.0 SK, 3 INT, 9 PD, 1 FF in 2017) providing excellent depth and versatility at Cornerback. The real question is just how the rest of this unit will take to the transition towards Patricia’s Hybrid 4-3 Defensive Front, and if they even have the personnel to realistically even employ that kind of scheme at the moment. Paul Pasqualoni takes over for the departed Teryl Austin at Defensive Coordinator, looking to help ease the change to a Front in which versatility is paramount, and right now, it’s hard to find much of that on the roster. Ezekiel Ansah (44 TKL, 12.0 SK, 1 PD, 1 FF in 14 Games in 2017) has plenty of talent but injuries and inconsistent play have plagued him over the past years, while former Second Round Pick A’Shawn Robinson (53 TKL, 0.5 SK, 1 INT, 6 PD, 1 TD, 1 FF in 2017) has yet live up to his billing at Defensive Tackle. With Haloti Ngata gone, Patricia will need someone to occupy blockers, so that the likes of newly acquired Linebackers Christian Jones, Devon Kennard, and Jonathan Freeny can make plays. The bottom line is that this could be a very difficult year for a group that doesn’t necessarily fit the requirements to run Patricia’s preferred New England scheme, which means that he and Pasqualoni will in all likelihood ease them into the new system, while leaning on the previous model at first.
2018 Outlook: 8-8
With a new Head Coach, a revolution on Defense, and a beefed-up running game, it’s hard to see the Detroit Lions being much more than what they’ve been in each of the previous three seasons, which is a fringe Playoff Team. Truth be told, they’re far closer to the middle of the pack than they are contending for a Super Bowl. Despite poor Pass-Protection and the absence of a true ground game, Matthew Stafford was excellent, and should benefit greatly from the additions that were made on this side of football. However, there is a great deal of uncertainty on Defense, where the transition to this Patriots-esque scheme could be a jarring one, for there simply aren’t enough players on this unit that really fit the profile for Patricia’s system. Ansah in particular will need to be become more versatile, while the rest of the Front-Seven must become familair with the new nuances of a scheme that has been notoriously difficult to acclimate to in the past. Fortunately for Detroit, the schedule isn’t too arduous, though it’s in our opinion that they’ll knock off opponents that they probably shouldn’t have, while also dropping a few contests to those whom they should handle with relative ease. The Offense is going to have to carry the Lions, at least in the early going, which means that this team will in all likelihood find themselves in a familiar place: out of the Playoffs.