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The LiveBall Sports Detroit Lions Season Preview

Checking in on the 32 NFL teams, continuing from the bottom.

What we said about the Lions prior to the 2012 season

A very good team likely to regress towards .500 thanks to youth, some discipline issues, and simple statistical regression.  The Lions went 10-6 to make the playoffs in 2011, and the sky appeared to be the limit for a very young team.  The whole world knew Calvin Johnson was sensational, and Matthew Stafford’s 5,000 yard passing season seemed to validate the first overall pick on him in 2009 (although those two facts were more related than Lions fans wanted to give credit for).

The Lions had a really strong defense in 2011 that fueled its playoff run, but it faded down the stretch.  Stafford was incredibly clutch in 2011, beating the Chargers and the Raiders with sensational passing performances, while the defenses was giving up yards at a historic rate.  To Carson Palmer and Matt Flynn.

They would need to stay healthy again thanks to lacking depth, but if the defense could so much as fix what ailed it down the stretch in 2011 (they did not get even one second half stop in New Orleans on Wild Card weekend, mitigating another strong performance by Stafford and Johnson), the Lions would certainly find a way back into the playoffs in 2012.

What we should have known with hindsight

The Lions started the season 1-3 with a couple of close losses, which was very predictable given the barnburner season they just came off of.  At that point, the Lions righted the ship, at one point beating Russell Wilson and the Seahawks, making it back to 4-4 by Halloween.  And then…

The wheels fell off the Lions season.  The defense was highly underrated in 2011 when it gave up a lot of yards and points, but also forced a lot of three and outs and QB sacks and got the ball back to the offense.  In 2012, the Lions defense was penalty ridden and generally pretty bad.  We probably should have seen that coming.

Also, despite Stafford’s hot streak to end the 2011 season, it proved to be just that, a hot streak.  Stafford is still a wild and inconsistent passer.  Johnson ended up setting the single season record for receiving yards, which he was able to accomplish thanks to a record amount of passes thrown by the Lions in losing effort…which is in part due Stafford’s overall inaccuracy.  The Lions season should dispel the myth once and for all that great receivers cannot get their numbers if they have inconsistent quarterback play.  Receivers cannot change the course of seasons by themselves, but in the case of someone like Larry Fitzgerald, it’s okay to point out that he is just not a great receiver anymore.  Calvin Johnson just had one of the all time great receiver seasons on a 4-12 team with inconsistent and at times downright poor quarterback play.

With hindsight we should have realized that players with an extensive concussion history simply cannot be relied on to have impactful pro careers.  To an extent, concussion risk is going to be a factor that teams cannot control and can only prepare for because head injuries are a simple reality of the game of football as it is currently played.  But Jahvid Best might be at the end of a very brief career given it is simply not safe for him to engage in contact sports anymore.

Where does the team appear to think it is at?

The Lions believe they will be a serious playoff contender in 2013.  They are the only team picking in the top five who made the playoffs in 2011, although the Raiders, Chiefs, and Eagles all got relatively close.  The Lions shouldn’t have any issue rebounding to where they were in 2011, but if they are going to be more than just the fringe playoff contender they were that season, it’s going to take an excellent effort in all three phases of the game.  The entire Lions organization finds itself at a crossroads in 2013.

If making an allowance for Stafford’s “decline” (not that he was worse, he just put together a couple of mirage games at an arbitrary endpoint), the Lions offense was overall improved in 2012.  They had receiver issues outside of Johnson, highlighted by Titus Young’s spectacular brain lapses, a mid-season trade for an ineffective Mike Thomas, and Kris Durham getting playing time.  But those issues were there in 2011 as well.  Brandon Pettigrew had an up and down season, but he had that problem in 2011 as well.  The offensive line had the best season by a Detroit OL in a decade.  Detroit lead the NFL in adjusted sack rate, and finished above average in run blocking measures.

It’s hard to be anything but optimistic about an offense that Scott Linehan has built into maybe the most multiple attack in the entire NFL, a fully implemented system that can only beat itself with penalties, turnovers, and leaving plays on the field (and the lack of sacks allowed is a huge advantage).

The issue for the Lions is that the defensive talent (particularly on the defensive line) has been called into question by a mostly dreadful performance last season when every possible age-based projection suggested the Lions defense was ascending.  That’s why the Lions’ most important offseason acquisition is the reuniting of revered defensive line coach Jim Washburn with head coach Jim Schwartz, after two disappointing seasons in Philadelphia.  Washburn got good results from the defensive line in Philly, despite the team’s overall ineptitude.

How did the team improve in the draft and free agency?

Detroit believes itself to be established on the interior line where they are strong (although they have to get more snaps from Nick Fairley this season) and have depth, but they decided to rebuild the defensive edges after they didn’t get much return at all from Kyle Vanden Bosch and Cliff Avril.  This year, that tandem will be rookie Ziggy Ansah (the fifth overall selection) and Eastern Michigan product Jason Jones, the team’s top free agent target.

They also attacked the safety position, re-signing Louis Delmas to a very manageable contract and adding Glover Quin from the Texans, upgrading their revolving door from last year and giving the team two cover safeties.  Reggie Bush adds flare to an offense that may have benefited more directly from a substance-type addition.  Bush does fit the kind of offense the Lions have been in recent seasons, although I think I would have focused on what I wanted to be — something Green Bay did a good job of this offseason — rather than what I have been.

Overall, the defense still has as many questions as answers and the team was unable to address three major losses on the offensive line, when the team released RG Stephen Peterman due to contract and performance, while longtime Lions LT Jeff Backus (Matt Millen’s first draft choice) finally retired, and RT Gosder Cherilus (Millen’s final first round draft choice) left for Indianapolis in free agency.  The Lions offense should keep rolling in 2013 with plug-and-play offensive line tactics, but with C Dominic Raiola nearing the end of the line, the Lions will be dealing with even more turnover in the near-term future.

What is the team’s outlook for the 2013 season?

I’ve flirted with the idea that the Lions remind me a lot of the 1998 Vikings, the team that went 15-1 with Randall Cunningham at quarterback, and Stafford reminds me a lot of Cunningham in more than a few ways.  So while the upside of the Lions is the number one overall seed in the NFC, the realistic picture is a lot more murky.

Washburn may have a huge effect on the Lions, but if the defense was likely to be significantly improved, we would have seen the signs before now.  Detroit couldn’t rush the passer at all last year, finishing in the bottom five in adjusted sack rate.  The personnel is different this year, but I’m not sure they will have any more success.  Detroit wasted great coverage linebacker seasons with a poor pass rush last year.

If the defense can improve just a little bit, the Lions can get back to the playoffs, and if they can take at least one game from the Packers, they can challenge for the division title.  However, there isn’t a whole lot between this team and last place either.  They ask a lot of their quarterback position, and while Stafford has been a lot healthier these last two season than in his first two, he’s still young, inconsistent player who could still be a couple years from overall consistency as a passer.

Detroit is a very volatile team, as they have been the entire Jim Schwartz era.  They went 6-10 in 2010, but played like a .500 team, tipping off that they might be ready to break out.  Detroit played like a 10-6 team in 2011, which they were.    Last year, despite trying to work through a lot of disasters, they played more like a 6.5 win team than a 4-12 team, and even that felt like underachieving given their talent.  After a three year period where the Lions averaged 6.5 wins but played like an above .500 team in terms of point differential, the Lions could be ready for a real breakout on offense, which would take them above 10 wins in terms of raw talent.  But given how volatile the Lions have proven, they could take a real step forward, and I still wouldn’t feel great predicting them to win more than 7 or 8 games in the NFC North.

There’s just a lot of teams there in the same boat as the Detroit Lions.  Given where they were five years ago, that’s a good thing.  Given where they were two years ago, that’s a bad thing.  Your perception of the Lions may vary, it just depends how much you want to give the current regime credit for, and how high your expectations for the future are.  If up against high expectations, I don’t think Jim Schwartz and Martin Mayhew can go much higher in Detroit as a tandem.  2013 could be the last run for this group in Detroit.

Previously: Kansas City ChiefsJacksonville JaguarsOakland Raiders, Philadelphia Eagles,

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