We haven't done many of these this year, but Sean Yuille of Pride Of Detroit, SB Nation's Lions blog, was nice enough to answer five questions I had about the Lions this season. You can see my answers to five of his questions here.
Why did it take so long in the season for Calvin Johnson to start catching TD passes? After 16 last season, what were defenses doing the first half of the season to take away the best red zone weapon in the NFL?
A big part of Johnson's struggles early on were just bad luck. He was tackled five or six times inside the five-yard line, meaning he was putting the Lions in position to score without actually getting into the end zone. Another big part of it was injuries. Johnson suffered a helmet-to-helmet hit in a game against the Vikings and claimed to have suffered a concussion and nerve damage. He later clarified his comments by saying he suffered a stinger, but whatever it was, it affected his play. He had uncharacteristic drops in the games after the hit, and in general he looked pretty banged up.
Since then, Johnson has managed to play through injuries and morph back into the player we saw all last season. He is catching nearly everything thrown in his vicinity, and in general the pass offense is operating much better than it was earlier in the season. Defenses are still putting two or even three guys on him in the red zone to make Matthew Stafford look elsewhere, but Johnson is making that irrelevant by scoring on big plays before the Lions even get close to the 20-yard line.
Along those same lines, the Lions have been fantastic in the Red Zone this year, and that's in spite of Johnson's TD production. Have teams basically only focused on Johnson, leaving everyone else open?
I wouldn't say other players are left open, but all of the focus is definitely on Johnson. The Lions first saw this type of coverage against the Saints last year when they stuck two defenders on Johnson like they were trying to block a gunner on a punt. More teams have done that this season, essentially taking Johnson out of the equation on a lot of plays near the goal line. I think the biggest difference for the Lions is that they have some semblance of a running game now, and Mikel Leshoure has especially been great down by the goal line. Rushing touchdowns from a yard or two out are no longer rare for the Lions.
Again looking at the stats, it looks like the Lions have been playing the classic bend-but-don't-break style defense, allowing teams to move the ball, but once they start getting inside the 30 yard line or so, they stiffen up and cut down on the points. Is that the reality? If so what makes them so tough in those situations?
This is definitely how the Lions defense operates. They will force three-and-outs for a few drives in a row before giving up a big play or two. Then they tighten things back up and often keep the defense from getting into the end zone. To me, this speaks to the notion that the Lions have a solid front seven and a competent back four (when healthy) more often than not. The Lions defense can be extremely reliable for long stretches of the game, but they are prone to giving up big plays. Once the field is shortened, though, the possibility of a big play is lessened. That is when the strong defensive line and linebacking corps is at its best -- when the possibility of a big play isn't there.
I couldn't help myself screaming at the TV last Thursday that the Lions desperately needed to stop passing the ball once they got to the Texans 40 yard line or so. I counted, it was five straight drives and I believe only 1 rushing play, where just a field goal would have put the game away. I looked this week and see the Lions are 2nd in the NFL in passing plays at 66%. Mikel Leshoure seems like a capable back when given an opportunity. Why do they insist on passing so much?
The Lions have built their offense as one that is pass first. That's why they drafted Matthew Stafford to go along with Calvin Johnson, and that's why they added guys like Brandon Pettigrew, Tony Scheffler and Ryan Broyles. (Also, Titus Young when he's not behaving like an idiot and Nate Burleson when he's healthy.) They have tried to do a better job of running the ball, especially since Mikel Leshoure made his debut in Week 3, but the Lions are just a passing team. The offensive line generally doesn't do a great job of run blocking, and Lions fans actually got quite upset at how much the Lions were trying to run the ball earlier in the season. They really tried to force the issue, and it seemed to get the offense out of rhythm more than anything. I'm with you in questioning the lack of runs against the Texans last week considering the Lions were having some success on the ground, but overall, this team is better suited to throw than run.
It's clear this year that top-to-bottom the NFC is worlds better than the AFC, but the Lions had such high expectations after the playoff appearance last season. Statistically they look to still be at that level, but their record doesn't reflect it. I know the Parcells quote "You are what your record says you are", but I don't buy it. The Lions are a good team. Why do you think their record doesn't reflect that?
The Lions have the talent to be a good team, but I don't necessarily think they are a good team right now. In the first month of the season, they managed to give away two games because of special teams blunders. Last week, they gave away a game because of bad coaching (with an assist from poor officiating, of course). In between, the Lions have just struggled to put together complete efforts. By that, I mean that for one quarter the offense will look clueless while the defense dominates, and in the next it'll be reversed. The problem for the Lions is they have rarely been able to get both sides of the ball rolling at the same time. They lack consistency, and their penchant for killer turnovers, penalties and blown assignments has cost them dearly. This is why a lot of fans have soured on the coaching staff. We can all see that the Lions have the talent to be a good team, but they just haven't been consistent enough in 2012 to make sure their record reflects that.