by Andy Benoit
(Ed. Note: Thanks to The New York Times for allowing us to re-run Andy Benoit's annual team previews. Please be aware that these previews are more scouting-oriented than what we run in Football Outsiders Almanac 2012, and they represent one man's opinion so they may differ from the forecast from our statistical team projection system. -- Aaron Schatz)
Chrysler isn’t the only company on the rebound in Detroit. For the first time in 12 years, the Lions -– the hapless Lions -– enter a season looking to build on last year’s playoff experience. OK, so maybe the Lions still have just one playoff win since 1957. But the hope –- nay, expectation -– is that that will change in 2012.
The reason the jaded Lions fan base finds itself willing to hope again is that general manager Martin Mayhew seems not only to have a plan, but also a plan that’s already working. After being promoted to executive football decision-maker in December 2008, Mayhew spent his initial first-round draft pick on Matthew Stafford. He has since spent five more first- or second-round picks on offensive skill position players. And keep in mind, this is despite the fact that he inherited Matt Millen’s 2007 first-round pick, a guy by the name of Calvin Johnson. With Stafford healthy for the first time in his career and coming off a season in which he threw for 41 touchdowns and 5,038 yards, the Lions may have the best young offensive nucleus since Bill Polian’s Indianapolis Colts of the early 2000s.
Like Polian, Mayhew has contrasted his powerhouse offense with a basic Cover-2 defense that features a high-rolling front four. The Colts’ defensive line was built from the outside in, with ends Dwight Freeney and Robert Mathis earning the big dollars. The Lions’ line is built from the inside out, with Ndamukong Suh and Corey Williams working ahead of the 2011 first-round pick Nick Fairley. It’s a defensive line that has every chance to be as good as Indy’s.
Fairley is a great reminder that not everything is rosy in the Motor City. He was arrested twice this past off-season for issues involving alcohol or marijuana. Running back Mikel Leshoure was busted for pot (twice), as was backup offensive tackle Johnny Culbreath (who was later cut). Cornerback Aaron Berry’s name also surfaced on the police blotter ... twice. Berry was released, even though he was presumed to be a starter coming into training camp.
This is usually the part of the piece where we take some high moral stand and talk about this team’s character and focus. But why waste time? The reality: A few off-field discipline problems in the spring and early summer are nothing more than a mild black eye for the organization. He’d never say this publicly, but Coach Jim Schwartz may be more concerned about his team’s on-field discipline problems. The Lions have led the league in penalties since Schwartz took over in 2009 and have looked callow in a few big moments.
Still, if you’re a Lions fan reading this, you can’t help smiling. You’ve spent years thinking about coaching changes, quarterbacking issues, front office drama, porous –- oh ever so porous -– defense, and an underlying lack of talent throughout the roster. It must be nice to read that your team’s biggest problem is "discipline."
The similarities between the construction of this Lions offense and that of the early 2000s Colts offense are striking. Bill Polian believed that you invest fully in the guys who handle the ball. He used the No. 1 pick in 1998 on Peyton Manning. He used his draft pick that year on a receiving target for Manning: Jerome Pathon. Also, the previous Colts front office had drafted a go-to wide receiver in the first round two years earlier (Marvin Harrison). And the year after getting his quarterback, Polian picked a running back, Edgerrin James, in Round 1.
Look at what Mayhew has done in Detroit: He drafted Matthew Stafford No. 1 in 2009. He used his second pick that year on a receiving target: tight end Brandon Pettigrew. The previous regime had drafted go-to receiver Calvin Johnson two years before that. And a year after taking Stafford, Mayhew selected running back Jahvid Best in the first round.
This isn’t to say the Lions are Colts 2.0. The players are very different, though their method of construction is the same. The Colts and the Lions built around their quarterback. It worked out for the Colts; assuming Stafford stays healthy, it seems destined to work out for the Lions. Stafford has rare attributes. His arm strength is outstanding (much better than Manning’s ever was, in fact). He has a tight, compact, delivery, which goes great with his toughness in the pocket. There isn’t a stick throw he can’t make. Don’t think for a second that Stafford’s 2011 numbers were inflated in any way.
Perhaps not coincidentally, Detroit’s offensive approach is very similar to that of Indianapolis’s during the Manning era. Lions offensive coordinator Scott Linehan does not use a lot of formations or personnel packages. He doesn’t do much pre-snap motion. Trickery and disguise are rare. The Colts took a similar simplistic approach because they knew that the more static the chessboard stayed, the more likely it was that Manning would figure out and defeat the defense. The Lions take this simplistic approach because they believe they’re talented enough to just line up and beat a defense.
Part of this is the Calvin Johnson factor: having the most lethal wide receiver in football can really simplify an offense. But another part of this is the Stafford factor ... in both a good and bad way. Stafford’s arm talent alone is substantial enough to defeat even well-executed defenses, but at the same time, some of Detroit’s simplicity has to do with catering to Stafford’s inexperience. Stafford is entering his fourth season, but injuries kept him out of all but 13 games his first two years. In a lot of respects, he’s still a wide-eyed newbie.
Today’s NFL is different than it was even when Manning was learning his craft. NFL defenses are often too complex and too fast for an offense to simply line up and play. Offensive coordinators must level the field for their players by countering with complexity of their own. Linehan is waiting for his players to be ready for this. The next stage of Stafford’s development is to increase his effectiveness on the mental side. This means more sophistication in the receivers’ route combinations and in Stafford’s progression reads. Right now, too much of Detroit’s passing game centers on isolation routes. Eventually, it will also mean more presnap responsibilities for Stafford at the line of scrimmage (this is where he’s not even close to Manning).
These changes might not seem urgent given that the Lions averaged 29.6 points per game last season, but these changes will be what fully maximizes the Lions’ potential. And that’s ultimately the goal of any football team.
Increased sophistication could potentially do wonders because it would it make Calvin Johnson even more of a nightmare to defend. Opponents occasionally had too easy a time game-planning for Johnson last season; imagine a team trying to figure out how to double him on each snap if he were aligning in different spots out of different formations all the time. But it’s not a matter of just putting Johnson in more positions to excel; the sixth-year star must hone some nuances in his game –- most notably, intermediate route running.
Also, the receivers around Johnson must continue to develop. Obviously, 10th-year veteran Nate Burleson is excused from this statement. His three offensive pass interference penalties in that loss to New Orleans aside, Burleson is an extremely smart and fundamentally sound player. Behind him, Titus Young is, well, not yet sound. The second-year pro has a temper -– it flashed a bit last season, and it definitely showed up during the off-season when he was sent home for sucker-punching safety Louis Delmas –- and a lot to learn as a route runner, especially on the outside. It’s important that Young develop on the outside because this year’s second-round pick, Ryan Broyles, the smallish FBS career receptions leader, projects as the long-term answer in the slot.
Until Burleson disappears, Young and Broyles will compete for playing time. There’s not much room for both because the Lions (like the 2000s Colts, once again) often play with two tight ends. They have a highly underrated, Pro-Bowl caliber all-around force in Brandon Pettigrew. He lumbers a bit as a runner, but Stafford trusts him inside, and Pettigrew’s in-line blocking is proficient. The other tight end, Tony Scheffler, is a de facto slot receiver.
Receiving is a good umbrella under which to introduce Jahvid Best. Though a running back, Best makes his most substantial contributions in the offense in the passing game. Even a lot of his runs can be considered pass plays, in some regard, given that many of them are from a shotgun or spread formation. (The Lions went shotgun a league-record 67 percent of the time last year.) Best’s initial quickness, acceleration, and open-field agility make him a great fit for this offense. Look for his receiving contributions to increase as the system becomes more and more sophisticated. That’s assuming he stays healthy, of course. Best missed 10 games last year as well as some recent off-season activities because of concussion problems.
The Lions have an insurance policy in the form of the 2011 second-round pick Mikel Leshoure, though he’s coming off a torn Achilles’. Besides, they’d rather Leshoure be a complementary piece as a true between-the-tackles ballcarrier who can give this offense the foundational rushing attack it lacks. If Best or Leshoure (or both) should be unavailable, Kevin Smith (who, when healthy, showed a surprising burst at times after returning to the league midway through last season) and Keiland Williams (who can occasionally be an adept inside runner) are options.
Important as it is to maximize the impact of all these high-drafted skill players, perhaps the most intriguing aspect of a more sophisticated system is the way it could hide this offensive line. Detroit’s front five is subpar. Manning, with his presnap brilliance and pocket mobility, masked this deficiency with the Colts. The Lions hope Stafford can do the same.
They also hope that the line’s deficiencies can become less pronounced. Mayhew spent his latest first-round pick on tackle Riley Reiff, who will one day replace the soon-to-be 35-year-old Jeff Backus on the left side. Backus spent most of the off-season recovering from a biceps injury, and last season he struggled often in pass protection. Still, he’s expected to start every game for the 12th time in his now 12-year career. Thus, Reiff will begin his career on the right side, probably ahead of the slow-footed, mistake-prone Gosder Cherilus.
Inside, guards Rob Sims and Stephen Peterman aren’t great against powerful pass rushers, but they each move just well enough as run blockers. Center Dominic Raiola has heaps of trouble against meaty nose tackles in tight spaces, but he compensates with intelligence, and he’s one of the few NFL players who’s actually gritty enough for his grit to actually mean something. It’s important that these three linemen stay healthy, as Detroit’s only notable backup inside is limited the former Colt Dylan Gandy.
The Lions’ defense, coordinated by crusty old-school coach Gunther Cunningham, plays as much Cover 2 as any in football. The Lions believe they can get away with playing that outdated system because a.) they have a productive offense, which allows for the type of bend-but-don’t-break defensive approach that defines many shootouts and b.) they have a front four that can wreak havoc on a down-by-down basis.
Headlining the front four, obviously, is Ndamukong Suh. Entering his third season, he might be the most disruptive interior force in the NFL. Suh is coming off somewhat of a disappointing sophomore campaign though. Not only did his reputation take a beating thanks to personal fouls (including an ugly stomping incident on Thanksgiving) and a few unflattering off-the-field incidents, but offensive linemen also figured out how to combat him more effectively. You can’t out-physical Suh –- sometimes not even with a double team -– and you won’t beat him off the snap. But, you can let Suh beat himself off the snap by giving up initial penetration and then blocking him from the backside with a pulling guard (or just letting him run too far upfield and out of the play). Plenty of teams did this in 2011; part of Suh’s development will be countering this with more disciplined play in 2012.
Next to Suh, unheralded Corey Williams, though somewhat penalty-prone himself, is an excellent three-down player. The hope, however, is that he’ll play fewer downs this season, as that would signal the ascension of Nick Fairley. At this point, Fairley, who, like all Lions linemen, focuses on shooting the gaps, is a pass-rushing specialist. He has too much brute strength not to play regularly though, so he'll push Williams this year.
Worth mentioning is Fairley’s fellow backup defensive tackle, Sammie Hill. Once a heavy-footed starter, Hill has blossomed into an energizing force in a back-of-the-rotation role. Cunningham and defensive line coach Kris Kocurek have made great use of rotations, particularly at end. Since arriving here via trade as a first-round bust from Seattle in 2010, Lawrence Jackson has blossomed into a more adept pass rusher, and even a serviceable run defender, coming off the bench. Joining Jackson is Willie Young, a secretly explosive 251-pound speed rusher who’s capable of posting 10 sacks in his third season. The Lions hope that two more backup ends, ex-Panthers bust Everette Brown and fourth-round rookie Ronnell Lewis, can also push for playing time. Brown is probably a lost cause (a player as small as he is needs to be quick, and he’s not), and Lewis is still learning to play the position after beginning his Oklahoma career as an outside linebacker. Scouts like his raw ability.
Working ahead of these ends will be the relentless Kyle Vanden Bosch, who is 33 and still exhausting to block, and rising star Cliff Avril. Avril, at 26 and coming off a season in which he was even better than his 11 sacks suggest, signed his franchise tender late last week. It will be important for Detroit to lock him up for longer than that.
The rest of Detroit’s defense is an interesting study in Cover-2 pros and cons. The linebacking corps can be good, maybe even "very good" (though probably never "great"), but it must play with more discipline. Discipline is not exactly preached to this high-flying, speed-oriented defense. That’s understandable; a key to a quality Cover-2 scheme is playing fast, but there’s a fine line to toe. The Lions have three fast linebackers in middle man Stephen Tulloch and outside guys DeAndre Levy and Justin Durant. But all three have shown a tendency to overpursue or lose gap discipline. Last season, Detroit allowed 16 runs of 20-plus yards (tied for fourth most) and six runs of 40-plus yards (second most, behind the Rams, who gave up seven). The Lions desperately need those linebackers to play with more discipline to cut down on those big gains.
Sturdy linebacking play is important here because the Lions often look to augment their pass rush by employing wide-9 techniques up front. But with no Urlacher- or Briggs-type presence, this front seven is often dependent on safety help. Fortunately, free safety Louis Delmas is an excellent downhill thumper with a knack for flying into the box. So is strong safety Amari Spievey. Because both players encountered injuries in 2011, the Lions felt compelled to keep backup Erik Coleman (a ninth-year veteran who can play both safety spots). And perhaps because Coleman himself missed all of last season with a knee injury, the Lions also signed ex-Buc Sean Jones.
Predictably, Detroit’s run-thumping safeties have to get better in coverage. Delmas’s speed should afford him very good range –- it’s just a matter of identifying passing designs. It’s important he do so, as this secondary is shabby at cornerback. Chris Houston ended what was a decent 2011 season by playing poorly and injuring his shoulder in the wild-card loss. He’s not a bad player, but he’s far from a true No. 1 corner. After Aaron Berry got himself cut, the Lions signed veteran Drew Coleman. He’s an excellent blitzer but not a quality starting cover artist. Coleman will have trouble beating out hit-or-miss ex-Colt Jacob Lacey, but he can probably land ahead of big-play-oriented (both in terms of giving and receiving, unfortunately) Alphonso Smith on the depth chart. The slot cover duties are expected to be handled by third-round rookie Dwight Bentley, who faced iffy competition at Louisiana-Lafayette but impressed scouts with his fluid quickness at the Senior Bowl.
The good news for Detroit is that in a Cover-2, you don’t need top-flight cornerbacks. The only time the Lions will regularly play man coverage is on third-and-short (when you have to play man coverage). They actually did OK in this department last season: statistically, they had the best third-down defense in the league. But that doesn’t mean improvements aren’t still needed. On paper, the Lions were adequate, but in actuality, this defense was what prevented the team from going anywhere once they reached the postseason.
Kicker Jason Hanson is entering his 21st season in Motown. He’s still very reliable from inside 40 yards, and he has the distance to attempt field goals from just about anywhere inside of 55. At punter, there will be a competition between 23-year-old Ryan Donahue and 38-year-old Ben Graham. Donahue missed half of last season with a quad injury; if healthy, he should win the job. In the return game, tiny but explosive Stefan Logan is back, looking to regain his big-play form after not having a punt return longer than 28 yards or a kick return longer than 42 last season.
The Lions should be better simply from natural maturation, but whether that translates to more victories remains to be seen. The offense is potent, but the defense is schematically simple, which makes it dependent on outstanding individual performances. There may not quite be enough talent yet on that side of the ball for serious postseason success.