The Detroit Lions have become famous for their second-half of the season collapse. But this year seems different. New coaches, new players, new energy, and a new belief that this is the revival year have taken over Lions faithfuls. Both Jim Caldwell and Teryl Austin have proved themselves as top tier coaches, turning the Lions’ organization around and even showing their team can come up clutch. Yet on the other side of the football, there is a totally different story, one that may not show up in Detroit’s record, but will be the deciding factor if they reach the playoffs.
When the Lions signed multiple new coaches during this past offseason, I was led to believe the transformation was inevitable and one that needed to happen. But to be honest with you, I wasn’t confident in Teryl Austin’s résúme or experience. Now ten weeks into the season, Austin has not only exceeded my expectations, but has put himself in contention for a head coaching opportunity come January. Although his defense has been plagued with injuries to studs like Stephen Tulloch and Bill Bentley, the first-year Lions’ defensive coordinator has been relentless, continuing to intimidate and attack offenses.
Nevertheless, the real issue going forward with the Detroit Lions is their offense. As great a duo as Calvin Johnson and Golden Tate are, they cannot carry the offense to the Super Bowl. With little to show for this season in terms of running the ball, the Lions have become reliant on their pass heavy play calling. Sure, injuries to Reggie Bush, Joique Bell, and Theo Riddick have hurt the run game, regardless, being ranked 31st in average rushing yards per game won’t get the job done. Take a look at the most recent Super Bowl teams, almost every one of them had balance on the offensive side of the ball. Peyton Manning and Knowshon Moreno, Russell Wilson and Marshawn Lynch, Colin Kaepernick and Frank Gore, Joe Flacco and Ray Rice, Eli Manning and Ahmad Bradshaw.
And although Lombardi hasn’t given any one of his backs a plethora of carries, none of them have earned nor proven they can run effectively when they do get the ball. George Winn is averaging the most yards per rush on the team at 3.9, while Reggie Bush and Joique Bell are recording subpar results of 3.6 and 3.3 yards per rush, respectively. It’s understandable to lean toward passing the ball with weapons like Tate and Johnson, but at some point Detroit must display relevance in their run game if they expect to make the playoffs, and with an injury to guard Larry Warford, that task just a got little tougher.
However, there remains hope for running backs coach Curtis Modkins, as the talent level and depth of his backs is undeniable. Not only do the Lions have a squad of talented runners, but the versatility and diversity of each player holds key for success moving forward. Reggie Bush has showed his skills in the run game, using his quickness and vision to find holes in the defensive line. Joique Bell has displayed his ability to run tough downhill, while also throwing quickness into the equation also. Theo Riddick has most noticeably provided Detroit with a lift in the backfield, as well as in the passing game. And even George Winn has flashed potential to become a young star with his downhill style to run through tackles and make defenders miss. Thus, it’s not so much the lack of talent at the running back position that has held the Lions back, but the incorrect utilization and injuries that have lingered.
Much anticipated was the installation of the up-tempo offense or no huddle offense in the Detroit Lions’ system under Joe Lombardi. Nonetheless, Detroit has utilized this style only 3.2% of their offensive snaps, 30th most in the NFL. This has heavily contributed to the lack of production in the run game. An up-tempo offense keeps 300-pound defensive lineman on their heels, while also reducing the amount of substitutions for the defense, in turn wearing them out as the game progresses. This gives control to the offense, and when used with versatility and constant attack, can lead to openings and opportunities for the offense against a usually stout defense. The up-tempo style, or hurry-up offense, is difficult to perform, but even more difficult to defend, and at the very least, would provide Bush, Bell, Riddick, and Winn with more opportunities to shine.
So why hasn’t head coach Jim Caldwell installed this style of offense? Caldwell believes his offensive personnel does not mold with that style. He also forcefully believes that a methodical offense with ball control and heavy time of possession is the best way to lead his offense.
“I think that’s one of the biggest traps in coaching — coaches get a little arrogant and they think it’s more systemic than it has to do with personnel,” Caldwell said. “It really boils down to the people that you have and how they function within that realm.”
Yet his offense has often been forced to resort to the up-tempo style numerous times throughout this season when they have found themselves in a deficit late in games. And oddly enough, they have been very efficient in their use of the hurry-up offense. Even quarterback Matthew Stafford agrees that his offense thrives in these situations, and could profit off this style in the future.
“The faster we play, the better we’re going to play,” Stafford said following the team’s win over Miami on Sunday. “We had too many penalties today, too many sacks, lost yardage plays where you get behind the sticks. That’s tough, it slows the pace of the game down. It’s tough for the play-caller. You get second-and-20 something, it’s tough.
“The drives where we were successful, even if we didn’t score touchdowns on some of them, we were in and out of the huddle quickly, making positive plays, positive plays, positive plays.”
So, at 7-2, the Lions remain strongly in contention for the playoffs leading the NFC North. But performing at an elite level to reach the Super Bowl will be in doubt until Joe Lombardi transforms his one-dimensional offense.