NFC North Rank: 3rd
Projected Record: 8-8
After losing six of the final seven games last season, the Lions unsurprisingly missed the playoffs. The NFC North is easily one of the more competitive divisions in the league, so the Lions already face an uphill challenge each year. And some questionable play calling from their head coach did not help either. Jim Schwartz, who was blamed for the team’s dismal record, was fired at the beginning of the offseason. In five seasons of work, Schwartz managed just one winning season, so the decision was an easy one for the organization. Detroit made some moves this offseason in an attempt to better compete in the North. In recent history, the Lions have had one of the more talented rosters in the NFL, but have not been able to break through late in the regular season and in the playoffs.
The offense has proven to be incredibly talented in the last few years. With QB Matthew Stafford at the helm, it looks like this team has set their quarterback option for the next decade. Yet, some Lions fans are beginning to believe that is not in fact true. Most of last season’s late turmoil can be attributed to the questionable quarterback play of Stafford. During the fateful seven game stretch at the end of the season, he tossed a whopping 12 interceptions. Stafford completed the lowest percentage of his passes (58.5%) among the 10 quarterbacks who threw for the most attempts. Still, he has shown flashes of brilliance in his five years in the league. His big arm coupled with a talented receiving corps makes the passing game a constant threat for opposing defenses each week.
The group of receivers on this team improves the overall impact of the offense each year. Obviously, one receiver stands out from the pack. WR Calvin Johnson is a once in a generational talent. His blend of physicality and ability is unparalleled in the league today. The Stafford-Johnson tandem is regarded as one of the best if not the best in the NFL. Johnson averaged 101 receptions, 1,712 yards, and 11 touchdowns over the last three seasons. He even broke the record for receiving yards (1,964) in a single season a couple years ago. Megatron will certainly accrue tremendous production once again in the upcoming season. His endurance is of note as well, since he has never missed more than a couple games in any single season. Stafford has other receivers at his disposal too.
The quarterback’s secondary options include newly acquired WR Golden Tate, WR Kevin Ogletree, and WR Kris Durham. Last year, Tate was QB Russell Wilson’s top target. In Seattle, Golden caught 64 balls for 898 yards and five touchdowns last season. Durham was receiver number two in Detroit last year with 38 receptions and 490 yards. Clearly, there was a massive drop-off between the productions of Megatron and Durham. That same disparity in statistics will be evident in the first few games of the season between Johnson and whoever ends up being number two. This is simply a result of Stafford already having chemistry with Johnson. Tate adds another deep threat to this unit though. So when Johnson inevitably does get double or triple covered, Stafford has a reliable option for the long ball. Tate will look to become the clear second option on the offense as soon as the season gets started, but again the chemistry between him and Stafford will take time to develop.
The running game was the most improved aspect of the Lions’ offense last season. During Stafford’s stretches of inconsistency, the running backs put the offensive workload on their backs. RB Reggie Bush came aboard a season ago and provided instant production with just over 1,000 yards on 223 carries. His ground game is as prominent as his ability to catch the ball in the backfield and accumulate yards after catch. Although Bush is the clear starter on the depth chart, RB Joique Bell was a bit more effective through the air with 53 receptions for 547 yards. Detroit favored Bell at the goal line last year too, as he had four more rushing touchdowns than Bush. Together, these two make for a potent backfield with a combination of explosiveness and an element of surprise.
The defensive line is the focal point of Detroit’s defense. Their combo of defensive tackles is one of the best the league has to offer. DT Ndamukong Suh and DT Nick Fairley stuff the opposing run game each week while still remaining effective in rushing the quarterback. On the right side, DE Ziggy Ansah had terrific production in his rookie campaign with eight sacks. If he can at least duplicate his performance, opposing offensive lines will strategize to apply extra blocking on the right side, inevitably leaving more room for Suh and Fairley to cause havoc. The linebacker corp is talented as well, albeit not as talented as the defensive line, but shows promise nevertheless.
LB Stephen Tulloch was the star of the group last year with a team-leading 135 tackles. Another fellow linebacker was second on the list (119) in DeAndre Levy. These two will continue to generate their numbers while working on improving their veteran leadership for the young Lions’ linebackers. Detroit’s secondary was the most fragile piece on the defensive side of the ball. It does not look like they did too much to fix it either in the offseason. CB Darius Slay and CB Rashean Mathis are too shaky on the outside. The defense has a difficult time relying on them when it matters most in games, as the long ball can certainly succeed against these two.
This Lions unit failed to clinch a playoff berth last year despite leading the division for a considerable amount of time. It is a glim possibility that the Lions will be in first next season, as injuries to significant players played a critical part in their positioning. When QB Aaron Rodgers went down with an injury in Green Bay, the Packers lost their offensive playmaker for the majority of last season, which ultimately led to a void atop the NFC North. The Lions cannot depend on that happening again. The offense will inevitably post spectacular statistics with Stafford and a decent run game, but it is up to the defense to win their games. Stafford’s maturation is still in progress as well, since he made some questionable decisions late last year. Once he develops into a top five quarterback, he will elevate this team to a higher level. Until then, Detroit will be stuck somewhere in the middle of the division and as a result, will not clinch a playoff berth.
Pics and Stats from ESPN.com