2013 Team Preview: Detroit Lions

Detroit Lions (previously known as the Portsmouth Spartans)

  • 2012 Record: 4-12 (4th in NFC North)
  • 2012 Point Differential: -65 (23rd out of 32)
  • 2012 Strength of Schedule (per PFR’s SRS system): +1.8 (t-4th)
  • 2012 Predictive Yards per Play (offense): 5.72 (6th)
  • 2012 Predictive Yards per Play (defense): 4.91 (16th)
  • 2011 Predictive Yards per Play (offense): 5.51 (9th)
  • 2011 Predictive Yards per Play (defense): 4.66 (11th)

2013 Predictive Yards per Play Offensive Projection: 399.11 points

2013 Predictive Yards per Play Defensive Projection: 360.31 points

At least the 2012 Lions earned one Best Ever title: they were without a doubt, hands down, the best 4-12 team of all-time. Consider this: 182 other teams in addition to last year’s Lions have gained 1000 or more yards on offense than they allowed on defense over the course of a season. 177 of them had winning records of some type. The other five (the 1950 and 2011 Eagles, 1981 Lions, 2000 Bills and 2008 Saints) all finished with .500 records. 

So not only were the ’12 Lions the only team in league history to end up with a losing record while posting a positive yard differential of 1000 or more – they were the worst of the bunch by four games. Not exactly the type of all-time notoriety you hope to end up with when you start out at training camp in July. How on Earth did a team that gained over 6500 yards and possessed a wide receiver who wound up breaking the league’s single-season yardage record only win four games?

By painstakingly finding (and, in some cases, inventing) new ways to lose, of course. Let’s cover some of the more egregious atrocities from last season below for a second. I wouldn’t blame you, Lions fans, if you wanted to just scan ahead. Might be for the best.

Sept. 23 – lost 44-41 (OT) at Tennessee. The Lions defense made Jake Locker look like Aaron Rodgers, but Detroit still dominated the game offensively, gaining 15 more first downs than the Titans. However, the Lions special teams gave up a punt return touchdown on a Music City Miracle-style lateral, a kick return touchdown that featured more run-of-the-mill terrible special teams and a defensive touchdown when 6’5″, 257-pound tight end Brandon Pettigrew got the ball torn out of his hands by a defensive back missing seven of his inches and over 75 of his pounds. The Lions still managed to tie the game on a Hail Mary on the final play of regulation, but lost in overtime after backup quarterback Shaun HIll tried a surprise quarterback sneak on fourth down – a quarterback sneak that was a surprise to even his teammates. Detroit fell to 1-2 and the first sign of a letdown from 2011’s playoff season appeared.

Sept. 30 – lost 20-13 vs. Minnesota. Detroit outgained Minnesota 341-227 and didn’t give up a defensive touchdown. They did, however, give up two special teams touchdowns again, dropped a wide variety of Matthew Stafford’s passes and got inside the Vikings 30-yard line twice without scoring any points. Other than that, they were the picture of efficiency.

Nov. 22 – lost 34-31 vs. Houston. You probably remember laughing hysterically into your Thanksgiving dinner at Jim Schwartz’s challenge flag misfortune with this one. Early in the third quarter, Texans running back Justin Forsett pretty clearly hit his elbow on the Ford Field turf for a six-yard gain. As the Lions’ season would have it, though, no whistle sounded and Forsett did what he was supposed to and ran 75 more yards to the end zone for a touchdown. Schwartz, obviously eager for justice, threw his challenge flag without realizing that not only could he not challenge the play (since all scoring plays are automatically under review), but also throwing the challenge flag turned into a 15-yard penalty and removed any possibility of the replay booth reviewing the play. The idiotic rule got overturned in the offseason, but not soon enough for the Lions’ liking. And yet if Jason Hanson, one of the greatest kickers of all-time, had made his 47-yard field goal attempt in overtime, the Lions still would have won. This is the point Detroit’s season turned from “disappointment” to “farce.”

Dec. 2 – lost 35-33 vs. Indianapolis. Fittingly, 2012’s team with the best fortune met the team with the worst fortune and the result turned out just about the way you would expect. The Lions led 33-21 with a little over four minutes left in the game, but Andrew Luck hit LaVon Brazil with a 42-yard touchdown pass and then led a 75-yard drive in a little over a minute to win the game, culminating with a walk-in touchdown throw to Donnie Avery on the game’s final play. This should go without saying, but any time the terms “walk-in touchdown” and “final play of the game” are used to describe the finish of a come-from-behind one-score game, the defense probably did something wrong.

And those are just the four worst offenders! The Lions lost all four divisional games to the Packers and Bears by a combined 19 points despite outgaining those teams in all but one of the games – that’ll happen when you commit 14 turnovers and only force two. The night Calvin Johnson broke Jerry Rice’s single-season receiving yardage record, the Lions outgained the Falcons by nearly two hundred yards and yet still lost by two scores because they lost the turnover battle 3-0. They even found a way to lose by 28 to a team quarterbacked by Ryan Lindley because Stafford threw two pick-sixes.

Look, even teams that make their own luck during a season lose a couple close games during the course of the year and in three of their four victories, the Lions had to come from behind on their final possession of regulation (that’s right – they were thisclose to becoming the best 1-15 team in NFL history). But here’s the deal: if the Lions had just run-of-the-mill bad luck in close games or allowed only five or six non-defensive touchdowns over the course of the season instead of a mind-boggling ten or didn’t patent their own specific brand of super-tanking, this is a team that would have won eight games at the bare minimum. With the same luck they enjoyed in 2011, they probably could have gone 10-6 again or maybe even 11-5.

Hence, this is why Predictive Yards per Play puts Detroit’s median record this year at 9-7 and places them among the top NFC wild-card contenders for 2013. Excluding turnover differential, teams that fit the statistical profile of last year’s Lions are usually coming off double-digit win seasons and get at least casual mention as possible Super Bowl contenders. Assuming Detroit recovers more fumbles that occur in their 2013 games than the 14 out of the 43 fumbles they recovered last year (and fumble recoveries tend to have no more predictive value than a coin flip). we should be talking about a team that stays in the NFC playoff picture all season.

Achieving more than that, however, will require the quick development of a revamped defensive line and more consistent play out of Matthew Stafford at quarterback. The Lions let Cliff Avril walk in free agency and also said goodbye to Kyle Vanden Bosch, Corey Williams, Lawrence Jackson and Sammie Lee Hill; their replacements will have to supplement the inside pass rush of Ndamukong Suh and Nick Fairley in order for the Lions defense to stay afloat in 2013. And Stafford needs to stop sailing passes from a sidearm or three-quarters throwing style that takes him from being one of the most naturally gifted passers in the NFL to one of the worst.

Of course, the biggest key to the Lions’ success in 2013 is the same as always: keep Calvin Johnson healthy. Because if Megatron ain’t healthy, ain’t nobody else in this receiving core gettin’ open on a regular basis. And even if he does stay healthy, that lack of a supporting cast around him, along with a still sub par back seven defensively, will more than likely submarine the Lions’ Super Bowl chances long before the first Sunday in February. But rest assured, Lions fans: 4-12 isn’t happening again. Posting that record with that level of dominance at the line of scrimmage is the type of statistical fluke that not even Jim Schwartz can make happen two years in a row.

Offense

PY/P 2011-12 Weighted Avg. 2012 Consistency Index Ball Control % Projected Strength of Schedule Projected Points Scored
5.645772 -1 1.037535 0.729813 399.1101

2012 key contributors who moved on in the offseason: RB Kevin Smith, WR Titus Young, OT Jeff Backus, OT Gosder Cherilus, G Stephen Peterman

Notable 2013 offseason additions: RB Reggie Bush, G Jake Scott, G Larry Warford

Bush hasn’t ever lived up to the expectations he built up during his USC playing career, but he’s always been a solid receiver out of the backfield and started to turn his reputation as a runner around in his two years with the Dolphins. In a perfect world, though, Joique Bell would probably see the bulk of the action at running back for the Lions this year: he ran for five yards per carry in a limited role last year and was one of the best receiving running backs in football. Hence why the Bush signing was a mildly head-scratching one given the Lions’ limited free agency money…Stafford will have two new tackles blocking for him this year after Backus’s retirement and Cherilus’s exit in free agency. Last year’s first-round pick, Riley Reiff, will get the first look at left tackle even though his one appearance there last year was a mild disaster and journeyman Corey Hilliard looks like the leader at right tackle despite not even playing in 2012. No possibilities for trouble here!…Calvin Johnson is listed with catching 122 passes for 1964 yards last year, but his sheer presence had to have opened up at least another couple thousand passing yards for Stafford because no one else in the Lions receiving corps (save for the oft-injured Ryan Broyles) is capable of consistently creating separation or winning one-on-one battles. Last year, Johnson averaged 9.6 yards per target despite getting targeted 204 times and being at least double-teamed on 99% of those targets. Outside of Broyles, whose status is in doubt for 2013 due to the torn ACL he suffered last year, no other Lions receiver that was targeted more than 10 times gained more than 6.8 yards per target. And that was Titus Young, whose sadly deteroriating mental status has quickly dropped him out of football.

Defense

PY/P 2011-12 Weighted Avg. 2012 Consistency Index Ball Control % Projected Strength of Schedule Projected Points Allowed
4.812484 -2.8125 0.962465 0.15354 360.307

2012 key contributors who moved on in the offseason: DE Cliff Avril, DE Kyle Vanden Bosch, DT Corey Williams, OLB Justin Durant, CB Jacob Lacey, CB Drayton Florence

Notable 2013 offseason additions: DE Ezekiel Ansah, DE Jason Jones, DE Israel Idonije, CB Darius Slay, S Glover Quin

The Lions have an awful lot of starters to replace from a defense that wasn’t that good to begin with last year. You could look at that one of two ways: either the replacements won’t have a high bar to follow in 2013 or the defense could be even worse this year because their few quality players from a year ago are gone. For the most part, it looks like the former narrative is the more reasonable description. All of the key contributors listed above who left in the offseason didn’t have particularly strong 2012 seasons and Quin finally provides the Lions with the first starting-level safety they’ve had (other than the three games a year Louis Delmas has been healthy) in close to a decade. Avril’s departure, however, will be the tough one to fill, since it was Avril and not Ndamukong Suh who led the Lions in sacks the past two years. The team’s first-round pick Ansah has all the physical tools to replace Avril and then some, but has only played organized football for three years. Jones and Idonije are probably safer bets to make solid contributions in 2013.

Special Teams/Schedule/Miscellaneous

1 September 8 Minnesota Vikings
2 September 15 @ Arizona Cardinals
3 September 22 @ Washington Redskins
4 September 29 Chicago Bears
5 October 6 @ Green Bay Packers
6 October 13 @ Cleveland Browns
7 October 20 Cincinnati Bengals
8 October 27 Dallas Cowboys
9 Bye Week
10 November 10 @ Chicago Bears
11 November 17 @ Pittsburgh Steelers
12 November 24 Tampa Bay Buccaneers
13 November 28 Green Bay Packers
14 December 8 @ Philadelphia Eagles
15 December 16 Baltimore Ravens
16 December 22 New York Giants
17 December 29 @ Minnesota Vikings

2013 Projected Strength of Schedule: +0.88 points per game harder than average (9th-toughest)

For the first time since 1991, someone other than Jason Hanson will be the primary kicker for the Lions. The man replacing the now 43-year-old Hanson will be the soon-to-be-39-year-old David Akers, who will probably thank his lucky stars every day he’s kicking indoors now instead of Candlestick Park. A massive rebound from last year’s 69.0% field goal percentage is likely…Detroit will also have a new punter, as neither Nick Harris or Ben Graham were invited back for 2013 after poor 2012 campaigns. The team spent a fifth-round pick this year on Appalachian State’s Sam Martin, so expect them to give him every chance to beat out Blake Klingan for the starting job this year…The Lions’ schedule is projected as the 9th-toughest in the league by Predictive Yards per Play but also the easiest among the NFC North teams. Drawing Arizona and Tampa Bay in the standings-based part of the schedule is the main reason for that.

2013 Predictive Yards per Play Wins Projection: 9.0 wins (2nd in NFC North)

The Lions do everything they did last year – except, of course, colossally choke in close games – and stay in the NFC playoff picture all season.

2013 Subjective Prediction: 10-6 (2nd in NFC North)

Matthew Stafford drops down to throw sidearm merely two or three times a game and the Lions pick up thirty extra yards a game and a Wild-Card slot because of it.

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