The Lions’ Defense Has The Opportunity To Improve The Offense.
It is a long-standing tradition for fans to debate which side of the ball is more important, defense or offense. For a long time, the phrase “defense wins championships,” was a staple of this argument. Most recently, the two Super Bowl teams displayed two of the most prolific offenses in football. This is a debate that is not likely to be resolved anytime soon, a debate that I don’t think has a definitive answer.
The truth is that there are many ways to win football games. The Falcons made their living in the passing game. The Cowboys rode their rushing attack into the playoffs. The Texans relied primarily on their elite defense. Teams find ways to win in many different ways.
No position in football exists on an island. A defensive end produces better next to a higher quality defensive tackle. Adding talent on the defensive line helps free up other members on the defensive line and divert the offensive lines’ attention. Similarly, an elite wide receiver attracts attention from the secondary and helps free up other receiving options. A good pass rush helps a secondary by creating pressure. Good coverage helps a pass rush by forcing the quarterback to hold the ball longer. A good rushing attack opens up the passing game and vice-versa.
These symbiotic relationships are not confined to a single side of the ball. This is what is most important to Detroit. The Lions’ defense was atrocious last year. This significantly impacted the level of production of the offense. The front office went to great lengths this offseason to improve the defensive personnel, and Lions’ fans should expect to see dividends on both sides of the ball.
Detroit Lions’ Offense
Detroit’s offense was not incredibly productive in the 2016 season. On a game-to-game basis, the Lions were below average in most offensive categories. They ranked 21st in total offensive yards per game. Their rushing “attack” ranked 30th. Their 20.6 points per game were good for 20th in the league. The only major game-to-game statistic that they ranked above average in was their passing game, which ranked 11th.
Overall, the production just wasn’t there for Detroit. Too many people who didn’t pay close attention the Lions this past year, the offense, on paper, appears pedestrian at best. Those of us who actually watched the games know better.
In terms of offensive efficiency, the Lions offense appears much more threatening. According to Football Outsiders, the Lions were among the best in moving the football on a drive-to-drive basis.
The Lions’ offense averaged 35.7 yards per drive. This was the fifth-best mark in the league. The offense had very little trouble moving the ball against opposing defenses when they were on the field. This is a case where the team’s efficiency did not match their statistical production.
The Lions’ defense was bad last year. They were really, really bad. Those of us who watched the games know this, but the total yardage statistics paint a different picture. They indicate defense that was only slightly below the league average. In terms of total yards allowed, the Lions’ defense ranked 18th. Their pass defense ranked 19th. Their run defense was good for 18th in the league. Overall, the Lions’ defense gave up 22.4 points per game, the 13th lowest total in the NFL.
On paper, that defense doesn’t look bad. When you look at the Lions’ defensive efficiency numbers, things look a lot closer to what we saw watching the games. On a drive-to-drive basis, the Lions’ defense ranked 30th in total yards allowed and 26th in points allowed per drive. These numbers are a lot more in line with what fans would expect.
How can a team that is so efficient at moving the ball be so mediocre in terms of statistical production? How can a team that is so dreadful in terms of efficiency on defense remain out of the bottom of the league in yards and points allowed? The answer is time of possession.
Time of Possession
As is the case with both the offense and the defense, looking at the broad stats doesn’t really paint the entire picture for time of possession. The Lions averaged holding onto the ball for just 28 minutes and 57 seconds per game. This ranks 22nd in the NFL. However, if we go back to the per-drive statistics, the Lions offense held the ball for an average of three minutes and ten seconds. This leads the league. The explanation: The Lions’ defense was more inadequate at getting off the field than the Lions’ offense was at sustaining drives. The defense was also on the field for a league-leading three minutes and six seconds per drive.
Together those statistics make sense in terms of what we actually saw on the field. The Lions were a team that lived on short, high percentage passing plays, and the defense got picked apart by a similar attack. This adds up to fewer, but longer drives.
The Game Plan
This Lions’ offense was not a mistake. It was not unintentional. Those time of possession efficiency numbers were deliberate. In 2016 the offense was relied on to win the game. The defense was relied on to not lose it. Not losing a game is never an ideal strategy, but with the personnel that the Lions were fielding on the defensive side of the ball, it was the only strategy. They performed adequately in this regard, due in a large part to the heroics of Matthew Stafford. They didn’t have to win the game, they only had to keep it close enough for Stafford to lead them to victory. As many have pointed out, this is not likely a sustainable strategy.
Jarrad Davis should be an immediate starter for the Lions’ defense entering this upcoming season. Teez Tabor will likely be contributing, possibly starting, in the secondary at some point this year. Jalen Reeves-Maybin is another guy who could be a contributor at linebacker by the end of the year. The front office invested a lot of resources in the defense to ensure that it is a better unit going forward.
The Detroit Lions’ defense has improved. It will take time for the rookies to get acclimated to the NFL. It will take time for the new players to learn the defensive schemes. There will be growing pains, and the additions will experience a learning curve. Despite all of that, this 2017 Detroit Lions’ defense has received an injection of talent and should show this statistically by the end of the season. This is good news for both sides of the ball.
Without any improvements to the offense, we would still likely have seen an increase in statistical output this upcoming season if the efficiency remained constant. The Lions performed well when they had the ball. They just didn’t have the ball enough. An improved defense can give the ball back to the offense quicker and more often. This translates directly to statistical improvement for the Stafford and the Lions’ offense. However, this is not necessarily going to produce a linear improvement.
Unless you are Jim Bob Cooter, you can’t know what is going through Jim Bob Cooter’s head. There will almost certainly be changes to the offensive scheme after a full offseason of adjustments and the changing of personnel. The Lions are very possibly going into this upcoming season without Anquan Boldin, a staple of last year’s offense.
Things are going to be different. How different? Impossible to say. A better defense may prompt Cooter to take a more aggressive approach on offense. This would probably increase output but lower efficiency. There is no way to predict what the Lions offense will look like this year. That said, last year’s numbers show the potential that this offense has for efficiency. Those offensive time of possession stats were achieved despite having a pitiful rushing attack. That rushing attack could, and should, be significantly improved next year.
All we know is that Stafford should see more opportunities to show us what he showed us last year: He is a really good quarterback. If this Detroit Lions’ defense can improve at all, this offense, with its weapons and versatility, should be a force next season. The defense doesn’t have to be among the best in the league. They just have to be better.
Last year, the Lions’ offense helped out the defense. This year, the Lions’ defense has the chance to return the favor.