Detroit Lions 2011 Regular Season: Halfway There

>> 11.03.2011

Everyone is furiously trying to prove that this 6-2 start capped by a blowout of the Broncos is not the same as 2007’s 6-2 start capped by a blowout of the Broncos. I have something different in mind.

In the Old Mother Hubbard series, I attempt to contextualize individual Lions performances. We watch these guys all season long year after year after year, and we lose perspective on their strengths and weaknesses. I use Pro Football Focus data and radar charts to give you an at-a-glance impression of how Lions are performing against the high, low, and average NFL performances at the same position.

So, if we’re taking the temperature of the Lions at the bye/halfway point . . . why not do the same thing?


Here are the offensive team grades through Week 8. The dark red line is the New England Patriots, #1-graded offense in the NFL. The bright green line is the Seattle Seahawks, #32-graded offense in the NFL. The thick black line is, as always, the NFL average, and the Honolulu Blue line is the Lions.

This is going to surprise some folks, because we perceive the Lions offense to be one of the best in the NFL—and indeed it is the 4th-best, scoring 29.9 points per game. Keep in mind PFF’s “consistency bias,” as I call it: PFF’s system prefers consistently above-average play to streaky home-run hitters. It’s true for individual players like Ndamukong Suh and Jahvid Best, and it’s true for the Lions as a whole.

No surprise, the Lions’ pass offense was graded 8th-best, at +33.2. Also unsurprisingly, the Lions’ rushing game was well below average; the third-worst in fact. But look: the difference between the best running grades and the worst running grades is miniscule.  Having a very poor running game doesn’t grade out much worse than having an average running game. This is a recurring theme this season.

As far as the offensive line goes, it's no surprise to anyone who’s listened to me or PFF over the years: the Lions do an above-average job of pass blocking. They graded -3.7 (average -6.18) over the course of the season. Also no surprise: they can’t run block for crap. The Lions have the fourth-worst run-blocking line in the NFL to this point, at -40.8 (average -18.15).

On offense, the Lions have taken more penalties than most; they’re ranked 24th with a -5.5 penalty grade. However, since the NFL average is -3.11, that’s not crippling. On the whole, the grades show the Lions have a very good passing offense, a decent pass-blocking offensive line, a terrible running game and a terrible run-blocking offensive line. Add it all up and it’s surprisingly mediocre for a team scoring 30 points per game. Once again, we see: the running game doesn’t matter.


The 49ers have a ridiculous defense. I mean, geez. Just look at that. Also: Indy NOOOOOO!

But check out the Lions: 8th-best graded defense overall, graded +33.7. This jibes with their 6th-lowest scoring defense (18.4 PpG). The run defense is ranked 24th, just -2.2 overall—and the average is +14.8, meaning that’s truly not good. The pass rush, again, is what you’d think: 5th-best in the NFL, graded +21.7 (avg. +8.06).

The jawdropper, though: The Detroit Lions have the best pass coverage grade in the NFL. Not pass defense, not pass rush, not statistical derivation: the play of their corners and safeties grades out better than any other team in the NFL. At +22.1, they’re well ahead of the 49ers’ second-place unit (+14.4), and have lapped the rest of the field (avg. -7.74).

The Lions defense is, as it was last season, heavily penalized. Their -7.9 grade is ranked 27th, well below the -3.4 league average—but not as horrific as it’s been. Special teams-wise, the Lions grade out at +7.4—but that’s not all that, because the average is +12.65.

On the whole, we’re left with a promising, but mixed bag. The Lions offense is struggling to move the ball consistently, but is generating points through the air with home run plays. The run blocking is awful, as is the running game as a whole. The defense is a top ten unit, despite poor run-stopping and penalty grades, because they rush the passer better than most—and cover the pass better than anyone.

At the moment, the Lions are in fantastic shape for the playoffs. My favorite predictive football model, the Simple Rating System, LOVES what the Lions have done this year. It’s a combination of strength of schedule and points differential, and at the halfway point the Lions are the second-highest-rated team in the NFL. Given the teams they’ve played and the results of those games, SRS expects the Lions to be the second-hardest out in football (after the Packers) going forward.

Of course, the Lions play the Packers twice throughout the rest of the season, so SRS would project a final finish of 12-4. Could that really happen? Bizarrely, yes. The road games against Chicago and New Orleans are possible (if not likely) losses—but the Lions should be able to split with the Pack, considering they did so last season without Matthew Stafford. The games at Oakland and against San Diego are worlds less scary than they were a few weeks ago, too.

Let’s be clear: I’m not projecting, or claiming, or promising a 12-4 season. I AM promising, projecting, and claiming that the Lions are going to make the playoffs, as I have since May, and have never wavered from. The Lions are only halfway there, but right now that Lions Kool-Aid tastes sweeter than ever.


Jeremy Reisman,  November 4, 2011 at 10:46 AM  

Great stuff, as always. Pretty cool that PFF's info is corroborated by Football Outsiders as well. The Lions offense ranks 11th in DVOA while the defense ranks 3rd! (We won't talk about special teams...)

If the offense could start playing with more consistency and show that they can do so against the better defenses in the league, we may not only have a playoff team in Detroit...(I'll let you finish the sentence as I'm horrified to even type it).

I'm a little skeptical about the coverage stats, as I suspect a lot of the success is based on the pass rush forcing poor throws, but regardless, they deserve more credit than most people are giving them.

Nate Washuta,  November 6, 2011 at 10:06 AM  

Here's the question:

What do the Lions need to do to improve on offense?

They have a franchise QB, a good pass-catching and explosive RB, a duo of tight ends that are very good in the receiving game, the best WR in football, and capable #2 and #3 WRs. We know the running game sucks and that doesn't really matter. I like Burleson as much as the next guy, but does he need to step it up or be replaced?

Jeremy Reisman,  November 6, 2011 at 11:51 AM  

I know it sounds like "mlive commenter" noise, but I really think that most of the offensive problems stem from the offensive line. Pass protection is average, or slightly above, which is serviceable, but still has room for improvement, especially considering how much the Lions drop back to pass.

Obviously, run blocking is a huge problem, and as much as we like to bury our heads in the sand and say that this offense can survive without a decent running threat, it's undeniable that the offense would be better suited WITH one. With a running game, the Lions would be in better positions on third down, they'd have a more effective play-action, they'd be better with a lead and pass protection would improve.

Not saying the offense is terrible or bad or even average, just that if the line played a little better, the Lions offense could be considered elite.

jammitch!,  November 6, 2011 at 9:07 PM  

Expanding on SRS... here's a chart looking at the predictions made by SRS, as well as the predictive ratings from Jeff Sagarin at USA Today. Both of these are adjusted for home-field advantage - 2.55 points for Sagarin, since it specifies it, and 3 points for SRS since it doesn't, as far as I know. Anything within 3 points either way is a toss-up, colored in yellow; green is a solid expected victory, and red is a solid expected loss. The other thing to note is that I'm listing OT victories as half a point regardless of margin, since I feel a 6-point OT victory is closer than a 1-point regulation win.

Some interesting takeaways here. While the second half of the schedule is definitely harder than the first half, it's not as uniformly harder as expected. There are more hard games, but the easy games are substantially easier. There's four games with an expected margin of 10 points in the Lions' favor, including the supposedly tough SD and OAK games. (The Lions are averaging a 20-point margin in games with a 10+ point expected margin on both metrics. That's including the bad day against Atlanta.) Thanksgiving day and at NO are also not the sure losses that might be supposed. Next week at Chicago, on the other hand, is harder than I would have guessed.

If these metrics are accurate, 6-2 is a realistic guess for the second half, plus or minus two wins due to luck.

Also fun to note that the Lions still control their own destiny in the division. If they win out (ha!), they make up the 2 games on the Packers, and they own the tiebreaker. I'd bet there aren't a lot of other 2nd place teams that can say that.

anon,  November 7, 2011 at 5:50 AM  


Flamekeeper_Ty,  November 8, 2011 at 2:25 PM  

Nice work! Obviously, the SD and @OAK games looked a lot more fearsome early in the year . . . thanks for commenting. Sorry I took so long to reply.

Flamekeeper_Ty,  November 8, 2011 at 2:34 PM  

The Lions are pretty much stuck with this O-line, or close variants thereof, for at least this year and probably next year. Obviously, the run blocking is horrific and that's a big problem, but they can't spend any resources to change that right now, and they're going to go broke just re-signing the guys they've got.

The NFL is set up to prevent the kind of flawless two-deep rosters that we saw in the 49ers of the 80s and the Cowboys of the 90s; you simply can't build a roster that's really good at everything. This offense is built to pass first, pass second, and run wild in the space underneath third.

Would it be awesome if the Lions had a power running game that could gash people for 4 yards per carry running off-tackle fifteen times a game? Yeah. Is it going to happen? No. Can the Lions win double-digit games and be title contenders anyway?


PS: the offense IS elite. It's a top-5 unit.

Flamekeeper_Ty,  November 8, 2011 at 2:35 PM  

I'm not sure what is up with Burleson. In the preseason, he looked like he was going to catch 70 balls and 8-10 TDs this year . . . my guess is he's not getting open.

Flamekeeper_Ty,  November 8, 2011 at 2:40 PM  

This is a great point--and hilarious to boot. FO spends a lot of time decrying PFF's methods as bullhonkey, but while they start from opposite points they often meet in the middle. The truth is, the defense has been more consistently excellent than the offense, despite the offense having a higher ceiling.

If the Lions can get Best back, and Stafford's swag returns, this team is going to be absolutely fearsome coming down the stretch.

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