Fire is mysterious. It burns, it sears, it destroys—and it heals. You know me to be a man of facts, of analysis, of numbers and science and truth. But I’m also a man of emotion, perception, and faith in ultimate justice. There are times when truth is inescapable, and times when it is ineffable. There are times to rely on intellect, and times to open up to what we don’t know.
After nine games the Lions are one game below .500, and the Lions fanbase is wounded. We watched the Vikings again grind out an improbable victory, again saw the offense flail ineffectively as the defense stood tall, and again saw huge Vikings touchdowns nullify a spectacular fourth-quarter offensive awakening.
Once again, the Lions fanbase is crying in pain, dazed and struggling for answers. Are the Lions a good team, playing below expectations and falling victim to circumstance? Are the Lions an overrated team, a castle built on sand, heading for another complete collapse? Are the Lions a young team, experiencing growing pains as they learn to win? Or are these manifestations of that poltergiest undisciplinedness; Mikel Leshoure’s offseason pot habit mischievously causing Stafford to throw a pick, Ponder to throw deep spirals, Megatron to fumble and Adrian Peterson to reel off 120 yards in the last 15 minutes?
There is an ancient art of healing called fire cupping, which if you saw the Karate Kid reboot you know what I’m talking about: a lick of flame in a glass jar pressed against skin, causing a partial vacuum that bursts capillaries and rushes life-giving blood to the patient’s afflicted body part. Science, it isn’t. But in this case a little mysticism, a little blue flame, is exactly what Lions fans need.
While the treatment might be ineffable, the disease is not. The Lions offense is, statistically, still among the best in the NFL. They’ve gained the third-most yards, scored the 13th-most points, are ranked 6th in overall offense by Pro Football Focus, fifth in Offensive Expected Points Added and ninth in Offensive Win Probability Added. But anyone watching sees a much less effective offense.
The Lions are ranked 20th in average yards-per-attempt, tied with the league average at 7.2 YpA. This is down from 12th (7.8 YpA) in 2011. The Lions are a little bit better when interceptions and touchdowns are factored in: They rank 15th in the NFL in Adjusted YpA, at 7.0--but they ranked 7th in the NFL last season with 7.8 AYpA. The most telling stat of all? Yards per Completion, where the Lions dropped from 14th (12.0 YpC) to 23rd (11.4 YpC). Nevertheless, the Lions lead the NFL in passing attempts, just as they did last season.
So: the Lions are throwing the ball much less farther down the field, and they’re doing it less effectively. For the first three quarters of nearly every game, Matthew Stafford is able to hit the broad side of a barn, but it seems like he’s only able to hit the broad side of a barn.
In prior games, Stafford’s problem has been his ineffectiveness on third down. The Lions were again dreadful on third down (1-of-9, 11%) against the Vikings, but that was because they were so often dreadful on first down, especially in the first half.
By my count, the Lions faced 35 first downs on Sunday, 17 in the first half. Of those, they rushed 9 times at 3.1 YpC (10 at 3.7 including a Stafford scramble), and passed 7 times at 6.71 YpA. In the first quarter, the Lions lined up for a first down, and were held to two yards or less five times. That’s just not good enough. Putting the offense in constant second-and-long and third-and-long situations is going to result in punts.
Punts kill defenses.
Through the first seven quarters the Lions faced the Vikings in 2012, the Lions allowed 153 rushing yards and no touchdowns from Adrian Peterson, and 312 passing yards and 1 touchdown from Christian Ponder. That’s 106 offensive plays, an average of 4.39 yards per play, and seven offensive points.
In the last quarter, the dam burst: the Lions allowed 120 yards and a touchdown to Adrian Peterson, plus a 20-yard touchdown pass to Christian Ponder. That’s 15 offensive plays, an average of 9.33 yards, and 18 offensive points.
The Lions are an offensive team. It is built to score 28-plus points every time it takes the field. This Lions defense is an aggressive defense, built to ravage teams playing catch-up. Asking them to completely deny Adrian Peterson any yards and the end zone for eight quarters is asking too much. Asking this defense to shut down the run and suffocate the pass for eight quarters is too much. Asking this defense to make up for a cornucopia of punts and turnovers committed by a 200-million-dollar offense is too much.
Stafford and the offense have to stop playing scared in the first quarter, and incandescently in the fourth. Stafford has to stop breaking down and rolling out and flushing away when he’s got the second-best pass protection in the NFL.
But what, you ask, is the good news? That the incandescent play of Stafford & Co. is still there. That the switch is still able to be flipped. That when push comes to shove, these coaches, these players, and these schemes can still rip other teams to shreds. As long as all the elements are in place, anything is possible—even making the playoffs.
Before you scoff, remember: the Lions have made the playoffs from unlikelier circumstances.