Numbers Lied for the Lions

January 11th, 2013

Special Teams woes like this one killed the Lions


Will Richards, DLD Contributor

Many old-school football minds do not believe in numbers. Football is such a complex game that simple observational statistics are deemed almost worthless due to the number of qualifying statements that need to be made in order for them to have any real perceived value in the world of player observation. I’m a mechanical engineering student, so I’m not quite as quick to discount the value of the digits that make my work possible, but at the same time I understand the dangers of using statistics poorly. Adequate sample sizes and controlled data are things that are almost impossible to come by in the world of football, but there is still knowledge to be gleaned from the world of spreadsheets. To Detroit Lions fans, I come as the bearer of good news. According to several sets of relevant statistics, the Lions are not nearly as poor as their record would indicate.

For this piece I observed the Lions in their first four games of the season. I broke down each drive by them, as well as their opponent, by the starting field position. What I found, was fairly intriguing. I firmly believed all season that the Lions were a talented team that simply underachieved in their first season with any real expectations. The numbers seemed to back this up, as both the offense and the defense performed better than their opponents (among whom there were two playoff teams). Simply taking a look at the performances of the offense and defense on drives gives a pretty good indicator of the potential of this team if they ever manage to get rid of the silly errors.

Starting Field Position Points Scored per Drive Points Allowed per Drive
Own Goal-line to Own 20 1.96 1.14
Own 21-Own 40 2.64 2.18
Own 41-Opponent 40 2.86 5.67
Opponent 39-Opponent 20 1.50 7.00
Opponent 19-Opponent Goal-line No Drives No Drives


While the numbers on the lower half of the spreadsheet looks disconcerting, rest assured that those numbers represent only a small part of the Lions’ issues over these four weeks. Only four drives for the opponent started farther up field than their own 40 yard line. It would have been good to prevent a few more points on these drives, but the defense wasn’t the problem. Offensively there were some struggles turning good field position into points, with nine drives starting past the Lions 40 that only yielded 23 points. Even with that issue, the Lions for the most played well. The offense scored 100 points, and their defense only yielded 72. In fact, the offense outscored the opposing offense in three of the four games.

So how in the world did they manage to stumble out of the gate at 1-3? Good question, and the answer is turnovers and special teams. If one is looking for a game to summarize the Lions’ problems this season, it would only make sense to start with the disastrous showing against the Tennessee Titans. The offense scored 41 points, and the defense played well enough to win, allowing only 23 points. Yet somehow, the Titans finished up the day with a 44-41 overtime victory.

Brandon Pettigrew fumbled deep in Titan territory, and Alterraun Verner scooped up the ball and returned it 72 yards for a Titans score. Darius Reynaud returned a kickoff 105 yards for a touchdown, and Tommie Campbell ran a punt back 65 yards for another special teams score. Any one of these events would have been inexcusable; all three in one game was insurmountable.

It would be a credit to Jim Schwartz as a man and as a coach if his special teams came out fired up and ready to play smart disciplined football the next week. That didn’t happen. Instead, in a divisional game against the Vikings, the Lions defense allowed a total of 2 field goals, and yet the Vikings walked away victorious. The Lions lost because Percy Harvin returned the opening kickoff for a touchdown and Marcus Sherels returned a punt in identical fashion.

Matt Stafford threw a pick-6 to Cortland Finnegan in a win against the Rams, which was the last of the Lions 6 non-defensive touchdowns allowed. Allowing 42 points without allowing your defense a chance to get a stop over the course of four games is a recipe for failure.

What this says about the Lions needs in the draft, I don’t know. The Lions turned the ball over a lot, and failed to throw the ball into the end zone. Typically that means looking for a new QB. The Lions will not look to replace Matt Stafford under center, nor should they, but his play contributed in a big way to a horrible crash down to earth following unrealistically high expectations in preseason. With that in mind, these four games don’t really seem to reveal a huge need for the Lions, other than maybe the need to fire everything even remotely related to special teams.

Replacing the Special Teams coaches may be a logical course of action. Nick Harris may be replaced as he was a midseason replacement at Punter and Jason Hanson is considering retirement. Stefan Logan has lost five fumbles in the last two seasons without a touchdown return, and was benched several times throughout the year. A total retooling of the entire Special Teams phase of the game is probably warranted, but that’s not an area that Martin Mayhew will head into the draft placing major emphasis on.

The lines played very solid on both sides of the ball. Giving up nine sacks in four games isn’t exceptional, but when a QB is dropping back 195 times, that nine sacks becomes a pretty impressive number. With Gosder Cherilus and Riley Reiff manning both the tackle spots, an offensive lineman is extremely unlikely to be taken with the 5th pick.

The Lions defensive line recorded nine sacks of their own, which on 127 drop backs is a pretty good number.  The biggest concern with this group heading into the offseason is who is going to still be around next year. Cliff Avril, Kyle Vanden-Bosh, and Corey Williams all may be gone for various reasons. Those three make up five and a half of the nine sacks that the Lions recorded. If both of the starting DEs are gone, then it seems extremely likely that the Lions may be interested in either Bjoern Werner or Damontre Moore to man one of those spots.

The Lions find themselves in an odd situation. They were way better than their record indicates and they not have any horribly bleeding holes that need to be patched. Looking at the first four games, other than disappointing QB and Special Teams play, the team played very well. Neither are areas that the Lions will target early on, especially with the 5th pick in the draft. This puts Martin Mayhew in a position to find the best overall player, which is rare for a team picking so early.


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