Kent Lee Platte, DLD writer
Expectations are generally not that high for a team coming off a 4-12 season. If that team goes into its bye week 5-3 with the projected easiest schedule in the NFL, suddenly expectations are very high. Just looking at how the Lions have played in 2013 and how the teams they have left on their schedule have played, a 10-6 season should be a given and in fact should probably be a disappointment since that might not even be enough to secure a playoff spot.
Matthew Stafford’s one minute drive and fake spike TD was more than simply a game winning series, it is a potentially franchise changing event and must be capitalized on. If the Lions stumble next week and going forward, it could squander everything that Stafford built with that play, the momentum the team has been building, the confidence of the players and coaches, and, most importantly for people like me, the confidence of the fans that this team has finally turned a corner. It really does come down to expectations, and Lions fans are beginning to (rightly) expect their team to win every single game they play. There are areas for improvement, and that’s what I’m going to look at today.
Secondary Must Improve
This one is of course a no-brainer. The Lions secondary has performed well at times, but never all at once and never consistently over the course of several weeks. The strongest unit of the group is obviously the safeties, but even Louis Delmas and Glover Quin have had their moments of boggle-the-mind awful. Part of this falls on health, as Houston, Mathis, and Bentley have all dealt with one injury or another this season. But the unit as a whole must get better for the Lions to contend long term down the stretch. The Lions are facing a lot of inexperienced or weaker passers down the stretch. Not only must this unit perform well against that lesser competition, but it must also improve to have any chance of making a push in the playoffs against the best the NFC has to offer.
Must Improve the Running part of the Running Game
Both Reggie Bush and Joique Bell have proven themselves able in the passing game, despite a string of drops by Bell early and what seems like a drop or two each week by Bush. Where we haven’t seen consistent solid play is in the rushing game. Now I know, as Lions fans we aren’t used to seeing a tandem of running backs that can get it done AT ALL in the running game. That shouldn’t prevent us from seeing the flaws that both Bush and especially Bell have shown this season.
Bush still gets lost in the backfield at times and while his field vision is good, he hasn’t reacted to when plays break down as well as you’d hope. Bell has had some amazing plays this season, which is a big reason I think fans overlook his otherwise tepid play as a rusher. He takes far too many short or negative runs, it’s almost as if he’s acting like he’s a speed back and thinks he can get away with that in hopes of breaking one. He’s improved on this issue over the past few weeks, and that’s encouraging, but it is an area that absolutely must improve if the Lions are going to be able to carry leads late in games.
Burleson Needs to be Back, Really Back
Nate Burleson may or may not play against the Bears as he is coming back from a broken pizza. Whether he comes back this week or next, the Lions need Nate Burleson to come back to the football field. I mean more than just his physical presence, the Lions need the Nate Burleson that opened the season as the Lions leading receiver, and not just a guy who might catch an underneath pass every now and again. Burleson has always been reasonably reliable as a #2 guy, and Durham has proven himself a capable compliment, but there can’t be any half measures here. Burleson needs to be back to how he started the season, anything less and the Lions will struggle.
Just the Offensive Line. Surprising just about everybody, the Lions offensive line has been a strength of the Lions this season, and they must continue to be. Dominic Raiola started off 2012 pretty strong, not as strong as 2013, but his play fell off hard by midseason. It’s encouraging that it hasn’t yet, but it must not for the Lions to be successful. Breath of Fresh Air rookies Larry Warford and LaAdrian Waddle must continue not only to play well but to improve. A strong O-line can carry a team all the way to the Super Bowl, and this one is playing at that level.
Another “Duh” statement, the Lions have very little control over this one. This may be the luckiest season in Lions history in terms of injuries and it needs to stay that way. With the Bears defense faltering and Aaron Rodgers’ injury opening a huge door, a serious injury to either side of the ball could completely derail the Lions chances.
Tie “Good Matt” to a Chair
And don’t let him leave. Matthew Stafford has made some miscues this season, but we’ve truly yet to see the Bad Matt that lost some games in the past. You know the guy, the one that got rattled and tried to force passes when there was nothing there. The guy that got jumpy in the pocket and heard ghosts. That guy needs to continue living in the shadows, and the Lions need Good Matt to show up each and every week. The Lions have proven over the past eight games that they can dominate the teams they should dominate, and have proven they will be competitive for four quarters against good teams. It starts and ends with the quarterback.
A Returner Must Be Found
The Lions don’t presently have anyone to threaten in the return game. Micheal Spurlock is a stopgap if I’m being generous (I’m being generous), while Jeremy Ross briefly flashed his moves and speed but also poor judgment. Cutting ties with Steven Miller today says the Lions think they have at least a short term answer here, but I may vomit if Spurlock sees the field as a returner ever again. Sam Martin has done an excellent job as the Lions KOS and Punter, but both return units have been poor. They don’t need to be game breaking Devin Hesters every play, but the Lions need this unit to improve to at least mediocrity.
They Need to Get Home
I’m obviously talking about the defensive line here. The Lions have caused all kinds of pressure in most of their games, but the Lions once vaunted Defensive Line have not been getting to the Quarterback with anything resembling regularity. Some of this falls on the secondary, who have allowed QBs to take their first read with alarming consistency, but even when the QB is forced to hold onto the ball as evidenced against Dallas, the line isn’t taking him to the turf. QBs need to be rushed, they need to be hit, and they need to be sacked.
Stop, Stop the Drops
In case you haven’t noticed, the Lions receiving corps have dropped far more passes than they should be. Surprisingly, oft-embattled tight end Brandon Pettigrew hasn’t been the chief offender this season. No, that ‘honor’ belongs to Reggie Bush who seems to be on a mission to leave one in the dirt every game. Kris Durham seems to be getting a little better every game, but he has at least five drops that I can think of and they are all of the ‘uncontested’ variety. Tim Lappanno has a horrible track record of coaching out drops (he has been the Lions TE coach for years), so it’s up to the players to figure out how their hands work with the quickness.
Stay Calm and Win Football Games
This Lions team is a very emotional group. When you have a team leader like Dominic Raiola, who has himself been…um…colorful this season, you really need to have someone step up and add a level of focus. The Lions have several players that can do that, and they’ve balanced it with players who can light fires when needed.
Keeping penalties at a minimum is paramount to winning down the stretch, and this Lions team cannot afford to give games away with silly penalties. More than just the penalties, the Lions need to learn to keep the right level of focus in different game situations. It’s promising to see the team not only march but catapult themselves downfield with a minute left on a potentially game winning drive, but that’s something we need to see every week. The team hasn’t been giving up on games they were behind in (circa 2009), but the signs of frustration are evident every time they show the team on the sidelines. Motivation is good, but players on the edge make mistakes.
All the same, the team can’t let off the throttle when ahead in games, another gaffe Lions fans are used to seeing from their already conservative play caller in Scott Linehan. There are lots of angles here, obviously, and the Lions need to keep their heads screwed on straight. They proved in 2012 that they will spiral once things start to get out of control, so it is essential, nay, imperative that the team remains focused, remains calm, for the next eight weeks and beyond!