By Jordan Deane
The Detroit Lions came out firing on all cylinders in 2017 winning their first three out of four games, but dropped their last two games making them sit on a 3-3 record headed into their bye week as I write this.
Before the regular season started this year, the Lions extended Matthew Stafford’s contract, making him the highest paid player in NFL history. He signed a five-year contract extension, worth $135 million, making $27 million a year.
The Lions also signed right tackle Rick Wagner from the Baltimore Ravens, and right guard T.J. Lang from NFC North rival Green Bay Packers to help solidify the offensive line and protect the highest paid player in football. Both Wagner and Lang have each been selected as Pro Bowlers in their careers.
Right now, Detroit is hard to diagnose as a championship caliber football team. At times, the team has shown glimpses of how good it can be one week, but then struggle the next week on both sides of the football. Inconsistency is not a new problem in Detroit.
Being down a starting offensive lineman since the beginning of the season does not help their inconsistency. Left tackle Taylor Decker has been out due to a torn labrum in his right shoulder. The Lions are hoping for his mid-season return. In only his second year in the league, he is a rising star at his position.
The modern day NFL is a quarterback-driven league. Within the last 15 years, with the exception of three teams—Seattle Seahawks, Baltimore Ravens and Tampa Bay Buccaneers—the Super Bowl winning teams included future Hall of Fame quarterbacks. Tom Brady of the New England Patriots, Aaron Rodgers of the Green Bay Packers, Drew Brees of the New Orleans Saints, Peyton Manning of both the Indianapolis Colts and Denver Broncos, Ben Roethlisberger of the Pittsburgh Steelers and Eli Manning of the New York Giants. All led their teams to a championship or multiple championships.
In order to be Super Bowl contenders, teams get it done in all three phases of football: offense, defense and special teams. Seven weeks into the season, the Lions are ranked 25th out of 32 teams in total offense and 21st in defense. Though the Lions are near the bottom half in total offense and defense, Lions fans should not dwell on those statistics with nine weeks of football remaining.
For the Lions to run the table in the NFC North Conference and compete for a Super Bowl, they must have a consistent run attack offensively each week. Since the Lions are a pass first team led by Stafford’s arm, they do not need to have an elite running attack to win football games.
With that said, though, I believe Stafford is worth every penny of his contract, Stafford is not Tom Brady or Aaron Rodgers who can consistently throw the football 40-plus times a game and play at a high level game-in and game-out. Stafford needs a reliable and respected run attack to open up the play-action pass throwing lanes behind defenses.
A difference from year’s past is that this year’s Lions team is dedicated to sticking to the run game even when they struggle at times to get a big play from it. Since the 2013 season, Detroit has not had a 100-yard rusher in a game. The last running back to do that was Reggie Bush.
The Lions do not need a 100-yard rusher to be successful, but if our tandem of running backs: Ameer Abdullah, Theo Riddick, Dwayne Washington and Zack Zenner, can get over the century mark each week, the Lions offense will be much more dynamic. The Lions have eclipsed one 100 yards rushing game through six games. Getting Decker back in the next few weeks will have an immediate impact in the run game and offense as a whole.
To help Stafford out in the passing game, the Lions need another offensive weapon besides Golden Tate, who is the No. 1 target for Stafford this year. Tate has 36 receptions, 353 yards and two touchdowns. He is the most explosive, dynamic player they have. Wide receiver Marvin Jones Sr. needs to step up and live out his five-year, $40-million dollar contract, since he is getting paid to be the No. 1 wideout.
Another element of a championship caliber team is playing stout defense by rushing the passer, stopping the run and forcing turnovers. Through six games, the Lions have 13 sacks, statistically average giving up under 100 yards per game, and have forced 14 turnovers, which is tied for all of the turnovers they forced last season in 2016 as a whole. Though a slippery slope defensively at times, the Lions have improved defensively from a year ago.
Special teams is often overlooked as a key component of a successful team, but the Lions arguably have the best field goal kicker in football in Matt Prater. A kicker who can consistently hit field goals from 50-plus yards away in a dome or outside, makes a team’s offense that much more dangerous, especially for game-winning field goals. Since Matt Prater joined the Lions back in 2014, Prater has had six total field goals that have either put the Lions ahead late in the game that ultimately led to the team win, or hit a game-winning field goal. He has been nothing short of a clutch kicker for Detroit.