1. Fans like the idea that an “underdog” QB can succeed on the strength of his brains and accuracy, rather than just his raw arm. Such a QB can, but only to a much smaller extent than people realize. In the NFL, arm strength does matter—a lot. The stronger your arm, the more throws available to you. Anytime you find yourself doubting this, put on the Lions film. You’ll see an offense that’s defined by its quarterback’s cannon.
2.Besides continuing to make the big-time tight-window throws that Matthew Stafford has always made (he’s especially deft throwing deep outside against Cover 2), we’ve also seen the 29-year-old QB plays with more maturity in offensive coordinator Jim Bob Cooter’s system. Those wow throws no longer come at the cost of wise decision-making. Cooter often puts the Lions in straightforward, static formations. The stillness gives Stafford a clearer picture of the defense presnap. It’s the same thing the Colts used to do with Peyton Manning.
3. Defenses know that Stafford is evaluating them closely before the snap. So the Lions must be alert for coverage disguises. Some teams have realized that the Lions rarely snap the ball before the final seconds of the play clock. So, by design, those defenses show one coverage early on and do not get into their actual coverage until the play clock dwindles.
4. Something else you see against this offense: defenses playing more man coverage as the game progresses. That’s not surprising. Spreading out in static formations compromises man-to-man beating tactics like presnap motion, and stack and switch releases (receivers crisscrossing their paths off the snap). Lions receivers are compelled to run more isolated routes, which they’re not always equipped to win on. Marvin Jones is too inconsistent against jam coverage to be a true No. 1. Golden Tate is really a gadget player. (A big facet of this offense is getting Tate the ball early in the down, in space. Often there’s a misdirection element to those plays.) Last year’s No. 3 receiver, Anquan Boldin, couldn’t run anymore and is now gone. A lot rides on his replacement, third-round pick Kenny Golladay.
5. Here’s hoping third-year running back Ameer Abdullah stays healthy. (He went on IR after Week 2 last year with a Lisfranc injury.) With Abdullah and Theo Riddick (the best inside receiving back in football), Detroit has two dynamic backfield weapons who can create their own space. Their style of running fits Cooter’s singleback spread formations. Without Abdullah, though, it’s a benign ground game.
6. Taylor Decker’s 4-6-month absence with a torn labrum from June hurts. Besides losing one of the league’s best young left tackles (Decker has steady feet and strong hands), the Lions now must make due with a liability at that spot. Whether that liability is in the form of ex-Rams bust Greg Robinson or backups Cornelius Lucas or Corey Robinson doesn’t matter. Whoever is out there will need help.
7. Maybe tight end Eric Ebron can help with chip-blocks, but don’t ask more of his blocking. His technique, and therefore strength, are about as bad as it gets. To be fair, blocking isn’t Ebron’s game. He was drafted in the first round, in 2014, to catch passes, and here he’s shown great improvements. His route running took a significant step forward last season, particularly on in-breaking patterns.
8. This defense allowed 72.7% of passes last year to be completed, the highest of any defense in the NFL’s modern era. But the secondary never looked that bad on film. The corners, led by Darius Slay, were solid. Thanks to some depth, the safety position was versatile. (Three key contributors, Glover Quin, Tavon Wilson, and dime box man Miles Killebrew are back this year.) The problem was this D rarely made big plays. That almost always stems from an ineffective pass rush. Indeed, the Lions ranked 30th in sack rate.
9. Defensive coordinator Teryl Austin prefers to play two-deep coverages. This naturally limits his blitz packages. So, Austin tries to manufacture pressure with designer four-man rush tactics, like stunts and twists. His key guy is Ziggy Ansah, a dynamic, long-bodied fifth-year pro who is worlds better than his 2.0 sacks last season suggests. Ansah could play like he played last season and very well record 12 sacks in 2017. Even if that’s the case, it’s important that one more pass rusher step up. Kerry Hyder overachieved in the designer rush tactics, but this defensive front needs one more force who can win one-on-one. Haloti Ngata is aging; the best bet is last year’s second-round defensive tackle, A’Shawn Robinson.
10. Don’t be surprised if incumbent slot corner Quandre Diggs ultimately keeps the No. 3 job ahead of free agent ex-Raider D.J. Hayden. Diggs is up-and-down, but that’s better than mostly down-and-down, which is where poor finishing technique leaves Hayden.
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