The 2019 NFL season is just a few weeks away, so Andy Benoit makes a few predictions for each NFL team. Today he considers the Detroit Lions, who finished 6–10 and fourth the NFC North last year.
The “Detroit Patriots” moniker strengthens. Matt Patricia’s defense is constructed in a pure Patriot mold: big, interchangeable defensive linemen, thumping linebackers and versatile man-to-man defensive backs. Offensively, the Lions’ mostly-static formationing is replaced by more presnap shifting and motions, with receivers clustered together, stressing defenses with crisscrossing release angles. The updated approach is bumpy at first; new offensive coordinator Darrell Bevell, who has not incorporated these tactics to this degree at previous stops, is learning on the fly. But with the right style of players, Bevell’s offense improves. First-round rookie tight end T.J. Hockenson plays the Rob Gronkowski role. Ace receiving back Theo Riddick is James White. And Detroit’s wide receivers—Marvin Jones, former Patriot Danny Amendola and even lanky star Kenny Golladay—have the flexibility to align anywhere. Detroit’s offense controls games through scheme.
Hockenson, a noted run-blocker at Iowa, boosts Detroit’s ground game, which still has not rebounded from Barry Sanders’s sudden retirement in 1999. Hockenson fits the man-to-man blocking designs that define this offense and that best suit stud second-year tailback Kerryon Johnson. Overall, it’s an improved, but still not great, ground game. Detroit’s otherwise stalwart offensive line is weak at guard, which hinders the pull-blocking on the scheme’s staple “power” and “counter” runs. But at least those runs help establish a more potent play-action game.
Matthew Stafford builds on the maturity and discipline that he started cultivating in 2016. The mega-armed 11th-year pro is not Tom Brady, but he’s a bona fide franchise QB. Cast in a system predicated more on presnap strategy, he excels.
Jarrad Davis becomes a top-five linebacker in Year Two under Patricia. Davis’s play diagnostics will always run hot and cold, but he compensates with scintillating explosiveness. His run D is aided by the addition of pricey defensive lineman Trey Flowers, the growth of 2018 fourth-rounder Da’Shawn Hand and continued dominance of ex-Giant Damon Harrison, whose 2018 midseason arrival made Detroit nearly impossible to run against.
Detroit’s third-down defense improves, thanks not to blitzing (which the Lions do sparingly), but to a strong array of man coverages from their deep, versatile secondary.
BOTTOM LINE: Aside from questions at guard, the Lions are subtly devoid of weakness. Some of their sharpest work last year came against the NFL’s best-coached teams, and this year that translates to success in a lot of close games.
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