Allen Park — The Detroit Lions are in first place, but they’ve been living on the razor’s edge all season. The team is one of two, the other being the winless Browns, that has trailed in the fourth quarter of every game.
Thanks to the late-game heroics of quarterback Matthew Stafford and company, the team has been able to rally in the closing minutes for five come-from-behind victories. But if the Lions want to win their first division crown in 23 years, they’ll need to clear up some of their most glaring deficiencies down the stretch.
Here are 10 areas the Lions desperately need to improve.
Drops — 6.1 percent, rank: 32nd
What happened? The Lions were sure-handed last season and added Marvin Jones in the offseason, a player who had never dropped more than three balls in his career. This year, he’s already put six on the ground and is one of five Lions with multiple drops. Those miscues are drive killers and need to be significantly reduced.
Generating turnovers — 7, rank: 31st
Detroit has done a fabulous job protecting the football. Quarterback Matthew Stafford has a career-low interception rate and the team has lost one fumble, the fewest in the league. But the defense isn’t coming up with enough turnovers, netting seven. The good news is some of those few have come at the most critical of times, helping seal close wins.
Three and out — 24.71 percent, rank: 26th
There’s a lot to like about the Lions’ offense this season, especially its efficiency. But consistency is still an issue. The Lions are going three-and-out nearly a quarter of their drives, which is particularly devastating when the defense is giving up a league-worst 40 yards per possession. You can’t score every time you get the ball, but when you’re routinely playing in one-score games, field position matters.
Running back stuffed runs — 24 percent, rank :30th
Despite losing lead back Ameer Abdullah to an early-season foot injury, the Lions have been committed to the run and shown some improvement in that area, averaging 3.9 yards per carry. The problem with the ground game is the number of negative plays. On nearly a quarter of the running backs’ carries, they’ve been stopped for no gain or a loss. No one has been stuffed more frequently in the NFL than Zach Zenner (27.8 percent). Starter Theo Riddick (18.7) has the 11th worst rate.
Third-down defense — 48.7 percent, rank: 31st
The reason the Lions consistently give up long drives is because they can’t get off the field on third down. Defensive coordinator Teryl Austin noted struggles on second down, leading to third-and-shorts, is a big part of the issue. When an opponent gets into those situations, a conversion has essentially been a lock. With two or fewer yards to gain, opponents have converted on 21 of 24 tries.
Opposing passer efficiency — 112.4, rank: 32nd
Last season, the New Orleans Saints sank to new depths, allowing the worst passer rating against in NFL history (116.2). The Lions aren’t far off that pace, with opposing quarterbacks completing an absurd 74.1 percent of their throws with 20 touchdowns to four interceptions. Austin has admitted the team is more concerned about getting beat for big plays than completion percentage, and they’ve accomplished that goal, ranking in the top 10 of 20-plus yard receptions allowed.
Red zone defense — 66.7 percent, rank: 30th
Seeing how much yardage the Lions defense gives up, you’d hope they’d be a bend-don’t-break unit, but that’s just not the case. When opponents get inside the 20, they’re scoring touchdowns more often than not. The Lions are giving up six points two out of every three trips to the red zone.
Tight end coverage — 52 completions, 9 touchdowns, rank: 31st
The eye test will tell you Detroit has struggled covering tight ends and the statistics bear that out. Only Cleveland has given up as many receiving touchdowns (nine). And Detroit has been wildly inefficient covering the position, giving up 52 receptions on 69 targets.
Penalties — 612 yards, rank: 24th
Caldwell has a history of coaching disciplined groups, but the Lions have struggled with flags this year. The good news is things have been trending in the right direction. The team has averaged fewer than 50 penalty yards the past five games. Infractions extend opponents’ drives and kill possessions for the offense, so continued discipline is imperative.
Power running — 50 percent, ranks: 27th
For a team that’s routinely stuffed running the ball, it shouldn’t be a surprise they can’t count on the ground game to consistently churn out one yard when they need it. On third and fourth down, when the team needs two or fewer yards, they’ve failed to convert on half of their running attempts. They haven’t been much better throwing in those situations, likely because opponents don’t fear the run.