Bob Wojnowski, John Niyo and Justin Rogers preview the Lions-Steelers game on this week's Lions Lowdown.
Detroit – The Detroit Lions entered Sunday night’s showdown with the Pittsburgh Steelers with a .500 record. And while three is the only stat that truly matters – as in the number of wins and losses the team had registered – there are underlying trends that have contributed to the team’s place in the standings.
Prior to Sunday’s games around the league, we looked at five stats the Lions need to maintain, and five where they need to improve, if they hope to make a run at the NFC North crown.
Turnover margin, +6, fourth
The Lions defense has been improved, no question, but the performance has been buoyed by its ability to force turnovers early in the year. And during the 3-1 start, the offense was doing an equally good job protecting the ball. It’s not a coincidence things went a bit awry the two games before the bye, with six turnovers, including five in a loss to New Orleans.
If the Lions can get back to protecting the rock and forcing opponents to regularly cough it up, it will cover up plenty of the team’s other problems.
Opposing power running success, 58 percent, 11th
The Lions ranked 31st in opposing third-down conversion percentage last year, but have trimmed the success rate by more than 10 percent this year. While the unit’s overall ability to stop the run has been inconsistent, they’ve been stout in short-yardage situations on late downs. When opponents try to pound it out on the ground for two or fewer yards on third and fourth down, they’re failing at a 42 percent clip.
Starting field position, 31.5, second
While the Lions have battled inconsistencies on both offense and defense, the team’s special units have been strong. Matt Prater has been excellent, as always; the replacement options while punter Sam Martin nursed an offseason ankle injury held their own; and the front office appears to have struck gold with rookie punt return Jamal Agnew.
Agnew’s success returning punts, the overall improvement of the defense, and the early parade of turnovers is putting the offense in good position to do more damage than they have. Additionally, the starting field position has ranked in the top three both at home and on the road.
Opponents’ scoring efficiency, 29.3 percent, fifth
The Lions are giving up 24.8 points per game, which isn’t good, but that’s not fully indicative of the way the defense has performed. In fact, the unit has done a surprisingly good job limiting how often opponents score, keeping them off the board south of a third of their possessions.
Second-half scoring, 16.5, second
The Lions have gotten off to some sluggish starts, falling behind at the half in five of six games, but they’re closing games strong, which is something to build upon. It’s a combination of all three units, with defensive touchdowns, two Agnew scores on returns and more efficient offense down the stretch.
It’s true – it’s not how you start, it’s how you finish. Of course, the Lions sure could make things easier on themselves if they started faster.
Successful plays, 40.6 percent, 30th
There’s no more damning statistic when it comes to Detroit’s struggling offense. A successful play is defined as gaining 40 percent of the needed yards on first down, 50 percent of the remaining yards on second down and converting on third down.
Detroit’s problems start on first down. Only 37.1 percent of their first-down plays gain four yards and the team is last in the league, needing an average of more than nine yards every second down. It’s tough to sustain drives with those recurring problems.
Stuffed runs, 31 percent, 32nd
A big part of the problem on first downs is the team’s inability to routinely run the ball. Almost one out of every three times the Lions hand the ball off they are stopped for no gain or lose yardage. No team has had a stuff rate that high since the Arizona Cardinals in 2005.
The positive news is starting running back Ameer Abdullah isn’t the problem. According to Pro Football Focus, he’s third in the NFL in average yards after contact and 10th in missed tackles as a runner. So if the Lions can solve some of their blocking woes – both schematic and execution issues – there is hope.
Pass-blocking efficiency, 71.9, 29th
You know how we just mentioned the run blocking was insufficient? Well, the pass protection hasn’t been much better. This metric, courtesy of Pro Football Focus, measures how well the offensive linemen manage to keep pressure from reaching the quarterback. It weighs sacks more heavily, and Matthew Stafford has already been dropped 23 times, including 17 in the past three games. But overall, the offensive line has allowed 93 pressures on 256 drop backs.
Pass rush effectiveness, 32.7 percent, 27th
On the opposite side of the field, the Lions aren’t doing enough to generate pressure on opposing QBs and it’s the team’s biggest defensive flaw. The Lions entered Sunday 22nd in sacks and rank even worse when you consider how often they’re disrupting the pocket on opposing pass plays. The defensive line is the biggest issue, but the above number factors in blitzing situations, as well.
Opposing red-zone efficiency, 61.1 percent, 24th
Overall, the defense has done a decent job limiting scoring possessions, but when opponents work their way inside the 20, the unit hasn’t been as stingy as it needs to be. A famously tough defense, the Seattle Seahawks, are keeping opponents out of the end zone on 71.5 percent of trips to the red zone. The Lions are more than 30 percent worse.