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Lions mailbag: Remedying run 'D,' Caldwell's future

Justin Rogers
The Detroit News

Allen Park — The NFC North once again has slipped from the Detroit Lions' grasp, and wild-card hopes also took a blow last week, but there are still five games remaining and plenty of questions, so let's hit the mailbag.

Defensive tackle A'Shawn Robinson (91) could use some help up front to fortify the Lions' run defense.

How do you fix the run D? Is it the LB play, D-line play, scheme or ??

— Steve Brown (@stevejbrown23) 

There's not going to be a magic elixir to solve this season's issues. In the offseason, it starts up front. The Lions need to upgrade their defensive line, particularly the interior, when it comes to stopping the run. Right now, the team has two reliable run defenders under contract heading into next season — A'Shawn Robinson and Cornelius Washington. Anthony Zettel and Jeremiah Ledbetter both need to get stronger, but could conceivably join that group.

The Lions need a starting defensive tackle to pair with Robinson, one who won't be easily moved by double teams, but is explosive enough out of his stance that he can disrupt the backfield and not just eat space. Those guys don't come cheap. You're probably looking at a first- or second-round pick to get early return on investment.

At defensive end, finding a pass rusher to bolster that unit is priority one, but also someone who has the strength to set an edge, with above-average instincts to handle the various misdirection looks that have hurt the Lions at the position.

At linebacker, rookie Jarrad Davis is going to be a fine run defender once he cleans up his angles. That should continue to improve with experience. Tahir Whitehead has really stepped up his game in that area this year, but he's going to be a free agent. The team might need to reload at the spot, as well, but it's a secondary need to the front four.

Why didn't TJ Jones get any targets vs Vikings?

— Despicable Me (@J_C25) 

Lions receiver TJ Jones (pictured) only saw 15 offensive reps against the Vikings, but saw an increased role on special teams because of the injury to returner Jamal Agnew.

Given the number of weapons the Lions have on the roster, this question might as well be, "Why didn't _______ get any targets vs. ________?"

Jones had a smaller role against the Vikings, which could have been for any number of reasons, including his added special-teams responsibilities with Jamal Agnew sidelined by injury. Also, Kenny Golladay is full strength and adding some big-play potential to the offense, so that's also a factor. Jones only got 15 offensive reps on Thursday.

I wouldn't make too much about the waxing and waning roles of the team's fourth wide receiver or third running back. It's bound to drive you up the wall.

Do you think the Lions are playing at, below, or above the level of talent they have on the team?

— Too Fly T (@fly3491) 

Offensively, below; defensively, at their talent level. Both arguments are tied to the trenches.

The Lions have a lot of individual talent along the offensive line, but it has yet to pay dividends, especially in the ground game. I'm not going to tell you Ameer Abdullah is a top-five or 10 running back, but he's good enough for the Lions to be respectable on the ground. And if the team was respectable on the ground, the offense could be scary.

As for the defense, the line has struggled to generate a pass rush all year, which many of us suspected would be a problem. But the back seven, particularly the secondary, has been good enough to keep them in most games. Without a consistent pass rush, the overall unit will continue to be slightly below average and overly dependent on turnovers.

At this point shouldn't we root for losses?
Better draft picks and hopefully a new coach seems much better than losing in wild card game.

— Kevin N. Husted (@KNickHusted) 

Some fans will tell you it's a bad look to ever root for failure, but I'm not in the business of telling people how they should cheer for their teams. If you believe the only way for the Lions to go up is to obtain better draft picks and change coaching staffs, we'd be arguing philosophical approaches with plenty of ammunition to support either case.

But I will say this: I have a difficult time suggesting that you give up on a team still in the playoff hunt. If the Lions go out and lose to the Ravens this week and both the Falcons and Seahawks win, do your thing.


When do Lions go out and sign a heavy hitter free agent running back, to make playoff push?

— chad taylor (@MNITRKN1) 

I don't know if you're talking about this season, but the market is bare bones late into November. There are a few players with track records — Ryan Mathews, DeAngelo Williams or the recently waived Darren McFadden — but none are going to solve the complex and multi-faceted issues that are holding the Lions' running attack back.

The best spot to improve will be the draft, where you can add a low-mileage, cheap asset to complement what you already have.

Follow up question on the Leos not rushing the PAT following Fells' TD (eventually called back)... If the Lions had rushed the PAT and made it, could the officials still have overridden the TD/PAT or would it have been done and in the books?

— PatBerWA (@PatBerWA) 

Once the officials give you clearance following a touchdown or turnover, you can snap it as quickly as you want. And once you snap it, there can be no review.

Head coach Jim Caldwell's job appears to be safe, even if he can't get the Lions into the playoffs.

Do you think missing the playoffs will lead to a coaching change? Feels like these last 5 games will tell Caldwell's fate.

— Bradley Shebib (@bshebib39) 

This, or some variation of it, was the most popular question I received this week. Honestly, without knowing the full scope of Jim Caldwell's extension, it's difficult to assess how much job security he has. But let's assume the "multi-year" deal he signed is for just two years at $4-5 million per season, I just can't imagine the team walking away from that kind of guaranteed money.

For all intents and purposes, the extension essentially bought Caldwell the 2018 season, barring some kind of catastrophic finish with multiple blowout losses.

If the Lions do get into the playoffs, do you see them getting past any of their potential opponents? Who do they match up with the best?

— 🦁🦁🦁 (@CarlCervantes15) 

Of the possible matchups, the Lions would probably have the best chance to get past the Carolina Panthers. I know they came to Ford Field and walked away with a win, but that passing game is inconsistent and turnover prone. If the Lions could limit the run, even half as well as they did the last meeting, that would be enough to give them a shot.

With the way the Saints and Rams are playing, those are nightmare scenarios. And if the Falcons end up winning the NFC South, that would mean they're white-hot heading into a potential playoff showdown with the Lions. Yes, the Lions fell a half-yard short of beating them earlier this year, but the Falcons dominated that game.

Expect 15-20 snaps for new Lions defensive end Dwight Freeney.

How much playing time do you think Dwight Freeney will get?

— Tyler #LGRW(10-9-5) (@tylervan15) 

Probably 15-20 snaps, mostly in more obvious passing situations.

What is the biggest Lions draft need and five prospect to look for during the draft?

— Triston Yang (@asiangamerdude) 

The Lions need quality defensive linemen. Multiple. And I'll be honest with you, I'm not on top of the prospects right now. Just doing some surface scouting of the lists that are out there, here are some names to watch in the first-round mix:

Harold Landry, Clelin Ferrell, Sam Hubbard, Bradley Chubb, Maurice Hurst, Derrick Nnadi, Arden Key.

Repeat and obvious question - can Tion Green help the Lions?

— Sweta Patel (@sweta2311) 

Having not seen him since the preseason finale, the reasonable answer is I don't know. But having dissected the film of the run game week in and week out, I'm skeptical. The blocking isn't good and the scheme isn't putting the offense in the best positions to succeed, so I don't see how plugging an undrafted, unproven running back into the mix changes that.

Where is Miles Killebrew?!

— (@fahmohh) 

He's about to be your starting strong safety after Tavon Wilson landed on injured reserve. But you're right, Killebrew has been something of a ghost in recent weeks, failing to record more than two tackles in six straight games, before tallying three on Thanksgiving. He also doesn't have a tackle for loss, sack or pass breakup since Week 4.

Killebrew's role had been divided up this season, with Quandre Diggs playing much better in 2017 and Teez Tabor slowly working his way on to the field.

The role of Lions safety Miles Killebrew (35) is about to grow with safety Tavon Wilson out for the season.

Why do Lions fans always want to fire everyone, all the time? Can you fire your way to a Super Bowl?

— ptsawyer (@patricktsawyer) 

That attitude isn't unique to Lions fans, it's one shared by fans all across the county. I remember a few years back, 2013 or '14, I was driving home late and listening to a national show where two Alabama fans called and separately pitched moving on from Nick Saban. You know, the guy who won national championships in 2009, 2011 and 2012.

That's the extreme example, but there are always going to be unhappy fans.

Patience typically runs thin in sports, and the shelf life of NFL coaches and GMs is short. Can a change at the top lead to an team taking their performance to the next level? Sure. We all saw it in this town with Larry Brown and the Pistons. And in the NFL, look what Sean McVay has done with the Rams.

But, change doesn't always spur success. If Bob Quinn fires Caldwell and Co. and misfires on a successor, the general manager will be the next one out the door. Wash, rinse, repeat.

What prevents the Lions from winning out?

— Kalsarikännit Al (@LethalSax) 

The same thing that prevented them from blowing out the Browns and Bears and losing home games against the Vikings, Falcons and Panthers. The Lions don't have a running game, are starting slow too often, and are playing subpar defense. While they should be favored much of the rest of the season, they're not good enough for anyone to believe they will win five straight, regardless of the level of competition.

More:Lions face uphill — but not impossible — playoff climb

Make me feel better - what are the Lions strongest areas and where are we just a player or two away, where we can focus on the draft or free-agency next year?

— JW (@jmwhitejmwhite) 

Well, you're set at quarterback. And there's nothing more important to long-term success in the NFL than the man under center. Other areas of quality depth are wide receiver and the secondary.

If you're looking for the simplest path to getting to the next level, if the Lions can find two quality defensive linemen and a power running back to pair with Ameer Abdullah next offseason, that would be a strong start.