Here are five questions the Detroit Lions' offense must answer this season.
Will the power run game emerge?
It’s easy to ask whether the Lions are going to be able to run the ball, but fans would settle for being able to routinely convert short-yardage situations.
In those situations last season — needing two or fewer yards on third or fourth down — Detroit’s 45 percent success rate on the ground was the worst in the NFL. The team addressed the problem by drafting guard Frank Ragnow to help the push up front and signing LeGarrette Blount, a 250-pound wrecking ball to tote the rock.
Perhaps a taste of things to come, the Lions handed the ball to Blount on a 4th-and-1 in a preseason game and he managed to keep his balance through a big hit in the backfield and plow forward past the sticks.
It’s unlikely the Lions are suddenly going to morph into Kansas City, which had success on 82 percent of their short-yardage runs last season, but trending toward league average would sustain more drives, help close out narrow victories and reduce taking unnecessary risks by throwing when on the door step of the end zone.
Can Lang shake the injury bug?
When healthy, guard T.J. Lang is good. Really good. Maybe he earned Pro Bowl honors more on reputation than production last season, but for the 13 games he was on the field, he proved worthy of the hefty contract the Lions gave him in free agency, luring him away from Green Bay.
But Lang’s injury history over the past several years is absurdly long, and after rehabbing through offseason hip surgery last offseason, he battled back and foot injuries that limited his effectiveness for long stretches.
Lang came into training camp this summer saying he feels the healthiest he has in years, but a few days into the practice routine, he found himself sidelined by another lower leg injury. Healthy, he’s the final piece of the Detroit’s revamped offensive line. But if he’s banged up, it will bring back the nightmares of last season, where he and the rest of the unit had to deal with a slew of injuries that led to 10 different starting combinations and a multitude of blocking issues.
Who replaces Ebron?
The Lions gave up on former first-round pick Eric Ebron this offseason without a clear replacement plan for his production. The team bet on the unknown, anticipating a developmental jump from 2017 fourth-round pick Michael Roberts and the potential of longtime Seattle Seahawks backup Luke Willson.
But through the preseason, those two had combined for three receptions. Ebron had 53 grabs for 574 yards a year ago.
One area where the tight ends should be better is run blocking, and that’s important, but so is their ability to act as a security blanket for quarterback Matthew Stafford, particularly on third down and in the red zone. Will someone from the group step up or will the burden of picking up Ebron’s pass-game production fall on other players, whether it’s Theo Riddick out the backfield or second-year receiver Kenny Golladay.
Will deep-passing success continue?
One of the more pleasant surprises from a year ago was the return of a consistently utilized vertical element to Detroit’s passing offense. Stafford always has had a cannon for an arm, but it’s too often been holstered, and even when he’s been allowed to uncork, the accuracy wasn’t always there.
Last year was different, as Stafford routinely hooked up with Marvin Jones and Golladay on long bombs, giving the aerial attack some field-stretching ability and opening up the underneath lanes for Golden Tate and Riddick to take advantage of their open-field elusiveness.
Jones had a strong offseason, and is looking to build upon the foundation he laid a season ago. Still, he’s never been great at getting separation, instead relying on his exceptional ability to make contested receptions in tight quarters. And Stafford’s deep ball hasn’t looked as crisp on the practice field, often sailing beyond his intended target. He’ll need to get recalibrated if Detroit is going to unlock its full pass-game potential.
Is offensive line depth really improved?
We noted our concerns about Lang, but even if he manages to stay healthy, odds are good the Lions will need to call upon a backup lineman or three to play meaningful snaps this season.
Detroit did what it could this offseason to bolster its depth up front, but the results have been troubling this offseason. The group was manhandled in joint practices with the Raiders and performed inconsistently throughout the preseason.
The concern is no matter how much the Lions invested in the unit, removing one piece could result in the overall effectiveness collapsing like a house of cards.