Lions mailbag: Picking apart the lack of picks

Justin Rogers
The Detroit News
Quandre Diggs

Allen Park — The Detroit Lions had a bye last week, and I tried to sneak away from the grind for a couple days to recharge my batteries. Now that we're back in the swing of things, it's time for a mailbag.

What is contributing to the lack of interceptions?

— Mike Wilder (@Cartinthewater) October 17, 2018

I sometimes forget how bad it's been for the Lions this year. The team has two interceptions, and just one since the first defensive play of the season, when Quandre Diggs housed rookie Sam Darnold's cross-field attempt. 

Only two teams have been worse at picking passes.

Coach Matt Patricia always talks about defense as the marriage of pass rush and coverage, and, so far, the latter is doing a better job holding up its end of the bargain. Yeah, the Lions are near the top of the league in sacks, but a great deal of those have been the result of good coverage calls and quality execution from the back end in those situations.  

A significant chunk of interceptions are the result of the quarterback being under duress and forced into making a rushed decision. Despite the surprising deluge of sacks, the Lions are 31st in pressure rate, the percentage of pass-rush snaps where the quarterback is pressured.

Without steady pressure, turnovers are going to typically decline, sharply. 

It also doesn't help that the Lions have gone against four quarterbacks with exceptional track records for protecting the football. Aaron Rodgers and Tom Brady's interception rates rank No. 1 and No. 3, all-time. And if they had enough attempts to qualify, Dak Prescott would be No. 4 and Jimmy Garoppolo would squeeze into the top 10.  

Lions have maybe the top WR corps in the league, and improved O-line, an improved running game, and Matt Stafford. Why aren’t they scoring 80 points per game?

— Mius Flint (@MiusFlint) October 18, 2018

We hit on this in an earlier mailbag, but some of the biggest factors have been the red zone offense, an inefficient defense, and a lack of turnovers and big special teams plays, leading to longer fields. 

Detroit had a rebound performance inside the 20 against the Packers, converting all four trips into touchdowns. The result, a season-high 31 points. 

Still, if the Lions turn one more field goal into a touchdown per week, they're suddenly averaging 29 points per game, good enough for sixth in the league. 

It would also help if the team started playing defense more efficiently. Currently, the Lions rank in the bottom 10 in yards, plays and time of possession allowed per drive, while checking in at 30th in turnover frequency. 

Do you see Abdullah’s role expanding beyond KR?

— gsmitty (@gsmitty_1) October 18, 2018

Not without an injury, which might come as early as this week, depending on how Theo Riddick progresses from his unexpected, post-bye knee injury, which sidelined him at practice on Wednesday. 

Abdullah is largely capable of filling either Riddick's or Kerryon Johnson's role within the scheme, but remains firmly cemented behind both on the depth chart. 

Frank Gore

Which running back from Miami poses more threat to Lions run defense considering their running style?

— Sweta Patel (@sweta2311) October 17, 2018

Until proven otherwise, all running backs are going to be an issue for the Lions, who are allowing a gaudy 5.3 yards per carry to this point.

Frank Gore still has the ability to wear this unit down up the gut, churning out 4-6 yards per pop, setting up manageable second and third downs and extending drives in third-and-short situations.

Meanwhile, Kenyan Drake, despite a somewhat sluggish start, remains elusive and tough to bring down. He's a proven runner after contact. For a defense that's been susceptible to big plays, that skill set can be a nightmare.

How do you feel about the overall depth of the roster?

— Gavin Hanson (@gavin3000) October 18, 2018

It depends on the position. The Lions have outstanding depth at wide receiver, running back and in the secondary. The backup options along the offensive line are still concerning, despite the efforts to upgrade the area this offseason, and the defensive front seven remains a hodgepodge of talent reflective of this year's scheme change, very much a work in progress. 

Overall, I'd rate Detroit a 5.85 out of 10, but that's a number I made up off the top of my head, since there's no good way to measure the quality of depth across an entire roster. 

What is the general temperature/vibe of the players currently vs. six weeks ago after Jets loss?

— Matthew Urben (@MattUrben) October 17, 2018

Honestly, no noticeable change. The locker room has remained relaxed, even when the team started 0-2. The only time I truly sensed the air sucked out of the room was in the immediate aftermath of the Dallas loss, which was understandable, given the gut punch of an ending. 

The ping-pong table and corn hole set are gone, but Detroit's locker room is a laid back place with animated conversations ranging from the NBA to world history. And there's almost always loud music with the occasional sighting of A'Shawn Robinson dancing through the heart of it all. 

Jarrad Davis (40)

Which player on defense needs to improve his game the most after the bye in order for the defense to improve as a unit?

— James C Meyer (@trumanfrancis) October 18, 2018

Obviously, the Lions would benefit from a healthy and productive Ziggy Ansah, but from the list of players we expect to be on the field, steady improvement from Jarrad Davis has the potential to make the biggest difference. 

Davis has thrived in one area this season, as a pass rusher, but that's a situational component of his game. His run defense, the true read-and-react expected from his middle linebacker position, has left a lot to be desired. He's often been a half-step slow processing his reads within the scheme, leaving him in a bad position to beat a blocker who often has 50-70 pounds on him. 

His coverage hasn't been great, but it also hasn't been his biggest issue. That throw to Ezekiel Elliott was perfect and beats most linebackers. Davis did decently on the play, given the tough assignment. And he's really been in better position on most throws the past few weeks. 

If things start to click for Davis, and he shows steady improvement throughout the rest of the season, it could be a turning point for the entire defense. 

Maybe a week late, but in 2006 the Lions were in the market for a new QB. They picked Jon Kitna and Josh McCown. What if they had picked Drew Brees?

— Steve Evans (@sevans1956) October 17, 2018

I wasn't around to know if the Lions made a serious run at Brees in 2006. That was before my time on this beat. But his addition would have obviously altered the franchise's future.

Who knows if adding the most accurate quarterback in NFL history would have ultimately resulted in a Super Bowl, but it certainly would have meant the team avoids going 0-16 in 2008. Brees' signing also means the Lions probably aren't drafting in the top five from 2009-11, when they added Matthew Stafford, Calvin Johnson and Ndamukong Suh. 

There are an overwhelming number of variables at play here, including how much more rope general manager Matt Millen would have received with Brees in the fold. 

T.J. Jones is presently listed as the starting punt (and kick) returner on the Lions website “unofficial” depth chart. Odds we see Jones instead of Powell returning punts?

— J&J's Dad (@JFK_711) October 18, 2018

Personally, I'd rather see Brandon Powell. I know what Jones is, and that's reliable and boring. There's plenty of value in that, since you don't have to worry about the veteran making a mental error in the role, but his big-play ceiling feels so limited.

Powell adds an aura of excitement when handling kicks, the feeling he can snap off a big one at any time. The risk is the rookie mistake -- fielding a punt inside the 10, running a kickoff out from deep in the end zone, muffing one because of jitters. The Lions don't seem worried about the issue, but anytime a rookie is in that moment, you have to worry about it a little. 

Lions question: Did you cry when Mufasa died?

Follow up: Is Lion King the best Disney movie?

— Isaac (@WorldofIsaac) October 17, 2018

"Lion King" came out when I was 13, so I was at an age when I wasn't really into the Disney animated classics. I didn't see it until several years later, and, sorry, I wasn't moved to tears by the tragic death of Mufasa. 

I will say, it's an outstanding flick. Disney almost always does a good job. I have two young daughters, so I've seen "Moana" a half-dozen times and know they're still churning out quality. 

But if we can count Pixar movies, I'm going Toy Story, all day. 

Miles Killebrew

Miles Killewbrew-related: Is he a linebacker for good now; how is he coming along at linebacker; and what didn't he do well at safety to make the coaches switch him? (From the casual fan's perspective, he made big plays.)

— Derek Wilczynski (@derekwilc) October 18, 2018

Slowly, which shouldn't be unexpected. His practice time is largely committed to working with the scout team and I doubt we'll see him play many defensive snaps this season. 

The biggest reason for the switch to linebacker was his downfield coverage. He had trouble turning, and running with the decent receiving options he would be manned up against, and didn't have the elite range you need when dropped into a Cover-2 or Cover-3 look.

At linebacker, his coverage responsibilities are closer to the line of scrimmage, the zone are smaller, yet you still get the benefit of his hard-hitting play coming downhill. 

Out of free agency the last couple of seasons, how big was the miss on Aikem Hicks? Was supposed to be coming here then went to Chicago.

— Logan (@Logan_main) October 18, 2018

The Lions were interested in 2016, but Hicks never made it to town for a planned visit, signing with the Bears. That move has hurt the Lions twice over, both on the miss and now having to see him twice a year. 

Hicks, 28, is still in his prime and he's been a dominant interior force for the Bears. He has a skill set that allows him to thrive in either a 4-3 and 3-4 base and there was history with Patricia, dating back to a 2015 season in New England. 

Detroit's defense would be in a much better place with him on the roster. 

Road trip with the worst local cuisine?

— Jeff Risdon (@JeffRisdon) October 18, 2018

Right now, Buffalo, but I'm sure I've missed some gems. Heading back there this year, so I'm taking recommendations.

Twitter: @Justin_Rogers