Detroit Lions mailbag: Obsessing over one game; OL outlook (present and future)
Allen Park — One week into the season the Detroit Lions are both undefeated and winless. Ties are weird, because they feel more like a loss. That's doubly true when you blow an 18-point lead in the fourth quarter en route to the result.
The season-opener has obviously elicited some intense opinions. With that in mind, it seemed like a good time to knock out a mailbag. (Also,Thursday is kind of the day we do these things.)
► Question. What can honestly be done to get away from the SOL narrative? It’s like a chicken or the egg argument. Fans abandon the team after one loss, lazy national media mention the history as if it has any bearing on the current team, local media scrutinize and amplify the negativity. — @ScottyB94000491
► Answer. There are a few things to dissect here. First, I can't control overall narrative. I'm responsible for me, not what other writers write or what is discussed on local talk radio, which generally trends toward toward more exaggerated reactions, both negative and positive. The "Same Old Lions" trope is an easy fallback for fans, but is something that rarely appears in my writing, either for the newspaper or via social media.
As for national media, this is another obsession that isn't worth your time. National coverage is often surface level unless you have a transcendent superstar or ongoing story line that merits greater attention or analysis. The Lions don't, so they get the surface-level treatment, which typically relies on the team's history as a focal point of narrative.
Finally, and I think you already know this, the way to permanently rid yourself of the "Same Old Lions" talk is to win and win consistently. You don't squash something like that with a single 9-7 year and a quick playoff exit, or even a division title and playoff win. You squash it by becoming a consistent winner, contending for the division year after year and regularly winning playoff games.
No one talks about the Patriots before Bill Belichick and Tom Brady. The Rams didn't finish over .500 for 13 years. Two playoff appearances and a Super Bowl trip later and that's old news. Win. Just win.
► Q. Is OL biggest need in 2020 draft? — @timcamp12929079
► A. We're too far away from the draft to be discussing biggest need, but the Lions are trending toward needing some help up front when that time comes.
It's disappointing, considering the investment general manager Bob Quinn has put into the unit, but there's no debating he hasn't got the expected returns for what he's put in. Despite Sunday's dismal effort, Taylor Decker and Rick Wagner have been adequate tackles, but that's not necessarily enough for a first-round pick and top-paid free agent. Additionally, Graham Glasgow has been solid, but is heading toward free agency and a huge second deal. Finally, Joe Dahl was pretty darn good in Week 1, but it's too early to suggest he's a long-term solution at guard.
So, yeah, if there's a clear upgrade in the first round, especially at offensive tackle, the Lions shouldn't shy away from putting more resources into the unit. The performance of the group remains critical to the team's overall success.
► Q. Everyone is worried about Decker, but what about Wagner? He signed a huge contract and has not lived up to that signing at all. Are we able to get out of deal if he stays mediocre? — @coachblueguy21
► A. You're not incorrect in noting neither is living up to expectation. Overall, Wagner has been above-average, and better than what the team had before him, but he has the tendency to deliver an occasional dud outing, like Sunday, and almost never dominates a matchup.
Wagner is no longer the NFL's highest-paid right tackle, but his $9.5 million average salary remains top-five for the position. Age isn't an issue, since he won't turn 30 until this year, and he remains under contract for two more seasons beyond this one.
If the Lions decide they want to go in a different direction, likely via the draft, they can save some cap space by parting with Wagner next offseason. Cutting him in 2020 would save $6.1 million in cap. If they hold off until 2021, the savings would be $9 million that season.
► Q. Why did the defense take its foot off the throat of Murray & Co? I was at the game and 1st through 3rd quarter looked like a different team than the 4th quarter altogether. — @old_king_priam
► A. They didn't.
I know that's the easy assumption, based on the result, but as I noted in my film review this week, the defensive strategy didn't really change. If anything, Arizona made some offensive adjustments, Kyler Murray's nerves calmed, and he started taking the easy check-down throws the Lions were giving him. Those short-yardage chunks didn't do the damage, but they let him finally establish a rhythm he couldn't through the first three quarters.
Another element was the pass rush wasn't quite as effective. It wasn't from a lack of blitzing, because the Lions didn't blitz much the entire game. The Cardinals played with an aggressive tempo throughout the contest and it's possible, maybe even likely, the fourth quarter and overtime is where endurance caught up to Detroit's defensive line.
But the biggest dagger was the big plays. Murray and the Cardinals took shots throughout the game, but they didn't connect downfield until down the stretch. Tracy Walker getting beat deep by Fitzgerald wasn't a lack of aggression, but a lack of execution. Same with David Johnson's long touchdown. Jalen Reeves-Maybin tripped in coverage. That has nothing to do with taking the foot off the gas.
► Q. Could you explain and assess the rotation at OL with Dahl/Wiggins/Glasgow? Was any particular combination more effective than others? Were you surprised to see Glasgow lose reps? — @nuzach
► A. I cannot explain it, because we're limited to what the coaching staff wants to say when asked about it. They feel like Kenny Wiggins has earned the opportunity to see snaps. If you want a speculative take, I would imagine they want to build some chemistry between Wiggins and his linemates, anticipating a potential injury.
As for Wiggins taking some reps from Glasgow, yes, I was surprised. There had been signs this might happen throughout training camp, but I didn't actually expect it to carry over to the regular season.
► Q. Do you think it's possible the Lions look to trade for either a better LT or a better RT? — @TimSmith261
► A. Assuming there's no long-term injury to the current starters, I'd be pretty surprised. This goes back to the investment the Lions have in their current group. It's against conventional wisdom to displace an adequate, high-priced option or a team captain mid-stream.
I get it, there's a big name perceived to be on the market in Trent Williams. And, yes, he's better than what you have. But Williams isn't young and he wouldn't come cheap. Plus, what do we really know about the shape he's in this deep into his lengthy holdout.
Washington has said Williams is not available. That's never actually true. But even if he is, the cost will be exorbitant. He's probably not going to cost as much as the Texans just paid for Laremy Tunsil, based on age alone, but that's the starting point when you're looking at the price tag for an elite offensive tackle. Do you really want the Lions paying a first-round pick and more for an 31-year-old who hasn't been on the field since last December?
► Q. Why are people so out of their mind with one, admittedly, very poor game? — @WildboarCJD
► A. Because there are only 16 games, Arizona was viewed as winnable and the Lions are about to entire a brutal stretch of the schedule, with games again three Super Bowl contenders, followed by a primetime road trip to Lambeau.
► Q. In the playoffs earlier this year the Patriots steamrolled the Chargers with big sets. Could we see more 2 or 3 TE sets this Sunday? — @motorcityM
► A. It's a good observation, and it would be naive to think there's not some level of communication between the Lions coaching staff and former colleagues in New England, when it comes to game planning for overlapping opponents.
As for the usage of more jumbo sets, the Lions used them quite extensively in Arizona and I would expect to see that trend continue.
► Q. Did T.J. Hockenson make all Lions fans forgive Bob Quinn for taking a tight end in the first round? He sure looked pretty darn impressive, and I think might be the next great tight end in this league that teams will really have to game plan against. Does his production continue? — @rayray1222
► A. For the same reason we shouldn't overreact to one negative performance, we probably should take the the same approach with a positive outing. Hockenson's debut was nothing short of outstanding, but you don't want to crown someone based on a single game. What if the Chargers commit more resources and hold him to two receptions for 23 yards this week?
It's about finding consistency in this league. Hockenson has some great physical gifts, and he's showing he's well ahead of the expected learning curve for his position, but let's see him string together several quality performances as both a pass catcher and blocker before evaluate his standing among his peers.
► Q. Should the Lions consider putting Jamal Agnew on offense? All preseason he struggled on defense, struggled to catch punts, but he’s shown flashes of being a game changer on offense. — @drinkinglions
► A. You're right, Agnew has yet to find his footing as a defender. And maybe he'll never find it. But I don't think moving him to the other side of the ball is the solution. A big part of the reason the offense has had success in the snaps he's been out there is because of the novelty of the personnel package. With limited tape, teams don't know exactly how to defend it. Expand that role and the element of surprise is lost.
The team's focus with Agnew has to be getting him right as a return man. That's where he offers the most value going forward. If that can't be achieved, he might not be long for the roster.
► Q. How come we saw more J.D. McKissic than Ty Johnson? Is Johnson more special teams? — @gfeldhouse84
► A. Johnson actually played more than McKissic. The rookie was on the field for eight snaps, while the veteran got five. Same goes for special teams, where Johnson doubled up McKissic, 14 reps to seven.
What you probably saw was McKissic getting more touches, primarily in third-and-long situations, as well as the play eliminated by timeout. The key thing is those were all receiving plays. While Johnson showed he's making quality strides as a pass-catcher during his first offseason, McKissic is a known commodity in this area. The Lions went with the trusted option over the unknown for these handful of plays.
Give Johnson some time and he'll earn that trust.
► Q. Is Robert Prince the only coaching holdover from the Caldwell era now? Why?— @angusosborne
► A. Al Golden is also still with the team, although coaching a different position group. And special teams coordinator John Bonamego was recently rehired by Matt Patricia, following a coaching odyssey to Central Michigan. Former quality control coach Evan Rothstein also remains on staff as a research and analysis assistant.
At this point, Patricia has had an extensive opportunity to evaluate the holdovers. The fact they're still on staff, particularly Golden, who works with Patricia's favorite position group, speaks to the head coach's contentedness with what they bring to the staff.
► Q. Will Taylor Decker be playing LT for the Lions next year? — @john1064
► A. I don't know and don't want to pretend I do. Decker is Quinn's first draft pick, and prior to suffering a shoulder injury during the 2017 offseason program, looked to be a fine selection and long-term solution on the blindside.
In many ways, Decker's on-field performance has appeared plateaued since his return from injury. Despite the dismal season-opening showing, he's far from a bad player. He's generally been slightly above-average as both a pass protector and run blocker, reliable beyond the fluke shoulder issue and a solid leader in the locker room. That's why he's a captain.
Of course, you're always on the look out for upgrades. That said, I think it's reasonable to count on Decker to play in Detroit under the fifth-year option of his rookie deal, which will pay him a reasonable $10.35 million in 2020.
It's difficult for me to believe the Lions would replace both tackles before next season, and if it came down to one or the other, Decker has a better chance to stick around, in my opinion.
► Q. What happens at the coach's press conference after he leaves? Does he beat it out of there or are there typically more questions he answers off-camera? Once he's gone, do the beat writers hang out while they write or scatter? — @BigBitingPig
► A. There's very little banter with Patricia at the end of his press conference. He's usually quick to exit once he leaves the podium, which is a sign of the times for sure. In the not so distant past, a coach might linger and offer some off-camera clarity to questions, but that's just not the case in modern times.
As for the reporting routine. If there's something newsworthy said, such as a transaction or injury update, we all scramble to write that up as quickly as possible. If not, it's about laying out the day for many of us, evaluating the stories we want to continue to pursue and develop as the day progresses.
Usually, within the hour, we go out and watch the 20 minutes of practice open to the media, taking attendance and observing what we can from the players participating. Then it's transcribing and writing until the locker room opens later in the afternoon. Then more transcribing and writing.
It's all kind of boring, really.
► Q. Do you think the Lions have any chance of winning this Sunday after last Sunday’s meltdown? — @69_batman19
► A. Sure. The line is only 2.5 and Vegas is usually pretty spot-on with these things. The Lions' defensive line has the ability to cause some problems and the Chargers are pretty banged up. Should be a good game in front of a raucous home crowd.
► Q. Only watched the game on the computer, but kept seeing the play “Stafford incomplete to Amendola” including three in a row in the late 3rd/4th quarter. Does Danny have something in his contract requiring Matty to throw at him an absurd amount of times? — @ijrixie
► A. It was actually at the end of the first half, when Stafford threw four consecutive passes to Danny Amendola. I get the sarcasm, but I think it points to both a quick chemistry and budding trust between the quarterback and veteran receiver. It also reaffirms Stafford's long-standing preference to throw to his slot receivers and tight ends. There's a reason Golden Tate came here and instantly became one of the league's most-productive pass-catchers.
It was a solid debut for Amendola, with seven receptions for 104 yards and a touchdown. There were some obvious things to improve, and I still wonder if he missed a route adjustment to counter the Cardinals blitz on the third-and-5 late in the game, but I see far more positive than negative with the debut.
Stafford was lost last year without Tate, and Amendola, along with Hockenson and Jesse James, give the quarterback renewed confidence in attacking the short areas in the middle of the field.
► Q. What would you set the Vegas line for a matchup between the 2019 Lions vs the 2018 Lions? — @aaron_sturgill
► A. Interesting question. I'd probably favor the current Lions +4.5, based on the defensive line and tight end upgrades.
► Q. Can you explain what coaches and players do on a walkthrough? — @Cartinthewater
► A. It's a slower-paced practice, conducted without pads, that focuses on alignments and assignments. It's about rehearsing the mental components of the game plan more than the physical elements.
► Q. Care to break down that beautiful RPO for Stafford? — @JustJake981
► A. I'm assuming you mean the zone-read run and not a run-pass option. I'm not saying Stafford didn't run an RPO, but I didn't see one. They can certainly be more tricky to identify if you're not paying close attention to the offensive line's movements.
As for the zone-read, yeah, it really was a thing of beauty. Stafford actually ran it twice, handing the ball off on the first attempt, while keeping the second.
The way a zone-read works is the quarterback puts the ball in the belly of his running back and then reads an unblocked defensive end. If the edge defender stays flat footed or hesitates, the quarterback completes the handoff. But if the defender sells out in pursuit of the back, the quarterback pulls the ball back and runs around the unprotected edge.
That's exactly what Stafford did in the second quarter. Out of shotgun, Stafford initiated a handoff to C.J. Anderson, but when Cardinals linebacker Cassius Marsh collapsed in pursuit of the back, Stafford pulled the ball from Anderson and raced around the open edge, further cleared out by Kenny Golladay, the lone receiver to that side, drawing the cornerback away on a deep route.
I wouldn't count on seeing it a lot, but by showing they can do it, opposing defensive ends can't ignore Stafford on zone-read looks in the future.
► Q. Lions special teams was awful to start the season last year and took weeks before the special teams coach was fired. Bonamego is supposed to be a great coach for that unit. Was last week an anomaly, is it personal, can they fix it in just one week? — @MichaelFick1
► A. We can't say it was an anomaly yet, we just have to wait and see. And it wasn't the entirety of the special teams. I thought the Lions coverage units were excellent, led by stellar play from Jalen Reeves-Maybin and Miles Killebrew. Kicker Matt Prater reaffirmed he can be counted on from distance. And Sam Martin was adequate with the distance, hang time and direction of his punts.
The problems were in the return game and the punt block. The latter is correctable, and should be fixed immediately. The return game remains a huge question mark. It's been sloppy for a while now and it might not be an overnight fix.
► Q. Which beat writer would win a taco eating contest? Soft or hard may apply. — @nicosuave6
► A. I'd put my money on Kyle Meinke. Having worked with him for several years now, I can safely say no one packs away food on the beat quite like him. I used to take photos of his lunch plates in the press box because I was so impressed with his ability to stack food.
► Q. After film review, did Dahl look as good as his PFF number was? — @_olsen10
► A. Yeah, I hit on Dahl in my film review that posted online Tuesday afternoon. I was really impressed with both his pass protection and run blocking. It's a nice building block performance as he looks to validate the coaches' faith in him.
► Q. The run game was pretty mediocre against Arizona. Looking at the film is this a RB issue or an O-Line that isn't getting off the snap fast enough? Both? Or something else? — @DoctorOSP
► A. While it's never one thing, I'd put the substandard performance more on the blocking than the backs. That extends beyond the offensive line. The tight ends also need to be better and fullback Nick Bawden had a disappointing debut, missing far more assignments than he made.
If Week 1 is indicative of the plan going forward, Bawden is going to have a big role. He played 21 snaps and the Lions ran quite a few I-formation looks. They'll need rapid improvement from the second-year fullback coming back from an ACL tear.
► Q. Where would this team be without Stafford? — @hockeyslap
► A. With the current roster setup, the Lions would be lucky to win four games, although I have more faith in Josh Johnson than some of the previous backups because of the added element of mobility.
Had the team invested more resources into the backup spot, particularly drafting and developing an early-round option, I might feel differently about the situation.
► Q. Why is it that Matty P says he wants to commit to the run and the media calls it archaic and outdated for today’s NFL, yet Minnesota runs the ball 38 times and Mike Zimmer is lauded as a genius? — @J_rich28
► A. I certainly didn't call Zimmer a genius, so I don't know the root of this comment. But what has always set Zimmer apart from his peers is his defensive game planning and aggressiveness. Few draw up effective blitz packages like the Vikings head coach.
As for Minnesota running the ball 38 times, I would hope that would be the case. That's what it should look like when you're up 28-0 in the second half. More importantly, it was effective. They averaged 4.5 yards per carry and scored three times on the ground. Why go away from it if it's working?
The Lions also ran the ball a lot, because, like the Vikings, they were working with a big lead late in the game. The problem for the Lions is they weren't anywhere near as efficient, averaging 3.6 yards per pop.
There's nothing wrong with running the ball. In fact, if you can do it, you should. Nothing wears down an opponent, physically and mentally, like punishing them on the ground. But if you're not having success, you have to find the balance between eating up clock and having a short-passing game ready to go as a complementary measure. The Lions obviously didn't do this well enough against the Cardinals, letting their big lead slip away. The Vikings, on the other hand, cruised to a victory over the Falcons.