Lions mailbag: Hot start aside, Detroit's still an underdog in NFC North

Justin Rogers
The Detroit News
The Lions are off to a 2-0-1 start, but likely are still underdogs to win the NFC North.

Allen Park — It's Thursday, which means it's time to check the mail. With the undefeated Detroit Lions preparing to host the red-hot Kansas Chiefs, the mail box was full this week. On to your questions:

► Question. Why should it take a professional football team 3 weeks to get in "game shape" — @Acyalone

► Answer. There are two things going on here. First, there's a handful of guys who have been working their way back into football shape. Included in that group are Trey Flowers and Damon Harrison. At this stage, it's fair to suggest they're close to where they need to be, but it was a process after missing much of the offseason program due to injury (or contract talks in Snacks' case). 

The other element being discussed around this time of year, which is a different conversation, is ironing out the large number of on-field mistakes. There are just so many ugly plays early in the season, whether it's because guys are out of practice or out of sync as chemistry is still being built, between both teammates and coaches. 

That's why Matt Patricia always talks about getting better throughout the year and teams really hitting their stride around Thanksgiving. The Lions are clearly in a phase where they're making a lot of bad mistakes, but so is most of the NFL. I don't feel conditioning has been a significant component to these issues, even though the Lions have played a couple of opponents that have pushed the tempo. 

► Q. What is your opinion on the odds of winning the division? And ending with a winning record? And if we get the division does that warrant an extension for quinn and company? — @JacobMusic88

► A. Putting odds on something like this is a funny thing. I could throw out any number and it's just a speculative guess. What we know is the NFC North is a good division, maybe even the NFL's best. It's the only one where all four teams are above .500 and they haven't lost a game to an opponent outside the division. That top-to-bottom success really hurts Detroit's chances. 

Given the other three teams have proven they can win a division title in recent years, I'd give them all a slight edge over the Lions. With that in mind, I'd say the Lions' odds of winning an NFC North crown are around 15 percent. 

As for finishing with a winning record, that's probably closer to 50 percent, given the hot start. 

If the Lions do win a division, I think it's premature to be talking extensions for a general manager who still has three years beyond this one remaining on his current deal. The Lions rushed to give Jim Schwartz an extension after his first trip to the postseason, and ended up regretting it. The franchise is in position to wait and see if success can be maintained. 

► Q. Do you feel that the respectability among players league-wide for Coach Patricia has increased after his first season? Could we see more free agents coming to play for him? — @JohnnyJStrawser

► A. No, but I say that believing Patricia always garnered a decent amount of respect from players, both for his football mind and the way he interacts with them on a personal level. Several guys have commented about an impression he left on them just through a brief interaction in a postgame. Also, having some time to chat with him away from stuffy and formal press conference settings, he's incredibly engaging and energetic. It's easy to imagine that being a selling point for free agents on visits. 

That said, there will always be a percentage of players who shy away from his hard-nosed practice approach. Plus, at the end of the day, money will always be the biggest factor in luring free agents. 

The Lions' Trey Flowers had six quarterback pressures against the Eagles, according to Pro Football Focus.

► Q. What’s the best way to judge Trey Flowers’ success? — @Kieran_Steckley

► A. Outstanding question, and it's going to be tough to ascertain by simply looking at a box score. To me, a successful player is assignment sound and consistent. But we reasonably expect more from the roster's highest-paid players. You want impact. You want to see the sacks and turnovers. With Flowers, that might never be the case. That's not who he's been.

If his ceiling is 8-10 sacks, beyond that, you want to see consistent pocket pressure, solid edge setting and secure tackling. At least the quarterback pressure has been picking up. He had six pressures against the Eagles, according to Pro Football Focus. 

► Q. Are the blocked kicks an ongoing problem (systemic, player, or otherwise) or just a fluke that we shouldn't be toooooo concerned about? — @TechTheatreProf

► Answer: The blocked punt in the opener was an execution issue. Rookie Will Harris lost his leverage on the edge and was overpowered. I believe the team made a personnel change with the protection to correct the issue.

As for the blocked field goal, I had assumed Logan Thomas, the man on the edge that allowed Malcolm Jenkins through, had blocked the wrong man. I asked Patricia and he said it wasn't that simple, which, to me, suggests the team was schematically unprepared for what the Eagles threw at them. 

I would not consider the two issues related and think it's too early to be concerned about a larger problem. One more block, either of a field goal or a punt, could easily alter my opinion. 

► Q. Do you think Matt P.’s connections to NE will help this weekend? — @swr28

► A. I want to make this clear: My answer here is speculative, but I do believe Patricia and Bill Belichick have a strong enough relationship that they could talk shop about defensive strategies to deploy against the Chiefs this week.

Belichick obviously has his own team to worry about, but because the Chiefs and Patriots figure to be battling for the best record in the AFC, and the home-field advantage that comes with that, there's a benefit to sharing a few schematic observations that could help the Lions this week. 

Wide receiver Sammy Watkins leads the Chiefs with 20 catches for 311 yards.

► Q. Who’s going to go up against Sammy Watkins? — @Durkee971

► A. Watkins is a good receiver, but not good enough to justify traveling a corner with him throughout the matchup. If Darius Slay is good to go, he might shadow Watkins on some more critical situations, like third downs, but the team is more likely to play their corners to a specific side. Rashaan Melvin has done enough to earn confidence to start this season. 

► Q. Do you see this RB system trending towards the way of KJ being the bell cow? — @cianchette17

► A. Kerryon Johnson played 77 percent of Detroit's offensive snaps and had 80 percent of the carries against Philadelphia. That's more than I would have ever anticipated and probably peak usage. Preserving his health is a point of emphasis for the coaching staff. 

► Q. How bad will we miss Mike Daniels if he has to miss games with his injury? Who is his backup, Kevin Strong? — @storm_gypsy

► A. I'm working on the same assumption as you, that Daniels will miss some time. At the very least, I can't see him playing this week against Kansas City. 

How much the Lions will miss him will largely depend on how quickly Da'Shawn Hand can get medically cleared. Like Daniels, Hand is a solid interior pass rusher who adequately plays the run. The skill sets aren't identical, but there's enough overlap to swap out the snaps without too much changing schematically. 

If Hand is out, too, yes, it means more work for Strong, who played a season-high 33 snaps against the Eagles after Daniels went out. 

Daniels to Strong is a downgrade, unquestionably. Daniels has far more experience and a track record of success. But for what it's worth, I thought Strong looked better against Philadelphia than he did in sporadic playing time the first two weeks, especially when rushing the passer. It's the interior run defense on early downs that's the biggest concern. That might mean more playing time for A'Shawn Robinson and Harrison. 

Kansas City Chiefs quarterback Patrick Mahomes already has thrown for 10 touchdowns and no interceptions through three games this season.

► Q. Do you think the Lions are better off airing it out, and trying to go toe to toe with Mahomes, or trying to finally get the run game going to grind out the clock and try to keep him off the field? — @kejsphs

► A. This is not a game where you want to get into a track meet. The Lions offense is improved, and has shown the ability to be more explosive than a year ago, but they don't stack up to the firepower the Chiefs present. 

The best way to compete with this opponent is to take the ball out of Patrick Mahomes' hands as much as possible. That means long, clock-eating drives, which helps keep the defense fresh. 

► Q. If the Lions get destroyed on Sunday, how telling is it about this team? Flip side, if they somehow win, where can I buy Super Bowl tickets in September?  — @hey_aye_kay

► A. It would be a reality check, for sure, but you can't put too much into a single game. It's still early in the season and the Lions are far from a finished product. Maybe it's not the best example, given the franchise's history of success, but the New England Patriots got dominated by the Lions last season and it didn't prevent them from reaching their full potential. 

If the Lions do win, I imagine fans will be as hyped as they've been since the 2007 season, when the team moved to 6-2 after thumping the Broncos, 44-7. Most remember how that turned out, but in case you forgot, the team lost seven of its last eight that season and went 0-16 the next year. 

Basically, try not to overreact, regardless of the outcome. 

► Q. Why does it seem like the Lions only rush 3 players on defense? — @LouisMazzei

► A. I reached out to Pro Football Focus to get some data, and you're right, the Lions are rushing with just three defenders more than any team in the NFL, over 27 percent of passing downs. I had recognized the trend on longer passing downs, but the figure was higher than I anticipated. 

Additionally, the Lions are blitzing less than any team, bringing five or more defenders 11.8 percent of the time. 

Not surprisingly, this strategy has led to the Lions getting pressure on the quarterback less than any team, according to Football Outsiders. 

One factor that should be considered is the Lions have played two young, mobile quarterbacks in Kyler Murray and Carson Wentz. Dropping eight helps limit the damage those passers can do with their feet, while cluttering their passing lanes. 

The clear benefit is the Lions are allowing 54.8 percent of passes to be complete. Only the Patriots have been better. And in a league that puts a premium on passing, that's a notable positive. 

► Q. Instead of “half the distance to the goal,” why doesn’t the NFL move the ball back half way and extend the first down marker the difference? — @derekwilc

► A. If you're conducting a poll, I'm absolutely in favor of this idea. You get flagged for a hold at the 2-yard line, it it should be 2nd-and-20, not 2nd-and-11. 

► Q. Might #44 get more play Sunday because of the nature of the opponent? — @iconsilk713

► A. It's a good question, but with Jarrad Davis back, there just isn't much room for Jalen Reeves-Maybin in the rotation. Had he been deployed more frequently against the Eagles, particularly with covering tight end Zach Ertz, I would have bought this idea, but it seems like Reeves-Maybin is the odd man out in the current setup. 

► Q. What’s your favorite lions uniform combo? — @Detroit_Szn

► A. With their current setup, give me the white jerseys and blue pants. Also, I'm a fan of the simple, retro look of the throwbacks that are being used this week. There are few really nice throwback uniforms around the league, including Chicago and Buffalo. 

Detroit's Color Rush uniforms belong in the trash. They look like pajamas. 

Tracy Walker (left) leads the Lions with 24 tackles through three games.

► Q. Is Tracy Walker really this good or is he a product of the system? — @MichaelFick1

► A. I'm sold on Walker. He's had some young player mistakes early in the season, but it's tough to blame a guy for getting beat by Larry Fitzgerald, if you now what I mean.

What's been great about Walker, is he's shown the ability to play a variety of assignments in the secondary, from man-to-man coverage, to deep zones, to providing reliable run support. The skill set would play in any scheme. He's only going to get better, and at this rate, has the makings of one of Bob Quinn's best draft picks. 

► Q. Hockenson didn’t seem involved in the offense much in game 2 and only in spots in game 3. Is he not getting open or he just not involved in the play? — @dgmccready

► A. This is something I've tried to warn you about throughout the offseason. First of all, Hockenson is a rookie, at one of the most difficult positions to establish consistency as a young player. These ups and downs are part of the deal. 

Second, the Lions have a lot of weapons. It's remarkable to think this is the first time in NFL history a team has had four different 100-yard receivers in the first three games. That luxury means they don't have to lean too hard on any one player, including Hockenson, as he works through his adjustment period. 

Finally, Hockenson was actually pretty close to having a big game against Philadelphia. The Eagles seemed intent on taking away some of the shorter play-action stuff the Lions tried to run his direction, but he came inches away from having two touchdown receptions. Plus, on one of Marvin Jones' longer receptions, Hockenson ran a similar double-move, badly beating the coverage, but didn't end up Stafford's target. 

► Q. What would be the bigger win — the Chiefs at home or at Packers? — @DAVIDDalexish

► A. When it comes to grabbing the national headlines fans seem to crave, nothing will accomplish that quicker than beating the Chiefs. But reality is a victory over the Packers would be more valuable because of its implications in the division race. 

► Q. Which '90s R&B group would you pick to record a cover of Gridiron Heroes? —  @ChrisBurkeNFL

► A. OK, I think we're getting off on the wrong foot. I cannot even envision this fight song being done in an R&B style. But if we can pull Beyonce, I'm gunning for Destiny's Child. Otherwise, I'll settle for a Bell Biv DeVoe cover. 

► Q. Something you may have touched on previously, but why did Matt & Bob keep JBC on staff last year? — @TimVanHouten1

► A. It had nothing to do with Quinn. Well, the final decision at least. I'm sure he briefed Patricia on Jim Bob Cooter's accomplishments and relationship with Stafford, similar to the way the Ford family provided their opinion on Jim Caldwell when Quinn was hired. But the final decision was Patricia's with Cooter and Quinn's with Caldwell. 

The biggest reason Patricia decided to stick with Cooter was the timing of the hire. Given Patricia didn't come to Detroit until after the Super Bowl that year, many of the coaching decisions around the league were already made. 

Given the importance of an offensive coordinator to a defensive-minded head coach, it was better to stick with the status quo, knowing he could perform a search with a full offseason if Cooter didn't work out.

Personally, I've wondered if Patricia hoped a familiar face, such as Brian Daboll would be available this year. At the very least, the decision to go with Darrell Bevell was reflective of Patricia's ability to go outside his known coaching contacts, which is a positive, in my opinion. 

► Q. In your film review, you noted Brandon Graham sliding to a 5 tech spot that compromised Wagner’s leverage on the play. Do they have an adjustment they can call at the line or the the play design not allow that kind of flexibility with Glasgow pulling? — @DaveReimink

► A. Given the sudden movement late in the play, the time to counter program the play call wasn't there. It was a good defensive adjustment by Graham, within the Eagles' scheme. 

While I can't say for sure, the pre-snap wide receiver motion could have triggered an alert for the Eagles defense, tipping them off to the play call based on film study. If that's the case, the Lions will need to adjust that element of their call, so as to not tip their hand. 

► Q. In your travels, what makes a good home field environment and how can Ford Field become an advantage? — @spartyfan475

► A. It's a boring answer, but success leads to a greater home-field advantage. Winning sells tickets and sold tickets put butts in seats and a packed stadium gets loud when it matters. Most of us understand how loud Ford Field can get, and there's no greater advantage than that. 

► Q. At this stage of his head coaching career what do you see as Patricia's strengths and weaknesses? — @trumanfrancis

► A. My perception is Patricia is a pretty good defensive game planner who has a good sense of how to minimize the impact of opponents' best players. 

And I don't know if it's fair to call this a weakness, as much as a personal differing with his philosophies, but I often find myself disagreeing with his clock management at the end of halves. I'm not saying he's wrong, because I pride myself in trying to view things from the perspective of others, but even understanding what he's trying to accomplish, I think he's too often conservative at the end of halves and games. 

► Q. How much more fun is it as a journalist to cover this team when they’re winning? — @Esdubbar

► A. The job is largely the same, honestly. The biggest differences are I probably write a little bit more when the team is winning and players are generally more open to interview requests. 

Generally speaking, I'd prefer to cover a winner. Who doesn't want to deal with happy people, whether it be players, coaches or fans? 

Where "fun" enters the equation is late in the season, when I get the joy of actually covering meaningful football, as opposed to the mundane march to a top-10 draft pick. There's little worse in my profession than covering the Lions-Cardinals game from late last season, where the only thing on the line is draft positioning. 

► Q. Could playing in a dome for the first time affect Mahomes negatively? Or do QBs always perform better in them on average? — @all_i_can_eat

► A. I doubt it. He's mobile and he's accurate, so playing in climate-control conditions, with brand-new field turf, isn't going to hinder his performance. The only factor that might matter is the noise.

He wasn't his best in Seattle last year, but it's tough to pin that on noise, given it was a late December game outdoors. And even at less than his best, Mahomes still threw for 273 yards, three touchdowns and zero interceptions. 

► Q. Our run game is awful, and it looks like pff has our worst blocking grades as our fullback and 2 starting tight ends. Why are NE and SF so successful with these formation and we suck lemons? — @Hermaphro

► A. At some level, you have to realize the Lions are starting two rookies at three of those spots. Nick Bawden missed his first year with an ACL tear and Hockenson is the new kid on the block. Given that fact, there's natural inconsistencies that are going to be part of the package. It's up to the coaches to develop those two, as quickly as possible, since they're playing big roles.

There's less of an excuse for Jesse James. Sure, he's learning a new scheme, and likely being asked to play different techniques than he did in Pittsburgh, but his early blocking performance should still be viewed as disappointing. 

I can't verify that New England or San Francisco are more successful with their blocking at these positions. Regardless, I'd point to experience and coaching as to the reason teams might get better blocking from these spots. 

► Q. I know that the Lions are still running their rotation at LG, but has anyone distinguished themselves at the position? — @TayyWhite1

► A. Without question, Joe Dahl has made the most of the opportunity. When you consider both his run blocking and pass protection, I think you can make a strong argument he's been Detroit's best offensive lineman this year. 

He's really shined in pass protection. Very little pressure is getting to Stafford via Dahl's responsibility. The run blocking, while not nearly as good as Frank Ragnow has been this year, has been adequate. 

Beyond building chemistry with the roster's top backup, preparing for the realistic possibility of an injury in the future, I don't understand why the rotation continues. 

► Q. Stafford for MVP if the Lions go 11-4-1? — @threedailypicks

► A. Probably not, at least not at his current statistical output. At this pace, he would throw for 4,400 yards, 32 touchdowns and 11 interceptions. That's good, but will pale in comparison to numbers Mahomes is likely put up if he stays healthy. 

The more likely award scenario would be Patricia winning coach of the year. That would be quite a year-to-year turnaround. 

► Q. Flowers had something like 7 pressures last week? I didn’t see it. How do they measure what a pressure is? — @trulapaugh

► Answer: As noted above, PFF had him down for six. The easy part of that to understand is a sack or a hit, otherwise known as a knockdown. It's the hurries where you're getting tripped up.

While I don't have PFF's standards handy, a hurry is typically defined as the pass rusher causing the quarterback to move off his spot. I would imagine tight pursuit on a designed roll out would also meet the criteria, as long as it rushes the throw or forces the quarterback to tuck the ball and scramble.

Twitter: @Justin_Rogers