Lions mailbag: NFC North rivals NFC West as NFL's top division

Justin Rogers
The Detroit News
The Lions (NFC North) and Rams (NFC West) compete in arguably the two toughest divisions in the NFL.

Allen Park — We're back from the bye week and the mailbox is stuffed. Allow us to answer your questions in the latest edition of the Detroit Lions mailbag. 

► Question. Is the NFC North the best division in football? Are all four teams legitimate contenders to win the division? — @MichaelFick1

► Answer.  It's probably between the NFC North and NFC West, at this stage of the season. Unlike the North, which you correctly point out has four legitimate contenders for its crown, the West is a bit more top-heavy.

It's tough to say how good the undefeated 49ers are right now, since their strength of schedule hasn't been great, but they have steamrolled three of those four opponents. Seattle seems to continually buck expectations, thanks to good coaching and quarterback play. And Los Angeles, despite some early-season struggles with consistency, is still a playoff team.  

As for Arizona, they are the weakest team, in either division, but it's a young roster that I think we'll see get steadily better through the season as rookie QB Kyler Murray adjusts. 

► Q. What makes it so challenging for a fan base to stop using history as an excuse? Even when the lions win, the fan base expects the floor to fall out. We say winning solves this and the Lions have met or succeeded expectations so far this season and people are still afraid of SOL. — @bpm_ATC

► A. Being beaten down decade after decade has a way of impacting fan psyche. People are expecting the floor to fall out because, well, more often than not it has. While it's not fair to judge this current roster, players or coaches, based on the shortcomings of past Lions teams, it's easy for people to get away with it when they've rarely been proven wrong for doubting. 

You're right to say winning solves everything. But four games isn't the sample size we're talking about when we throw that phrase around. That cure comes from sustained success, over multiple years. 

Look at the Chicago Cubs. They're the Lovable Losers no more. How did they shake that label? How about four straight 90-plus win seasons, four straight postseason berths and a World Series title. 

The Lions don't need to win a Super Bowl to raise annual fan expectations, but how about a division title or two, maybe three straight 10-win seasons or a couple of postseason victories? That should provide enough recency bias to drown out the woe-is-me crowd. 

► Q. How likely are we to see a SOL performance on MNF erasing all the momentum from the last 3 games and throwing the fan base into a frenzy? — @Kwolv35

► A. Right on cue. It's almost like I intentionally stacked these questions on top of each other.

Listen, there will always going to be a percentage of fans, or humans in general, who are inherently negative. 

With only 16 games on the schedule, overreaction to each result is part of the equation. I don't know what constitutes playing the "Same Old Lions" card on Monday. If the team goes into Green Bay and goes toe-to-toe with the division-leading Packers on the road and fall just short, that would hardly be a fair assessment. And even if they get run out of the stadium, one bad performance shouldn't erase the positives from the three previous weeks, although the margin of error going forward admittedly shrinks significantly. 

► Q. What will the Lions take away from the Cowboys-Packers game? — @DAVIDDalexish

► A. That you can't sell out to stop the pass and ignore the Packers' ground game. Aaron Jones had a day to remember against the Cowboys, rushing for four touchdowns in the victory

A year after leading the NFL in yards per carry, Jones had been off to a bit of a slow start this season, coming off a brutal two-game stretch where he tallied 40 yards on 23 carries.

Aaron Rodgers is a special talent who deserves plenty of schematic attention, but it would be risky for Detroit to stick to its early-season trend of sacrificing bodies in the box to crowd the passing lanes. 

Through four games, the Lions have allowed 4.8 yards per carry. That's not great. If Jones manages to average 4.8 yards per pop on Monday, that offense will be tough to stop. It also opens up play-action for Rodgers, who is completing 70 percent of his throws on play-fakes this season. 

Packers running back Aaron Jones scored four touchdowns against the Cowboys.

► Q. What is more of a concern four games in: Snacks not being dominant vs the run or Davis still having tackling and coverage issues? — @romaindpt

► A. It's definitely been strange to see Damon Harrison be anything short of dominant playing the run, but so far this season, he hasn't made his standard impact. The reason that doesn't concern me is he has a lengthy, established track record of being one of the best interior run stoppers in the NFL. After sitting out training camp, we're deep enough into the season where we can no longer blame it on conditioning, so I'd expect to see an uptick in his play going forward. 

As for Davis, tackling and coverage issues have been a staple in his scouting report, particularly the former, as I thought he made clear strides in coverage at the end of last season. Right now, you're hoping for some natural development that comes with experience, but you also need to have a realistic view that he might never be great in either area. 

Davis' play through two games has been as inconsistent as ever, although I'm willing to write much of that off as rust, accumulated while sitting out a month with a high ankle sprain. Like Harrison, Davis also should get better as the season progresses. But if you were expecting him to morph into Luke Kuechly in 2019, you're going to be disappointed. 

Lions linebacker Jarrad Davis has 10 tackles in two games this season.

► Q. Do beat writers dislike MNF? — @bteezer27 

► A. They're not so bad when it's a home game. No one likes getting home from work at 3 a.m., but it's easier to do when you can sleep in your own bed and have the opportunity to sleep close to six hours. 

But when those primetime games are on the road, with a 6 or 7 a.m. flight, it's a bad recipe and you never really manage to recover through the next week. 

Of course, I'm well aware I'm writing about NFL football and most people don't care about the difficult parts of the job. 

► Q. How do you feel about Patricia as a head coach after 1.25 seasons? What do you think his ceiling is? — @ranbalam

► A. The adjustment period was unquestionably rough, but Year 2 is off to a promising start for the Lions coach. Being able to complete his coaching staff in the second offseason, as well as further churn the roster to clear out some of the veterans who weren't buying into the program, has been a huge help. 

Personally, I feel Patricia also has made some concessions. No one in the organization will admit the team didn't practice as intensely this offseason, but training camp was definitely dialed back a few notches. That's led to a more physically and mentally fresher team heading into the season. 

As for the ceiling, who knows? The current team feels like it could compete with anyone in the NFL, right now, but we still need to see that same level of competitiveness in December. 

► Q. How much (if at all) is a Lions' bye week a Justin Rogers' bye week? — @tyrananorris

► A. I pretty much took Friday, Saturday and Sunday off, and let me tell you, it was amazing. I probably won't have consecutive days off again during the regular season. But again, outside of you, I'm not sure anyone cares. 

► Q. If I am not mistaken, Kenny G and Marvin are both in the last year of contracts. Do we re-sign Kenny and let Marvin walk? If so, how much do you think Marvin's loss would hurt our offense? — @DirtyJerzFinest

► A. You're correct, both Kenny Golladay and Marvin Jones' contracts are set to expire after the 2020 season. It's too early to accurately predict how the team will handle those decisions at receiver, but if they had to choose one over the other, it's easy to imagine Golladay is the priority, especially given the age difference. Jones will be 31 entering the 2021 campaign. 

Marvin Jones Jr. leads the Lions in receiving yards through four games this season.

As for how big of a blow it would be to the offense to lose either one, specifically focusing on Jones, it's tough to say, because we don't know the replacement plan. The Lions could draft and develop a viable option this upcoming offseason, or find a bargain in free agency. 

Who would have thought the Lions' passing attack would have kept humming along following the retirement of Calvin Johnson, but signing Jones and Anquan Boldin adequately solved the immediate problem. 

Jones has been a pretty reliable option in Detroit's scheme, with the ability to successfully run routes at all depths. Even though the Lions currently run a West Coast scheme variant, the ability to have vertical threats to stretch the defense is important. Jones does that well, and the team would need to find a suitable replacement for that skill within the offense if they do move on.

► Q. What roster subtraction from last year has had the biggest positive impact? The biggest negative impact? — @_Smails_

► A. To the first part of your question, there are a few contenders, for different reasons. The departure of LeGarrette Blount has created an opportunity for the more electric and efficient Kerryon Johnson to prove he's capable of shouldering a larger role. Swapping out Ezekiel Ansah for Trey Flowers gives the defense a more reliable option on the edge. And Glover Quin's release and retirement after a disappointing season that always felt tinged with uncharacteristic apathy, cleared the room for Tracy Walker to assume a larger role in which he's thriving. Also, can we just lump the entire tight end room into this equation, somehow? 

With all that in mind, there hasn't been a better upgrade than the change at offensive coordinator. Jim Bob Cooter did some good things in Detroit, particularly his work with quarterback Matthew Stafford, but it was time for a change. Darrell Bevell felt like a safe pick, schematically, but he's been a good fit out the box, adapting his scheme to fit Detroit's personnel. 

As for the person the Lions are missing the most, I would have assumed it would have been T.J. Lang, but Joe Dahl has more than held his own in the starting lineup. With that said, it's tough to find a player the Lions are truly missing right now. It might initially feel like a stretch, but maybe Ricky Jean Francois.

Given the injuries to Da'Shawn Hand and Mike Daniels, the team has had to lean a little more heavily on undrafted rookie Kevin Strong than you'd like to see this early in an undrafted rookie's career. 

► Q. Justin, what would you rank as some of Bob Quinn's best moves during his tenure? What about his worst? — @FriedrichsJk

Safety Tracy Walker (left) is one example of the success Lions general manager Bob Quinn has enjoyed selecting players in the third round of the NFL Draft.

► A. Best moves: Trading a fifth-round pick for Harrison, the incredible success in the third round of the draft, which includes Graham Glasgow, Golladay and Walker, plus some under-the-radar finds like Romeo Okwara on waivers and Hand in the fourth round. I also think the team has gotten good value out of the Jones' contract. 

Worst moves: Drafting Teez Tabor will be the one fans will struggle to let go. All the pre-draft criticism of the cornerback proved to be true and he was let go after two disappointing seasons. As for signings, several haven't panned out, including a veteran trio of running backs — Blount, C.J. Anderson and Stevan Ridley, although the team didn't invest much in any of them. In terms of inaction, putting too much faith in Ameer Abdullah in 2017 and the defensive line to start 2018, as well as letting guard Larry Warford walk in free agency is still impacting the roster.

Finally, even though this isn't all on Quinn, the recouping of bonus money from Calvin Johnson has been a lingering PR nightmare. 

► Q. Is there any chance we see more JRM on obvious passing downs since Davis has struggled so much, especially since they’re hardly blitzing on these downs? — @bretyode

► A. Doubtful. Jalen Reeves-Maybin, for the time being, is the odd man out in the linebacker rotation. As long as Davis continues to wear the headset, making him the point of contact with the sidelines during the game, he's rarely going to leave the field. 

► Q. Since we are entering division play, rank from 1 to 3, which of the division opponents offer a beat writer the best experience when you have to travel to that area when the Lions have a road division game. Please don't use the "historic" Lambeau Field cliche either.

► A. There absolutely is something special about seeing a game at Lambeau Field, especially in primetime or in the winter months. When you get both, it's magical. But the city of Green Bay, or Appleton, where beat writers are often forced to stay, isn't much of an experience. It ranks a distant third, and after a handful of Lambeau experiences, I wouldn't be sad if I never went back. 

Chicago, the city, is great. There's a wealth of interesting dining options and I have friends in the area, so I'm never at a loss of things to do. The stadium is OK. A lot of people hate it, and it is small and old by modern NFL standards, but I love how the walk to the press box looks out at Lake Michigan. As for the food offerings in the press box, they're subpar, down to RC Cola products on fountain. 

Of the divisional trips, Minnesota is my favorite. Obviously, those late-season trips are tough, just because of how cold it gets, but I've had some great meals in town and the stadium is my favorite in the NFL, which I can't believe I'm saying about an indoor venue. 

► Q. Where’s the biggest need for improvement? — @AlecRiemersma

► A. I'll give you one on offense and one on defense. 

While I noted the 4.8 yards per carry being allowed, I believe the Lions' bigger issue on defense is tackling. As I covered earlier in the week, the team is on pace to miss 124 tackles, nearly a 70 percent increase from a season ago. You can roll the tape and see some shaky fundamentals that need to be cleaned up sooner than later. 

On offense, the Lions need to continue to seek consistency with the ground game. They're coming off a great performance against Kansas City, but most teams runs well against the Chiefs. The team's last three opponents have gained an average of 190 rushing yards.

Outside of that game, the Lions have averaged 3.4 yards per carry. If the offense is going to continue to be successful, the most recent showing can't be an anomaly.

Twitter: @Justin_Rogers