Lions mailbag: Red zone or dead zone? Dissecting Detroit's struggles inside the 20

Justin Rogers
The Detroit News
Lions quarterback Matthew Stafford signals for the touchdown, which have been few and far between in the red zone this season.

Allen Park — It's been a rough few days for Detroit Lions fans. Communications via email and Twitter have been enough to make a sailor blush, at times. Still, we were able to filter through the anger and find some good questions for this week's mailbag. 

► Question. Why are the Lions so bad in the red zone? — @thughey67

► Answer. They'll tell you it's execution, and that's fair to an extent, but I believe we can distill the struggles down to three issues. First, the Lions can't run the ball consistently. Hypothetically, that's correctable, based on the team's personnel, but it doesn't change the fact they haven't found a way to put it together quite yet. 

Second, Matthew Stafford's limited mobility doesn't provide an easy out when things aren't going to plan. It's not that he can't run, because he's shown he's more athletic than we gave him credit for early in his career, but his mobility is still in the bottom half for the position and the team isn't likely to be scripting run designs for him in the near future. Look at the leaderboard for red zone offense and you'll see it's chock full of units led by dual-threat passers. 

Finally, Detroit's top receivers aren't known for getting separation. Kenny Golladay and Marvin Jones are both exceptional at making contested catches, but when the field shrinks inside the 20, spacing becomes more imperative. 

That's why T.J. Hockenson is so important. He should be the matchup piece that creates spacing, first and foremost for himself, but also for others. The Lions have tried to take advantage of that, but it's still a work in progress. 

Da' Shawn Hand's return likely will bolster the Lions' pass rush.

► Q. Do you think the arrivals of Austin Bryant and Da'Shawn Hand are the pass-rush boosts we need? — @bum_thagreat

► A. We have no idea what Bryant is going to bring to the table, but it would be a mistake counting on him to be a difference-maker as a rookie with buckets of rust to knock off from his long layoff. 

As for Hand, if he can be the same guy he was last season, yeah, he's going to provide a notable boost. But even with Hand, the Lions are likely to be near the bottom of the NFL in pressure rate, just based on the way they're running the scheme this season. 

► Q. What has been on the agenda for the Owner’s Meeting in Fort Lauderdale this week? What, if any, proposals or initiatives come from the Lions? — @_Smails_

► A. Those meetings were only scheduled for two days and are already in the books. At this point, we're not to the proposal stage. That comes in the offseason. If I'm being honest, I've only loosely followed the recent meetings, but it sounds as if officiating and CBA talks dominated the conversations, including confirmation the league will push for a 17-game regular season in the upcoming labor bargaining. 

The officiating discussions are going to be ongoing. The league knows it needs to offer some meaningful solutions to the issues plaguing its product. It will be interesting what proposals and changes are in store this offseason. 

► Q. Do the Lions bounce back or do they come out flat after the Monday Night loss? — @JBeieler

► A. We won't really know until Sunday, I suppose, but if they can't rebound, it's going to be an extremely difficult road to a playoff spot, given it would put Detroit 2.5 games back of the final wild-card spot. It's still early, but that Week 1 tie feels like it's going to play a role. 

► Q. It looks like Bevell is great about scripted plays at the start of the games, but then it slows down. Am I crazy to notice that? — @sweta2311

► A. The numbers bear out your observation. The Lions are fifth in the NFL in first-quarter points, and over the past three games, no team has been better in the first 15 minutes. 

The Lions actually score more points in the second quarter, but so does the rest of the league. They rank 12th. What's problematic is things get worse deeper into contests. The team is 19th in second half points. They're simply not finishing strong. 

That slowdown is a combination of execution, play calling and in-game adjustments. It's difficult for me to pinpoint a ratio for you here, but it unquestionably needs to be better. 

► Q. I know we can and should, but do you think we will actually make the playoffs with a division title and not a wildcard? — @jauhncley

► A. Respectfully, did you not see the end of the Monday night game? The Packers already hold a big lead in the division, while gaining an early tie-breaker on the North's other three teams by beating each head-to-head. 

If the Lions want to contend for the division, they'll probably need to win nine of their final 11 games. That's a big ask for any team outside New England. 

Lions quarterback Matthew Stafford was sacked 10 times by the Vikings in last season's game in Minnesota.

► Q. Thinking about Vikings vs Stafford gives me PTSD after the 10 sack game last year. I can't even remember if Minnesota has always been such a terror for him or if last year just makes it feel that way. Have we seen enough of OL this year to feel better about this week? — @Tim1213

► Answer: That game was particularly bad, but the Vikings' rush has long been a problem for the Lions, especially under coach Mike Zimmer. It's a combination of outstanding individual talent on the edges with creative pressure packages perfected by the head coach. 

For the Lions, Taylor Decker has been sharp since his rough start, and I'm not overly concerned about him. As for Rick Wagner at right tackle, the performance has been shakier, and now he's dealing with a knee injury. That could be problematic. 

On the inside, I'm most worried about Joe Dahl, from an experience perspective, and Kenny Wiggins from a performance perspective. Zimmer's blitz designs could really put a strain on those two, especially if they end up sharing the field. 

► Q. Phantom hands to the face calls aside, I cannot get over Lazard clearly being down outside the goal line, I get how that gets called on the field, but how does it get upheld in replay? — @bcoozno

► A. This one is actually an easy explanation, if you get away from the screen shot circulating social media. The video shows the ball still moving when Allen Lazard went to the ground. He didn't fully secure the catch until he was across the goal line. 

► Q. I was glad Lions didn't give up picks for Ramsey. What position(s) do you think the Lions need most in the first round of next year's draft? — @jeffhooker

► A. It's so difficult to tell right now, but when I look at expiring contracts, defensive line, cornerback and offensive line all make sense. It's really easy to make a case for wide receiver, as well, with Danny Amendola's deal expiring at season's end and Marvin Jones and Kenny Golladay both up after 2020. 

Lions running back Ty Johnson has 13 carries this season for 54 yards.

► Q. Why is Ty Johnson getting so few snaps on offense? — @trumanfrancis

► A. First and foremost, the rookie hasn't done much with his limited opportunities, especially as a receiving option. The Lions have far more faith in starter Kerryon Johnson, while J.D. McKissic offers more reliable versatility. 

► Q. Defensive game plan seems to have been geared to stop mobile QB's from hurting them. Do you see a more aggressive pass rush this week, forcing cousins to move from the pocket? — @bigjp77

► A. No, I don't expect the defense to go away from its early-season strategy or rushing three or four on the majority of passing downs. Most teams don't blitz Cousins because he likes to get rid of the ball quickly with short throws, negating the rush.

The Lions are more likely to stick with dropping an extra defender into coverage and cluttering the quarterback's throwing lanes as much as possible, given the dangerous receiving tandem of Stefon Diggs and Adam Thielen. 

Lions rookie linebacker Jahlani Tavai, right, played 44 snaps against the Packers on Monday night.

► Q. I was neither for nor against the Tavai pick originally because I hadn't seen him play. Seemed to start strong, but has lost steam. Is that due to the teams/packages we've been playing? -— @ba15832

► A. He started out strong because Jarrad Davis' injury created an opportunity for extra snaps. Once Davis returned to the lineup, there wasn't much room for the rookie in the rotation. You can see the Lions are working on rectifying that, given Tavai played 44 snaps against Green Bay on Monday. It's always going to depend on matchups, but I'd expect the trend of more snaps to continue. 

► Q. Do the Lions really think that Jarrad Davis is their answer at linebacker? I see an young, aggressive, wanting to learn type of player who always seems to be out of place when big plays happen. — @DavidMalian

► Answer: I can't speak for Bob Quinn or Matt Patricia's inner thoughts. Everyone in the building publicly praises Davis and seems enamored with his football character. But character doesn't equal performance, and thus far, what Davis has given the Lions between the lines hasn't lived up to expectations for a first-round pick. 

He's still young and developing, but the consistency needs to pick up quickly. I'm willing to grant some leeway based on the ankle injury that sidelined him for a month, but rust can't be an excuse going forward. It's time for Davis to start building on the promising finish to the 2018 campaign. 

► Q. Is it too early to start criticizing the Hockenson pick? Are the tight ends really that much better than last year? — @greydenn

► A. Yeah, it's definitely too early. It's five games, and in many ways, he's actually ahead of the curve given the difficult adjustment players go through at that position. The missed opportunities have been disappointing, to say the least, but can easily be chalked up to normal growing pains. 

As for the overall play of the tight end room, it's been better from a pass-catching perspective. The blocking, on the other hand, has left plenty to be desired. Jesse James is off to a slow start in Detroit, both as a blocker and red-zone threat. It's reasonable to expect more given the money that was committed in free agency. But, again, it's been five games. 

► Q. What would it cost to trade for an upgrade at pass rush DE? Names like Von Miller (won't happen) and Chandler Jones (maybe for the right price) come up a lot.. I'm just curious if the opportunity arose, would the cost be too high? — @MikeHensler15

► A. A lot. There are few positions that command a premium like edge rushers. If Von Miller were on the block, which there's nothing to suggest he is at the moment, you're probably looking at a first-round pick and another mid-rounder, at the very least. And the price tag is only that low because he's 30. 

Jones, at 29 with two years of control, probably nets something similar. 

It's not a Jalen Ramsey package, but it would be close. 

► Q. Would you be interested in wearing Lions masks and storming the NFL corporate office and demanding justice biweekly on the weekend for a month or two? — @GuruXr

► A. I'm going to politely decline, but you kids have fun and make sure you get the proper permits. 

► Q. As a sports writer, what are the positives and negatives that come along with a controversial ending like with MNF? — @hey_aye_kay

► A. Great question. The positives that come from any close finish or controversy is there is no shortage of topics to write. But, if given the option, I'd rather not be writing about officiating. 

The worst part about a game like this, without question, is it gives fuel to what I consider the worst part of any fan base, those that relentless look for exterior factors to blame for their team's shortcomings. 

Let's be clear: The officiating had a negative impact on the result of this game and that's a terrible thing, whether it happens to the Lions or another team. No one wants to see games decided by bogus or missed calls.

But if we made a pie chart on the reasons the Lions lost, the officiating would make up somewhere around 10-15 percent. By focusing on the blown call, we ignore the glaring mistakes made by the players and coaches, from Hockenson's drop in the end zone, to having 12 men on the field for a field goal to the offense's overall inefficiency after the first half. 

► Q. Odds Vegas actually paid the refs? — @ParthVenkat

► A. I don't generally speak in absolutes, so we'll go with as near to zero as possible. In reference to the most recent game, Vegas doesn't even enter the equation, since the Lions still covered the spread. 

► Q. I’m assuming as a beat writer you follow this team extremely closely and know almost every aspect about this franchise. How closely do you follow the other NFL teams? — @SeanyLDR

► Answer: On a given week, I put between 55-70 hours studying, asking questions about and writing on the Lions and their current opponent. Given that fact, my level of expertise about the rest of the league is understandably shallow. I stay on top of game highlights, and spend a lot of time digging through statistical trends, but I would never try to speak with authority about the Jets or Colts. 

► Q. Did you like El Camino movie what are your thoughts? — @GregoryMegatron

► A. I haven't seen the "Breaking Bad" follow-up, yet, so no spoilers. I've been a little busy lately, if you know what I mean. 

The Lions have scored nine times, four touchdowns and five field goals, in the 20 drives in which guard Kenny Wiggins has been on the field.

► Q. What percentage of drives do the Lions score on with Wiggins in the game vs without Wiggins in the game? — @Mbradley161

► A. That's a massive undertaking, in the middle of a lengthy mailbag, but since there's only five games, I'll go back and check. 

*45 minutes later*

Here's the raw data:

Wiggins has been on the field exactly four series per game. That's not an average, he plays four series, every game, two each half. With those, the Lions have scored nine times, four touchdowns and five field goals. Those 20 drives have averaged 6.1 plays, gaining 30.7 yards. 

When Wiggins is not the field, the Lions have had 37 possessions. I excluded those where the team took a knee to end the half or game. The offense scored on 14 of those 37 drives, with seven touchdowns and seven field goals. 

It's difficult to truly account for how possessions started in this limited study, but I wanted to note two of the field goals came on three-and-out drives following turnovers. 

The non-Wiggins drives averaged 5.8 plays, gaining 33.3 yards. 

It's a wildly incomplete picture, but the Lions are more efficient, on a down-to-down basis, without Wiggins, but have been producing points at a crisper clip when he's on the field. 

Make of that what you will. 

► Q. Do you feel the second year of the Patricia era has shown the Lions making more progress, despite the red zone challenges and sloppiness that still affects them? — @ToddSass1

► A. Without question. The team still has its flaws, but there hasn't been a game where the Lions have looked outclassed by the competition like it did several times a season ago. 

► Q. Who exactly is lined up for ST on a kickoff or return for the Lions? — @MichaelPopiel

► A. It's a good question, if you're interested in the nitty-gritty details, especially since the kickoff coverage has been so good. The staples on that unit have been Miles Killebrew, Jalen Reeves-Maybin, Nick Bawden, C.J. Moore, Dee Virgin, Will Harris, Mike Ford, Jamal Agnew, Tavon Wilson and Justin Coleman. 

On kickoff return, obviously Agnew is handling the ball, with J.D. McKissic and Ty Johnson as the up men. Blocking further up the formation, it's a lot of the same faces, Reeves-Maybin, Harris, Bawden, Moore, Killebrew and Ford. The one other player on returns and not coverage is tight end Logan Thomas. 

► Q. What is the issue with the run game right now? Is the scheme not working or is it personnel limitations? — @ekaseta

► A. It would be unfair for me to come out and say the scheme is the problem. As much effort as I put into studying the game and watching film, I don't have a complete enough understanding to make a definitive claim, in that regard. 

What I can say, from putting in that time watching film, is there are plenty of individual breakdowns that show up on a down-to-down basis. For a run game to be successful, it's important for everyone to, pardon the cliche, to do their job. 

Detroit has received its best, most consistent blocking from interior linemen Graham Glasgow and Frank Ragnow, which might be why there's a continued effort to run the ball up the gut. The perimeter blocking, starting with the tackles, and getting worse with the tight ends and receivers, has been a bigger issue. Kerryon Johnson was so effective running to the edges last season, but the blocking hasn't consistently developed on those runs like it did a year ago. 

And it's not fair to let Johnson completely off the hook. While he admittedly hasn't had enough space to operate on the majority of his touches, he's been guilty of missing some lanes from time to time.

Twitter: @Justin_Rogers