Four Downs: Lions' defensive line isn't living up to its billing
Allen Park — Here are four observations after having a night to ponder the Detroit Lions' 42-30 loss to the Minnesota Vikings.
The Lions defensive line was supposed to be the team's strength this season, and while injuries have prevented us from seeing what the unit is capable of at full strength, the pieces that have been healthy aren't doing nearly enough.
The raw numbers are troubling. The run defense, a repeatedly stated emphasis for the coaching staff, has fallen off a cliff in 2019. After dominating down the stretch a year ago, Detroit's defense currently ranks 28th in rushing yards per game (139.2), 26th in yards per carry (4.9), while conceding a 71 percent conversion rate on third and fourth down short-yardage situations.
In other words, they're getting bullied up front.
That would be an easier pill to swallow if the team was generating a consistent pass rush, but they're not. The Lions have recorded one or zero sacks in four of the team's six games. Overall, they're tied for 27th in the stat and even worse, 30th, in sack rate.
The individual parts pieced together by general manager Bob Quinn aren't working. Trey Flowers, the $90 million man added this offseason, has been far less effective than he was the previous two years in New England. Devon Kennard, the top free-agent addition the previous year, has done next to nothing since recording three sacks in the season opener.
That's your starting edge tandem.
Additionally, schematics are putting the Lions in a tough position. The team rarely blitzes, and often rushes only three. That works when the secondary is standing on its head, which to its credit, often has early in this season. But, against the Vikings, the group didn't get their hands on a single pass.
In many ways, the Lions are a bend-don't-break unit. They give up huge yardage totals and bank on opponents making mistakes, in the form of execution errors or ball security issues, to limit the damage. For the Vikings, those mistakes were few and far between, resulting in 42 points.
Coach Matt Patricia and defensive coordinator Paul Pasqualoni might not like blitzing, it might be against their general defensive philosophy, but they also believe the unit they're working with is schematically flexible. By leaning heavily on the three-man rush, they tried something unique, to varying degrees of success, but the continued struggles of the defensive front suggests it's time to try something different. There's enough versatility with the individual pieces and it's up to the coaching staff to correct course.
The severity of Kerryon Johnson's knee injury remains unclear, but if it's going to cost him additional games, the Lions likely will need to add a piece to the backfield rotation. The easy answer is Paul Perkins, who was recently re-added to the practice squad, but he's averaged 3.6 yards per carry during his career, and hasn't registered a touch in nearly two years. That resume hardly instills confidence.
The Lions also could look to bring back C.J. Anderson, who they unceremoniously dumped a few weeks back and remains a free agent.
But there's another name out there that might be worth considering. There was an unverified rumors the Lions checked in with the Dolphins regarding Kenyan Drake last week. Why not?
Miami is clearly playing for the future, and Drake is in the final year of his contract. Like most of that roster, he hasn't been producing to his standard in 2019, but this is a 25-year-old back who has averaged 4.6 yards per carry during his career and is also an accomplished receiving threat.
Even if Johnson's injury is short-term, adding Drake as a backfield complement would be a nice short-term upgrade. Rookie Ty Johnson, who shouldered the load after Kerryon left Sunday's game, has potential, but isn't quite ready to be the lead guy.
After the loss to Minnesota, quarterback Matthew Stafford pointed the finger at himself. While the offense certainly left some plays on the field, his overall point is ridiculous. Then again, it's what we've come to expect for the franchise passer. He's never been one to throw his teammates under the bus or shy away from criticism.
According to Pro Football Focus, Stafford had to deal with pass-rush pressure on nearly half of his 48 dropbacks, yet he managed to throw for 364 yards and four touchdowns. The only blemish was a late-game interception, when the final score was nearly dried cement.
Stafford wasn't perfect, but he was unquestionably good enough against one of the league's best defenses, continuing his stellar rebound campaign.
Before the season, I raised the idea the Lions needed to seriously consider drafting an heir apparent quarterback next offseason if Stafford couldn't return to form. The idea now seems ridiculous. With a re-discovered deep ball, he's on pace for nearly 4,700 yards, 35 touchdowns and eight interceptions and career-best efficiency numbers.
It's a shame this organization can never put things together at the same time. They wasted Stafford's previous career peaks, in 2011 and 2017, and when the defense was unquestionably great, in 2014, Stafford was the prisoner of a conservative offense that treated his live arm as a wild horse to be tamed.
Yeah, it's probably too early to be talking about the playoff picture, but you have to acknowledge how wildly the scenarios have shifted for Detroit in the past couple of weeks.
Had the Lions beaten the Packers on Monday night, they would have been in first place of the division and the No. 3 seed in the NFC. After losses to Green Bay and Minnesota, the Lions sit in the divisional cellar and are essentially three games behind the Vikings and Seahawks for the conference's two wild card spots. The Lions are actually closer to a top-3 draft pick than a playoff berth.
While the current situation is far from insurmountable, it's a unenviable amount of ground to make up with 10 games remaining.
The good news is the schedule finally softens up. Would anyone really be surprised if the Lions win their next three games against the Giants, Raiders and Bears, heading into a home tilt with the Cowboys?
It's a big hole, but we can hold off from penning a eulogy for a little longer.