Lions Mailbag, Part 1: Run game issues, Stafford’s strengths, Quinn’s mistakes
Allen Park — After last week's Detroit Lions mailbag, it was suggested by my bosses I cut back on the absurd number of questions I was answering, but I said, "Nay." The Lions are at .500, the playoff race is heating up and we have to talk about the lackluster trade deadline that just came and went.
The compromise, and it's a good one, is we're going to break this thing up into two parts going forward. So here's Part 1 of the mailbag, with a second wave of questions and answers coming Thursday afternoon.
► Question: Are you going to answer 200 questions to spite your editor? — @TonyTuccini
► Answer: Tony, there's a cost-to-joke ratio that must always be considered. Let's try to keep it closer to 150.
► Q: In your opinion from what you’ve seen on film, what seems to be more of the issue with the run game? Running back,OL sets and execution, or the perimeter blocking with TE/backs? — @SFHCommish_1
► A: If it feels like I'm answering some variation of this question weekly, well, it's because I am. But as long as Detroit's ground game continues to struggle, you're going to keep asking. I get it.
As I've stated previously, the root of the problem is not a single thing. It's a revolving door of issues, which has touched every part of the operation. In this most recent game, the blocking, across the line, was disappointing. We definitely didn't see the interior movement from Frank Ragnow and Graham Glasgow (prior to his injury) that we've come to expect. Combine that with continued issues with second-level assignments and perimeter blocking and you start to get an idea.
It doesn't help that the Lions don't have a back capable of powering through tackles. When healthy, Kerryon Johnson can make a guy miss in a phone booth, but even he wasn't eluding defenders at the same rate as a year ago.
All this to say, there isn't an easy fix. This is who they are. There will be a sporadically well-blocked run, but consistent performances are only likely to come against the league's worst run defenses.
► Q: You mentioned after Tra Carson’s first three runs, the Giants started to collapse their safeties on the run game. Is the Lions’ run game consistently effective enough to force opponents to do this and open up more passing lanes? — @DaveReimink
► A: It's typically going to depend on the defensive philosophy of the opponent. It's understandable why the Giants upped their aggression. The last thing you want is to allow the opposition to physically dominate you from the opening kickoff. They did what they thought was best to stop the bleeding.
Despite the slowdown in production, the Lions stuck with the run. By doing so, they forced the Giants to remain committed to stopping it. As you point out, that created opportunities for the pass game.
Some defenses are going to sell out to stop the run, attempting to make an offense one-dimensional. Others will have their linebackers and safeties play back, focusing more on keeping passing lanes cluttered, knowing that's the quickest way to get beat.
Just because the Giants did it one way doesn't mean the next opponent will follow suit.
► Q: What do you see as the biggest factor in Stafford's superb performance over last year? New OC? Healthier? New TEs? Amendola? — @trumanfrancis
► A: Yes. Yes. Sure. Doesn't hurt.
Oh, wait, you said biggest.
Well, it's tough to dismiss good health for both him and his weapons, but Matthew Stafford has taken to Darrell Bevell's scheme like a duck to water.
The foundation of the system is a West Coast offense, which centers around a quick-hitting, horizontal passing game designed to get weapons in space. Stafford is fluent in that philosophy and it plays well to his arm strength. That part of the offense is also more efficient because of the additions of Danny Amendola and T.J. Hockenson.
But what's been different has been the aggressive vertical element of the attack. The route combinations, often coming out of bunch and stack formations, are helping the receivers find open space down the field and Stafford isn't wasting many of those opportunities, delivering deep balls with accuracy, something that was lacking a year ago.
► Q: I get there's always a lot of turnover at the bottom of the roster, but why do teams sign and release guys multiple times, like Paul Perkins. Seems like it's tough to really get to know players if they're gone in a day. — @Kfletch300
► A: Largely, it's because of need. Due to injuries that occur in-season, practice and game availability are constantly in flux. The Lions, and really every NFL team, need to churn that bottom of the roster to get the best group of players in the building to prepare for that upcoming week.
Using Perkins as an example, it's nice to be able to take a closer look at a player with an intriguing skill set who wasn't working out elsewhere, but the fourth (or fifth if we count the fullback) running back job carries little security. The 12 total snaps he played in a month are easily replaceable. Evaluation and development because a luxury when the injury bug strikes another position group, in this case, the defensive backfield.
As for some of the practice squad guys who are here for a day before getting shown the door, there are a couple possible reasons that happens. First and foremost, they couldn't cut it on the practice field or in the meeting room, something that might not have been noticeable during a workout.
Or, in the case of guys who get brought back multiple times, maybe they offer something specific to the practice week, such as a look in a goal-line situation that they replicate better than anyone on the active roster.
For those players, any pay and an opportunity to catch a GM or coach's eye is better than staying on the couch.
► Q: Your thoughts on Bob Quinn and Matt Patricia regime? Good progress or more bad football? — @WayneOW66L67
► A: While this is a much larger conversation that merits a deeper dive into the different facets or roster building and development, I will say there's been clear improvement from last season. And while the results still haven't reached the level they were at when Jim Caldwell was here, you can see the foundation of mental and physical toughness Patricia and Quinn are trying to establish.
The overall job Quinn has done merits the most scrutiny. He's had four years to build his roster, and while there was a bit of a soft reset in the middle of his tenure with the coaching change, we can safely say the general manager hasn't done enough.
Sure, he's had some outstanding hits via the different avenues of roster acquisition, from the trade for Damon Harrison to the drafting of Kenny Golladay, Graham Glasgow, Da'Shawn Hand, Frank Ragnow, A'Shawn Robinson and Tracy Walker, among others, to the signings of Marvin Jones and Trey Flowers.
But there have been plenty of misfires. His first-round draft picks have been on the conservative side, the Teez Tabor selection was a disaster and several free-agent additions, primarily at running back and tight end, have disappointed.
The overall roster talent and depth feels different more than better from the time he took over. That's reflected in the team's .500 record over these four years.
► Q: Is Hand this years version of Snacks? Just put the new guy in and the run defense magically gets better? — @ericschlukebir
► A: It's an interesting way to put it, but you're probably on to something. The Lions were having to miscast some linemen in roles while waiting for Hand and Mike Daniels to recover from their injuries.
I don't think Hand has the same impact as Harrison a year ago, because run-stopping is essentially the latter's calling card, but the more recent return does bolster a clear weakness.
► Q: Would a running back like Freeman have made that big of a difference in the running game? — @MichaelFick1
► A: In my opinion, no.
As noted above, there are simply too many issues with the blocking to expect Devonta Freeman to be the cure-all. Admittedly, I don't watch much Falcons football these days, but the raw data shows a back struggling to create on his own, at least to the level he did a couple years back. Some of that has to do with his own subpar blocking, but a change of scenery alone wasn't likely to be a magic elixir.
► Q: Now that the trade deadline killed my hopes of a fantastical trade for a starting RB, where do the Lions turn to get some backfield help for Matthew. — @ch0z3n1
► A: Primarily, the team is going to hope the options they have on the roster develop into something reliable. Tra Carson showed a little bit of wiggle on that opening drive against the Giants, so you start looking for ways to maintain that production through the course of the game.
Additionally, Ty Johnson looked to be their best backfield option, with a pair of longer runs called back by penalties. He's a young player still figuring things out. You want to believe with more reps, both in practice and the games, he'll arc toward more consistency, giving him more opportunities to utilize his world-class speed.
► Q: What’s the temperature of the locker room a week after the Diggs trade? Back to normal or still a little on edge? — @bretyode
► A: It's returning to normal, after a small spike. Outside of Darius Slay's reaction, there really wasn't this sense of outrage. Sure, plenty of players were surprised by the unexpected move, but public frustrations were limited.
Most of the team, especially veteran leadership, understand the business side of the things and had no issues putting on blinders and focusing on the next opponent.
► Q: Did you see there's a Chick-Fil-A going in near Lions HQ? — @mulho2mj
► A: This is an important lunch development at the practice facility and the local media eagerly await the arrival of our chicken overlords.
► Q: Do you think that a different running back is really the solution to the problem? — @adwenn
► A: As mentioned above with Freeman, not really. There are a handful of backs in this league who don't need things to be blocked perfectly to be successful, including the last two backs the Lions played. While it would be nice for the team to find a Dalvin Cook or Saquon Barkley, there's a reason those guys were both early-round picks.
Ideally, the Lions find their own speed-power combo this offseason, because it wasn't going to happen at the deadline. It will be interesting to see if they aggressively pursue something in the draft to address the need for a complement to Kerryon Johnson.