For Lions' offense to take flight, ground game must get up and running
When the Detroit Lions hired Darrell Bevell as the team's new offensive coordinator a little more than a year ago, the move was met with understandable skepticism.
It was an unquestionable positive coach Matt Patricia went outside his sphere of influence for the addition, and Bevell was coming off a largely successful stint in Seattle, but with a scheme built on a run-heavy version of the West Coast offense, it didn't appear to mesh with Detroit's offensive weapons at initial glance.
In the most basic terms, the West Coast scheme is predicated on short, horizontal passing routes, with precision throws from the quarterback. And even though Bevell promised a downfield passing attack shortly after his hire, there was reason to wonder if quarterback Matthew Stafford's rocket launcher of an arm would continue to be as underutilized as it had been under previous coordinators Joe Lombardi and Jim Bob Cooter.
But it didn't take long for those worries to be quelled. In the second quarter of the season opener, Stafford connected with Danny Amendola deep down the sideline for a 47-yard touchdown.
And the bombs never really stopped. Before a back injury ended Stafford's season after eight games, he led the NFL with 56 pass attempts of 20 yards or more, and his 23 completions on those throws were second only to Russell Wilson. More impressively, Stafford's 13.4 yards per completion and 8.6 yards per attempt were both career-highs. Only Tennessee's Ryan Tannehill was more efficient per attempt in 2019.
Entering the 2020 season, the passing attack is an area where the Lions can firmly place confidence. Obviously, everything hinges on the health of Stafford, who has dealt with serious back issues the past two seasons, but all indications are he's good to go. And the team is bringing back his full array of pass catchers, led by Kenny Golladay, who had the most receiving touchdowns in the NFL last year.
If anything, there are two reasons to believe the Lions should be an even better passing team this season. First and foremost, tight end T.J. Hockenson is poised to take a major step forward. Patricia and Lions general manager Bob Quinn often say a player makes their biggest developmental jump between Year 1 and Year 2, so the former Iowa standout should find much more consistency after fizzling out after his sizzling debut in 2019.
Additionally, Quinn drafted one of the best pass-catching running backs in this draft, Georgia's D'Andre Swift. Paired with Kerryon Johnson, another reliable weapon out of the backfield, the Lions have weapons to stress any secondary.
But if Detroit is going to unlock the full potential of its offense, the Lions will need to find consistency in the ground game that's eluded them for two decades.
In his previous two stops, Bevell had the benefit of leaning on powerhouse workhorses in Adrian Peterson and Marshawn Lynch. Here, Johnson and Swift have the makings of a dynamic tandem, but with a far different skill set than a Lynch or Peterson.
Johnson and Swift aren't going to be bowling defenders over regularly. They need holes to utilize their speed and elusiveness in the second level, and those weren't there consistently for Detroit's backs last season.
The Lions made a clear effort to retool the offensive line this offseason, namely the right side, where they cut veteran tackle Rick Wagner and allowed guard Graham Glasgow to walk in free agency. To fill the voids, the team signed Halapoulivaati Vaitai to replace Wagner and drafted Jonah Jackson and Logan Stenberg to compete for the opening at guard.
Vaitai is a powerful run blocker, coming off his best season in the department. He should offer a noticeable improvement over Wagner, who struggled the past two seasons. Stenberg also comes in with an established reputation as a mauler, but Jackson, a better pass protector who was drafted 46 spots earlier, has a presumed leg up in the competition.
Of course, given the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic pushing the pre-training camp porition of the offseason program to a virtual setting, both Jackson and Stenberg won't step on a practice field for the first time until mid-August. So it shouldn't be surprising if the team goes with a veteran such as Kenny Wiggins or Oday Aboushi to start the season.
In reality, given the importance of chemistry and cohesion up front, offensive line play across the league is likely to suffer from the reduced practice time before the season.
In an ideal world, Patricia would like Detroit's offense to operate similar to Tennessee or San Francisco did a year ago. The Lions coach believes in controlling the game, but it's tough to control the game if you can't run the ball, particularly in the fourth quarter and late in the season.
Tennessee was able to lean on Derrick Henry, a hulking back in the mold of Lynch and Peterson, but San Francisco's backfield stable of Raheem Mostert, Tevin Coleman and Matt Breida are more speed and space backs, like Detroit's current tandem.
The 49ers averaged 4.6 yards per carry in 2019, eighth in the league, and they were fifth in time of possession. Now imagine that offense with Stafford under center. That's the dream.