Grounded Lions being passed up by league's elite offenses
Allen Park — This week's matchup between the Detroit Lions and Los Angeles Rams is an intersection of two franchises headed in opposite directions. And there's something to be said about the contrasting styles of play between the Super Bowl contender and the NFL's current cellar dweller.
The Rams have embraced the modern era offensive football, an pass-first attack that stretches the field both vertically and horizontally and is complemented by the ground game. The Lions, on the other hand, have attempted to build around having running the ball as their strength.
The biggest problem with that strategy is the Lions have been routinely forced to abandon the run in each of their first six games, all losses, because they've fallen behind by double-digits in the second half of each contest. And with a passing game that hasn't kept pace with modern trends, the Lions aren't equipped to consistently mount credible comebacks.
Of course, it's not realistic to flip your offensive philosophy on its head midstream. The Lions' personnel is what it is, and the way they're trying to win games best matches the roster as it's constructed.
“I think it has to be," Lions coach Dan Campbell said when asked if his team's playing style is good enough to win games. "Look, there’s a certain way we need to play and we have to play. And I know you guys get tired of hearing it, our margin for error is this (small) and I know that it’s hard to really say what we are and what we aren’t until we take away our own self-induced mistakes.
"I know this, we have to be able to run the football," Campbell said. "We have to be able to stay in the game to be able to play-action pass and do some of those things. Look I’ll tell you, we’re not equipped to throw the ball 40, 50 times a game and drop back. We’re not. That’s not us. I think there are very few teams that are equipped to do that, but I know we’re not, for sure."
Even though they haven't always needed to be, the Rams are a team equipped to throw 40 or so times. Quarterback Matthew Stafford has attempted at least 37 passes in three of the team's six games, including a victory over the defending champion Tampa Bay Buccaneers.
Speaking of Tampa Bay, no one spits in the face of the myth of needing offensive balance more than the champs. Led by ageless quarterback Tom Brady, the Buccaneers are leading the NFL in pass attempts, completions and yardage by a wide margin, while ranking 27th in rushing attempts and 26th in yards per carry.
And that closely mirrors their offensive strategy a year ago when they won a title in Brady's first year with the franchise.
Obviously, there's no singular way to win in the NFL, but it's becoming clearer that teams that sling it around are seeing positive results. The league's top-10 passing offenses have a combined 40-20 record and five of those clubs are in first place of their divisions. Only the New York Giants, who are 10th in passing yards, have a losing record.
Currently, NFL teams are passing for more yards this season than any in the league's history. And they're being impressively efficient doing it with a historical best yards per attempt and passer rating, while the league's sack rate is the fifth-lowest on record.
At first glance, Detroit's passing numbers are deceptively average. Quarterback Jared Goff, one of the league's most conservative quarterbacks the past couple seasons, ranks in the middle of the pack with 1,505 yards.
But a deeper dive into the numbers, or something clear to anyone who regularly watches the team, shows that total is artificially inflated by Goff's league-leading 697 yards in the fourth quarter, when opponents are frequently playing soft coverages and conceding throws to keep the clock running.
Campbell acknowledged as much at the end of last week's loss to Cincinnati.
"You look at our stats offensively, that was because they were in some prevent Cover 2," Campbell said. "We should make those plays."
The Lions have no choice but to limp to the finish line of the 2021 campaign with what they have constructed. But the team's offensive strategy is among many things the Lions must reconsider during their attempt to build a perennial contender. They can't afford to continue lagging behind the rest of the league when it comes to passing the ball.
"I would like to say that with what we have, we’ll evolve where we need to evolve to," Campbell said. "Look, it’s no secret this is a passing league. You’re right about that. Even over the last, call it, five years, it’s erupted even more. You have to be able to throw it, that’s for sure, but I think you make the most with what you think you’re equipped to do with your guys."