Lions zero in on fixing red-zone woes on both sides of ball
Allen Park — Of all the stats you could highlight to epitomize the Detroit Lions' 0-8 record, few are more glaring than the team's struggles in the red zone.
And it truly is a team issue. On offense, the Lions have scored a touchdown on 50% of their trips inside the 20-yard line, which ranks 30th in the NFL, ahead of only the New York Giants and Washington Football team.
Defensively, the Lions have been even worse. Opponents have worked their way into the red zone 24 times through eight games and come away with 20 touchdowns on those possessions. That 83.3% success rate, which if it holds, would be the worst in at least 20 years.
According to defensive coordinator Aaron Glenn, Detroit's biggest issues have come within the 5-yard line.
"We’ve given up 25 touchdowns this year," Glenn said. "Fourteen of the 25 have been from the five-in, 14. Think about that."
What does it say about a defense that's getting consistently beaten in those condensed settings? Is it a lack of toughness or talent? Not according to Glenn. In his deep dive into the tape during the bye week, more often than not, he found breakdowns with the group's technique and alignment, often caused by the opponent shifting or motioning before the snap and causing confusion with his young unit.
"A lot of technique and a lot of alignment issues," Glenn said. "When teams start to move, we have to understand exactly where we need to be. That's what encourages me on this going forward, of showing the guys each and every one of those deals and they're like, 'God, man, I know I should have been (there).' A lot of that comes with youth and understanding this is not college anymore. Teams motion, shift and try to out-leverage you and get you out of position. Then, just going through, so our guys understand, that has been good for us."
On average in 2021, defenses allow 61.8% of red-zone trips to result in a touchdown. Assuming those turn into successful field goal attempts, that's 20 points the Lions have surrendered more than the average team.
On offense, the struggle is similar. While 10 teams are scoring touchdowns on at least 65% of their red-zone opportunities, the Lions lag well behind.
Both quarterback Jared Goff and offensive coordinator Anthony Lynn pointed to self-inflicted wounds being a critical issue holding the Lions back.
"It's probably the same stuff that needs to change for overall success," Goff said. "Typically positive gains and staying on track will result in points in the red zone and touchdowns. I think the biggest killer is penalties. If you are first-and-goal on the nine and then you’re first-and-goal on the 19, it’s tough. And I don’t know how many times we’ve done that to ourselves, but I’m sure a couple. Just eliminating self-inflicted wounds and staying on track.”
Lynn highlighted turnovers, including a couple that extended just beyond the red zone and doesn't factor into the aforementioned rates.
"It depends on what you call the red zone, but when you’re inside that 25-yard line, when you can actually score points and you turn the ball over — I think we have five, maybe six times — that’s just taking points off the board," Lynn said. "Our goal is to end every drive with a kick. So we gotta make sure we make that happen."
Against the Chicago Bears, a game the Lions lost by 10, they failed to come away with any points on four first-half trips inside the 10-yard line, losing a pair of fumbles and coughing it up twice more on downs.
And in a loss to the Vikings, more to Lynn's point about failures within scoring range, the Lions lost a fumble and threw an interception just outside the red zone in the 19-17 defeat.
What's concerning about Lynn trying to steer the Lions out of the hole is his previous team's have had similar struggles within the 20. As the offensive coordinator in Buffalo, his run-heavy squad was actually among the league leaders in 2016, but during his four years as head coach of the Chargers, the team finished in bottom half of the league three times.
And things don't figure to get any easier for the Lions this week. The Pittsburgh Steelers, Sunday's opponent, have put the clamps on the opposition deep in their own territory. On 19 red-zone possessions, they're only allowing touchdowns on 47.4% of the time, fourth-best in the NFL.
Offensively, the Steelers are middle of the pack, but if they manage to work inside the 5, where Detroit has seen the majority of their defensive struggles, they'll have to find a way to stop big-bodied rookie running back Najee Harris, who has already found the end zone six times this season.
"Once he gets his shoulders turned down hill, he’s hard to stop, so we’ve got to make sure we can get that guy going east to west as much as possible," Glenn said. "Then, they’ve got a tight end that they drafted out of Penn State (Pat Friermuth), he is showing up. He’s shown he’s a good player. So, those are some things, are some guys that we’ve got to really try to focus on and not let those guys beat us."
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