Free Head Exam: Detroit Lions

After the Detroit Lions' 34-24 loss to the Minnesota Vikings, here are three issues that merit further examination:

  1. After falling behind early once again, the Lions have now been outscored 53-28 in the first quarter of their games this season and 107-75 in the first half overall. It will take some time and deep analysis to determine why that is happening. Are the Lions' initial gameplans, on both sides of the ball, inadequate? Are they matching up poorly against what the best opponents have to offer, and then making hay only when offenses pull back and defenses fall into safer zones? Here's what we can say about Sunday's game: Quarterback Matthew Stafford completed only three of 10 passes when the margin of the game was fewer than 10 points, according to ESPN Stats & Information. When the Lions trailed by 10 points or more, Stafford completed 25 of 32 passes, including three touchdowns. Receiver Calvin Johnson, meanwhile, caught 11 passes for 196 yards when the Lions faced a deficit of at least 10 points. It's not necessarily fair to conclude Stafford and Johnson simply did all their damage in "garbage time," but their season-long trend of doing most of their best work when trailing isn't necessarily positive, either.

  2. The Vikings' 54-yard pass play in the first quarter encapsulated everything that has been disappointing about the Lions' defense this season. On a third-and-9 call, they used a scheme that should have worked given their personnel. They rushed four defensive linemen, presumably the strength of their team, and protected the pair of backup safeties who have been forced to start by putting them in a deep Cover-2 zone. But generally speaking, the Lions' defensive line has been as dominant as predicted this season. On this play, defensive tackle Ndamukong Suh didn't get into his three-point stance before the snap and was handled easily (albeit in a double team) by center John Sullivan and right guard Brandon Fusco. Nose tackle Nick Fairley got some penetration on left guard Charlie Johnson, but quarterback Christian Ponder stepped up past him. Meanwhile, receiver Jarius Wright got behind safety Erik Coleman in a coverage designed to keep all receivers in front of the safeties. "We let the guy go right down the seam," coach Jim Schwartz said. "But then, our pass rush allowed [Ponder] to make a javelin throw. He got about three crow hops before he threw it." The ball traveled 54 yards past the line of scrimmage, or about nine times the average distance of Ponder's throws this season. That play will haunt the Lions for some time.

  3. With that said, let's note that Fairley played a pretty good game in place of the injured Corey Williams. Fairley had the Lions' lone sack, made two other tackles for loss and hit Ponder on two occasions. He played on 51 of the Lions' 73 snaps, according to Pro Football Focus, for a season-high percentage of 69.9 percent. Fairley has had some ups and downs in two NFL seasons, but he has produced enough ups to give the Lions confidence that he is on his way to being a long-term starter.

And here is one issue I still don't get:

I'm not sure why receiver Titus Young felt compelled to take to Twitter on Monday morning and declare: "We don't need Know Some timing Fans, y'all can Go get on someone else's bandwagon!" (Actually, I do know why he did it. Young clearly has some growing up to do.) I'm sure Lions fans are upset with the Lions' disappointing followup to their 10-6 season in 2011, but in many ways that's a good thing. The only thing worse than fan discontent is fan ambivalence. Lions fans endured the worst 10-year stretch in the history of the NFL, and for the team's long-term health, it's better that they express anger than if they accepted this 4-5 record passively. I think most Lions players and coaches understand that, Young's immaturity notwithstanding.