Detroit Lions 2019: Establish the Run!

Detroit Lions 2019: Establish the Run!
Detroit Lions 2019: Establish the Run!

Detroit Lions Stats From 2018

Record: 6-10
Pythagorean Wins: 7.0
ATS: 9-7; average line +2.8
Over/Under: 6-10; average total 46.3
Close Games Record: 2-4
Turnover Differential: -0.3
Offense: 20th in EPA per play (0.01); 5.2 yards per play
Defense: 23rd in EPA per play (0.08); 5.8 yards per play

No Kerryon, No Party?

Matt Patricia’s first year as the head coach of the Detroit Lions was unsuccessful. The team finished 6-10 after falling off a cliff midway through the season. The main reason was the injury to rookie running back sensation Kerryon Johnson. At least that’s what the media and many Lions fans have been telling us since December. Let’s dig into the data: Over the first ten games with Kerryon Johnson healthy, the Lions averaged -0.04 expected points added (EPA) per rush, good for rank 23rd.  After week eleven, when Johnson was out, Detroit averaged -0.04 EPA (data pulled from nflscrapR) per rush, too. That ranked 19th over that span.
They didn’t miss a beat of efficiency in the run game. Four guys of their starting offensive line almost played the full season. They ‘only’ lost right guard TJ Lang who battled injuries since the beginning of the year. However, they lost more important players like WR Golden Tate after week seven and WR Marvin Jones in week nine. Until the departure of Tate, the Lions ranked 9th in passing EPA (+0.16). Until the injury of Marvin Jones, they ranked 13th (+0.09).
With the absence of Tate and Jones, the Detroit Lions dropped to 25th in EPA per dropback (-0.04) for the remainder of the season. You cannot lose two decent, experienced wide receivers and expect a quarterback like Matthew Stafford to perform as well as before especially when he played with broken bones in his back. The reason for their offensive decline was not the run game.
Their defense, the unit Patricia was mostly responsible for, didn’t contribute to winning many games either. However, the Lions were a slightly underperforming team: they went 2-4 in close games and had a Pythagorean win expectation of 7.0.

“Pound the Damn Rock”

After the season, the Lions decided that offensive coordinator Jim Bob Cooter had to go. But before Cooter’s arrival, Matthew Stafford had a career QBR below 52. With the remainder of the 2015 season, he produced numbers of 58.3, 65.2, 65.2 and 53.8 in 2018. His 2018 finish would have been higher without the bad injury luck. He played like a below-average quarterback before 2015, but like an above-average signal-caller under Cooter.
Former Seahawks-OC Darrell Bevell will call the plays this year and try his best to fulfill Matt Patricia’s offensive philosophy of establishing the run as early and as much as possible. The Lions made it clear this off-season that they are going to be a run-oriented team. Patricia hopes that Bevell can replicate his run success with the Seahawks in Detroit.
There is just one problem: passing leads to winning, not running. The more you run on early downs, the more third downs your quarterback faces which inevitably puts more pressure on your signal-caller, contrary to conventional wisdom. Imagine you have an offense that averages 0.16 EPA per dropback and -0.04 EPA per rush. In a vacuum, a 70/30 pass/run split would lead to +0.10 EPA per play. A 50/50 split would result in +0.06 EPA per offensive play. Why would you sacrifice efficiency for too many inefficient run plays, to establish a “culture” or “branding”?
The second point is that the Seahawks’ run success under Bevell occurred mostly due to Russell Wilson’s high-efficiency runs. He’s also a quarterback that can make up for -EV play-calling, as he demonstrated in 2018. If we ignore QB scrambles, the 2011-2017 Bevell-led Seahawks ranked 14th in EPA per rush over that stretch. Take away designed QB runs, and it gets even lower. Also, we all agree that Stafford isn’t Wilson.

Heavy Formations

When the Lions step on a football field in 2019, they will have established the run. But that likely won’t hold Bevell back from going run-heavy on early downs. They will likely use a lot of 21 and 12 personnel sets. They signed former Steelers tight end Jesse James and drafted TE TJ Hockenson 8th overall. Hockenson seems to be one of the best tight end prospects in years. He can be a weapon in the passing game and is already a very good run-blocker – the perfect fit for Patricia’s offensive philosophy.
Kerryon Johnson is back healthy, CJ Anderson is another power runner the Lions signed in the off-season. Theo Riddick is best-suited as a receiving back. Fullback Nick Bawden, last year’s 7th-round pick, is coming back from his ACL tear. He was Rashaad Penny’s lead-blocker at San Diego State when the Aztecs ran all over opposing defenses. This offense screams run-first and dense formations. If you run the ball, it’s preferable to have a good run game. But Bevell’s history isn’t indicative of this.

Detroit Lions Offensive Depth Chart Projection
Detroit Lions Offensive Depth Chart Projection

The offensive line is what I would describe an average unit on paper. Taylor Decker and Rick Wagner are solid tackles. Last year’s first-round pick Frank Ragnow will switch to center, which pushes Graham Glasgow to left guard. Right guard Kenny Wiggins seems like the weakest spot – I wouldn’t be surprised if we saw Joe Dahl as the starter in week one.
The learning curve for tight ends is usually very steep in the NFL. Hockenson will likely contribute more in the run game than he will in the receiving game early in the season. But with Marvin Jones and Kenny Golladay, the Detroit Lions have two quality wide receivers on the outside. Danny Amendola was most likely a homer signing by Matt Patricia. Over his career, Matthew Stafford is an average quarterback at best. He needs a strong supporting cast to succeed. Depending on the development of Hockenson, this could be a good passing offense, as indicated by their early-season performances in 2018. But I doubt that Bevell and Patricia will maximize their efficiency.

Defensive Performance Can Only Go Up

On defense, the Detroit Lions should see an improvement over 2018, especially in the passing game. But the ceiling shouldn’t get fans too excited. They added former Patriot Trey Flowers who graded as the 12th-best pass rusher by Pro Football Focus. Fourth-round pick Austin Bryant provides depth in the rotation as likely the third guy behind Flowers and De’Shawn Hand. The interior is clocked by run-stopping genius Damon Harrison and A’Shawn Robinson.

Detroit Lions Projected Defensive Depth Chart
Detroit Lions Projected Defensive Depth Chart

The linebacking corps is still concerning as Jarrad Davis hasn’t lived up to his first-round status from 2017 and guys like Christian Jones and Devon Kennard don’t move the needle as much. However, the secondary is slightly improved. Former Seahawk Justin Coleman has been one of the better slot cornerbacks in the league and will be a significant upgrade over a guy like Nevin Lawson from 2018. Rookie Amani Oruwariye went off the board later than a lot of draft pundits predicted, and he might start over Jalen Tabor. He projects as the prototype cornerback that Patricia wants to have on the outside. All in all, the defensive line and the cornerback group are slightly improved, which should lead to higher defensive efficiency. But I am not expecting miracles.

2019 Schedule

According to Pinnacle regular-season win totals, the Detroit Lions are expected to face the 15th-hardest schedule at 0.5012. Everything else seems to be an average projection, too. But their 2019 program has two faces: over the first eight weeks, it’s going to be extremely brutal, before it gets much lighter starting in week eight. Until week eight, they will play the Chargers, Eagles, Chiefs, Packers, and Vikings. While the road opener at Arizona looks to be the easiest of the bunch, the Lions won’t know what they are getting with Kliff Kingsbury in week one.
This team preview will hopefully provide you with a lot of information. But it doesn’t replace your weekly handicapping/pricing process. It’s your job to price all 32 NFL teams and situations accurately weekly. 
Detroit is the Guinea pig for the Kingsbury-offense. With a run-first approach, it will be hard to keep pace against those high-octane passing offenses. A 1-5 start into the season wouldn’t surprise me at all. Their only advantageous spot during that stretch is getting the Chargers at home on an early east start. After that brutal stretch, it will get more comfortable with games against the Giants, Raiders, Redskins, Bucs, and Broncos. I’d say the Cowboys are beatable at home, too.

Detroit Lions 2019: Establish the Run!

My best-educated guess is that the Lions are slightly improved over last year – personnel-wise. But their coaching staff is concerning me, and that’s a big reason why I predict them to fail to make the playoffs this season. They could be a top-15 passing offense, but Patricia and Bevell aren’t willing to make full use of that. Their strategy can work against the worse opponents in the league, who can’t go ahead on the scoreboard to get the Lions offense out of its comfort zone.
Detroit’s win total sits at 6.5 with a tendency towards the over which is entirely fair, in my opinion. This team is skilled enough to beat up some light opponents, but they lack top-end quarterback play or coaching to make the most out of this squad. Their divisional opponents are good, too. My best guess is a 7-9 finish after a bad start that could get Matt Patricia fired mid-season.
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