The busy portion of the Detroit Lions offseason is in the rear-view mirror. We have nearly a month until the rookies report to training camp. Lions fans, hungry for scraps of information, are beginning to starve. What do we have to look forward to?
Fortunately, all is not lost. We still have Twitter! On that platform, I saw that Brian Ragnarok recently asked an interesting question:
Lion Fans: What are you most looking forward to going into the 2018 season? What gives you the most hope?
a) new defensive scheme / Matt Patricia
b) improved run game / Ragnow, Johnson
c) continued pass game improvement / Stafford, Tate, Marvin & Golladay
— Brian Ragnowrok (@brianslionsblog) June 20, 2018
I thought that Brian had asked a valid question. I admit that I gave this some serious thought. Actually, I am quite excited to see what the Lions new defense looks like. I do think that the run game will see significant improvement. And what is there not to like about Matthew Stafford‘s pass game?
Those answers do not allow for what I find as the most critical, most exciting improvements to the team heading into the 2018 season.
To get a glimpse of what I thought the day after last season ended, take a look at the poll I took on New Years Day:
What do you think has been the single biggest problem with the Lions run game?
— Bruce Walker (@Smoke25) January 1, 2018
Reflecting on the Lions season, I felt that the criminal lack of a useful run game was the single biggest component that had prevented the team’s success.
But what caused that lack of success?
I felt that the offensive line was a much larger contributor to the failure of the Lions run game than any running back– but not because of the line’s lack of talent. Certainly not as a result of its lack of effort, either!
I felt that the offensive line coach was the key.
Football Outsiders rank offensive lines here. (The definitions for the following are located on the linked page.) The Lions “Stuffed” rank was a terrible 31st out of 32 teams. Their Power Ranking was a dead-last 32. Their Adjusted Line Yards? Again, last. Those are run-game metrics that are largely outside of the responsibility of the running back. Two defenders hitting a back three yards behind the line of scrimmage is not a recipe for success. Even Barry Sanders struggled in those scenarios.
Those stats deal with the run game. Another important measuring stick for an offensive line is how often do they allow a quarterback sack? The Lions tied two other teams at 24th.
How important is that? No team that ranked lower in sacks allowed last year than the Lions made the playoffs. The Buffalo Bills also ranked 24th and were eliminated by the Jacksonville Jaguars, 10-3 in the first round. The next highest ranking for teams in sacks allowed to actually make the postseason was the Kansas City Chiefs, who also lost their playoff game at home against the Tennessee Titans, 22-21. The Chiefs ranked 17th last season with 37 sacks allowed.
Conversely, ranking first in sacks allowed does nothing to guarantee a postseason berth. Just ask the Los Angelas Chargers, who ranked number one but missed the playoffs (Important to note: Philip Rivers also had the most throwaways (35) of any quarterback). Six of the next eight teams, however, did make the postseason. As a result, one can certainly argue that fewer sacks allowed can contribute to a teams success.
The Lions do not publicly disclose the specific duties of their offensive line coach. In many cases, that coach is responsible for the blocking schemes and even the run game itself, therefore much of this is based on experience and an educated guess.
It is no coincidence that the only other coaching casualty that happened at the time that Jim Caldwell was fired was offensive line coach Ron Prince. Pride of Detroit Managing Editor Jeremy Reisman wrote about the firing of Ron Prince back in March. Reisman illuminated the perception of Prince from several perspectives, including his players. Those impressions were universally less than favorable. But this is not a Prince-bashing piece.
Instead, we seek to identify aspects of the Lions game that will likely measurably improve. And to measure improvement, we need to identify the difference.
Find the delta.
It may be the blocking drills. Or the blocking schemes. Perhaps the mood and attitude of the entire offensive line position group. More likely, it will be a combination of all of those elements and more that, together, contribute to much more successful offensive line play.
That is huge. Imagine for a moment that the Detroit Lions rank somewhere in the middle as an offensive line? That’s where the Philadelphia Eagles placed. How well could the Lions play if Stafford’s sacks drop by 20%? Fewer hits. Fewer hurries. The improvement in his protection, as well as a real run game, would augment his already-terrific play-action success. More completed passes. Fewer interceptions or sack/fumbles would occur.
Suppose that a Lions running back has just a little room to run. What if 2nd and three becomes a first down instead of third and one? What if the second level (downfield) blocking improves as a result.
Visualize the Lions having a second and goal on the two and successfully pounding the ball across the goal line. Picture running the ball to impose their will at the end of a game to close out a close win.
Now add the elements of the poll that Brian asked about at the beginning of this article. Draft picks Frank Ragnow and Kerryon Johnson certainly have the potential to be measurable improvements in their individual capacities. LeGarrette Blount is a proven commodity, having played in the last two Super Bowls for two different teams. Ameer Abdullah, if retained, is coming off his first offseason where he is not rehabbing some injury or other. Oh, and do not underestimate the fact that Taylor Decker is healthy.
An adequate run game will help Stafford immensely. An adequate run game will extend drives, thereby helping the defense stay off the field. An adequate run game is something that the Lions have lacked for a very long time.
What happens if the adequate run game becomes good?
There is a synergy to all of those components that I believe will result in measurable and marked improvement in the Lions run game. All of this is grounded in the hiring of Jeff Davidson as the Detroit Lions Offensive Line Coach.
And that makes the offensive line improvement the element of the 2018 Detroit Lions that I am most excited to see.
Follow Lion Lowdown on Twitter @LionLowdown or Bruce Walker @Smoke25