Getting Offensive: Why the Lions are 3-1

The Lions are off to a 3-1 start and the offense is rolling, but what changed and who benefits?

After a promising 10-6 season in 2011, one in which the Lions made the playoffs for the first time since 1999, fans had plenty of reasons for hope and optimism. But that all came crashing down last year during a disappointing 4-12 campaign that had many wondering if the previous season was a fluke.

Entering this 2013 season, many people, myself included, believed that the Lions were due to regress back to their 2011 ways. One can look at many factors of last year’s team, such as their 3-8 record in one-score games, being 30th in turnover differential at -16, and their very difficult schedule, and come to the conclusion that the 2013 Lions were bound to have the ball bounce their way.

With three wins through four games, including an impressive win against the Chicago Bears last week, the Lions are playing much like the metrics said they would, and a lot of this can be attributed to their more conservative and balanced offensive approach. Through four games, the Lions are 9th in the league in turnover differential at +4, and have a pass/run ratio of just over 1.5 compared to 1.97 last year. But is the passing game still being effective with less volume?

Matthew Stafford's Best Season?

While the passing offense is not accumulating the raw yardage totals that they did last year, they are throwing the ball much more efficiently compared to last year. Throughout Stafford’s young career, he has been known as a gunslinger whose fantasy value relys purely volume. This narrative has held steady, as Stafford routinely leads the NFL in attempts, including last year’s record for most pass attempts in a season with 727.

Stafford’s career, however, seems to be taking a turn for the better, as this year he is only 9th in attempts, but is astronomically more effective in those fewer attempts. Stafford is completing 64.1 percent of his passes this year compared to 59.8 percent in 2012, and is averaging 8.1 yards per attempt, which triumphs last years value of 6.8 by a large margin.

This newfound efficiency is also having a positive impact on his yardage, as he is averaging almost 315.5 yards per game this year, which bests his 2012 mark of 310.4. It also puts him on pace to break 5,000 yards this year.

You may be wondering, what exactly do all these numbers mean on the field and in fantasy? Stafford’s passing net expected points per pass (PNEP/P), which is a metric we use here at numberFire that signifies the actual amount of points a player adds to his teams total on each pass, is at .17 this year compared to his measly .05 from last year, meaning that Stafford’s on-the-field play has improved dramatically over last season. This translates right to his fantasy football value, as Stafford is averaging 18.8 standard fantasy points per game thus far which is over two points better than 2012. That puts Stafford as the 8th-best passer in standard leagues, and I expect that the new balance on offense and his improved efficiency will allow Stafford to maintain mid-QB1 value throughout the year.

Stafford deserves a lot of credit for his play, but he is benefiting from a surprisingly good offensive line. Riley Reiff and Rob Sims are leading this young group in giving Stafford plenty of room to work with and not allowing pressure to get to him. Stafford has faced the 3rd lowest amount of pressure in the league at only 25.8 percent, and has only been sacked 3 times in 4 games.

The Impact on Calvin Johnson

This decrease in pass attempts and a more balanced offense may not negatively impact Stafford’s fantasy value, but it could affect his receivers, specifically Calvin Johnson. Megatron had arguably the best season of any pass catcher ever last year, catching 122 balls for a record-breaking 1,964 yards. He was the best receiver in fantasy, across all formats, and only trailed five running backs in standard leagues, which is a remarkable feat for a receiver. However, Johnson only scored five touchdowns, leaving much to be desired from owners and instilling the belief that with a bit more luck, he could be even better this year.

Sadly, it looks even with an increase in touchdowns, Megatron won’t be able to beat last year’s point total. Johnson is still playing at an elite level so far this year having a Rec NEP/Target of .75, which shows the amount of real life points he adds to his team every target, and that is just below last year’s mark of .80. The problem with this stud wideout is the lack of volume due to the more balanced attack. As a result of Stafford’s record amount of pass attempts, Johnson was able to accumulate a whopping 204 targets and 122 catches. This year he is on pace for only 160 targets and 84 receptions, already putting a dent in his PPR value. And with that decrease in volume comes a decrease in yardage, as Megatron is on pace to have over 600 yards less than last year which, in fantasy football, is equivalent to 10 touchdowns.

With that being said, Johnson still is the best receiver in the league from a talent perspective, and is the favorite to finish as the top fantasy receiver while having a very high floor. Just don’t expect 2012 numbers.

Outside of Megatron, the only receiver you want to own in this offense is Ryan Broyles. While Broyles hasn’t proven much in his injury-riddled career, he does have a solid skill set and will get plenty of targets as he replaces Nate Burleson, who is out with a broken arm.

The Running Backs

When the Lions signed running back Reggie Bush this offseason, many were skeptical of whether he would succeed, as seen in his average draft position of 40 on This proved to be a monumental mistake for those who passed on Bush, as he's currently the 6th-best running back in standard leagues and on pace to pass 2,000 yards from scrimmage. Bush is also second in the NFL in yards per carry out of backs with at least 35 carries. And he's missed time due to injury!

But how exactly is Bush having so much success? The easy answer would be his involvement in the passing game out of the backfield. While that is true, Bush is actually doing most of his work running between the tackles. Just last week Bush pounded his way to 121 yards on 13 carries between the tackles, and is averaging 5.7 yards per carry on these types of runs. This is new for Bush, as the Dolphins and Saints preferred to give the ball to him in space. On the few carries he received between the tackles with those teams, Bush only averaged 4.5 yards per carry. The combination Bush’s ability in the receiving game, the Lions new balanced offensive approach, and his recent success on between the tackle runs fortify Bush as an every week RB1, and even higher in PPR, until proven otherwise.

Bush gets most of the attention, but backfield-mate Joique Bell also has a fair amount of fantasy value. Bell proved last year that he is more than capable of carrying the load, and he has done so on his way to being ninth-ranked running back in standard leagues. He makes is money in the receiving game, even more so then Bush. Bell has had at least four receptions and 30 yards every game this year, making him a weekly PPR flex option. That, too, is with Bush getting more snaps in the offense. If Bush gets hurt, however, then Bell vaults up to just about where Bush is now in terms of fantasy value. Bell had 20 carries against the Redskins when Bush was inactive, including one touchdown where Bell broke three tackles on a powerful display inside the red zone. The bottom line is this: keep Bell as one of the best handcuffs in the game and play him in PPR leagues if you’re in need of a safe 7-10 points.

The Lions in 2013

By looking at the numbers, we can see that, even though the 3-1 Lions have transferred somewhat from their volume-based air attack to a more balanced and efficient offense, they still have a very potent offense. They're currently averaging the fourth-most points and sixth-most yards in the league. And that, as you can see, translates directly to their QB-RB-WR trio who will all continue putting up elite numbers and please their fantasy owners.