Why the Lions Need a More Balanced Attack
Predictability. It's a word that can mean a lot of different things to a lot of different people. There's comfort, safety, and security in predictability. It also happens to be a word associated with stagnation. In a strange but ultimately sensical way, predictability can be both the biggest boon towards, while simultaneously being one of the biggest hindrances of, obtaining success.
Businesses have built reputations on reliability, and subsequently lost those same reputations for failure to innovate and change. The balance is delicate, and the calculus is ultimately always at least partially imperfect. But it's important to strike some level of balance between reliability and ability to innovate.
Football is no different.
The Detroit Lions built their 6-3 start on reliability. Through Week 10, they were the sixth-best team in the league in Adjusted Passing Net Expected Points per Pass, trailing only Denver, New Orleans, San Diego, Atlanta, and Green Bay.
But coming into Week 13, the Lions have dropped their last two, one where they did basically nothing in the second half against Pittsburgh, and one that was borderline terrifying against the Buccaneers. The Lion recipes that were once cooking up some devastating fantasy games for its best options have fallen flat in the last two weeks. The question is - what's wrong with the Detroit?
The Lions are Throwing Too Much
It seems almost counter-intuitive to say with a player like Calvin Johnson in the mix, but the Lions really have not had any success outside of him in the passing game. Though I believe Megatron has been the best fantasy player in the NFL this year - he has by far the highest Reception NEP of any player in the league - there just simply is not much else outside of Megatron to get excited about.
Of all players with at least 20 catches - 159 players total - there is not a single Lion outside of Calvin in the top 50 in NEP per target (making good use of the balls thrown their way). In fact, the highest ranking Detroit Lion is Brandon Pettigrew at 74th, trailing the likes of Hakeem Nicks (66th) and Jeremy Kerley (68th).
The running backs, too, are struggling. Though the Lions like to make use of their backs in the passing game, the Lions players have been remarkably ineffective as well. Of those same 159 players, Reggie Bush ranks all the way at 142nd in NEP per Target. Joique Bell ranks marginally better at 120th (more on this dynamic in a bit).
I am not going to sit here and say this is the be-all, end-all, but when you throw the ball as much as the Lions do, running such an unbalanced offense, you would expect that they would have receiving options that are much better than they actually are. It's difficult to say whether this is a chicken or the egg scenario - it's possible that teams come in expecting a ton of passes and are able to take away a lot of the non-Megatron receiving options.
Either way, whether it be the other side's gameplan or a lack of talent, the Lions stark inability to innovate their offense to rely less on the pass (or to run their receivers open a little more) speaks to a level of predictability, and, ultimately, inefficiency in the game plan.
It's possible that the return of Nate Burleson will improve things a bit (7 catches for 77 yards last week), but I am not entirely hopeful that this team will not continue to go back to the nearly dried-up well.
The Lions are Playing the Wrong Running Back
If you follow me on Twitter, once in a while on Sunday you'll see me tweet "#FreeJoique". I am about the All Joique Everything movement. He consistently looks like the better back on the rare occassion the Lions do decide to run the ball.
Of all players with 35 more more rushing attempts this season, Reggie Bush is the 48th-best running back in Rushing NEP, while Joique ranks 29th. Additionally, Bell has turned his rushes into "successes" (adding to his NEP) 47.13% of the time. Reggie Bush sits nearly 10 points lower at 38.51%.
Given the stark difference in effectiveness, it's hard to believe (or, maybe it isn't, if you just read the passing stats), that Bush has nearly twice the amount of carries as Bell (161 to 87). This loyalty to Bush is a symptom we see in many sickly teams - a guy with a name, reputation, or even just a big contract is played despite his backup potentially being just as worthwhile. Even if you accept that the Lions are intent on passing the ball, as I noted above, Bell is the more effective player per target anyway. Additionally, Bell has a successful reception on 77.42% of his passes. Bush, like the rushing metric, sits a near 10 points lower at 67.50%.
Again, this speaks to an inability to adjust and innovate - the Lions predictably keep giving Bush touches that, statistically, appear to be better served by giving the ball to Bell. A stubbornness or refusal to admit or correct for a mistake often works to compound said mistakes, and we are seeing the effects here. Ultimately, the Lions need to find a way to cut their losses if they intend on winning games consistently. The question is whether they can or will do that.
They Can't Stop the Pass
Though the rush defense is often appropriately vaunted - currently third in the league in Adjusted Rushing NEP - the passing defense has been beyond suspect. They are currently the 26th-best team in the leagues in Adjusted Passing NEP, and have increasingly gotten worse as the season has gone on. Teams know they can throw on the Lions, and that's exactly what they have been doing. The Lions have allowed at least two passing touchdowns in seven of their last eight games, and at least three passing touchdowns in three of those games.
When you have a unit that is beyond vulnerable, your performance week to week is likely to be remarkably inconsistent. In the last two losses, the Lions have been torched for two touchdowns by a bottom-10 passing team in Tampa Bay, and were bombed by the Steelers for 350-plus yards and four scores. And the Steelers are merely the 13th-ranked team in adjusted passing NEP.
The lack of pass defense has allowed opposing offenses, even with middling passers, succeed. If the Lions want to make the playoffs, this needs to be fixed.
Will Things Get Any Better?
Upcoming, the Lions will face the Packers, one of the worst teams in the league in Adjusted Defensive Passing NEP (26th in the league). The Week 14 matchup is just as tasty as the Eagles rank 22nd in the league within the metric. The Giants and Ravens are better defenses, but are not considerably better than the teams Detroit faced over their last two games - the Giants are 13th and Baltimore 15th (the Bucs sit at 16 and Steelers at 17).
That's fine for the Lions passing game, but they need a more balanced attack in order to keep opposing offenses off the field. If they're not on the gridiron, then they're not able to exploit the worst area of Detroit's team: the pass defense.
Detroit needs to rely more on their running backs, specifically Joique Bell, to find success. Their seventh-ranked pass-to-run ratio is highest among all winning teams outside of Dallas. And, of course, Dallas has had running back issues this year with a middle-of-the-season injury to DeMarco Murray.
The Lions offensive philosophy is becoming inexcusable, especially for a squad with ineffective receiving weapons, and one with one of the most porous pass defenses in the league.