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Lions Still In Good Shape, But Concerns Loom

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The Lions will have to limit big plays like James Jones' (89) 83-yard touchdown run if they hope to make a playoff run this season. Photo Tom Lynn /Getty Images.
The Lions will have to limit big plays like James Jones' (89) 83-yard touchdown run if they hope to make a playoff run this season. Photo Tom Lynn /Getty Images.

So the Lions couldn’t end their drought in the state of Wisconsin. Green Bay is a good team with a new-and-improved running game, and the Lions weren’t 100% healthy. They’re still in good position to win more games, and ultimately make the playoffs. A couple of things attracted my attention during the game this past Sunday, which could potentially hinder the chances of a Lions playoff berth.

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Jim Schwartz is under the impression that the Lions were not affected by the loss of Calvin Johnson on Sunday. I don’t think I’m allowed to use the word that most accurately describes how I feel about that statement.

Of course the Lions were affected by Megatron’s knee injury! When your top wide receiver is Kris Durham, the opposing defense is going to plan a little differently than if Johnson is playing. Green Bay was able to focus their attack on stopping Reggie Bush and Joique Bell, which they successfully accomplished. When Matthew Stafford had to pass the ball, the defense was ready and able to stop the average-at-best receiving corps that the Lions put out there.

We saw this when Bush missed the second half of the Arizona game earlier this season: when one of the Lions star offensive weapons sits, the offense turns one-dimensional.

Luckily, Detroit was able to handle a subpar Washington Redskins team without Bush, but I don’t think there are many other teams that the Lions could have defeated that day. It took a 385-yard passing performance from Stafford to narrowly beat the Redskins. The team ran the ball 23 times that day for only 63 yards, a whopping 2.7 yards per carry. Without the ground game, Stafford had to make plays through the air, which he was able to do to guys like Johnson, Bell, and Nate Burleson.

The story was slightly different on Sunday. With both Johnson and Burleson out, Green Bay stacked the box and made it impossible for Bush to establish his ground game—Bush gained just 44 yards on the ground, and the Lions totaled 64 rushing yards for the game. On passing downs, the Packers were able to get into the backfield and disrupt Stafford, because the secondary wasn’t too concerned with covering the likes of Brandon Pettigrew and Kevin Ogletree. The Lions defense did a pretty good job of keeping the team in the game, but without the clear #1 receiver, the offense couldn’t do much to stage a comeback.

The coaching staff’s idea behind sitting Bush at Washington and Johnson at Green Bay was to limit their injuries and preserve their best offensive weapons for the long run. I can’t blame them for thinking about the long term, and valuing games in December and (hopefully) January over a Week 4 matchup at Lambeau. But it is becoming clear that without one or both of them in the lineup, Detroit won’t be winning many games.

Big Plays Doom Defense

Like I said before, the Lions defense played well on Sunday. Aaron Rodgers threw for just 274 yards and one touchdown—the problem was that he didn’t have to throw for more.

Once again, the defense allowed a couple of big plays that shifted all the momentum towards the opposing offense. The Lions were still within six points in the third quarter when Rodgers hit James Jones along the left sideline for an 83-yard touchdown strike. On the previous drive, Randall Cobb lined up in the backfield for the Packers and carried the ball 67 yards, ultimately setting up Mason Crosby’s third field goal of the game.

It’s a problem we’ve been seeing a lot this year, starting with the first play of the season against the Vikings. Remember Adrian Peterson’s 78-yard run on his team’s first play from scrimmage? That’s just one of the 14 big rushing plays—defined by Sporting Charts as a rushing play that goes for more than 15 yards—that Detroit has allowed through five games. James Jones’ 83-yard touchdown is one of seven pass plays of 25 or more yards allowed through the air.

Big plays hurt—they wear down the defense, sometimes put points on the board, and tend to drastically swing the momentum of a game. The Lions were able to overcome Peterson’s long run, but not Jones’ catch on Sunday. Jones’ touchdown pretty much took the remaining life out of the Lions offense, as they suddenly were down two scores and had to shift their offense to a more pass-heavy approach.

All 32 teams in the NFL will give up long pass or run plays in a game, but the key is to limit the quantity and their damages. I’ve said before that the Lions defense has been stellar this season, but the big plays have marred what would be an otherwise dominant five-week performance thus far.