In week 2, the Lions suffered a bitter loss to the Arizona Cardinals. It wasn’t horrible in the sense that the Lions got destroyed or that the game came down to the last play that they didn’t make. Rather, it was horrible because they missed out on a win by kind of a normal margin. They didn’t get completely outclassed by the Cardinals, but there’s also not one singular play at the end that you can point to as the reason they lost. It seems that in the aftermath of this game, there are quite a few complaints about the team from some very angry and very vocal fans. Most of the arguments I’ve seen have fallen under the category of symptoms rather than true ailments, so I’ll be trying to diagnose the problems and paint an overall picture of what happened on Sunday.
Many of the offensive complaints have centered around Burleson failing to get a first down on the last play of the game, Linehan’s playcalling (both specifically on that play and throughout the game), the lack of secondary offensive weapons behind Calvin Johnson and Reggie Bush, the copious amounts of drops, and the kicking of David Akers.
Let’s start with the last play of the game, in which Burleson ran a quick slant (or tried to) and was dropped for a 3 yard gain on 4th and 4. Sure, it’s counter-intuitive to run a route short of the first down marker on 4th down. Certainly, you don’t draw up the play to net 3 yards. But here’s why it makes sense. Burleson had run 4 quick slant routes on the day, picking up gains of 4, 7, 8, and 12 yards. In fact, the only throws to Burleson for less than 4 yards were his drop in the first quarter and the last play of the game. Of the options on the field, CJ was matched up on Patrick Peterson, one of the best cornerbacks in football and Joique Bell, Brandon Pettigrew, and Kris Durham were much less reliable receiving options. The difference with this route that Burleson ran was that Tyrann Mathieu was lined up in press coverage and jammed Burleson so hard that it jolted him back at the beginning of the play. This set back the timing of the play so that when Stafford delivered the ball, Burleson wasn’t in position to get the first down. Perhaps if he was stronger or if Stafford had waited an extra half second, the jam wouldn’t have been enough to stop Burleson from reaching the sticks. Still, Burleson was a reliable option all day long and continues to prove he still has something to offer this team.
As for why Linehan was right to call a play where Burleson ran such a short route, that falls to the entire design of the Lions’ 2013 offense. So far in 2013, Matthew Stafford has taken the least time to throw the ball of anyone in football at an average of 2.26 seconds per pass attempt. On plays where he gets rid of the ball in 2.5 seconds or less, he has a 73.8% completion percentage and a QB Rating of 122.8. On plays where he holds onto the ball for longer than 2.5 seconds, his completion percentage drops to 38.9% and his QB Rating drops to 31.7. This quick passing game also happens to be a short passing game. Pro Football Focus tracks percentage yards in the air, which calculates the percentage of passing yardage gained before the catch. Stafford is last in the league in that statistic with 31.7%. In this case, that isn’t necessarily a bad thing. The idea of the offense is that teams play so deep to guard against Calvin Johnson that there’s tons of room to exploit underneath. So what do the Lions do? Exploit it. This offensive approach of getting the ball out quickly and letting their players make a play has been successful to the tune of 8.04 yards per attempt, good for 10th in the league. Compare this to 2012 statistics, when the Lions ranked 20th in the league with 6.83 yards per attempt or even the successful 2011 season with 7.62 yards per attempt.
However, this approach obviously broke down in the second half of this game. With both Reggie Bush and Patrick Edwards out for the remainder of the game, the Lions’ offensive arsenal became much more limited. Reggie is almost without question the Lions’ most dangerous player with the ball in his hands and being able to match him up with linebackers makes his athleticism advantage almost unfair. Patrick Edwards hasn’t made a big imprint on the Lions offense yet, but he is a sure-handed pass-catcher that has deep speed. Without these two, Joique Bell and Kris Durham had to fill their respective positions in the lineup. Joique did an admirable job, gaining plenty of YAC (36 of his 41 yards came after the catch), but also contributed his fair share to stalling drives with 3 drops on the day. Kris Durham proved to not be a viable target at all, with 0 catches on 2 targets, one of which he fell down on. This forced Stafford to use Brandon Pettigrew a lot more. And while Pro Football Focus only charges him with 1 drop on the day (hahahahaha), he only caught 3 of the 6 passes thrown his way (hint: the other 3 were drops).
And with all of this drive stalling going on, the Lions needed some crisp special teams to still put points on the board. That didn’t happen. Many are criticizing David Akers for missing both (or all 3) of his field goal attempts, but they’re all excusable. His first attempt of the day was a 52 yard attempt. NFL kickers converted 50+ yard field goals at a rate of about 61% last season, hardly a sure thing. Sure, I would have loved it if he made it, but 50+ yard field goals are always a dicey proposition. On that play, Akers was run into (should have been called roughing the kicker, which is an automatic 1st down) and shaken up. Asking an injured kicker to boot a 47 yard field goal is asking a lot, so I don’t blame him for that whatsoever. Finally, his 3rd attempt was blocked. I don’t think there’s any way you can blame this one on Akers. Rather, the protection from Idonije was horrible (judging by his pass rushing snaps, Idonije should’ve been pretty good at keeping his guy directly in front of him and not doing anything).
On defense, the primary complaint that I’ve seen was the inability of the defensive line to get pressure. First of all, Ndamukong Suh was 2nd in the league among DTs in week 2 with 5 QB hurries and Willie Young was tied for 1st in the league in week 2 regardless of position with 6 QB hurries. So they actually did get pressure. However, the Cardinals offense is somewhat similar to the Lions offense in that they like to get the ball out quick. Through 2 weeks, Carson Palmer has taken the 3rd least amount of time to throw in the league with 2.35 seconds per pass attempt. However, unlike the Lions, the Cardinals’ quick passing game doesn’t equate to a short passing game. Carson Palmer leads the league with 72% yard in air (compared to Stafford’s 31.7%). While just 5 of Stafford’s 35 passes on the day traveled 10 yards or further in the air, 20 of Palmer’s 37 passes traveled farther than 10 yards. While he only completed 7 of those throws for 136 yards and a touchdown, he also drew 2 defensive pass interference flags from Bill Bentley for a total of 59 yards, both on eventual scoring drives.
So while the Lions short passing game was hampered by injuries to their most reliable and explosive options, the Cardinals’ intermediate and deep passing game took advantage of one of the biggest weaknesses of the Detroit Lions defense, ultimately proving to be the difference in the game.