For the Detroit Lions, their 2011 season represented one for optimism. With a 10-6 regular season record, it represented the team’s first winning season in the 2000’s and a first 10-win season since 1995. A rare postseason game followed after the Lions clinched the NFC Wildcard spot–its first playoff game since 1999–but the excitement was short lived as they lost 45-28 against the New Orleans Saints.
The Lions entered the 2012 season with expectations but things didn’t turn out as they had hoped: They ended the regular season at 4-12 and you couldn’t help but say, looks like the same old Lions.
As the team enters the 2013 season with a clean slate and low expectations, what can they do this season to rediscover their 2011 magic?
It may all start with quarterback Matt Stafford.
In the offseason, the fifth-year quarterback received a three-year extension through 2017. Stafford received $41.5 million in guaranteed money along with a $27.5 million signing bonus, reported ProFootballTalk. If you do the math, Stafford will make around an $18 million average each per season–about the same as the Dallas Cowboys quarterback Tony Romo.
This should be incentive for Stafford as he’ll need to improve from 2012’s numbers. One of his bright spots from the season was his league record-setting 727 pass attempts but that didn’t always translate to wins.
In the offseason, the Lions picked up former Miami Dolphins running back Reggie Bush. Stafford has found success with his backs, especially in 2011, when his completion rate was 63.5 percent versus 2012’s 59.8 percent. With Bush, his pass attempts to this crew should rise as historically, Stafford has completed more than 73 percent of pass attempts to running backs.
On the passing side, sophomore wide receiver Ryan Broyles tore his ACL last December but played well in his rookie season’s three games. Now that he’s healthy, look for the player to step up since Titus Young is gone and Nate Burleson is aging.
Other ways that the Lions can return to their previous success is Stafford can improve his red zone play. With 2012’s 47 percent of pass attempts in the red zone, this gave him a No. 26 league rank. This compared to the NFL’s top 10 quarterbacks having a 61.3 percent completion rate with almost 31 percent converted to touchdowns.
How’d Stafford do? He had an 18 percent conversion rate and a 5 percent interception rate vs. the top group at 2 percent.
Stafford has found red zone success before. According to ESPN, in the 2010 and 2011 seasons combined, he completed almost 52 percent of his red zone pass attempts with 35 touchdowns and three picks. Noting that Stafford played in three games only in 2010, this stat can be broken down to about two touchdowns each game in the red zone over the two years.
Besides a need for elevated play by Stafford, his defensive line needs to step up.
Once considered the team’s strength, in 2012 this unit fell flat. It had a No. 20 ranking in the NFL for total sacks and No. 16 for the most rushing yards.
Defensive tackle Ndamukong Suh was a contributing factor to last year’s fail as he had only eight sacks for the season and for a second straight year, his production continued to decline after his stellar rookie season when he had a monster 66 tackles.
What they can do in 2013 is a question mark. Last season’s tackle leader, Cliff Avril, has left the team as well as defensive end Kyle Vanden Bosch. Defensive tackle Nick Fairley, who is entering his third season, has been disappointing.
Rookie defensive end Ziggy Ansah enters with expectations to help improve numbers but he is green as a pass rusher. Former Chicago Bear veteran defensive end Israel Idonije is also expected to help the team out as well as Jason Jones.
The Lions have found success before but in the NFC North with an improving Minnesota Vikings, the always competitive Green Bay Packers and the questionable Chicago Bears, it will be a challenge. But the time is now as things are going to have to change as the team brings expectations to not revert to the old Lions (see the Matt Millen era).