TIM AND MIKE: Where can the Lions most quickly improve in 2014?

Posted Feb 5, 2014

Tim Twentyman and Mike O'Hara discuss what the Lions can learn from the Super Bowl champion Seattle Seahawks and how the Lions get better quicker this offseason

The Seattle Seahawks are sitting at the top of the NFL, and it’s well deserved after their dominating 43-8 victory over the Denver Broncos in Super Bowl XLVIII.

Now the chase is on for the other 31 teams to catch the Seahawks in 2014 if they want to win a championship. That includes the Lions, who face some changes under new head coach Jim Caldwell and the addition of several assistant coaches.

The big-picture question for all teams is whether the Seahawks have built a model that other teams have to copy if they want to win a Super Bowl.

And how does that affect the Lions?

Mike: They can’t get caught up in figuring out what they have to do to beat the Seahawks. The first step to reaching the top of the mountain is winning the NFC North. They have to beat out the Packers, Bears and Vikings. Everything comes after that.

No matter what personnel moves are made, it doesn’t require any deep analysis to know what has to change first. The Lions have to play smarter, more disciplined football.

Possession of the football is gold in the NFL, and the Lions threw it away like Vegas tourists playing the penny slots. They committed 34 turnovers, tied with Washington for second most in the league, and they were tied with Minnesota for 28th in turnover differential at minus 12.

Matthew StaffordQB Matthew Stafford (Photo: Gavin Smith)

That’s one place where the Seahawks were a model for the Lions to follow. They were No. 1 in takeaways at plus 39 and in turnover differential at plus 20. And with 19 giveaways, only three teams had fewer.

The question is how Caldwell finds the answer to turning that around. Any suggestions?

Tim: Sometimes it’s the plays that aren’t made late in games that can help win a game. Offensively, the Lions can benefit from that train of thought moving forward.

The Lions need to value the football more. Interceptions and fumbles are killers in this league. Teams that won the turnover battle won 81 percent of the time in 2013.

I watched that Super Bowl and saw Seahawks quarterback Russell Wilson manage the game. He moved the chains and took care of the football and took his shots when they were there.

The Lions need to get Matthew Stafford a little more help on the outside part of the field. If they do that, and Calvin Johnson comes back healthy, and Reggie Bush and Joique Bell continue to run the ball effectively, they can be more innovative under new offensive coordinator Joe Lombardi, more disciplined and more effective scoring points – not just gaining yards.

Where can the Lions most quickly improve in 2014?

Mike: No disagreement with your overall analysis, but I put more emphasis on one point when you say they need to get Stafford a little more help on the outside.

A lot more help is needed – for Stafford and Megatron.

The stats prove that, and so did the beating Megatron took all last season because he was the only real threat at wide receiver. He had 1,492 receiving yards and 12 touchdowns. Six others who played wide receiver combined for 1,390 yards receiving and five touchdowns.

Teams run their offenses different and don’t always emphasize the same areas, but the Packers and Bears, who finished ahead of the Lions in the North, got way more support for their leading receiver than the Lions did with Johnson.

Jordy Nelson led Green Bay’s receivers with 1,314 yards. Behind him were James Jones (817), Jarrett Boykin (681) and Randall Cobb (433).

Chicago had a potent one-two combo – Alshon Jeffery with 1,421 yards and Brandon Marshall with 1,295.

Have I made my point – for the umpteenth time?

Tim: You have, Mike. And I agree.

The good thing about the Lombardi hire is he should know better than most what having weapons can do for a quarterback. Drew Brees has had a plethora of weapons the past few seasons in New Orleans, led by receiver Marques Colston, tight end Jimmy Graham and a nice compliment of outside receivers (Kenny Stills, Robert Meachem and Lance Moore) who could make plays down the field. I stress DOWN THE FIELD.

The Saints had four players with at least 70 catches last season and eight players with multiple receiving touchdowns.

Bush and Bell are expected to continue to have a big role in the passing game as Pierre Thomas and Darren Sproles each had more than 70 receptions for the Saints in 2013.

Consider this, too, there’s a better track record of rookie receivers coming into the league and making an immediate impact than there is with cornerbacks.

The top cornerback taken in the draft the past two seasons – Dee Milliner and Morris Claiborne – have each struggled early in their careers.

Some of the early receivers taken in the draft over that span have included Justin Blackmon, Michael Floyd, Tavon Austin and DeAndre Hopkins, who all have made early impacts.

I'd look to add talent at receiver through the draft and maybe fill the void at cornerback with a young veteran in free agency.

Mike: We’ve focused here on two positions – wide receiver vs. cornerback, and about 85 percent of it leaning toward receivers.

What do you think GM Martin Mayhew, Caldwell and the rest of the staff and front office are looking at?

The easy answer is “everything,” but put it in some order. I have my opinion, but you go first.

Tim: My top five looks like this …

1. Outside receiver

2. Free safety

3. Cornerback

4. Linebacker

5. Defensive end/center of the future

Enlighten us with yours.

Mike: I’ll add a kicker – not as a priority but to fill out the list with the expectation that David Akers won’t be back. I wouldn’t care if it’s a strong safety or free safety, as long he has range, has proven to be durable, and plays like his hair is on fire and he wants to put it out on the front of an opponent’s chest.

A strong case can be made for a cornerback, but that player already could be on the roster. Darius Slay, Bill Bentley, Chris Greenwood and Jonte Green all have been drafted in the last two years. It’s time to see if they can develop.

Chris GreenwoodCB Chris Greenwood (Photo: Gavin Smith)

Greenwood is particularly interesting. He was aggressive when he got his first chance to play. He’s worth getting a long, long, long look.

Tim: That was my point, exactly. The Lions have a number of developmental cornerbacks on the roster and it’s time for the team to see if they can play. That can’t happen just in training camp practice.

I thought Greenwood made the most of his opportunities late last year and he’s one player I’m really looking forward to seeing this spring and summer.

Mike, who could be another breakout player in 2014?

Mike: I’ve got two, and you’ve got to hang with me for the explanation.

My two are Stafford and Brandon Pettigrew. Pettigrew’s a free agent, so I’m assuming he comes back.

The tight ends will catch more passes with Caldwell and Lombardi running the offense. That’s been proven over time. Pettigrew had 71 catches in 2010 and 83 in 2011 but dropped to 41 last year. He’ll get more chances this year if he’s back.

Going into his sixth season, Stafford doesn’t qualify as a candidate for a “breakout season,” certainly not with a 41-TD season in 2011 and 29 last year.

But I look for the offense to be more focused and not as free-wheeling as it was. For Stafford, that will translate to higher efficiency. There’s no doubt his arm ranks with the best. Just look for him to throttle back a little this year.