10 Questions with Twentyman: Which rookie has had the biggest impact?

Posted Nov 16, 2012

Lions Insider Tim Twentyman expands on 10 questions from his weekly chat, including: what's been the Lions biggest problem when it comes to winning games and why TE Tony Scheffler hasn't gotten the ball as much as he did last season.

Every week during the season I’ll be participating in a live chat on sponsored by Huntington Bank. I can never get to all the questions in the chat because of the time constraints and the fact that I'm not the world's fastest typist. The nature of online chats don't lend themselves to expansive answers, either.

So, each week, I'll pick 10 good questions that I either didn't get to or would like to expand upon. I might also throw in a few here and there from my Twitter account, @ttwentyman.

Q. What’s the biggest problem with the team in your opinion? What’s keeping us from winning games? From Jrothwell

A. How long do you have?

I’ll just focus on one problem on each side of the ball.

First, with the offense, the Lions haven’t been able to take advantage of what other teams are giving them. Too many times this season the Lions have been given favorable boxes to run against because teams are playing back to prevent the big play in the passing game.

The Lions need some explosive plays in their rushing attack early on in games to make teams change what they do defensively and open up some things down the field. The Lions are the only team in the NFL with a 20-yard run, so teams aren’t scared of it.

Maybe an even more telling stat, the Lions only have two scoring plays of 20-plus yards and they’re both 46-yard receptions by Titus Young.

They’ve had a couple nice rushing games against the Titans and Jaguars, but that’s not good enough. There aren’t any more below-average teams remaining on the schedule.

On the other side of the ball, I think the defensive line hasn’t played up to expectations. There aren’t enough impact plays from the front four and that has a trickle-down effect to the rest of the defense.

When the defense is good – like it was at Philadelphia – the front is the backfield all game and that leads to turnovers.

Q. Which rookie has had the biggest impact so far? From Lee.

It’s obviously between Riley Reiff, Ryan Broyles and Jonte Green, in my opinion.

The Lions have increased Reiff’s workload as a sixth lineman, and he’s had an impact, but it’s not like the Lions are some juggernaut on the ground this season.

Pro Football Focus had a nice stat on Broyles: he’s been targeted 16 times this season with 13 catches, to lead the NFL in WR catch rate (81.3 percent). But 16 targets. That’s not enough for me, yet. Broyles has a potential to be the most impactful by the end of the year, but through nine games, I think it’s Green.

Green has exceeded expectations for a late-round pick and his ability to step in and play because of injuries has been huge for the Lions this year. He’s a very good tackler and hasn’t been exposed as much as you’d expect from a sixth-round rookie.

He’s had an impact.

Q. Which unit's play is hurting us more - the defensive line or the secondary? From Chris

A. The defensive line.

I’d actually argue that the secondary is playing better than most people expected heading into the season. The Lions are allowing 213.4 passing yards per game, which ranks seventh. I know they haven’t faced any of the elite passing teams in the league yet, but you have to also consider they’ve had Louis Delmas for a total of two-and-a-half games all year and have been plugging holes left and right in their secondary the entire season.

We can all agree that the defensive line is supposed to the strength of this team. They're supposed to dominate and make up for some deficiencies in the back end. That has materialized consistently enough for my liking. Okay, they were good against the Eagles, but they completely disappeared last week in Minnesota.

When the front four isn’t getting to the quarterback, the injuries in the back end can be exposed like we saw last week at Minnesota. The Lions rank in the middle of the pack in sacks (20) and have forced only 10 turnovers. Too many resources and too much salary has been dedicated to the defensive line to have those totals.

Teams are trying to neutralize their effectiveness by getting the ball out quick, but it's not good enough. The offenses only get better from here on out.

Q. Why are we not getting the ball to Tony Scheffler as often as we did last year? From Ron

A. Riley Reiff.

The Lions have featured their extra lineman package with Reiff more and more the last few weeks. When they come in with package a tight end leaves the field and in most cases that’s Scheffler.

Scheffler has just four targets over the team’s last two games and in both games Reiff has played more snaps.

Scheffler had eight targets against the Seahawks three weeks ago and with four catches for 46 yards. In that game, Scheffler played 38 snaps to Reiff’s nine.

The two go hand and hand. Less opportunities on the field are leading to less production for Scheffler.

More Reiff on the field means better protection and opportunities in the run game. Lately, the Lions have been choosing to use that package more.

Consequently, Scheffler is still waiting to unveil his first touchdown dance of the year.

Q. How do you see the Lions beating the Packers on Sunday? From Joe

It helps the Packers will be without linebacker Clay Matthews, safety Charles Woodson, cornerback Sam Shield, receiver Greg Jennings and right tackle Bryan Bulaga.

The Lions lost last year’s game at Ford Field because they couldn’t get out of their own way with penalties and dumb plays. They can’t beat themselves on offense, first and foremost.

I think this game comes down to the Lions defensive line, though. The Packers are starting a backup right tackle who’s a converted guard and backup at guard. The Lions defensive line needs to take advantage and dominate.

If Aaron Rodgers has time to throw – it’s over. Plain and simple.

Q. Can the Lions franchise Cliff Avril Again next season? From Tyler Orzech

A. They can but it would probably be cost prohibitive to do so given some of the other contracts currently on the books and the number of players becoming free agents this offseason.

If the Lions wanted to franchise Avril for a second time, they’d have to pay him the average of the top five salaries at the position or 120 percent of his $10.6 million salary this year, whichever is higher.

With safety Louis Delmas, cornerback Chris Houston, linebackers DeAndre Levy and Justin Durant, defensive tackle Corey Williams and offensive tackle Gosder Cherilus, among others, becoming free agents this offseason, the Lions can’t afford that high of a cap hit next year if they want to resign a number of those players back.

Q. I'm not mad at the Lions but I think they should have done more in free agency like the Bears did. We went with what we had last year. Why? Bob from Allen Park

A. This offseason is a perfect example of how drafting high within the old salary structure can effect those teams down the line. The Lions are paying Matthew Stafford and Ndamukong Suh a lot of money as No. 1 and No. 2 picks, respectively, before the new rookie pay scale came into effect.

Stafford signed a six-year, $72 million deal as rookie. By comparison, Andrew Luck, this year’s No. 1 pick, signed a four-year, $22.1 million contract with a fifth-year club option.

Stafford has already been asked to restructure his deal to give the Lions more cap room – which he’s done. The same with Suh, who signed a five-year, $68 million deal. He’s also restructured. No. 2 pick Robert Griffin III signed a four-year, $21.2 million this year.

The Lions didn’t have a lot of cap room to make any significant moves this offseason, partly because of some the large contract they have. It’s not really anyone’s fault, and Stafford and Suh have been worth their draft slots, it’s just a salary cap reality.

The team also took the strategy that they wanted to take care of the players they had (i.e. Calvin Johnson and Stephen Tulloch) who they view as the core of this team moving forward. It was an executive decision.

There wasn’t a whole lot the Lions could do in terms of getting a top-flight free agent as close to the cap as they were.

We’ll see if they employ the same strategy of singing their own players this offseason or if they’ll try a tweak the roster and let some guys walk.

I think there needs to be a combination of both for this team to get better.

Q. Last Sunday was a big divisional game and they came out flat.  With Burelson out, who lights a fire under them. From Guest.

A. Good news. Burleson will be back on the sideline Sunday. I saw him at the facility on Wednesday and he said he’s gotten clearance to be down on the field and was excited about it.

That’s really been the biggest loss for the Lions not having Burleson and safety Louis Delmas in the lineup the last couple weeks. Delmas is just as much that guy for the Lions as Burleson is.

After those two, they don’t really have that high-energy guy on the field during the game. At least not to that extent. Stafford, Johnson and some of the others are good leaders, but they do it in a different way.

Q. If you only had the money for one, whom do you sign? LB DeAndre Levy or S Louis Delmas? From Chad

A. How much money are we talking? That makes a difference? I’d say Delmas, though; strictly because of the position he plays.

Go back a look at all the great defenses over the last 20 years and you won't find one that didn’t have great safety play. It’s become such an important position in the NFL today with how teams are using tight ends and running backs as receivers and the expansion of the pass game in general.

Delmas has to prove he can stay healthy for the Lions to really pay him, but we’ve seen what can happen when the Lions don’t get good play from the safety position.

To me, the Lions need to work to keep Delmas but they also need to get more talent and depth at the safety position. It should be one of the top priorities this offseason.

Note: Levy is having the best season of his career.

Q. Is it too far fetch to think its more than just the injuries that our holding us back at times, and maybe just a lack of focus? From Cam

A. Not at all.

Schwartz says he’ll never use injuries as an excuse. So I won't for the purposes of answering this question.

Injuries didn’t have anything to do with two untimely penalties on Broyles and left tackle Jeff Backus in a loss to the Vikings last week.

Injuries don’t have anything to do with dropped passes.

They don’t have anything to do with jumping offside when the football is lest that three feet from you, either.

Those are just little things in the grand scheme of a 60-minute game, but they add up. This year, they’ve added up to five losses and only four wins.

Compound that with injuries, and there you have it.