Five numbers that need to change in 2014

Posted Jul 1, 2014

Senior writer Tim Twentyman looks at five statistics from the 2013 season that need to improve if the Detroit Lions are going to be successful this year.

The Tampa Bay Buccaneers had an interesting article on their website recently that took a closer look at five numbers from their 2013 season that needed to change in order for them to be a better football team in 2014.

It was a good idea for an article, so I took a look at some numbers from the Detroit Lions' 2013 season and came up with my own top five numbers that need to be better for Detroit to reach its potential this season.

Number: 10.6 percent

What it means: The dropped ball percentage on catchable passes last year

NFL rank: 32

Solution: The drops have been a real problem in Detroit the last couple seasons. Credit quarterback Matthew Stafford for not blowing a gasket due to all the drops, though he’s been visibly frustrated at times on the field by the drops. The Lions have led the NFL in dropped passes the last two seasons.

In his introductory press conference, offensive coordinator Joe Lombardi even addressed the drops as a problem.

One of the things that made Golden Tate so attractive to the Lions in free agency – and ultimately earned him a $31 million contract -- was the fact that he had one of the lowest drop rates in the NFL (5 of 149 catchable passes) over the last four years.

Brandon Pettigrew seemed to get better in that department last year and expect Calvin Johnson’s drops to decrease now that all of his fingers are pointing in the right direction after offseason surgery.

Number: 34

What it means: Number of total giveaways by the Lions last year

NFL rank: 30T

Solution: Opponents ended up scoring 104 points off of those turnovers, or 27.7 percent of all the points allowed by the Lions last year.

Considering the average margin of defeat a season ago for Detroit was just 5.86 points, and one can see how critical some of those turnovers were, especially in the fourth quarter.

One of the things head coach Jim Caldwell is trying to instill in Stafford is a sense of ‘living to play another play.’ Not all of Stafford’s 19 interceptions last year were his fault, but sometimes an incomplete pass and a punt is a better play than trying to make something happen on third down that isn’t there, especially in a close game.

The 15 fumbles lost by the Lions were the second most in the league behind only Denver (16). Running back Reggie Bush accounted for four of those and Joique Bell had three. There seems to be an emphasis this offseason on hanging on to the football in drills and in team settings. Running backs coach Curtis Modkins has let players who fumbled in his drills have it this spring.

Number: 187

What it means: Points scored by opponents outside of the red zone

NFL rank: 32

Solution: Big plays killed the Lions in 2013. The defense allowed the most 50-plus yard runs (5) in the NFL, and the 14 pass plays of 40-plus allowed by the secondary was in the top five.

What makes this number even more devastating for the Lions is the fact that they ranked second in the NFL in defensive red zone scoring efficiency. Opponents scored a touchdown just 38.1 percent of the time they reached the red zone on the Lions defense. Only the Seattle Seahawks were better by allowing a touchdown 36.1 percent of the time.

The red zone defense is an obvious strength of this team, so limiting the big plays and making teams earn their touchdowns certainly plays to Detroit's advantage.

The Lions allowed 74 points on drives that took less than four plays last year. Only two teams allowed more. That’s not good enough.

Defensive coordinator Teryl Austin and Co. are hoping better play from the safety position and a new philosophy on defense will help limit some of the quick strikes from opponents.

Number: 22

What it means: Lions takeaways in 2013

NFL rank: 21T

Solution: The Lions were 3-0 last year when they recorded at least three turnovers in a game. On the flip side, they failed to force a turnover in six games and were 1-5 in those games.

They were 1-2 in games they forced just one turnover and 2-2 in contests they turned the ball over twice. You see the trend I’m getting at here.

The Lions drafted SAM linebacker Kyle Van Noy in the second round as part of the solution. They were looking for “closers” and Van Noy accounted for seven interceptions, 17 forced fumbles and five touchdowns while at BYU.

Kyle Van NoyLB Kyle Van Noy (Photo: Gavin Smith)

They’ve also moved Glover Quin from strong safety to free safety, a move they feel will free him up to make more plays.

Austin is also emphasizing intercepting the football in practice. He doesn’t want to see his defenders knocking passes down. He wants interceptions and we’ve seen a much higher frequency of them in OTAs and minicamp from years past.

Austin is also going to be a more aggressive play caller, and will utilize the blitz more than the previous regime, which he hopes will lead to more sacks and turnovers.

Number: 6.39

What it means: The average yardage gained on first down by opponents

NFL rank: 31

Solution: The Lions need to be a much better defensive team on first down.

That amount of yardage given up on first down opens up too much of the playbook to opposing offenses on second down. It's probably one of the reasons quarterbacks had a 99.4 passer rating on the Lions defense on second down.

Detroit allowed 13 plays of 41-plus yards on first down last year, which was the highest total in the NFL.

They also allowed an average of 5.7 yards rushing on first down. The NFL average was 4.31 yards.

Detroit is changing the responsibilities of their linebackers. They aren’t going to be asked to react as much to what the defensive line is doing in front of them, but rather attack and fill gaps and be more aggressive. That could bode well for their first-down defense.

The Lions were No. 1 in the NFL last year in third-down efficiency on defense, allowing a first down just 30.3 percent of the time. If they continue to be good on third down, and limit the damage on first and second down, they can be a vastly improved defense in 2014.