10 QUESTIONS WITH TWENTYMAN: What's causing drop in defensive performance?

Every week during the regular season Tim Twentyman will answer 10 good questions from his Twitter account @ttwentyman in a feature we call “10 Questions with Twentyman.”

20man: T.J. Hockenson has 22 catches on the season, fourth most on the team, so he hasn’t been invisible. Jesse James has just eight catches. Maybe there’s a case there.

I just think quarterback Matthew Stafford is doing a really good job distributing the ball all around, particularly deep down the field, where receivers Kenny Golladay, Marvin Jones Jr., Danny Amendola and Marvin Hall operate more frequently.

I thought this quote was interesting from Stafford Wednesday: “I think our guys are doing a good job of getting behind people and winning downfield, which is giving me confidence to cut it loose to them.”

Golladay, Jones, Amendola, Hall and even J.D. McKissic are playing some really good football right now in the passing game. Golladay and Jones, in particular, have 13 combined touchdowns, tied for the most by any tandem in the NFL right now. They’re winning matchups on the outside and deep down the field, and Stafford has a lot of confidence throwing to them right now.

20man: From my perspective, the core issue on that side of the ball is a defensive line that is underperforming both as a pass-rushing and run-stopping unit. I think the blame falls partly on the players and partly on scheme/play calling. 

Games are won and lost in the trenches, and too many times this year opposing offenses have been able to impose their will on this defense both running the ball and throwing it, for a variety of reasons. Rarely have we seen Detroit’s defensive front, which was supposed to be the strength of the team coming into the season, impose their will on an opponent. That has a trickle-down effect to every other position on defense.

20man: Somebody probably said it before former Lions head coach Jim Caldwell, but I always agreed with Caldwell when he said a team is only as good as its record. Detroit is a 3-4-1 team.

I will say this, however. If Detroit doesn’t call that timeout in Arizona, and if they don't get called for the last hands to the face in Green Bay, maybe you’re feeling a little better about where the team stands at the midway point in the season.

Detroit’s lost three close games and tied another. The only game this season where they’ve been clearly outmatched was Minnesota. It’s a team that competes, but isn’t making enough of the plays that put them over the edge, making them a middle-of-the-road team, which their record indicates.

20man: Offensive coordinator Darrell Bevell used a goal line package at the one-yard line on the last play in Oakland, and Golladay and Jones aren’t a part of that particular package. It’s a play they’ve practiced often down by the goal line and thought would work vs. the look the Raiders showed. Obviously, it didn’t, and because it didn’t, it gets second guessed. Personally, with Stafford playing great all game, I probably would lean more on trusting my playmakers at receiver to win a matchup there, but that’s me being a Monday morning quarterback.

Hockenson has been targeted seven times in the red zone, which ranks in the top 10 among tight ends. Travis Kelce leads the position with 13. The problem isn’t the targets. Hockenson has caught just three of the seven with a lone touchdown. He has a couple drops and one where he stepped out of bounds before making the catch. He’s been targeted down there plenty, he just hasn’t made enough of the plays.

When it comes to Stafford, 3-4-1 teams don’t get a lot of national attention for anything they do that’s positive. That’s just how it is.

20man: Linebacker Jarrad Davis’ play overall this year has been disappointing, and he’d probably be the first person to admit that. He’s had some flashes, but he’s currently the lowest graded player on Detroit’s defense. Davis has particularly struggled against the pass, which has been an area Tavai has been surprisingly good for a rookie. Teams have an 87.5 passer rating targeting Tavai vs. 110.0 targeting Davis.

Tavai has played 68 fewer snaps than Davis and has only one less tackle (32 vs. 31). Tavai played pretty well in place of Davis the first two games of the year when Davis was dealing with an ankle injury.

Davis is a team captain and leader on defense, but maybe it’s getting to be time where we see a little more of Tavai or even Jalen Reeves-Maybin, especially on passing downs.

20man: I’ll refer to Pro Football Focus for this one, and do so based on the average grade per position for the starters/main contributors at those spots.

Defensive line: Trey Flowers, Romeo Okwara, A’Shawn Robinson and Damon Harrison Sr. average out graded 34th at their respective positions vs. their peers. I didn’t factor in Da’Shawn Hand and Mike Daniels because they’ve missed too much time.

Linebackers: Devon Kennard, Christian Jones, Jahlani Tavai and Jarrad Davis average 46th among linebackers.

Cornerbacks: Darius Slay, Justin Coleman and Rashaan Melvin average 69th.

Safeties: Tracy Walker, Will Harris and Tavon Wilson average 41st.

No individual player on defense ranks in the top 10 at their position by PFF grading.

20man: Come on, there's still half the season to go. It’s not over until the math says it’s over.

But my way-too-early-shouldn’t-even-be-answering-this-question answer would be the best defensive playmaker on the board, and it doesn’t matter the position.

20man: The team does make a lot of roster transactions, but it’s mostly bottom of the roster stuff and practice squad moves. That doesn’t affect team chemistry or the locker room too much.

It’s the big ones like trading safety Quandre Diggs this year and acquiring Harrison and trading wide receiver Golden Tate last year that have more of an impact in the locker room, but those deals have been pretty few and far between.

20man: There are a lot of factors that go into the run game that’s more than just the line and the running backs, though that’s a big part of it, certainly. The tight ends and receivers also have to play their part. The quarterback has to get them into the right plays.

But to answer your question, I’d say it's a combination of both. Center Frank Ragnow is the only lineman with a positive run-block grade from PFF. Also, the running backs have to have a little better feel, though I thought McKissic was good running the football last week in Oakland. I wouldn’t be surprised if he gets a few more opportunities this week. I'll also remind you that Chicago is ninth in the NFL against the run, so it could be tough sledding in that department again this week.

20man: There’s a lot of football left to be played, but the Lions have used up nearly all of their mulligans the first half of the season. There’s nothing worse than meaningless December football, so the goal has to be to start stacking wins together starting Sunday in Chicago.

Detroit’s dug themselves a hole that will be hard to crawl out of. They need some wins to start to build the kind of confidence we saw after Week 3 following back-to-back wins over the Chargers and Eagles. Win games and put themselves in a situation where they’re playing meaningful football in December.

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