There were a lot of examples last season that can be used to explain why general manager Bob Quinn and the Detroit Lions felt the need to completely revamp their rushing attack this offseason.
Statistics aside – the Lions ranked last in yards per attempt and yards per game – instances like the goal line sequence vs. the Pittsburgh Steelers in the third quarter of a 20-15 Week 8 loss is just one example that led to Quinn making this comment after the season concluded:
"I think when I look back at our team last year, all those critical situations, like it's goal line, we can't run the ball like half a yard. That bothered me," he said.
The Lions failed to punch it in running the ball from the 4-yard line on 1st down and again from the 1-yard line on 3rd down. They ultimately turned the ball over on downs attempting to pass on fourth down.
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Not being able to convert short-yardage rushing situations was obviously a huge weakness for this team last season, but the fourth-down play in that sequence also exposed a weakness from last season that hasn't received nearly as much attention this offseason.
Quarterback Matthew Stafford couldn't find an open receiver on the play when the Steelers dropped seven men into coverage, and Pittsburgh completely overwhelmed Detroit's offensive line with just a four-man rush.
Whether or not the Lions should have kicked the field goal on 4th down and taken the lead is another debate, but the sack turned the ball back over to the Steelers, and we all remember what happened three plays later: A 97-yard touchdown pass from Ben Roethlisberger to JuJu Smith-Schuster that pushed the lead to 20-12.
The fourth-down sack was one of the 47 times Stafford was sacked last season, second most among NFL quarterbacks behind only Indianapolis' Jacoby Brissett (52). To put that in a bit of perspective, San Diego's Philip Rivers attempted 10 more passes than Stafford last season and was sacked a total of 18 times.
Detroit's ability to stay healthy upfront – the team started 10 different combinations last year – and adapt to the new blocking schemes under offensive line coach Jeff Davidson, are just as important to the passing game and keeping Stafford better protected as it is the Lions becoming a more consistent running football team this upcoming season.
Detroit ranked 27th in the NFL last season in pass blocking efficiency by Pro Football Focus. PFF measures pass blocking efficiency using a weighted formula that combines sacks, hits and hurries (with hits and hurries three quarters the worth) relative to how many snaps an offensive line is in pass protection. The Lions' 75.6 PBE rating was tied with Indianapolis for the fifth worst in the league, and only better than Seattle (75.3), Denver (75.1), Arizona (74.3) and Houston (67.0).
On paper, Detroit seems to have a very capable group upfront in Taylor Decker, Frank Ragnow, Graham Glasgow, T.J. Lang and Rick Wagner to not only improve the run game, but help keep Stafford better protected. The keys are health and consistency.
Quinn has spent a lot of resources on the offensive line since joining Detroit following the 2015 season. He drafted Decker and Ragnow in the first round, spent a third-round pick on Glasgow, and made both Lang and Wagner priority free-agent signings last offseason.
"I think it starts in the trenches," Quinn said after drafting Ragnow back in April. "I think it starts up front. We want to build through the middle of our team, through the offensive line, defensive line and through the middle. And that's kind of what we believe in."
The offensive line plays the biggest role in pass protection, but the tight ends, running backs, receivers, and even the Stafford himself, can help too.
"We have to try and develop the whole player," Davidson said earlier this offseason. "The time that we need to spend on it, it's about balanced, it's about 50-50 both run and pass at this point. We have to get better in every facet of our game.
"It's just as important we're on the same page in the run game as it is in pass protection."