The first quarter of the 2012 season has been a disaster for the Detroit Lions. With heightened expectations following last season’s playoff appearance, the Lions have failed to live up, and have already lost to two of the weaker opponents on the schedule. Detroit is in serious need of a regrouping effort, and while most teams prefer a later bye week to get rested and healthy, the break in week 5 couldn’t come at a more needed point for the Lions. The team’s fate now hinges on a week-to-week basis, and the break will allow coaches and players to focus on several key issues affecting the team.
The most obvious priority is improving the special teams units. Teams who allow special teams scores rarely win in the NFL. Allowing two per game in consecutive weeks is an unprecedented low for Detroit Lions special teams coordinator Danny Crossman. It is painfully obvious to all, including Vikings head coach Leslie Frazier, that the Lions have some schematic issues, and for some reason Schwartz refuses to make a change. When the scheme is flawed, an upgrade in personnel is necessary to compensate. The Lions may get a small boost with the return of safety Louis Delmas, which will allow John Wendling and Ricardo Silva to focus on their special teams play, where they have proven effective in the past.
The next priority will be tweaking the offensive philosophy. The Lions rely on their offense more than most teams, and need to recapture the explosiveness of 2011. Although Stafford’s completion percentage is elevated over last year, the average yards per completion has drastically decreased. Defenses are forcing the Lions to throw short by playing 2 deep coverage almost exclusively, in an attempt to limit the big play. Defenses are forcing the Lions to earn their yardage in small bits by giving them underneath routes, in order to limit the chunk plays. Stafford has fallen victim to the “take what the defense gives you” mentality and continually checks down to running backs out of the backfield. The Lions need to get back to taking their deep shots in order to stretch the defense, and then take advantage of the underneath routes that open up. Run after the catch yardage becomes increasingly important when throwing shorter passes. It may benefit the Lions to utilize more four receiver sets with Broyles, while Brandon Pettigrew hits the Jugs machine on the sideline.
Detroit also needs to solidify the secondary before heading into Philadelphia. It’s unlikely that any quality free agents are still available, but the return of Louis Delmas will have a significant impact on the defensive backfield. If Delmas is unable to go following the bye, Ricardo Silva provided a slight upgrade in coverage over John Wendling against the Vikings. Coaching up rookie cornerback Bill Bentley will also be a priority for defensive coordinator Gunther Cunningham. The majority of Minnesota’s offense came at the expense of Bentley; in the form of two pass interference penalties and a deep third down completion. The rookie has been solid in coverage but has yet to learn when to turn and look for the ball and play his physical style without being penalized. This process will likely take the entire season, as these skills come with experience, but Bentley should improve each week.
Teams regularly use the bye week to reorganize, tweak philosophies and game plans, and get healthy. Detroit has injuries at key positions with Louis Delmas, Corey Williams, Cliff Avril, and Matthew Stafford all banged up. Those injuries are the ones that the public is aware of, and there are certainly more being kept inside the locker room. No player is ever at 100% during the season, but the Detroit Lions desperately need to get as healthy as possible for week 6, both physically and mentally. Climbing out of this hole will be an arduous battle, as four of the next five are on the road, followed by home games against Green Bay and Houston.