Detroit Lions Positional Analysis: Pass Protection


It is no secret that the Lions’ offensive line this year has been bad. Atrocious, abysmal, and in no way adequate are perhaps better descriptors for an offensive line that has given up the 5th most quarterback hits in the NFL at the time of this writing. There was some hope for improved offensive line play to begin the year after the Lions traded down in 2015’s NFL Draft to select guard Laken Tomlinson and acquire an experienced interior lineman in Manny Ramirez.

However, combining former coordinator Joe Lombardi’s unnecessarily complex blocking schemes with inexperienced protection callers, turnstiles at the right tackle position, and a quarterback that is sub par in detecting pressure have turned out to be a recipe for disaster.

This poor play has been clearly visible to the Lions fan base, and that has caused an urge to dig a little deeper into how pass play under pressure impacts performance across the league. Let us preface this analysis by saying there is obviously a lot that goes into winning football games. There are three phases. Balanced offense, stout defense, and mistake-free special teams play are all keys to winning.

The analysis we are about to do keys on just one facet of the above phases. Let us look at the sack statistic and how it relates to wins. There are multiple factors that go into a quarterback sack, such as the skill of pass rushers, the schemes and protections called, the skill of the offensive linemen and the awareness of the quarterback.

The below scatter plot is a look at sacks allowed as they relate to win percentage. Though it is not a perfect correlation, there are a number of things that one can deduce from the below chart.

Sacks Allowed and Win Percentage – Data Source:

Immediately visible are four different quadrants on the chart. One of these quadrants, which represents teams with over 22 sacks and over 60% win percentage, is nearly completely empty. The lone team to occupy this space is Minnesota, which unsurprisingly possesses one of the game’s best running backs to ever play as well as a fantastic defense to make up for spotty pass protection.

From that quadrant being primarily empty, one could argue that there is a certain maximum number of sacks per game a team can allow in order to win.

The top left quadrant is littered with the teams you see at the bottom of power rankings. These teams have allowed over 22 sacks and have under 60% win percentage. Cleveland, Tennessee, Jacksonville and San Francisco all reside at the high and left edge of the analysis. Detroit was there before last week. That means they are the most oft-losing and oft-sacked teams. Further, once Detroit fell under the threshold, they did something they hadn’t done in over two decades, which is of course win at Lambeau Field.

Nov 15, 2015; Green Bay, WI, USA; Detroit Lions quarterback Matthew Stafford (9) greets Green Bay Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers (12) following the game at Lambeau Field. Detroit won 18-16. Mandatory Credit: Jeff Hanisch-USA TODAY Sports

Moving down to the teams with less than 22 sacks and less than 60% win percentage, one could argue that the teams in the bottom left quadrant are progressing in the right direction. Dallas, Chicago, St. Louis, Oakland, and both New York teams, for example, have stayed under 22 sacks to this point this year and are generally seen in the middling area of power rankings.

Finally, the bottom right quadrant are teams that we hear about as Super Bowl contenders. Also somewhat unsurprisingly, these teams are peppered with elite quarterback play. However, teams with quarterbacks deemed as above average or good also reside here. Cincinnati, Atlanta, Arizona, Carolina, and today’s Denver could all be argued to have good, but not elite, quarterback play.

The common factor here is protecting those quarterbacks. Every team in this quadrant has under 22 sacks on the year. With better protection, teams can thrive. With less drives killed per game due to sacks, obviously there are more opportunities to score. With less sacks allowed come more wins.

More from SideLion Report

Again, the correlation is not perfect, but it is still telling. There are also a few outliers whose eliminating would help strengthen the correlation. San Diego’s offensive line and receiving corps, for example, have been devastated with injury. Dallas lost their starting quarterback for an extended stretch which led to resorting to Brandon Weeden. Baltimore’s passing weapons coming into the year, Steve Smith and Breshad Perriman, have also been injured. If we were to move those teams down and to the right for these reasons, the correlation becomes stronger.

Undoubtedly, Detroit has some talent along their offensive line. Matthew Stafford has been good when he’s had time to throw. Riley Reiff, Larry Warford, and Laken Tomlinson are all guys who I think can bring long-lasting success to the Lions. Nevertheless, the two most important positions on the line when it comes to pass protection are two of the weakest links, and it’s time for the organization to stop trying to take the square peg, round hole approach with the line as a unit.

Apr 30, 2015; Chicago, IL, USA; Laken Tomlinson (Duke) poses for a photo with NFL commissioner Roger Goodell after being selected as the number twenty-eight overall pick to the Detroit Lions in the first round of the 2015 NFL Draft at the Auditorium Theatre of Roosevelt University. Mandatory Credit: Dennis Wierzbicki-USA TODAY Sports

Riley Reiff would have always been better on the right side. Larry Warford and Laken Tomlinson are both better in power blocking schemes, which hopefully we will see utilized with changes Jim Bob Cooter is bringing. That being said, the center and left tackle positions are holes at this point. Travis Swanson was likely overdrafted for where he is in terms of strength and playcalling. Assuming the Lions would swing Reiff over to the right side, this leaves the left tackle spot ripe for upgrade.

In some of my next articles we will look at the run blocking game and at how some of the best NFL teams fill offensive line gaps with regards to investment. Also needed is an exploration of how the Lions can address those gaps to determine the interim or future GM’s path to success.