The 2015 Detroit Lions: Simplicity Matters


Through the first eight games of the 2015 season, the Detroit Lions were a colossal disaster in almost every way imaginable. Changes were made and they have now won three games in a row, but lost in the winning streak is how the concept of simplification has dramatically helped to put players in a position to make plays.

The Lions have simplified aspects of their approach on both sides of the ball, in some cases by default. What is clear is that the “we’re smarter than everyone else” manner they took into the start of the season was an utter failure, specifically on offense.

Looking at this team through the first half of the season was like watching a runway train, knowing a disastrous crash was happening without any ability to stop it. In the NFL, the wreck happens when coaches and personnel people don’t have the ability to see the strengths and weaknesses in their own players.

There are multiple problems with the “train crash” concept. First, if we could see the slow motion crash occurring, what was happening in Allen Park that they didn’t see it? Was it that they refused to see it for what it was? Second, and the more important part here; If this team gets itself back on those familiar tracks can we trust this staff to get themselves off the track?

There are many examples of the Lions coaches not understanding what their players can do well, and more importantly, their refusal to understand what their players can’t do well. Players need to play at their strengths and not at their weaknesses. There are too many to examples of this to list here.

Offensive coordinator Joe Lombardi is gone, and so is the constant shuffling of personnel on a play-by-play basis. All of the substituting came at the expense of their offensive rhythm and tempo, and it really hurt the play of quarterback Matthew Stafford. I’d argue that it should be a priority to keep your quarterback in a position to succeed, and most of what Lombardi did was to make his quarterback uncomfortable. Again, this is but one example and there are many others.

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Many players have benefitted as the Lions have simplified their approach on offense and defense, but one has emerged as a primary beneficiary of this new plan. Cornerback Darius Slay has played remarkably well over the past month. Slay is emerging as one of the better cornerbacks in the game, and the reasons for his great play over the past month are intriguing, but they bring up a few questions of their own.

The Lions played veteran cornerback Reshean Mathis on one side of the field and Slay on the other side and that’s how they deployed their cornerbacks to defend opposing offenses. However, when Mathis was injured and placed on injured reserve, the Lions scrambled to figure a solution on defense.

After the bye in Week 9, the Lions traveled to Green Bay where they hadn’t won since 1991. The Lions came out with a different plan against Green Bay and they allowed Slay to stay locked up on outside receiver James Jones. In Week 10, he locked up Raiders rookie wide receiver Amari Cooper and went with him all over the field.

In both games, these players were all but eliminated from the game as Slay dominated these matchups. It is much easier to play defense when the opposition’s best weapon gets mitigated and is a non-factor.

The move to have Slay lock up the opposition’s No. 1 receiver has played into his confidence in a very positive way. Slay is one of those guys that needs to play with a lot of confidence and giving him the understanding that he is THE player responsible for covering the other team’s best receiver plays into that confidence.

Also, simplifying things for him is a very smart move. Slay doesn’t have much to figure out before the snap as he knows the player he’s covering and it keeps him playing instinctually instead of thinking his way through plays.

The move to get Slay locked on the other teams’ No. 1 receiver has helped all over the field as the Lions have played very good defensive football since the bye-week in Week 9. The Lions are eliminating the offense’s best weapon with Slay, and that’s also allowing others to flourish.

However, it is hard to credit the Lions for making this change on defense as they were forced to go in this direction. Yes, they’ve played great defensive football since the bye, but defensive coordinator Teryl Austin would have matched up Slay and company like this earlier in the season if he knew this was coming.

The reality is that the Lions have found themselves in a very fortunate position and some of the talent on this team is shining through. The lesson here is that most often, simpler is better and we are seeing evidence of this on both sides of the ball.