Now that the NFL season is here, I'm putting a twist on my weekly Blogger on Blogger series. Each week, I will enlist a blogger who regularly writes about the Ravens' opponent to help me break down the game. This week, I exchanged emails with Max DeMara, who blogs about the Detroit Lions for Lions101.com.
MV: The Lions were expected to run away with the NFC North after the Green Bay Packers lost Aaron Rodgers and the Chicago Bears lost Jay Cutler. But the Lions have lost three of their past four games and remain tied with the Bears at 7-6. The Packers, who could get Rodgers back this week or next, are a half game back at 6-6-1. What issues have dragged this Lions team down over the past month?
MD: Turnovers, turnovers and more turnovers. Even in victories, the Lions haven't been able to get out of their own way offensively, and have seen sloppy play from quarterback Matthew Stafford creep back in. For the first half of 2013, Stafford managed the offense carefully, but ever since his legendary comeback against the Dallas Cowboys -- which, ironically enough, was necessitated by turnovers -- Stafford and the offense have been putting the ball on the turf or in the hands of the opposition far too much, just like they did in 2012. As recently as a month ago, Detroit was around plus-10 in turnover differential, near the top of the NFC. Now they sit at negative-10, near rock bottom. It's been a stunning reversal. Other than a flimsy secondary, ball security has proven the biggest issue.
MV: What has running back Reggie Bush brought to this offense and how much of a drop-off will there be if he sits out Monday night and Joique Bell gets the start?
MD: Bush has brought the element of consistent breakaway speed to Detroit. The Lions arguably haven't had anyone with Bush's open-field moves and speed in the backfield since Barry Sanders. Jahvid Best looked like that difference-maker, but his career was cut short by concussion issues. With Bush now in the fold, the Lions are tougher to defend because his presence commits extra defenders in the second level in addition to Calvin Johnson. Joique Bell, though he's a solid, bruising runner, simply doesn't command that type of attention, meaning teams can load up on Johnson without Bush and dare Matthew Stafford to beat them with his other, more average targets. That's a chance most teams will gladly take.
MV: The Lions have one of the NFL's best run defenses, but Philadelphia Eagles running back LeSean McCoy ripped off two long scoring runs Sunday and the Eagles as a team rushed for 299 yards. What exactly happened, and is this a big concern for the Lions or do you chalk it up as just one snowy blip on the radar?
MD: During his press conference Monday, Lions coach Jim Schwartz indicated that he believed the Lions' woeful run defense had plenty to do with heavy snow on the field in Philadelphia. Despite that, the Lions did take bad angles on McCoy, tackled horribly and saw their line blown back off the ball. Linebacker DeAndre Levy called the play of his defense "soft" after the game. Were they exposed or did they simply quit given treacherous conditions? The answer to this question probably lies somewhere in the middle, considering how solid the Lions have looked against tough foes like Chicago's Matt Forte and Green Bay's Eddie Lacy in recent weeks on normal fields. It wouldn't be a shock if Ray Rice got things going in Detroit to the tune of a 100-yard game, but the Lions probably aren't as dreadful as they looked on Sunday, either.
MV: Not many teams have slowed down Lions quarterback Matthew Stafford and Calvin Johnson, the NFL's best wide receiver. We won't count the Eagles loss because it was played in a blizzard, but the defenses that have had success against the Lions, what exactly did they do to limit the damage done by those two?
MD: Though their revamped offensive line has proven stingy at times, teams with a solid pass rush can still disrupt Detroit quite easily. If Stafford doesn't have time to throw, he panics and makes poor decisions in the pocket leading to turnovers. The running game, though improved, is often still not consistent enough to take pressure off the passing game. Teams with big, physical, solid cover corners also fare well. Chicago's Charles Tillman and Tampa Bay's Darrelle Revis played Johnson relatively even this year, outside of a few big plays. Jimmy Smith has the size to create a problem, as does Corey Graham. If they're able to get in Johnson's face while finding any kind of a pass rush from Elvis Dumervil and Terrell Suggs, it could be a long night for the Lions.
MV: If the Lions should complete this collapse down the stretch and somehow miss the playoffs, what changes will happen this offseason and which changes should?
MD: What will happen? If the Lions don't make the playoffs, Jim Schwartz probably will get fired. If the team ends up in the postseason, ownership would most likely give Schwartz a pass, being his contract runs through 2015 and the Ford family is loyal. What should happen is a different story. I've maintained that Schwartz should lose his job playoffs or not. Arguably, the Lions have some of the more talented position players in the league, and this season should have been a slam dunk with the NFC North up for grabs. What do the Lions have to show for their talent? A 29-48 record under Schwartz, the same mistakes year to year -- penalties, turnovers -- and a divisional toss-up. It starts at the top. At this point, the team will remain in neutral until an established boss is in the picture. Backing into the playoffs in a season where the Lions should have commanded their division is the final referendum on Schwartz's abilities with this team. With Schwartz at the helm, the Lions will remain in the middle of the NFC pack at best.
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