Dave Birkett Detroit Free Press
Published 10:22 AM EST Nov 25, 2018
With five games left in the regular season, the Detroit Lions are all but out of the NFC playoff hunt.
They host the Los Angeles Rams next week, have two winnable road trips to Arizona and Buffalo after that, and close the season with tough division games against the Minnesota Vikings and Green Bay Packers.
A 5-0 record in those games would be nice, but is improbable. An 0-5 record would help the Lions’ draft positioning, but that would further stain Matt Patricia’s first year as head coach and offer no positive momentum heading into a crucial offseason.
More likely, the Lions end up somewhere in between those two extremes, and most important of all is that they show some growth on the field.
With that in mind, here are five things I want to see from the Lions over the final five weeks:
1. Continued improvements on run defense
The Lions were downright terrible against the run the first two months of the season, but they’ve been pretty damn good of late. In games against the Chicago Bears (twice) and Carolina Panthers, the Lions have allowed a total of 148 yards on the ground. That’s fewer yards than they’ve allowed in four games this season, and best in the NFL in that span (entering Sunday’s games).
Damon Harrison’s acquisition has been a big part of the Lions’ recent success against the run, but he’s not the only reason for the turnaround. The Lions are getting better collective play from their linebackers, and they’ve turned off the spigot on the big play.
The Lions have not allowed a run longer than 10 yards in the last three games, a sign that players are getting more comfortable in a defense that looked overwhelmed to start the season.
2. More of the young DBs
There are two young defensive backs in particular, safety Tracy Walker and cornerback Mike Ford, who warrant longer looks.
The Lions spent a third-round pick on Walker, but he’s seen only spot duty on defense (about 18 percent of the snaps) as the Lions’ fourth safety. With Glover Quin on the decline, there’s a chance, though, that Walker could be headed for a much bigger role in 2019. He’s long, athletic, he’s flashed on special teams, and it’s time to get him a few more defensive snaps so the Lions can better evaluate how aggressive they need to be in addressing the safety position this offseason.
Ford played well enough at the end of the preseason to earn a practice-squad spot as a developmental nickel cornerback and safety, but he’s been pressed into duties at outside corner the last two weeks and held his own. An undrafted rookie out of Southeast Missouri State, Ford has done everything right to get to this point and he’s worth getting more seasoning as the Lions look toward the future.
3. A healthy Kerryon Johnson
Johnson is one game into what’s expected to be a multiple-week absence from the knee injury he suffered Nov. 18. There’s no point in rushing him back, not with the playoffs a distant speck on the horizon, but if he can return to the field healthy for the final few games, and run like he did before his injury, that’d bring huge peace of mind to the organization.
Johnson was the Lions’ MVP the first 10 games of the season, but he did enter the NFL with an extensive injury history. Regardless of what he does the rest of the year, I’m of the belief that the Lions need to address the running back position again this offseason and find themselves a capable backup.
4. The old Matthew Stafford
Stafford has been nowhere near the Lions’ biggest problem this season, but he also hasn’t played as well as he did in previous years. He’s the quarterback now and for the foreseeable future, and the Lions need to get him performing at a high level again.
Maybe that’s with better protection up front, maybe that’s by letting him take some shots downfield once he has his full complement of weapons, or maybe that doesn’t come until the offseason with a coordinator change. But after another physically and mentally draining year, Stafford could use some positive vibes this holiday season.
Three of them. The Lions aren’t going to beat the Los Angeles Rams next Sunday. They might lose by two touchdowns. But they better go on the road and beat both the Arizona Cardinals and Buffalo Bills, who are two of the worst teams in the NFL, and it’d be nice if they could win a division game, too.
Clearly, I don’t believe in tanking, not unless you need a quarterback and are in line to land an Andrew Luck-type with the No. 1 pick. But after a tough transition to Patricia, this organization needs to give its fans, locker room and pending free agents everywhere some reason for hope. There’s not much right now at 4-7, and I fear what a disastrous December would mean for 2019 and beyond.
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