I scheduled a physical this Wednesday for the first time in three years, where I’m sure to be a perplexing case for my physician when he finds all my vital signs falling in the normal range with the exception of my blood pressure.

Watching the Lions this year will unfortunately have this effect on most fans. For good or worse, the current version of this team tends to make Sundays interesting with their knack for snatching victory from the jaws of defeat (which might be a decent nickname for their defense) or vice versa. Sunday’s win against the surging Redskins was the Lions’ third in a row, and though we can hardly call it a complete victory, there were some encouraging signs that point to a team that has started to figure out its identity seven weeks into the season. Here are the main takeaways from another sweat-it-out game in Detroit:

  1. Cooterball continues to find success

Like most Detroit fans, I am obligated to mention the name Jim Bob Cooter as many times as possible, and he has made it easy with the continued success of his offensive scheme. Matt Stafford’s statistics in the Cooter era have been covered ad nauseam, but an underrated aspect of the Lions’ attack centers on Cooter’s ability to design plays that take advantage his tackles’ athleticism. Both rookie Taylor Decker and Riley Reiff have shown they’re capable of shedding their first block to engage defenses on the edge of sweeps and quick passes:

Reiff (71) pulls a block on the edge to spring Zenner for a big gain
Reiff (71) pulls a block on the edge to spring Zenner for a big gain

Detroit is still a few area codes away from having something resembling an effective running game–which I will talk about in greater detail below–but it is doing just enough on the ground to prevent defenses from going all in on pass rushes. It will be interesting to see if/how Cooter changes his philosophy as Justin Forsett becomes more familiar with the playbook, which brings me to point 2.

2. Justin Forsett needs to be more involved in the offense as soon as possible

Forsett is currently averaging fewer yards per carry than Zach Zenner, but factor in the limited sample size and game tape comparisons of both runners and you can see the clear conclusion here.

There are many phrases to dress up the type of runner that Zenner is, and I believe the Fox broadcasters used nearly all of them during the game–a real coach’s son, hard worker, does the dirty work, etc.–but at the end of the day, we have a back-up to a back-up who became the beneficiary of the Lions’ injury woes at his position. Zenner doesn’t have the power to run consistently between the tackles, speed to break a gain on the outside, or craftiness to make positive plays when blocking doesn’t develop perfectly around him. He is a serviceable player, but it’s unfair and unrealistic to expect him to shoulder any kind of legitimate offensive burden.

Forsett has been eased slowly into Cooter’s strategy, but you can already see where the dynamic is trending: in his first game as a Lion, Forsett had only 5 yards and was out-touched 16 to 5 by Zenner. A week later against the Redskins, the two backs basically split the workload 50:50. Forsett simply runs with a more intriguing burst, and if I’m Jim Bob Cooter I want to see what the 31 year-old has left in the tank after he was released twice by the Ravens this year.

3. The secondary needs help

Darius Slay going down on Sunday won’t make this an easier task, but the Lions already had a pressing need to shore up their pass defense. Quandre Diggs has given turnstiles a bad name this year at nickel; per Pro Football Focus, he’s allowed an 87.5 (!) percent completion rate and 146.5 opposing quarterback rating this year. As a result, the defense is extremely susceptible to midrange throws down the middle of the field, and it’s no coincidence that agile possession receivers like Jamison Crowder are consistently able to get separation off the line. Perhaps with this in mind, Teryl Austin has employed a “bend but don’t break” strategy that has generally taken away the big plays downfield, but there were still several opportunities dropped in Kirk Cousins’ lap on Sunday that became narrow misses.

The Lions have another reasonably good match-up next week against a Brock Osweiler going through an existential crisis after the Denver game, and I’d expect more of the same defensive scheme–especially if Slay doesn’t return in time. With how Osweiler performed against pressure on Monday night, though, it might make more sense to dial up a higher rate of blitz packages, but of course that will mean leaving receivers in single coverage. I do not envy Austin’s choices here.

4. The win rate is unsustainable

We’re not going to get the gift of facing a drunk Matt Jones every week, and Cousins missed at least three or four throws that could have instantly changed the complexion of the game. This also marks the fourth straight game that the Lions were out-gained in total yardage, so you would assume that at a certain point the pendulum of luck is going to swing back into the other direction. Still, there is something weirdly comforting about watching Stafford and the offense operate within one score late in the fourth quarter. This team is probably going to be within shouting distance of a wild card spot the rest of the year, and predictably its fans will have to suffer along the journey.

 

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