Struggling Lions feeling the pressure


Struggling Lions feeling the pressure

ALLEN PARK, Mich. (AP) At this time last year, the Detroit Lions were one of the NFL's most refreshing success stories. With a dynamic young roster and a rejuvenated fan base, the franchise was in the middle of a long-awaited breakthrough that ended with its first playoff berth in a dozen years.

That seems like a long time ago now. The excitement of 2011 has been replaced by frustration, inconsistency - and a growing sense that the Lions are running out of time if they want to avoid taking a clear step back.

With the season slipping away, Detroit returns home for a crucial three-game stretch at Ford Field, starting with Sunday's game against Green Bay.

``This is huge,'' linebacker Stephen Tulloch said. ``I've been in a lot of situations, but this situation here is very important for us.''

At first glance, the Lions (4-5) seem to be right in the thick of the postseason race with plenty of time remaining. If the season ended today, there would be a tie between Seattle and Minnesota for the last NFC wild card spot - and the Lions have only one more loss than those teams.

But although Detroit plays five of its last seven games at home, the schedule is looking like quite a gauntlet. The Lions play Green Bay both home and away, and also host Houston, Atlanta and Chicago. That would be a tough stretch for anybody, especially a Detroit team that's in last place at the moment in the NFC North.

That makes the home games - specifically this next stretch against the Packers, Texans and Indianapolis Colts - very important.

``Playing only three home games in our first nine is tough,'' quarterback Matthew Stafford said. ``Hopefully Ford Field will be rocking.''

Detroit fans developed an impressive reputation last year, forcing false start penalties and giving the Lions a real home field advantage in a city that hadn't seen much good football over the years. Stafford and his teammates could use an atmosphere like that this weekend, but if Detroit falls behind early, it's fair to say there will be a good deal of anxiety in the air.

And if there's one thing the Lions have been consistent at this season, it's falling behind early. They've trailed at halftime in every game but one.

``We certainly want to be aggressive on offense. We want to score touchdowns and those things but you need to combine that with making good decisions and not turning the ball over, too,'' coach Jim Schwartz said. ``A lot also depends on how well you are running the football and how that is affecting coverage too as far as getting the offense jump started. ... However we do it, we just have to get in the end zone more in the first half.''

Detroit's offense seemed to have a particularly bright future coming into the season, with Stafford and star receiver Calvin Johnson the two headliners. But Stafford has thrown only 11 touchdown passes after finishing with 41 last season. Too often, the Lions haven't seemed to click until it was late in the game and they were trying to rally for a win.

``This team feels like they're never out of it, no matter what,'' Stafford said.

It's still too early to panic, but each setback from here on out will be significant, and the Lions will have to play some of their best football of the season to finish strong against elite competition.

``We've got to come together the way we know how to play,'' Tulloch said. ``Guys understand that.''

NOTES: DT Ndamukong Suh was credited a sack for a 7-yard loss from last weekend's game at Minnesota after a review by the Elias Sports Bureau. In the third quarter, a 7-yard loss by Vikings QB Christian Ponder was originally ruled a rush and was later determined to be a pass play. ... DL Cliff Avril didn't practice Wednesday because of what was listed as a back injury, but says he's making good progress after suffering a concussion last weekend. ``I feel great,'' he said. ``I'm ready to get things going.''

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The NBA All-Star pregame introductions were, uh, something

The NBA All-Star pregame introductions were, uh, something

Whoever put together the NBA All-Star Game player introductions has some 'splainin to do. 

The NBA introduced a kinda-full Staples Center to their 2018 All-Stars about an hour ago, and boy was it weird. There were a lot of dancers in different themed costumes. Kevin Hart was screaming. Rob Riggle was screaming. Ludacris showed up? Hey! Did you know that the Barenaked Ladies are still a band? The NBA would like you to know they're still around.  The whole thing was like when you're at an art museum and you're told that abstract piece in the corner is actually really meaningful but you gotta be honest, you don't get it. 

Anyways, the internet hated it. Here are some highlights from the internet hating it:

The lesson here is that you never need Kevin Hart and Rob Riggle. One will do. 

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Need to Know: Tandler's Take—Drafting a running back early not a cure-all for Redskins' ground game

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Need to Know: Tandler's Take—Drafting a running back early not a cure-all for Redskins' ground game

Here is what you need to know on this Sunday, February 18, 24 days before NFL free agency starts.

Tandler’s Take

The topic for today’s post comes from Twitter:

When I asked for topics for this post, the subject of the running game came up with several of them. And since John brought up the draft, let’s look at that as a potential solution.

Let’s first establish that the Redskins’ running game was not good enough last year. I don’t need to spend a bunch of time on this but here are some numbers. They were 28th in rushing yards and 29th in yards per carry. If you like to weigh more complete metrics, they were 28th in rushing DVOA. If you want to look at a key situation, they were last in the league in yards per first-down rushing attempt. Last year a team gained 100 yards rushing or more 274 times. The Redskins got there five times.

I’m going to leave it at that here since, again, if you’re reading this you probably watched a lot of their games and you don’t need to be persuaded that the running game was largely unproductive. Yes, there were injuries that had the offensive linemen playing snaps just days after being signed and the broken leg suffered by Chris Thompson and Rob Kelley’s various ailments. But the Redskins haven’t ranked higher than 19th in rushing yards since Jay Gruden became the head coach. Rushing game struggles are an ongoing issue.

I am going to work on the premise that those who advocate having the Redskins improve their running game via the draft are talking about drafting a running back in the first or second round. That may be overgeneralizing but that gives me a good-sized chunk of data to work with and still be able to analyze it in the 1000 words or so I am allotted here.

I’m also going to call a 1,000-yard season the minimum that would be expected out of a back drafted in the first two rounds. There are other ways a back can contribute, of course, and we can deal with them separately.

From 2010-2017, there were 45 thousand-yard rushing seasons by players who entered the league during those years (all data via the indispensable Pro Football Reference unless noted). Twelve of them were accomplished by players drafted in the first round. Six came from second-round picks, six from third-rounders, four from the fourth, three from the fifth, four from the sixth and none from the seventh. Oh, and there were 10 thousand-yard seasons that came from undrafted players.

It should be noted that four of those seasons from undrafted players came from the Texans’ Arian Foster. And two each came from LeGarrette Blount and BenJarvus Green-Ellis. So those 10 thousand-yard seasons should not be seen as an indication that there is a treasure trove of running back talent going undrafted every year.

Back to the first and second rounders, the combined 16 thousand-yard seasons doesn’t mean much in isolation. How many backs were drafted in the first two rounds in that time? How many opportunities have they had to post big seasons?

In the past eight drafts, 34 running backs were drafted in the first and second round. That group has had 170 opportunities to post a 1,000-yard season. What I mean by opportunities is the number of seasons that have elapsed since the player was drafted. The six backs drafted in the first two rounds in 2010 have each had eight chances to gain 1,000 yards in a season so they have combined for 48 opportunities (6*8). There were five backs drafted in the first and second seven seasons ago, so there have combined for 35 opportunities, and so on. Through the eight years that adds up to 170 seasons.

The combined 16 thousand-yard seasons in 170 opportunities comes to a success rate of 9.4 percent when it comes to reaching the bar that most fans would set as the minimum.

A couple of things need to be pointed out here. There are some backs like Giovani Bernard, Shane Vereen, and Christian McCaffrey who do not have any big rushing seasons on their resumes but have been valuable catching passes out of the backfield. And some like Dalvin Cook, who was injured after a promising start last year, and McCaffrey seemed destined to have 1,000-yard seasons in their futures. So all of the backs who have not gained 1,000 yards in a season are not necessarily draft busts or failures.

But here are first-round running back busts, just like there are busts at every position. There were 12 running back picked in the first round of the past eight drafts. Javid Best, David Wilson, and Trent Richardson clearly were disappointments (the former two struggled with injuries). Doug Martin, Ryan Mathews, and C.J. Spiller have had some success but perhaps not enough to justify being first-round picks. It took Mark Ingram a while, but he got rolling in his sixth NFL season. I want to see more out of McCaffrey before judging him and Melvin Gordon needs to continue his upward trajectory. It’s safe to say that even with small sample sizes of data in the books on Ezekiel Elliott and Leonard Fournette they were home runs. So was Todd Gurley.

So out of 12 first-round backs in the last eight years, you have three clear busts, three moderate disappointments, four top-level performers (including Ingram) and two TBD.

In any case, it’s clear that just drafting a back early is not a panacea for a struggling running game. Blocking (from both the line and the receivers and other backs), play calling, scheme, and some intangible factors like attitude (as Brian Mitchell will tell you) all play into the success and failure of moving the ball on the ground.

Stay up to date on the Redskins. Rich Tandler covers the team 365 days a year. Like his Facebook page Facebook.com/TandlerNBCS and follow him on Twitter @TandlerNBCS.