These are happy times for one of the NFL’s saddest franchises.
The Detroit Lions enter Week 7 with a 5-1 record that ties them for the best in the sport. They’ve scored the fourth-most points in the league, allowed the 11th fewest, and put themselves in a good position to accomplish the rarest of achievements: an NFC North title, which the club has literally never won. (The Lions’ last division title came in the 1993 NFC Central, a grouping of teams that does not exist anymore.)
Our predictive model gives Detroit an 83.5% chance to win the division and a 92.4% shot at postseason play as a wild card or better.
It’s been the case for a while that the Lions, under huge and very quotable head coach Dan Campbell, have a good vibe emanating from them.
But it’s become clear in the first third of the 2023 season that the Lions also have a lot of good players who are executing a plan that plays to their strengths.
Goff’s Step Forward
Jared Goff has been one of the league’s more maligned quarterbacks for years, and it’s true: He’ll never be Patrick Mahomes or Justin Herbert or Josh Allen. He will probably never even be Matthew Stafford, the quarterback the Lions sent out in the deal that brought Goff back from the Los Angeles Rams.
But Goff has made strides. His 105.1 passer rating is a career high, and he’s posted at or near the best figures of his career in touchdown percentage, interception percentage, passing success rate, and yards per attempt. The QB has improved himself, and the Lions have put him in an advantageous spot to do it.
The Lions have given Goff wide targets to throw at. He has thrown to an open man on 84.6% of his attempts, the fifth-highest mark in the NFL among passers with 50-plus throws. And Goff has been more or less on the money in that favorable environment: His 85.6 well-thrown percentage is also fifth in the league.
In other words, the Lions are giving Goff a margin for error, and he’s not even using it. His 1.06 pickable-pass percentage is the best in the league, and his actual interception rate (1.5%) is eighth. Overall, his QB EVE (yards picked up versus the expected amount) ranks fourth in the NFL – one spot better than Mahomes.
There’s something there for everyone: Goff has been solid and fulfilled the most important QB objective of guarding the ball with his life. He’s also put the ball where it needs to be.
Meanwhile, the Lions have been able to scheme and route-run their way into giving Goff lots of good options when it’s time to throw.
An Unexpected Offensive Identity
The Lions figured to be a ground-and-pound team given Goff’s limitations and their existing roster, and they signaled that intention when they spent a high first-round draft pick on running back Jahmyr Gibbs.
And the Lions still want to play manball. They run the ball on 42.8% of their plays, the fourth most in the league. But they’ve been just OK when toting the rock on the ground, ranking 12th in the league with a run success rate of 35.7%.
Lions runners average just 2.05 yards before contact – eighth worst – despite facing a heavy box (with eight defenders or more) on 45.6% of their plays, which is just under the 46.8% league average. Detroit’s 4.3 yards per run play are just above the 4.1 league average. No matter the abilities of Gibbs or injured veteran David Montgomery, ground yards have been hard to gain.
So Goff’s improvement isn’t a matter of the run game being so dominant that it has made the passing game easier for him. Rather, Goff is playing well and so are his receivers. Despite the Lions’ case of the dropsies (a 5.32 dropped-pass percentage on Goff’s throws, one of the worst in the league), they’ve mostly served Goff well by getting open and squeezing the ball.
Lions pass-catching targets have posted a burn rate of 62.8%, which ranks fifth in the NFL: Six out of 10 times, Goff is throwing to someone who’s shaken off his coverage man. The Lions have thrived on short routes; the average depth of their receiving targets is 7.39 yards, a bottom-10 figure in the league. But they are fourth in yards per pass play, because they complete those passes and get upfield.
The Lions are also fifth in the league in yards at the catch (6.8) and 12th in yards after it (4.7). Wideout Josh Reynolds’ 13.7-yard average at the spot of the catch is sixth in the league, and another Lions receiver, Kalif Raymond, is 26th at 9.9 yards at the catch. Goff has some appealing downfield targets who have allowed the Lions to stretch defenses.
Daring the Pass … and Stopping It
According to our efficiency vs. expected model, the Lions have arrived as one of the league’s elite. Not only do they rank fourth in offensive EVE, they also rank fourth in defensive EVE.
Detroit’s defense faces a pass play on 71.3% of its snaps, second in the league behind the Philadelphia Eagles. Much of this is the result of a choice the Lions have made – specifically, to load up the defense box and make running less enticing.
Detroit plays with a heavy box on 57.5% of its defensive snaps, the third most in the NFL. Offenses have taken a look at that very busy defensive front and decided they’re not interested in running against it. When they have, they haven’t been successful.
The Lions have limited opponents to a 28.7 rushing success rate which is the second-lowest mark in the league behind the Eagles.
What might be most impressive about the defense is how little the secondary has paid for the team’s aggression up front. Despite stacking bodies near the line of scrimmage, the Lions have been steady in coverage: Opposing targets have posted an open rate of 76.3% against them – a few ticks below a 79.1% league average.
The Lions have done a nice job creating chaos by coming out in heavy boxes and then scattering defenders to play the pass, too. They’ve blitzed on just 19.5% of designed pass plays, making them the third least-blitziest team in the league. And they still generate sacks on a respectable 5.7% of opposing drop backs – just below league average – despite the wholesale lack of blitzing.
It turns out that having a menacing pass rusher like Aidan Hutchinson pays dividends. Hutchison leads the NFL in hurries (21) and pressures (28), and is tied for second with six adjusted sacks. Adjusted sacks account for how many times players have gotten to the QB on a sack, even if they weren’t the ones who brought down the quarterback.
The Lions have a plan, but it only works because they finally have enough serious talent to implement it.