The thought seemed outlandish a month ago, when the Lions were sitting at 1-7, but a three-game winning streak behind a revamped offense and a surging defense has Jim Caldwell's squad looking like a party crasher heading down the stretch in 2015. I took some time to dig into the All-22 Coaches Film in an attempt to figure out what's behind the Lions' hot streak -- and I came up with the following reasons that Detroit is the opponent no one wants to face:
1) Matthew Stafford is finally playing like a franchise quarterback.
Any quarterback selected with a No. 1 overall draft pick and signed to a lucrative extension before his rookie deal is completed is expected to provide the kind of stellar play from the pocket that could reverse the fortunes of a franchise. Yet, for most of Stafford's seven-year career, he has merely teased Lions officials with his spectacular arm talent and gunslinger mentality.
Yes, Stafford posted at least 4,000 passing yards per season in the four years heading into 2015, compiling a touchdown-to-interception ratio of 112:64 over that span. But he also has yet to lead the Lions to a playoff win (0-2 career postseason record), and his suspect management skills have been a major issue. From his lackadaisical ball security to his questionable judgment under duress, Stafford's penchant for critical errors and turnovers frequently undermined Detroit's offensive efforts and forced the Lions' defense to play at a disadvantage (defending short fields).
Stafford's carelessness and inefficiency contributed greatly to the Lions' horrendous start to 2015. Not only was he off the mark on the short and intermediate throws that were staples in then-coordinator Joe Lombardi's offense, but Stafford continued to struggle with turnovers in critical moments. The veteran reached a nadir in Week 5 against the Arizona Cardinals, benched after a three-interception effort that led some to question whether he would ever become a quarterback capable of playing "winning football" in a wide-open offense.
From Week 6 on, however, Stafford has shown that he's a franchise quarterback with the core traits needed to be a consistent winner in this league. Consider the improvements in touchdown-to-interception ratio (14:4 in Weeks 6 through 12; 6:8 in Weeks 1 through 5) and passer rating (104.0 after Week 6, up from 74.8 in Weeks 1 through 5). He is more decisive within the pocket, delivering the ball quickly before the pass rush gets to his feet. In addition, Stafford is utilizing every area of the field, which forces opponents to respect each of the Lions' perimeter playmakers. Most importantly, he is taking better care of the football and eliminating the negative plays that lead to losses against quality opponents.
Having looked at the All-22 Coaches Film, I believe Stafford's success is tied directly to the Lions' increasing use of spread and empty formations from shotgun alignments. In addition, the Lions are featuring more vertical concepts and other route combinations (options, seams, comebacks, drags and bubbles) that were staples of the offense during Stafford's best seasons (from 2011 to 2013). Stafford is comfortable pushing the ball downfield on an assortment of seams and boundary routes, and he's been able to deliver more "explosive" plays and increase his yards-per-attempt figure (he posted 8.06 and 8.87 in wins over Oakland in Week 11and Philadelphia in Week 12, respectively).
In the video clip to the right, Stafford delivers a perfect strike to Calvin Johnson for a 25-yard score shortly before halftime of last Thursday's win over the Eagles. On first glance, the pinpoint ball placement stood out to me, but I was ultimately more impressed with Stafford's decisiveness and eye manipulation. He holds the safety by staring down the seam route to the right before firing a dart along the boundary to the left. This is textbook quarterback play from the veteran. The Lions must make every attempt to build around the gunslinger's strength as a playmaker.
With the Lions using a more aggressive game plan featuring more deep shots and "catch-and-run" concepts, the team has helped Stafford rediscover his mojo while also adding some sizzle to an offense that's starting to find its identity down the stretch.
2) Jim Bob Cooter has unleashed the Lions' playmakers.
For all of the tasks that fall at the feet of an offensive coordinator, the most important job of the play designer is to create a series of game plans that allow the team's top playmakers to get the ball within their sweet spots on the field. While this sounds like an easy task from afar, Lombardi struggled getting the ball to his electric playmakers on the perimeter. Cooter, who replaced the fired Lombardi in October, has not only identified the Lions' top targets (Johnson, Golden Tate and Theo Riddick), but he has cleverly crafted a game plan that ideally suits the strengths of each player's game.
I've come away from my review of All-22 Coaches Film impressed with how Cooter has deployed the Lions' most explosive weapons at various alignments. Johnson and Tate have been positioned on the outside or in the slot in spread and empty formations, which puts tremendous stress on the defense when attempting to bracket or double-cover receivers on the perimeter. Riddick has been deployed as a "dot" back or as a slot receiver in various sets designed to create mismatches on the perimeter.
CALVIN JOHNSON, WR
The ninth-year pro has amassed six 1,000-yard seasons and 80 career touchdown catches as the focal point of the Lions' offense. Measuring 6-foot-5 and 237 pounds with long arms and an explosive vertical, Johnson is a matchup problem whenever he faces one-on-one coverage on the perimeter. He excels at running the dig (deep over), comeback, go-route and slant routes from an outside position. Although the Lions will move him around to create mismatches in space, the perennial Pro Bowler remains one of the most difficult receivers to defend in the game.
Since taking over as the play caller, Cooter has given Johnson more opportunities to make plays in the vertical passing game. He has routinely instructed Stafford to target the big-bodied pass catcher on deep balls along the boundary and in the red zone. In the video clip to the right, of Johnson's 4-yard touchdown grab in last Thursday's win, Johnson wins on a simple fade route against one-on-one coverage on the edge. The veteran's superior size, strength and athleticism give him a significant advantage over most defenders, and Cooter's willingness to feature jump balls in the game plan has helped the Lions ignite their offensive attack.
GOLDEN TATE, WR
The Pro Bowler is one of the most explosive "catch-and-run" artists in the NFL. He is a dynamic runner with the ball in his hands who exhibits outstanding balance and body control in traffic. Most importantly, Tate is a sneaky playmaker adept at running through arm tackles in the open field. Given his strengths as an electric runner, Tate is at his best running bubble screens and under routes on the outside. He has a knack for turning short passes into big gains, which is essential to running an efficient offense in today's pass-happy league.
In the play below, from Detroit's win over the Green Bay Packers in Week 10, the Lions put Tate on the move on a crossing route to take advantage of his running skills. The veteran aligns on the outside of a trips bunch formation. He is running a drag route as part of a flanker drive concept. Tate cleverly uses a pair of picks to shake the defender assigned to cover him man-to-man. Stafford quickly spots his top target open and delivers the ball. The diminutive playmaker weaves through traffic on his way to a 43-yard gain (TO VIEW THE PLAY, SCROLL LEFT TO RIGHT ON THE IMAGE BELOW):
THEO RIDDICK, RB
The third-year pro is rarely discussed as one of the Lions' main weapons, but he has emerged as one of their key contributors this season. Riddick is a polished route runner with exceptional stop-start quickness and burst. He excels at running option routes from the backfield, but he is also capable of running traditional routes from flanked alignments. With Riddick displaying natural receiving skills and soft hands, the Lions have featured him prominently in the passing game. He has finished with at least five catches in seven different games this season, illustrating his importance as a playmaker in the offense.
In the win over the Eaglesin Week 12, the Lions repeatedly exploited Philly's suspect underneath coverage by targeting Riddick on option routes from the backfield. On his 8-yard touchdown in the first quarter, Riddick is positioned as a halfback in a two-back set. He will run an option route against Mychal Kendricks in the slot. With Kendricks unable to handle Riddick's quickness and burst, Stafford hits the crafty playmaker for an easy score (TO VIEW THE PLAY, SCROLL LEFT TO RIGHT ON THE IMAGE BELOW):
The Lions are increasingly willing to use Riddick in the passing game -- and Stafford is not only attacking the defense at every level, but he is making the offense nearly impossible to defend.
3) Ziggy Ansah and Darius Slay are emerging as blue-chip defenders.
The Lions' defense has started to make waves in recent weeks behind the stellar play of a pair of third-year pros manning franchise positions (designated pass rusher and cornerback). Both had flashed immense talent and potential heading into this season, but the light appears to have finally come on for Ansah and Slay in 2015.
Ansah, in particular, is starting to play like an elite defender off the edge. He possesses the speed, athleticism and burst to win consistently with finesse rushes, but he also flashes the strength and power to overwhelm blockers with his physicality. With Ansah learning how to sequence his moves and counter-tactics, he is becoming one of the toughest pass rushers to slow down in one-on-one situations. In the video clip to the right, notice Ansah's first-step quickness and body control as he turns the corner on the rush. It is hard to find 6-foot-5, 278-pound edge rushers with that kind of flexibility, balance and body control.
It doesn't surprise me that Ansah has already amassed 11.5 sacks and four forced fumbles this season as the designated pass rusher in the Lions' scheme. Few teams have a left tackle in the lineup with the footwork and lateral quickness to shadow Ansah off the edge. Coordinator Teryl Austin has done a great job of unleashing Ansah from a wide-nine alignment on obvious passing downs.
Slay has quietly become one of the top "blanket" corners in the NFL. He has always teased evaluators with his impressive athleticism and explosiveness, but he lacked the technique and polish to consistently shadow elite receivers. In 2015, Slay is playing with better discipline and focus on the perimeter. Most importantly, he is avoiding the mental lapses that have previously led to big plays in coverage. I reviewed his impressive performance against Amari Cooper in the win over Oakland in Week 11, and Slay's ability to challenge the rookie receiver using a variety of techniques stood out. He exhibited good footwork and patience at the line, yet aggressively jammed and disrupted Cooper's releases at every turn. This was the same kind of effort Slay displayed in the Lions' surprising win over the Green Bay Packersin Week 10, when he suffocated Aaron Rodgers' targets on the perimeter.
With a pass rusher capable of creating havoc off the edge and an emerging shutdown corner in the back end, the Lions' defense is suddenly looking like the dangerous unit that sparked a playoff run in 2014.