Ask Kyle: Is the Lions’ second-half playcalling too conservative?

Ask Kyle: Is the Lions’ second-half playcalling too conservative?

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ALLEN PARK — The Detroit Lions (1-2) are back in the win column after a 26-23 win on Sunday against the Arizona Cardinals. And just like that, they have an opportunity to climb back to .500 before the bye, then face a much easier schedule coming out of the break.

Win on Sunday against New Orleans (1-2), and things could get interesting in a hurry for this team despite the back-to-back losses to open the campaign.

With that, let’s get on to some questions for this week’s mailbag. As always, I really appreciate everyone who participated. We’ll be back next Tuesday. Questions can be tweeted here or emailed to [email protected]

Q: What can you say about the passing game in the second half? — @DaliDimovski

A: Darrell Bevell has been a huge success in Detroit. He built a vertical offense that sent Matthew Stafford to the top five of most quarterback metrics last season, including efficiency and downfield passing, and the offense itself was top five until the Stafford injury. But there’s no doubt Detroit has a tendency to grow more conservative in the second half of games, especially when leading.

Let’s take a look at Sunday’s game as an example. The Lions did a great job mixing up their first-down playcalls in the first half, passing seven times and running eight times. And they were highly productive doing it. Stafford was 5 of 7 passing for 82 yards, which is 11.7 yards per play. The eight runs (all but one of which were by Adrian Peterson) gained 46 yards, an average of 5.8 yards per carry.

Total it all up, and Detroit gained 128 yards on 15 first-down plays in the first half. That’s 8.5 yards per play. Hey, if you’re averaging 8.5 yards on first down, you’re probably moving the ball pretty well, and that’s exactly what the Lions were doing while building a 17-13 lead.

But in the second half, the playcalling became much more conservative. Not including the designed slide by Stafford on the final play, they ran the ball 10 times on 14 first-down plays. That includes four straight times to open the half. And as the playcalling became more predictable, Detroit’s first-down success dried up. Stafford completed all three passes for 55 yards, but also took a 10-yard sack. The 10 runs produced just 28 yards, or 2.8 yards per carry.

All told, the Lions averaged just 5.2 yards on first down in the second half, compared to 8.5 yards in the first half.

Of course, you can also understand what the Lions were trying to do. They were trying to keep Kyler Murray and that rapid-fire offense off the field, which you could understand given Detroit’s historic inability to hang onto leads lately. And the strategy worked. Arizona got off just 63 plays on Sunday, 10 fewer than in any other game this season. And that produced the fewest points (23), yards (377) and rushing yards (109) for the Cardinals this season. And crucially, Arizona finished without a fourth-quarter point for the first time.

So it’s hard to say the more conservative playcalling didn’t work, even if it was less productive. Then again, the Lions haven’t always won games like this. In fact, this win broke an NFL-worst 11-game losing streak. They led in 10 of those games too, and by double digits in the last four. Nobody has held a lead worse than Detroit since Matt Patricia took over in 2018, and it’s possible, perhaps even likely, the more conservative playcalling has contributed to their collapses.

Since last season, the Lions are averaging 15.0 points in the first half. That’s fifth in the league. But they’re scoring just 9.6 points in the second half, which is 23rd.

Just to repeat: Darrell Bevell has done great work in Detroit, including in Arizona. I especially loved how he got Jesse James involved, and when he did it. That third-and-short play that went over the top fooled everyone, then James caught a touchdown pass on fourth down and could have added another if Stafford didn’t overthrow him. I hate nitpicking playcalling because it’s just so easy to do when hindsight is 20/20, especially with a playcaller who is so damn good otherwise. But there’s no doubt Detroit’s playcalling becomes more conservative in the second half, especially when it holds the lead. And that more conservative playcalling has often been less successful.

It’s just such a fine line to walk between continuing to do what you do well, and doing what you need to do to close out a win. Every playcaller has to thread that needle, and it can be difficult. That’s especially true for a team built like the Lions, whose strength is passing and especially downfield passing. So sometimes trying to do the things that can close out a win, like running out the clock on the ground, leans on a weakness while getting away from strength.

Q: Why did they struggle to score TDs Sunday? — @TripleOGMixx

A: It wasn’t for a lack of opportunities. The Lions had five trips into the red zone, but cashed them in for just two touchdowns. Two of those drives stalled because of sacks, one allowed by Halapoulivaati Vaitai and the other by T.J. Hockenson. They got another red-zone opportunity because of the Jeff Okudah pick, but Matthew Stafford overthrew Jesse James in the back of the end zone. Negative plays and overthrows are back-breakers in those final 20 yards.

Detroit is scoring touchdowns on 46.2% of its red-zone opportunities this season, which is 27th in the league. The only teams who are worse, by the way, are the Bengals, Broncos, Panthers, Giants and Jets. Those guys are a combined 1-13-1. It’s almost like scoring touchdowns is an important part of winning games in a league where the margins are razor-thin. Perhaps the Lions should consider doing it a little more often.

Q: Chances Marvin Jones is traded this year? Contract is up after the season. Kind of deep at the position too. Seems like a Tate situation from a couple years ago — @DetroitOilMoney

A: I don’t think the Lions can afford to be sellers at the deadline this year. Not when ownership says they expect to see a playoff push, and then Detroit opened with back-to-back losses against division rivals that are now a combined 6-0. That’s quite the early-season hole, and Matt Patricia needs to win some games to save jobs.

Having said that, I’m kind of curious to see what happens with Kenny Golladay. Again, I don’t think the Lions can afford to be sellers given the mandate from ownership. Then again, Golladay is on the short list of true WR1s in this league. He’s also just 26 years old, on a cheap contract, and in a contract year. So the Lions may get some calls about him. And if the Lions were to lose to New Orleans, Jacksonville and Atlanta, leaving them at 1-5 heading into the trade deadline on Nov. 3, they may have to listen, especially if they think they’ll be unable to re-sign Golladay.

Q: Are we going to see more pressure and zone like we did last week or was this just a game plan anomaly? (I know they won’t be a blitzing team by any means but like maybe an extra couple times a game?) — @natesymonds

A: Don’t know. They definitely mixed up their coverages more last week, moving into a zone almost half the time. That’s a huge departure for the Lions, who have leaned on man coverage more often than every other team in the league since Matt Patricia took over in 2018. They were in man coverage 81.8% of the time last week in Green Bay, which led the league. And they actually played even more man the previous week against Chicago (82.1%).

There’s nothing Matt Patricia loves more than man coverage. Well, maybe “Star Wars.” The man really, really loves “Star Wars.” (Thanks again for recommending “The Mandalorian,” Coach. Really fun stuff.)

So moving to a near 50-50 split between man and zone concepts was pretty unexpected. Just ask Kyler Murray, who was picked off by Duron Harmon, then Jamie Collins, then Jeff Okudah. That’s three different players at three different positions who all caught Murray passes, then Harmon nearly added another. Detroit really confused the young cornerback with all the varied looks and muddied passing lanes.

But whether that variety sticks remains to be seen. After all, league sources have confirmed to MLive that Matt Patricia still woke up this morning as Matt Patricia. And there isn’t a coach in the league who loves man coverage more than that guy. It’s printed on his DNA, and it may not change despite the success Detroit found in Arizona.

Q: Is now the time to temper expectations of the season turning around? Or ride the wave of excitement given that we should be 2-1? — @TeeBritz

A: As an eighth-year beat writer covering the Detroit Lions, I feel like I’m in a uniquely authoritative position to tell you to temper the hell out of your expectations man.

There was a lot to like on all sides of the ball in Arizona. They came back to beat a good team on the road while taking the ball completely out of the hands of the opponent’s best player down the stretch. That’s the complementary football Matt Patricia has been talking about since the day he started raiding Allen Park’s supply closets for pencils. Then again, the Lions delivered a similar all-around beat down of the New England Patriots in Week 3 in 2018. Last year, they roared back to beat the Eagles in Philadelphia in Week 3.

Their combined record the rest of the way in those seasons: 5-21.

Q: Has the coaching staff provided their reasoning for rotating the RB position so often during games? It doesn’t feel like it’s situational but more like it’s whoever is standing closest to Bevell at the start of a drive. — @mbmiotto

A: Adrian Peterson just played more snaps (40) than Kerryon Johnson and D’Andre Swift combined (26). He also had more carries (22) for more yards (75) than Johnson and Swift combined. Not really sure what you’re getting at. If anything, I question why exactly they’re leaning so heavily on a 35-year-old running back when they just spent two of their last three second-round picks on guys who are barely playing right now.

The whole Swift thing really confuses me. He was the 35th overall pick in the draft, and just played six offensive snaps without carrying the ball. Not sure what’s going on there, whether he’s banged up or not ready to play or just didn’t factor into the ball-control approach.

Q: What is the optimal starting lineup at OL? I’m really confused at this point. — @bigscanner

A: Don’t feel too bad, because I’m confused too. And I don’t feel too bad, because even the Lions seem confused. After all, they just paid Halapoulivaati Vaitai a $45 million contract to play right tackle, then moved him to right guard because they didn’t want to pay premium money for Graham Glasgow to play right guard. Then Vaitai went out there and allowed two sacks and was flagged for holding on a 52-yard bomb to Marvin Hall at the 2-minute warning.

Q: Is it weird that I feel confident with the schedule coming out of the bye week? — @thegibb2

A: Not at all. Jacksonville (1-2) isn’t very good. Atlanta (0-3) is the only team in the league that can cough up a fourth-quarter lead like Detroit. Indianapolis (2-1) does have a winning record, but those wins have come against the winless Vikings and Jets. Then Detroit gets those winless Vikings, the one-win Washington Football Team, the one-win Panthers and then the winless Texans on Thanksgiving.

There are definitely opportunities to make moves coming up, especially if the Lions can figure out how to claw back to .500 going into it with a win on Sunday against New Orleans.

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