Lions' problems much deeper than awful special teams

Dan Arkush
Lions' problems much deeper than awful special teams

Could it be possible that the greatly disappointing Lions, losers of three of their first four games, were never all that special a team to begin with?

In their last 16 games dating back to last season, after all, Detroit is a very suspect 6-10, including its 45-28 wild-card meltdown in New Orleans that brought a 2011 campaign that couldn’t have started off any better (5-0) to an abrupt halt.

One thing that has become undeniably clear the first month of this season is that the Lions’ special teams have been especially abysmal, as evidenced by the fact they have given up both a kickoff and punt return for TDs in each of their last two games — the first time that has happened in the NFL since at least 1940.

“We’ve got two weeks to get it right,” Lions veteran PK Jason Hanson said early in the team’s bye week in advance of a daunting five-game stretch that will include four games on the road. “We can’t do what we’re supposed to. I’m saying everyone.”

But a canvassing of league executives and close team observers by PFW suggests that the Detroit’s dismal special-teams play might be indicative of a deeper problem just beneath the surface. 

“Special teams comes down to attitude and no one on the Lions wants to be on special teams and this is the result," former Lions special-teams ace Zack Follett wrote on Twitter during Detroit's 20-13 loss to Minnesota at Ford Field.

The way we hear it, the collective attitude of a roster laden with character risks could be what’s really ailing the Lions, although team president Tom Lewand would definitely beg to differ.

“This is not where we expected to be one quarter of the way into the 2012 NFL season,” Lewand said in a public appearance last week in Windsor, Ontario. “But we also know it’s a different 1-3 than we’ve experienced in the past.”

Not according to one rival GM.

“The one thing that is clear – they are not as close as people have tried to make it seem,” the GM told PFW. “They are a one-dimensional offensive team that if the quarterback (Matthew Stafford) is not on, people are figuring it out. If you take (WR Calvin) Johnson out of the game (one TD through four games, compared to eight TDs at the same stage last season), who else do they have that can beat you?

“They are not a team that I think is ready. If I am going there to take over the job, I am not thinking that is a quick fix.”

A lack of on-field leadership and locker-room chemistry — in part because of the character gambles taken by GM Martin Mayhew and head coach Jim Schwartz in the draft — has been noticeable to more daily team observers than just Follett.

“Nick Fairley, Titus Young, Mikel Leshoure, Johnny Culbreath … they have targeted a lot of issue guys, more so in Schwartz’s first few years,” one league talent evaluator said. “A big problem (in Week Four) was that their leaders were not leading by example. Calvin Johnson and Brandon Pettigrew were uncharacteristically making drops. (DT Ndamukong) Suh disappeared.”

To his credit, Lewand didn’t shy away from a few of the Lions’ specific failings in his public appearance.

“I would say that Matthew, in particular, is capable of playing better (3-4 TD-interception ratio). I think he’ll be the first to tell you that,” Lewand said.  “We’ve got a guy like Brandon Pettigrew, our young tight end, who is capable of playing at a higher level than he’s played. He’s dropped some passes, including one on Sunday that cost us a touchdown.

“Those are the kinds of things we have to look at.”

According to the people PFW talked to during the Lions’ bye week, however, the team has a lot more problems than just Stafford and Pettigrew.

“They don’t have enough good players, and the players they think are good are not that good,” the GM said. “Suh belongs on the All-Hype team. (DE Cliff) Avril is not that good — put on any game and you can watch him get blocked time and time again. Corey Willliams is solid, but nothing that wows you or makes you wonder how you are going to block him. The other guy (DE Kyle Vanden Bosch) is a try-hard guy getting up in years that does not really threaten you. For as much as people talk about that D-line and all its depth, where are all the players?

“I have listened to the media hype about Suh since he got in the league — what has he done? Even the year he had all those garbage sacks, the guy took a million plays off and got pushed around in the run game. I have never thought he was a very good pro player. I liked him coming out and thought he had a chance. But I also never thought he was going to be the second coming that he was labeled. I am not sure who bestowed that on him, but it is kind of a joke.”

How much should Mayhew and Schwartz be held responsible for the Lions’ lethargy in the season’s first quarter?

“They’re both overrated,” the GM said. “What has he (Mayhew) really accomplished? Matt (former Lions GM Matt Millen) never said he did a good job — he was not ready for it. He did not have enough good people around him. There were things that if he had to do it again, he would not do. And he did not have the experience or the right people around him to get it done.

“So much of this is having the right people around you — I don’t know that Detroit has all the pieces in place like they think they did, and people are starting to see the cracks.”