The 2011 Detroit Lions' fairytale season ended with a huge flop.
And maybe that's a good thing for the Lions. Maybe it will keep them from feeling satisfied and push them to begin in earnest the next phase of Detroit's football renaissance.
A close game with the high-powered Saints turned into a demoralizing 45-28 blowout in the second half, and there's no way to sugarcoat it. As much as head coach Jim Schwartz and others in the organization want to blame the carnage on poor tackling and three (maybe) missed interceptions, the root of Detroit's defensive woes comes from a lack of creativity on the defensive side of the ball.
NFL defenses need elements of chaos and unpredictability to wreak havoc, and the Lions are about as predictable as you can get.
“When you have a (good) four-man rush, it's pretty hard to (blitz) linebackers who are really good cover guys, You don’t want to do something stupid like (calling zone blitzes)," said Lions' defensive coordinator Gunther Cunningham on Jan 5 just prior to the Saints debacle.
This somewhat belligerent statement, and the Lions' unwillingness to stunt, blitz, or do anything other than rush with four down lineman against a seriously athletic offensive line is what, more than any dropped interception or missed tackle, ultimately did the Lions in.
By foregoing any elements of surprise, the Lions have essentially been telling opposing offenses exactly what they are going to see all game long. Maybe that would work if the size and athletic ability mismatches were as astronomical as the Lions' seem to believe, but in today's NFL, when rosters are basically littered with athletic 300-pounders who can hit like trucks and move like sports cars, it's a recipe for getting your ass kicked.
And that is what the Lions' have been doing ever since the rest of the league figured out that the Lions lack the creativity to do anything but stick to their gameplan.
While sticking their chests out and daring the rest of the league to try and stop their vaunted pass rush, the Lions forgot a critical element of defensive success. They failed to create confusion. Instead, they gave opposing teams a challenge that many (particularly the good teams, go figure) accepted with delight.
The lesson? You can't be a world class defense if you don't create confusion. Yes, the Lions are talented, and yes, they have depth and speed and everything else you could ask for on the defensive line. But because they were so predictable, they became easy to solve.
The Lions' don't need to become a blitzing team. But they do need to plant a seed in the opposition. They need to create doubt in their heads that they might blitz. They need to find ways to keep the offense guessing.
This is a team that gave up 147 points in its first eight games (average of 18), then 281 points in the final nine (average of 31). It's true that they faced a very tough schedule in the second half of the season. All the more reason to create some more complex pass rushing schemes.
The fact that the Lions didn't realize that they needed to make tactical changes when their defensive fortunes changed (or they didn't feel they had the personnel to do so) does not bode well for them or for their stubborn defensive coordinator Gunther Cunningham. Even with Matthew Stafford blossoming into a pro bowl quarterback in the next few seasons, the Lions will not be able to make the jump from surprising to elite without finding a way to slow elite passing offenses down.
Most people are content to point a finger at the personnel, and no doubt the Lions need help at linebacker, corner and safety. But if the scheme doesn't change, I'm not sure the results will.
The Lions had a breakthrough season in 2011, and they deserve all the praise in the world for that. They should celebrate their first 10-win season in sixteen years. But they should also realize that the franchise has never won 10 games in two consecutive years.
They've got their work cut out if they want to change that.
The defense is a good place to start.