2017 Detroit Lions: Can They Get Their Pass Rush to Roar?

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David Malinsky

Monday, August 14, 2017 1:42 PM GMT

Monday, Aug. 14, 2017 1:42 PM GMT

Will there be any Lions roar coming from the Detroit pass rush? ... At some point the San Francisco Giants' defense should block Blach’s progress (and perhaps that point is tonight).

Point Blank – August 14, 2017

The action is heating up across many fronts now: the NFL preseason games take on an added importance this week, with more snaps from the starters to help build out the 2017 power ratings; the American League has seven teams within four games of the final Wild Card spot, which rather remarkably is being held by the Angels as the week begins; suspensions are having an impact on the Michigan/Florida opening-week NCAA showdown; and the Maloof brothers have brought the first of what could be many large Floyd Mayweather wagers to the table, laying -550 for $880K at the South Point on Friday.

That means a lot of ground to cover, and one of the things that we will focus on is getting the comment threads flowing as football 2017 approaches. Still a few kinks to work out on that front, but if you have any questions on any major handicapping topics (outside, of course, of “Who do you like in XXX vs. YYY?”), the grey chat arrow in the upper left of each day’s column will guide you to the spot.

Monday begins with the continuation of the tour across the NFL, focusing on one key item for each squad that the shrewd handicapper can put a focus on. It leads to a rather ominous issue with the Detroit Lions, who could not come up with a pass rush in 2016, and now face an even bigger challenge on that front as the new season approaches.

 

Lions' pass rush was already near rock bottom, and now may be even worse

There is the usual optimism associated with any team coming off of a winning season and a playoff appearance when you read the camp reports out of Detroit. That is not the best way to build your power ratings for the 2017 Lions, because 2016 was such a football aberration. Credit must be given to Matthew Stafford for making the plays that had to be made, until that late-season finger injury drastically altered his performance level, but it is why so many plays needed to be made to gut out close wins (eight of the nine Detroit triumphs were by a TD or less) that becomes the focus point.

The 2016 Lions defense was terrible, often not having much of a prayer to stop the opposition.

The question now becomes whether the new edition can be much better, and I will put particular emphasis on the pass rush.

Detroit went 9-7 in 2016 despite a defense that was No. 32 on the Football Outsiders charts both overall and against the pass. It isn’t difficult to spot the flaws – the Lions allowed 72.7 percent completions, the all-time NFL record, and the gap between them and No. 31 Dallas, which checked in at 67.1 percent, was alarming. It was partially issues of coverage, but I believe even more the lack of playmakers in the front seven, with Detroit just a tick behind Oakland for fewest sacks (26, the Raiders had 25), and sack percentage (4.5 vs. 4.4).

Want to read something truly ominous? The 2016 Lions LB corps combined for zero sacks, zero interceptions and zero forced fumbles. Some of that was because there were a lot of 4-2-5 sets, which limited the opportunities to produce a bit, but more of it was because the LBs simply weren’t very good. Hence the drafting of Jarrad Davis (Florida) in the first round, with Davis already sitting on top of the depth chart.

The secondary did make some additions, D. J. Harden through free agency and Jalen Tabor and Jamal Agnew via the draft, so both the talent level and the depth are better. The latter was such an issue in 2016 that safety Quin Glover was on the field for all 1,027 snaps.

But then there is the defensive front. The only addition that will have any impact is DE Cornelius Washington coming over as a free agent from Chicago, where he only had two starts last season, but Washington is not ready to contribute yet because of an ankle injury. Rookie Jeremiah Ledbetter is listed as a third-string DT after two weeks of camp and is not a lock to even make the roster.

The DL wasn’t much last year, didn’t add much and now faces extreme challenges. The top talent is Ziggy Ansah, who is on the PUP list with an ankle injury, but the team continues to say that he will be ready for the star of the regular season. Then came Sunday’s 24-10 win at Indianapolis, when Kerry Hyder, who led them with eight sacks in 2016, went down with what Jim Caldwell called “a significant Achilles injury.” Hyder was on the field for 658 snaps last year, only Devin Taylor topping him at 664, but Taylor is now wearing a NY Giants uniform.

The Detroit front four may have been the NFL’s weakest in 2016 and now looks worse, with the issue of Haloti Ngata’s decline not even brought into the conversation yet (in his 12th season, just how many snaps can they count on him for?). Grading them today is not easy because it is likely that more bodies will be added, the Lions scouring the waiver wires to add both talent and depth, but that range of grades for this group is not a promising one.

 

At some point the Giants defense could block Blach’s progress (perhaps that point is tonight)

I will be putting a couple of elements together in backing #902 Miami (7:05 Eastern) this evening, and those intent on doing the same should get in early – the Marlins will be popular in the marketplace because of the visiting San Francisco Giants' schedule cycle, with that early -130 having been a bit light. It is how that -130 got there in the first place, a market overrating of Giants lefty starter Ty Blach, that sets things up.

One of the constant reminders here about the run preventions rates of MLB pitchers is that it takes either a high amount of strikeouts or ground balls for someone to be successful. Limit batted balls, or control where they are placed; otherwise, it is an uphill battle against the quality of hitters at this level. It may look like Blach is winning some of those battles in posting an 8-7/4.15 in his rookie campaign, but the numbers behind the outcomes are ominous. The combination of strikeouts and ground balls does not show promise.

There are 90 pitchers across MLB that have worked at least 100 innings so far, and Blach is dead last in K% at 11.8. He has not made up for that in ground balls, a 45.4 percent rate that places him middle of the pack at No. 46, and in terms of hard contact he is No. 75 in Line Drive%. Hence why that 4.15 ERA paints a better portrait than it should – xFIP rates Blach at 4.71 (No. 70 of those 90 pitchers), and SIERA 5.08 (No. 86).

There may be more to it than that down the stretch. When you pitch to contact you rely on the defense behind you to make plays, and a prime reason for the downfall of the 2017 Giants has been awful work with the gloves, No. 28 in PADE and No. 29 in BABIP. While I will write often that players for non-contending teams go hard in the batter’s box and on the pitcher’s mound to the final out, since there is contract $$ on the line in those measurements, a prime spot for a bad team to fall off even more is on defense. When it doesn’t matter in the standings there can easily be a lesser focus placed on paying attention to scouting reports for the opposition in terms of defensive positioning, and there can also be a lackadaisical approach when it comes to chasing down balls.

Now consider the plight of San Francisco tonight, having gone through the extended doubleheader at Washington on Sunday (combined game-time was 6:40), only to fly far later than planned to Miami.

Joe Panik, Pablo Sandoval and Jarrett Parker all become question marks for tonight after playing in both games before heading to the airport, but what is the interest level in playing defense anyway for a team that is 47-72 and a historic 37 games out of first place?

The Marlins bring a good team energy right now, the heat coming from Giancarlo Stanton’s bat leading to a weekend sweep of the Rockies, and there is the very real opportunity to finish with a winning record, even if getting into Wild Card contention is a reach. There isn’t anything dynamic about Miami starting pitcher Adam Conley, but since that is reflected in the relative price point, nothing all that dynamic needs to be called for.

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