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Eric Goska column: Lions' resurgence hasn't come on third down

Nov. 22, 2011
 
Detroit Lions quarterback Matthew Stafford got off to a slow start, particularly on third down, against Carolina Panthers on Sunday, but found his groove to rally the Lions to victory.
Detroit Lions quarterback Matthew Stafford got off to a slow start, particularly on third down, against Carolina Panthers on Sunday, but found his groove to rally the Lions to victory. / Rick Osentoski/AP

Stuck in third

Teams that have the poorest rate of conversion on third down.

Rate Team Made-Att
29.2 Rams 42-144
29.9 Lions 40-134
30.3 Cardinals 36-119
31.2 Dolphins 39-125
31.7 Seahawks 44-139
31.9 49ers 43-135
32.6 Broncos 42-129
32.7 Jaguars 49-150

More

It has taken 10 games, but the Detroit Lions have apparently solved what had been one of the few weaknesses of their offense.

For much of this season, the Lions couldnít beg, borrow or steal a conversion on third down. Through mid-November, the teamís conversion rate was the worst in the league.

In fact, until the Lionsí most recent victory, a 49-35 passing clinic over the Carolina Panthers, the teamís third-down conversion rate was poorer than the one posted by the Detroit club that didnít win a game in 2008.

Through nine games, Detroit had converted an unimpressive 34 of 123 third downs (27.64 percent). The Rams at 28.68 percent were the only other team below 30 percent.

Through nine games, the Lions, Rams and Cardinals were the only teams to not have converted at least half of their third downs in any game. Of those three, the Lionsí 34 successes were the fewest.

As the Packers have done with their leaky defense, the Lions have won in spite of their third-down struggles. Their first six victories came amid a conversion rate just slightly better than one in three.

Take, for instance, the season opener. Detroit converted only two of 11 third downs, but defeated the Buccaneers 27-20.

Both successes came on drives that produced points. Further, Stafford followed up one failure by passing 36 yards to Calvin Johnson for a touchdown on fourth down.

The Lions then took advantage of an illegal contact penalty to overcome their first third down of the second half. The team parlayed that into another score and a 14-point lead.

Detroit went 0-for-4 after that, but held on.

Another example of how the Lions have won despite this handicap came in late October when they cruised past Denver 45-10. In the first half, the team built a 24-3 lead in going 4-for-7 on third down. In the second half, the Lions did not make a single third-down conversion, but they did turn a pair of turnovers into touchdowns and won going away.

Sometimes, though, Detroitís lapses have been too much to overcome. The clubís worst outings came in a 25-19 loss to the 49ers (2-15; 13.33 percent) and a 23-16 setback to the Falcons (1-12; 8.33 percent).

One thingís for certain: the Lions like to pass on third down. Quarterback Matthew Stafford and his backup, Shaun Hill, dropped back to pass on 112 of the teamís first 123 third downs (91.1 percent).

Problem was Stafford was one of the poorer quarterbacks on third down. Of the 31 qualifiers, Stafford ranked 28th through nine games.

Five of the eight interceptions he threw came on third down. Eight of the 18 sacks the team surrendered occurred on that down.

The 11 times Detroit turned to its running game it came up with just 27 yards. But the team did go 4 of 11 (36.36 percent) on those occasions.

But all this negativity is old news. Stafford and the Lions broke through the 50 percent ceiling against Carolina.

It didnít start off well as Stafford was intercepted the first time he threw on third down. But Detroitís final tally was a respectable 6 of 11 including a impressive finish in which it converted 5 of its last 6.

The strong finish helped the team come back from 17 down. Success began in the second quarter when passes to receiver Nate Burleson and tight end Tony Scheffler kept alive a drive that culminated with Stafford throwing to rookie receiver Titus Young to pull within 24-14.

The rally continued in the second half when the Lions scored touchdowns on three of the four third downs it faced. Stafford hooked up with Scheffler for a 17-yard TD pass, he hit tight end Brandon Pettigrew on a 7-yard scoring toss and Kevin Smith rumbled in from 19 yards out. The last score capped Detroitís comeback with two minutes to play.

With its work Sunday, the Lions (40-134; 29.85 percent) moved out of last place in regard to third-down conversion rates. The Rams (42-144; 29.17) filled their old spot.

The neighborhood of 30 percent is what the Packers under coach Mike McCarthy have allowed the Lions to do. In the last 10 games in the rivalry, Detroit has made good on 41 of 141 (29.08 percent).

Keeping the Lions within that range on Thursday, however, guarantees nothing. The Lions have proven they can win with limited success on third down, just as they did last year when they converted a mere three of 15 third downs in squeezing past Green Bay 7-3.

Regular-season series

Overall: Green Bay leads 89-65-7

At Ford Field: Packers lead 6-3

Starting quarterbacks

Packers: Aaron Rodgers (37-20 overall; 5-1 vs. Detroit)

Lions: Matthew Stafford (10-13; 1-0 vs. Green Bay)

Once a Lion, now a Packer

There are no former Lions on the Packersí roster.

Once a Packer, now a Lion

Defensive tackle Corey Williams (2004-07) is a former Packer.

Eric Goska is a Press-Gazette correspondent, a Packers historian and the author of "Green Bay Packers: A Measure of Greatness," a statistical history of the Packers. Email him at aegoska@sbcglobal.net.

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