During the first two weeks of the season, few would have circled Sunday’s upcoming matchup between the Seattle Seahawks and Detroit Lions as a potential postseason preview.
Things change swiftly in the NFL, however, and with both teams recovering with three wins in their past four games following similar blueprints, the Seahawks and Lions find themselves trending in the right direction and firmly entrenched in the NFC playoff hunt.
In recent seasons, the Lions struggled to find offensive balance, leaving quarterback Matthew Stafford on an island trying to win games without a competent offensive line or run game to support him. But a new coaching staff headlined by former Patriots defensive coordinator Matt Patricia has changed the culture in Detroit, using a strong draft to help take some of the pressure off their franchise signal caller.
To help fill critical holes on the roster, Detroit selected guard Frank Ragnow out of Arkansas in the first round and running back Kerryon Johnson out of Alabama in the second round. Sliding in at left guard, Ragnow has pushed the Lions offensive line over the top, teaming up with tackle Taylor Decker to form a young, formidable left side, while Johnson has already rushed for 444 yards and averaged 6.4 yards per carry through six games.
Defensively, the Lions struggled during the early stages of the season, surrendering 78 points to the Jets and 49ers in back-to-back losses. But much as the Seahawks did, Patricia’s team rebounded in large part due to a stingy pass defense that has held opponents to 220 yards per game and a relentless pass rush that has surprisingly yielded 21 sacks without the services of defensive end Ezekiel Ansah.
Here’s a closer look at Seattle’s upcoming opponent, including series history, additions/departures, key numbers, and Carroll’s evaluation of the upstart Lions heading into Sunday's game in Motown:
--14th regular-season meeting. Seahawks lead series, 8-5. Seattle has defeated Detroit in five of the past six meetings between the two franchises, including a 26-6 victory in the 2016 NFC Wild Card round. The Lions captured the last game at Ford Field, edging the Seahawks 28-24 during the 2012 season. In their last regular season matchup, the Seahawks held on for a 13-10 victory despite a controversial finish where linebacker K.J. Wright purposely knocked a fumble by Lions receiver Calvin Johnson out of the back of the end zone.
--Additions: After narrowly missing the playoffs with a 9-7 record, the Lions hit the reset button, firing offensive-minded coach Jim Caldwell in favor of Patricia. The Lions underwent significant personnel changes, using the draft to bolster the offensive side of the football and free agency to fill gaps defensively. Specifically, Detroit upgraded their offensive line by tabbing Ragnow as Patricia’s first pick with the franchise and then added Johnson in the following round to run behind him. Once free agency opened, the team added ex-Seahawks tight end Luke Wilson and cornerback DeShawn Shead as well as linebackers Devon Kennard and Christian Jones. Kennard has arguably been Detroit’s most pivotal offseason signing, as the fifth-year defender leads the team with 5.0 sacks. The front office also made a significant splash this week trading for former All-Pro defensive tackle Damon Harrison, who should provide a huge boost to the team's run defense.
--Departures: Despite leading the Lions to three winning seasons and two playoff berths, Caldwell took the fall for the team’s failure to make the postseason a year ago. Away from coaching changes, Detroit didn’t lose many big-name free agents, but they did cut tight end Eric Ebron, a former first-round pick, who eventually departed for Indianapolis. Ebron never lived up to the hype with the Lions, but he’s already caught six touchdowns for the Colts and thanks to the emergence of second-year tight end Michael Roberts, the move has seemed to work out for both sides. Among other notable losses, veteran defensive tackle Haloti Ngata took a one-year deal with the defending champion Eagles, former starting linebacker Tahir Whitehead signed a three-year deal to join the Raiders, and ex-starting tight end Darren Fells left for the Browns.
INSIDE THE NUMBERS
19.7: Percentage of the time Stafford has been pressured on dropbacks this season, ranked first in the NFL.
487: Yards before contact by Detroit running backs, including Johnson and LeGarrette Blount, eighth-best in the league.
45.3: Percentage of the time Stafford passes on third down move the chain, the fifth-highest mark in the league. In comparison, Seahawks quarterback Russell Wilson sits near the bottom of list at 35.3 percent.
107.1: Opposing quarterback passing rating against the Lions this season, ranked 30th in the NFL.
139.3: Yards per game surrendered on the ground, also 30th in the NFL.
21: Sacks through six games, fourth-best in the league despite Ansah missing all but one game this season.
--Detroit has been searching for a consistently serviceable ground game since Barry Sanders retired prior to the 2000 season, but Carroll believes the organization found something with Johnson taking over as the new bell cow in the backfield and Blount serving as his primary backup.
“We thought he was a really good player. We really liked him. We went ahead and we were busy with our running back [Rashaad Penny] but we had evaluated him extensively.” Carroll said in regard to Johnson. “Elusive and aggressive, creative – shoot, he’s been playing really well. He’s averaging over six yards a carry right now. I don’t know if anybody else is doing that in the league.”
As Carroll indicated, adding Johnson to the fold along with an improved offensive line to block for him makes life much more difficult for opponents preparing to play the Lions. He’s always held Stafford in high regard, and with a competent run game to support him, Detroit’s multi-faceted attack will be a handful for Seattle to defend on Sunday.
“We’ve had great respect for his [Stafford] ability to throw the ball and he’s been a guy that has, over the years, relied on big passing days, big passing games, big emphasis that way and coming off this game last week, where they just tore it up on the ground, it really makes it difficult to figure out what to do against them.” Carroll said. “He’s playing really efficiently, he’s really sharp, you can’t sack him, his numbers are great, his completion numbers are up – he’s doing everything well. It’s a very difficult style to play against.”
--The Seahawks will have a chance to feast on Detroit’s lowly run defense, which ranks 30th in the NFL in rushing yards per game, but it won’t be near as easy with the Lions unexpected move to acquire Harrison from the Giants in exchange for a fifth-round selection in next year's draft.
Harrison, who already has 31 tackles and a forced fumble in seven games with the Giants, will instantly plug up the middle for a Detroit defensive line that has been gouged during the early stages of the year. Generously listed at 335 pounds, he’s a mountain of a man in the interior who Carroll believes can disrupt all phases of the game.
“There’s not much you can do [to] that guy. He’s really a monster in there.” Carroll said on Wednesday. “Running game yes, but he also causes problem in the pass game, too. He came on our radar when he was with the Jets and he was kind of in there where there was a chance, but he had emerged too far too fast for us and we couldn’t get to him, and he wound up going to the Giants. So we have a lot of respect for him.”
Though the trade wasn’t listed on Wednesday’s transactions report, Harrison should officially be a member of the Lions on Thursday, presenting a giant problem for Seattle’s offensive line both figuratively and literally.