This is the seventh of a 13-part series breaking down the off-season moves, coaching changes, draft and 2015 outlook for each opponent of the Kansas City Chiefs, counting down to their foe for Week 1. Today we look at one of the four NFC North teams the Chiefs will play in 2015, but it’s the game that has the boiling point of the KC fan base rising, the Detroit Lions.
Team: Detroit Lions
2014 Record: 11-6 (lost in Wild Card game to Dallas 24-20)
All-time Chiefs Series Record: 7-5
Last Regular Season Meeting: Detroit won 48-3 in Detroit (9/18/2011) in the game Jamaal Charles blew out his knee on his second carry and was lost for the season.
Last Postseason Meeting: Have never met in playoffs
2015 Schedule: Week 8 at Wembley Stadium, London, England
Top 5 players: WR Calvin Johnson, QB Matt Stafford, NT Haloti Ngota, WR Golden Tate, LB Stephen Tulloch
Notable draft picks: G Laken Tomlinson, RB Ameer Abdullah, CB Alex Carter, DT Gabe Wright
Notable offseason additions: Ngata, WR Lance Moore, C/G Manny Ramirez
Notable offseason departures: DT Ndamukong Suh, DT Nick Fairley, RB Reggie Bush, DL C.J. Mosley, C Dominic Raiola
Ask any Chiefs fan their thoughts about the Detroit Lions this season and you’re liable to get an icy death stare back. But it has nothing to do with the Lions themselves. It has everything to do with the fact that team owner Clark Hunt voluntarily gave up a home game at Arrowhead to play the Lions in London, England, essentially making it a road game. It’s a decision that could come back to haunt the team in a very tight AFC West race.
The Lions are not a bad team like the Jacksonville Jaguars, the one NFL team that plays a game in London every year. Opponents playing the Jags can almost guarantee a win despite being thousands of miles away from home. The Lions were 11-5 last year and probably should have beaten the Cowboys in the playoffs, so this London game could easily become a “home” loss for Kansas City.
Lions head coach Jim Caldwell begins his second year with the team after guiding them to an 11-5 regular season record, a win total the franchise hadn’t achieved since the 1991 team won a franchise record 12 wins with Hall-of-Famer Barry Sanders carrying the ball. The only two other times the franchise got to 11 wins was 1961 with Hall of Famer Bobby Layne, and 1931 when they were the Portsmouth Spartans. In other words, Caldwell did a virtually historic job last year.
Caldwell and defensive coordinator, Teryl Austin, fashioned a formidable defense that led the NFL in fewest yards rushing per game (69.3 ypg) and finished second in total yards allowed (300.9). Given that dominating performance, it’s hard to believe that the Lions enter 2015 with all kinds of question marks on defense.
However, that’s what happens when you let one of the best defensive players in the league, Ndamukong Suh, walk via free agency. Fellow tackle Nick Fairley also departed as well as defensive end C.J. Mosely, and that production will be impossible to replace. Haloti Ngata can partially replace Suh as far as being a run-stopper, but he is nowhere near the disruptive force in the passing game that Suh and his 8.5 sacks brought.
Because of the pressure the front seven put on opposing quarterbacks last year, the secondary could be average and still be good. However, the Lions secondary played well above-average in 2014. Free safety Glover Quin led the NFL with seven interceptions and cornerbacks Darius Shay and Rashean Mathis rarely got beat deep. All of them were good against the run last year, but with the defections on the D-line, they’ll have to improve in that regard.
Offensively, the Lions took a step backwards from their high-flying days of a couple years ago when quarterback Matthew Stafford would put up gaudy numbers but few wins. Stafford lowered his interceptions from 19 to 12 last year and raised his completion percentage to 60.3 percent. However, his quarterback rating was over 90 in only three games out of 16 played. Part of that can be traced to one of the league’s worst rushing attacks, so the team went out and drafted running back Ameer Abdullah out of Nebraska.
Abdullah is a big-play back with good speed and is exceptional catching passes out of the backfield. Joique Bell returns as the big-body back to carry the load in the run game, but after averaging less than four yards per carry the last two years, he won’t be that hard to beat out if Abdullah shows he can handle running between the tackles.
The receiving corps provides two exceptional targets for Stafford in wide receivers Calvin Johnson and Golden Tate. Johnson appears to be on the path to the Hall of Fame himself, but he has been bitten by the injury bug the last two seasons. He turns 30 years old in October so he is still in his prime, but he also has been targeted nearly 1,200 times in his eight-year career and it could be just a matter of time before that work load takes its toll and starts to slow him down.
Of course, when Johnson was “slowed” in 2014, he still put up 71 catches for 1,077 yards and 8 touchdowns despite missing three games completely and being a non-factor in two others due to injury. As long as he is on the field, the Chiefs defenders will make stopping him their #1 priority.
Tate led the team with 99 catches for 1,331 yards and four touchdowns, but the team wanted more support for their two outstanding wideouts. They brought in WR Lance Moore in free agency to help out, but Moore has lost a step and is not much more than a third-down option. The Lions are hoping for much more out of their first-round draft choice in 2014, tight end Eric Ebron out of North Carolina. Ebron barely registered a blip on the radar for Detroit last year and must step up as the third option for Stafford in the passing game.
Special teams have not been very special for Detroit lately, but they are turning to veteran kicker Matt Prater to be a consistent option over last year’s kicker, rookie Nate Freese. Prater is the former Broncos kicker who led the NFL in scoring in 2013, but was suspended by the NFL four games last year for violating the substance abuse policy. He played in 11 games with Detroit last season and made 21 of 26 field goals.
Bottom line: If this game were played at Arrowhead, the crowd noise would have disrupted Detroit’s offensive line, which is possibly the worst unit on the team, and the Chiefs would have been favored. Had they not had so many key defections on defense, the Lions probably would be favored on a neutral field, which Wembley Stadium will be. These two teams are fairly close in talent overall, but the Chiefs should have an edge on defense. The hope here is that the Chiefs win this game and then take advantage of the following bye week to get ready for key games against Denver and San Diego the next two weeks.
Previous articles in the series:
Oakland Raiders (Weeks 13 & 17)
Cleveland Browns (Week 16)
Baltimore Ravens (Week 15)
San Diego Chargers (Weeks 11 & 14)
Buffalo Bills (Week 12)
Denver Broncos (Weeks 2 & 10)