Last season the Detroit Lions managed to beat the Tampa Bay Buccaneers on a field goal in overtime. They also managed to beat the eventual Super Bowl Champion Green Bay Packers, and ended the year with a four-game winning streak. And they did all that without the benefit of 2009 first-overall draft pick Matthew Stafford, who has now returned from injury.
Statistically, the Lions offense was pretty decent for a team that couldn't run the ball inside and was forced to start their third-string quarterback for three games. According to Football Outsiders DVOA the Lions were the 18th worst team in the NFL last season, not great but certainly an improvement over their previous two years. They ranked 19th in the NFL on offense, and 22nd on defense.
Those rankings make it seem like the Lions were slightly below average in everything they did. If we split out those numbers further, that still seems true. The Lions ranked 17th in passing offense, and 23rd in rushing offense. That 17th ranking is pretty impressive considering Matt Stafford's 13 game absence. By all accounts the Lions should have an improved passing offense when they face the Bucs on Sunday.
However, their rushing offense will likely be as poor as it was last year. The Lions drafted Mikel Leshoure to become their main running back, but the second-round pick tore his Achilles tendon and is now out for the year. Jahvid Best is now their main running back, and while he can impact a game he mostly does so in the passing game. Best cannot carry a running game.
To remedy that the Lions brought in Jerome Harrison and Keiland Williams - two running backs who are okay as runners, but can't do much else. Still, the offensive line is a large part of their problem, and that hasn't changed. Of course, the Bucs failed to even stop Maurice Morris last year, so whether they can stop Jerome Harrison and Keiland Williams remains to be seen.
On defense, the Lions obviously have a very strong defensive line. The best thing about that line isn't necessarily the individuals, but the way they play: as a team. Unfortunately, the same can't really be said about the offensive line they'll be facing, which has never lived up to the hype and looked lackluster in preseason. The Lions defensive line could dominate the Bucs offensive line - but that doesn't mean the Lions defense could dominate the Bucs offense.
That same matchup came around last year, and the Bucs offense didn't really struggle to beat the Lions defense as a whole. With more quality starters healthy the Bucs should be able to handle that defensive line a little better, but more importantly: they can produce against the Lions defense despite that defensive line.
For all the praise that defensive line has garnered, their defense has not been able to produce. Poor cornerbacks, safeties and linebackers crippled that unit. Running the ball wasn't particularly difficult against them, as the Lions posted the 27th worst mark against the run according to Football Outsiders. Passing was slightly harder, but they weren't much for stopping people as the 19th worst pass defense. Remarkably, they were horrible against #1 wide receivers (26th), tight ends (29th), running backs (20th) and 'other wide receivers' (25th). Somehow they did manage to stop #2 receivers, though, ranking 2nd in the league.
Those problems have been addressed to an extent this offseason. They added Stephen Tulloch at middle linebacker to stop the run, but he isn't particularly strong in coverage, which exacerbates the problems they have against tight ends. At cornerback they are still starting Chris Houston, who is unspectacular but not horrible. They also added former Brown cornerback Eric Wright who, like Houston, is kind of solid. They are certainly players the Bucs can go after, though, and when the Bucs spread the field players like Brandon McDonald come into the picture.
At safety, the Lions did....nothing. Louis Delmas is a solid player, but struggled to contain much last year. The other starting safety is Amauri Spievey, last year's third-round pick and not someone to inspire much confidence. The Lions had a horrible secondary last season, and they changed just one player. That's a problem.
More importantly perhaps, the Lions did little to improve the coverage skills of their linebackers. Tulloch is a great run defender but does not do much in coverage, which is why the Titans let him walk and signed Barrett Ruud to replace him. More depressingly for the Lions, Tulloch stays on the field on passing downs. Their other starting linebackers are Deandre Levy and Justin Durant. Levy started last year for the Lions, and was a problem in pass coverage. Meanwhile, Durant comes over from the Jaguars, and is also a largely unremarkable linebacker.
That's where I can see the Buccaneers really attack the Detroit Lions: with Kellen Winslow and Luke Stocker going against linebackers and safeties. In addition, Mike Williams should be able to beat Eric Wright as well.
The Lions were a poor team last season, but they improved in multiple areas this offseason. But they can't fix every hole, and the Bucs have plenty of ways to attack that defense. Stopping the Lions offense may pose a bigger problem, as it did last year.