Grading the Detroit Lions Positional Units at the First Quarter Mark
Heading into the bye week, the Detroit Lions began their season on a slippery slope with a 1-3 record. After struggling to gain a real grasp on any game this season, the Lions have dug themselves a last place hole in the NFC North.
Here's an evaluation of each Lions' position on both sides of the ball. The current grades reflect the beginning of Detroit's season.
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Quarterback Matthew Stafford leading the pass attack was supposed to be the constant of the Lions' success coming into 2012. Regardless of the numbers, Stafford and Detroit's pass game hasn't had the similar production of last year.
Stafford has completed 66 percent of his passes for 1,182 yards. Unfortunately, his accuracy has been in question this year with plenty of passes thrown behind and away from the receivers. Stafford has looked out of sync with his targets all four games. He has cut down on his turnovers after tossing three interceptions in the first half against the St. Louis Rams.
One big issue with the Lions last season was the low yards per completion. With the conservative style of play, the Lions haven't improved that asset, averaging only 6.8 yards. Offensive coordinator Scott Linehan is yet to adjust against the 2-deep-safety coverage opponents have used against the Lions.
Backup Shaun Hill has been used sparingly, but provided one of the biggest highlights thus far with the game-tying Hail Mary against the Tennessee Titans.
In order for the Lions to return to their winning form, they need to return to their roots and utilize their best weapons. The Lions won't return to the playoffs throwing check-downs and settling for short completions. Stafford must be smarter with the football and Linehan must get more creative with his play calling to revive the passing game.
2. Running Backs
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The Lions wanted to find a sense of balance on offense by establishing the running game. Even with inserting Mikel Leshoure as the Lions' feature back, the team has received a decent work load from almost every running back.
Leshoure has given the Lions his good, bad, and ugly side in 2012. The good came at Tennessee when Leshoure rushed for 100 yards and his first career touchdown. The bad happened at home against Minnesota when he touched the ball 13 times for only 26 yards and a crucial second half fumble. The ugly would be the infamous marijuana charge this offseason, but with the season underway, we'll stick to what happens on the field.
Leshoure has shown a great glimpse of what he's capable. He's displayed great vision and power between the tackles, as well as the ability to make defenders miss on the perimeter. Leshoure will only get better as he gets more comfortable on the field.
Reserves Kevin Smith and Joique Bell have provided a decent bit of production with Leshoure on the sideline. Superstar performances might be seldom seen from these three, but it must be consistent enough to keep defenses off balance.
3. Wide Receivers
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The high power offense of the Lions is designed for the wide receivers to flourish. Superstar Calvin Johnson has still been a terror for secondaries, but the wideout core together has underachieved.
Johnson is third in receiving with 29 catches for 423 yards. However, Megatron's only been able to find the end zone one time this season.
Outside of Johnson, the receivers have been somewhat quiet this season with their production. Titus Young was projected as a breakout star in 2012, but hasn't shown nearly enough to validate those predictions. Nate Burleson has been fairly consistent, and rookie Ryan Broyles is yet to record a catch with limited playing time.
Detroit is currently first in dropped passes with everybody having a fair share of blame. The receivers also have suffered from Scott Linehan's dink-and-dunk style of offense. With the bye week coming, the Lions will need to come up with plays to utilize their best offensive weapons. If they continue to underachieve, it will be a long season for this offense.
4. Tight Ends
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The Lions' tight end core has been one of the more disappointing groups thus far. First-round pick Brandon Pettigrew is normally the go-to target when it comes to blame of the offensive struggles. To a degree, it's justifiable.
Pettigrew has caught 23 catches for 223 yards, but he has been more upsetting than pleasing this season. Pettigrew has dropped countless passes at horrible times ruining red zone opportunities and possession-extending drives. Matthew Stafford vowed to "keep throwing to him (Pettigrew) until his coaches tell him he can't," but at this rate it raises a question of why he would want to?
Tony Scheffler and Will Heller haven't been much more impressive either. They both have dealt with a number of drops and being unreliable red zone options.
Opponents continue to play two deep safeties taking away the big play from the Lions. If this keeps up, it's imperative for the tight ends to catch everything that comes their way. Matthew Stafford needs his security blankets with oppositions taking away the deep ball.
5. Offensive Line
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The Lions' offensive line has been a very cohesive unit this season, excluding their meltdown performance against the Minnesota Vikings. Before surrendering five sacks this past Sunday, the Lions had done a good job of keeping Matthew Stafford's jersey clean.
Center Dominic Raiola has been a consistent plug in the middle, despite the fourth-down mixup with Shaun Hill against the Titans. Raiola admitted to snapping the ball on accident with a miscommunication between his coach and quarterback.
Guards Stephen Peterman and Rob Sims have helped create lanes for the running game as well as limit inside penetration.
Tackles Jeff Backus and Gosder Cherilus have had a lot less mental lapses this season, but they were again made victims to the fierce Minnesota Vikings pass rush. Rookie Riley Reiff hasn't been seen much this season, but could see more reps if the starters struggle.
Coming into the season, the offensive line was still supposed to be the suspect link of the offense. So far they've been consistent enough and have given Stafford enough time to operate.
6. Defensive Ends
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The Lions' defense thrives on the pressure of their defensive line. However, this defense and their wide-nine scheme has been carved up by quick intermediate completions. With the quick easy passes, the defensive ends have failed to get enough pressure to rattle their opponents.
Kyle Vanden Bosch expressed his expectations of the defensive line before the start of the season. So far, this unit hasn't lived up to the projections. Vanden Bosch only has two sacks through four games plus limited pressure on the outside.
Cliff Avril held out this offseason in hopes for a long-term contract. Avril didn't receive his deal and hasn't proved his demands to be valid. Avril did have his most active game against the Vikings before injuring his back. Before that, Avril has recorded 1.5 sacks this season.
The Lions have plenty of depth at defensive end, but none have provided much fire off the edge. Willie Young was projected to have a breakout season, but has been quiet so far. Lawrence Jackson has also been held in check thus far as well.
7. Defensive Tackles
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The Lions have placed plenty of stock into their defensive tackles. After a quiet 2011, it seems the focal point of Detroit's defense is slowly turning back to its disruptive style.
Star tackle Ndamukong Suh might not return to a 10 sack performance like his rookie year, but he's back to pushing his way into backfields, attacking the ball carrier. Suh has 1.5 sacks on the year and continues to draw plenty of double teams from offensive linemen. Also, no personal foul penalties from Suh this season is a great sign from their formerly troubled tackle.
Corey Williams will miss significant time after undergoing knee surgery this past week. However, Nick Fairley and Sammie Lee Hill have been great fillers at tackle with the given time on defense.
Detroit will need consistent pressure and havoc from their defensive tackles. Playing with a weak secondary, the defensive line must pick up the slack and make life easier for the back seven.
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With another year under their belt together, the Lions' linebackers have made some positive strides in their play together. So far Detroit's linebacking core has been the most consistent unit on defense.
Captain Stephen Tulloch has been validating his long-term deal from this offseason. Tulloch has recorded 26 tackles and has established himself as one of the sure-tacklers of this defense.
The outside backers have improved in their pass coverage and are progressing against the run. Justin Durant and DeAndre Levy both lead the Lions in tackles with 31 and 29 total.
As defenses continue to attack short throws to their targets, it's imperative for the linebackers to react immediately to the receiver or cover their man.
They've also been up-and-down against the run. The Lions have held Chris Johnson and Steven Jackson in check, but struggled heavily against Frank Gore and Adrian Peterson. Detroit still has to face LeSean McCoy, Arian Foster, Matt Forte twice and plenty other elite running backs after the bye week.
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Coming into the season, the secondary was the weak link of the entire team. That statement has been proven true as the Lions have surrendered highly efficient performances to almost every quarterback.
The Lions have allowed 66 percent passes completed against them. The secondary hasn't been carved up with many yards, not including Jake Locker who had a career day completing 29-of-42 passes for 378 yards and two touchdowns. Detroit has been held in check courtesy of simple, short passes that take advantage of the weak secondary.
Chris Houston and Bill Bentley have been banged up a bit this season, but have proven to be the best defensive backs available. Neither men nor any back has recorded an interception yet, but Houston and Bentley have been the most consistent of other backs. Bentley has been going through his growing pains, including a rough performance against Minnesota with two bad pass interference calls.
Reserves such as Jacob Lacey have been disappointing and a non-factor this year. The Lions have also lost veteran cornerback Drayton Florence to a forearm injury for the rest of the season.
Playing without leader Louis Delmas at safety because of knee surgery, the Lions are forced to play with their backups Erik Coleman and John Wendling. Coleman has been a pleasant surprise this year, while Wendling continues to trade shifts with Amari Spievey.
Signs don't seem to be pointing up for the Lions' secondary this year, especially with the low quality of talent at the positions. The Lions could possibly see the return of Delmas after the bye week, which would be a huge upgrade for this defense.