These grades are based on the entire season, not just the Dallas game.
Normally, my scale for grading has expectations factored in, but this time the marks represent more of a feeling about overall performance. The primary factors I'm evaluating are:
- Has the unit helped the team win games?
- Is the position group consistent?
- Are the players doing what is asked of them by the coaches and game plans?
- How do they compare relative to what I've seen from other teams?
Without further ado, here are my grades for the Detroit Lions for the first half of the season.
Matthew Stafford's season has been a picture of "pretty good" with sporadic bursts of legitimate greatness. His mechanics have improved from earlier years, and his arm strength is as good as any quarterback in the league right now.
Stafford still has occasional bouts of erratic passing, as evident in the Cincinnati and Washington games. Yet some of the throws he makes, notably the quick slant touchdown strike to Calvin Johnson in the Arizona game, are passes which only a handful of quarterbacks can contemplate pulling off, let alone executing to perfection.
We saw the sporadic greatness in the Dallas game. Stafford's game-winning drive, capped off by his spontaneous fake spike/touchdown plunge is worth a half-a-grade raise on its own.
Moreover, Stafford's emergence as a more vocal and accountable leader is a very positive development. He has solidly ascended to the pantheon of NFL quarterbacks this year, and that doesn't look to change going forward.
Reggie Bush and Joique Bell have emerged as one of the better one-two punches in the league.
Bush has been inconsistent but entertaining. He is capable of breathtaking runs and nifty catches, ranking fourth in the league in yards after the catch, according to ESPN. But he has put the ball on the ground twice, and his propensity to dance and delay in the backfield produces too many negative plays.
In addition, Bush has missed one full game and parts of others with various injuries.
Bell is hot on Bush's tail in the yards-after-catch department, ranking ninth. He provides power and oomph between the tackles but has enough nifty footwork to stress the second level as well.
Theo Riddick and Mikel Leshoure have contributed very little in extremely limited duty. Riddick has a chance to see more action going forward with his Bush-like skills.
For better and worse, Calvin Johnson dominates the discussion of Detroit wideouts. Megatron has battled a knee injury which clearly inhibited his play in a couple of games and caused him to miss the Green Bay game.
Even at less than 100 percent, he's still one of the most dynamic players in the NFL today. The catch over triple coverage in the Cincinnati game is one of the highlights of the season. He finished the first half of the season with the 329-yard gem against Dallas, the second-most receiving yards in a game in NFL history.
This has not been his best season, but Johnson is still playing at a level to which few can reasonably aspire. Without him, this offense is lost.
Unfortunately, the rest of the cast has struggled to match Johnson. Losing Nate Burelson to the broken arm has produced ripple effects which the offense has really struggled to overcome. Burleson was off to a fantastic start, with 19 receptions on 23 targets in the first three games.
Kris Durham has stepped up his play and at least looks like a viable NFL wide receiver, but he's in over his head trying to fill the Burleson role. I consistently note his excellent run-blocking, an attribute which has improved across the board for this unit.
Ryan Broyles is nothing short of a major disappointment in the slot. He never looked comfortable on his surgically repaired ACLs, and now, according to Lions beat writer Dave Birkett of the Detroit Free Press, Broyles is out for the season with an Achilles injury.
Schwartz said the initial diagnosis on Broyles is a ruptured Achilles.—Dave Birkett (@davebirkett) October 27, 2013
Patrick Edwards showed little before he was cut. Kevin Ogletree has played reasonably well in limited duty since being picked up in midseason, and Jeremy Ross looked somewhat promising against Dallas. One of those two will need to step up to replace Broyles.
Overall, the play of the wideouts beyond Burleson and Johnson has been ineffective at best and a real hindrance at worst.
This is perhaps the hardest unit on the team to grade. Some of that stems from the inconsistency of the top performer, Brandon Pettigrew.
He was bad enough early on to merit a column entitled "Why Brandon Pettigrew Hurts the Detroit Lions." Two drops and a costly fumble against Arizona had many calling for his head.
Since that point, however, Pettigrew has played quite well. He had a three-game stretch in which he caught 15 passes in 16 targets, and his touchdown against Cincinnati was a fantastic effort.
Joseph Fauria just catches touchdowns. Five of his eight catches have resulted in scores, including three against the Cleveland Browns. Unfortunately he has offered little else than being a great red-zone target. His blocking, while improving, remains barely passable on his best day.
Tony Scheffler was released after missing extended time with a concussion. He was ineffective while he played and lost his role to Fauria. The Lions have pivoted away from replacing his roster spot with another tight end, though that could change over the bye week.
Despite several lineup changes—some planned and some forced—this unit has outplayed the expectations of most pundits.
The pass protection, other than one lousy game against Green Bay, has been exceptional. The Lions have been at or near the top in sack percentage all season, per teamrankings.com.
Rookie right guard Larry Warford has been a shining light. According to Pro Football Focus (subscription required), Warford is already one of the better guards in the league. His run-blocking is often devastatingly effective.
Center Dominic Raiola continues to scrape along, playing well some weeks but really struggling against teams with three-man fronts. Left guard Rob Sims has also been inconsistent, though he turned in a great game against Dallas.
Riley Reiff has been decent in his first season starting at left tackle. He's outplayed right tackle Corey Hilliard, who is an injury replacement for Jason Fox.
Hilliard and Fox could both find themselves in reserve roles with the emergence of undrafted rookie LaAdrian Waddle. The dreadlocked first-year tackle fared well in his first start against Dallas and is gunning for a permanent starting role sooner than later.
If I were grading on a scale relative to expectation, this unit would grade a lot lower than it does here. While they've been strong most weeks, they have not produced the impact or consistently disruptive play that the talent level merits.
Ndamukong Suh was arguably the league's defensive MVP through the first four weeks, but he has cooled off. The tackle remains disruptive but is not notching the impact plays needed. His propensity for untimely, undisciplined penalties are a lingering issue as well.
The new starters at the end spots, Willie Young and Ziggy Ansah, have provided more juice than anything the Lions got from the position in 2012. Young has been consistently disruptive, although he did commit at least one penalty in the first halves of each of the first five games this season.
Ansah has three sacks (he has lost two others on penalties) and two of those sacks have forced fumbles. He's been noticeably quiet the past three weeks, however, perhaps hitting the rookie wall. Fortunately fellow rookie Devin Taylor, a fourth-round pick, has shown a spark in the past few games.
Tackle Nick Fairley has been a big disappointment. Two fumble recoveries salvage him from an individual failing grade. Reserve tackles C.J. Mosley and Andre Fluellen have shown good effort but have made scant contributions in the stat book.
Also disappointing is reserve end Israel Idonije, who appears over the hill in his first season away from Chicago. The team misses Jason Jones, who was lost early on with a season-ending knee injury.
One area to watch heading into the second half of the season is gap integrity against the run. The Lions started strong in this department, but such discipline dramatically waned in Weeks 4-7.
DeAndre Levy is a viable candidate for Most Improved Player in the league. I firmly believe that based on his strong play. The biggest change is that Levy is now producing turnovers. His four interceptions are four more turnovers than he created last year.
Levy's coverage has been quite good. In fact, Pro Football Focus (subscription required) has graded him as the top coverage linebacker in the league through the first seven weeks.
Stephen Tulloch started the season strong but has faded. He is still racking up tackles, and his two sacks and one interception are nice impact plays. Yet he has appeared slower and more vulnerable in coverage as the season has progressed. He was downright awful against Cincinnati.
Ashlee Palmer is the only other linebacker who sees meaningful reps. He's got a lot of energy and crashes into the backfield versus the run well. The Lions use three corners significantly more than they do three linebackers.
Detroit ranks near the bottom in yards per carry allowed (29th). While some of that falls on the defensive line, the linebackers are also at fault.
Most everyone expected this to be the weakest point of the defense heading into the 2013 season. In that sense, they have not disappointed.
Corner Chris Houston played well early but badly regressed. He was terrible in the losses to Arizona, Green Bay and Cincinnati—a game in which he was benched. Ball awareness remains his biggest challenge.
The other starting corner position has been a revolving door. Second-round pick Darius Slay started early but was benched after getting hopelessly lost against the Cardinals. He has rebounded to turn in some solid efforts against Chicago and Dallas but overall rates as a disappointment.
Veteran Rashean Mathis has battled a groin injury which has limited his effectiveness. He was quite good against Cleveland and broke up three passes against the Bengals. Like Houston, his coverage is inconsistent.
Bill Bentley has been very active in run support from the slot corner. He still holds too much in coverage, however. The second-year player does not lack confidence and has shown enough improvement that he figures to keep his role going forward.
Safety has at least been stable with Louis Delmas and Glover Quin. They represent a significant upgrade over recent seasons. Delmas has stayed healthy, which is a major plus. He is the leader of the back end, and his ranginess in coverage has been a tremendous asset.
Quin excels at short-area coverage and snuffing out runs as he crashes around the C gap. He has chipped in two interceptions and a fumble recovery.
The play of Delmas and Quin is a big reason why the Lions have played so well on third downs.
David Akers has been very good as the replacement for longtime kicker Jason Hanson. He has just one miss on the season, albeit a costly one against Arizona. Two of his kicks have been blocked but neither was his fault.
Punter Sam Martin has proved eminently worthy of the fifth-round draft pick. However, his late shank against Cincinnati cost the Lions a win. Martin picked a real bad time for the worst kick of his career. Even so, his proclivity for producing touchbacks on kickoffs and preventing returns on punts has been consistently outstanding.
Micheal Spurlock reliably catches the football on punts. Other than one great return against the Bears, that's the only positive he brings to the table. The Lions would actually be better off on kick returns by calling fair catch in the end zone than having Spurlock return it.
When replacement Jeremy Ross ripped his first kick return attempt 44 yards against Dallas, the Ford Field crowd exploded in praise. Expect a changing of the guard as far as returners are concerned in the second half of the season.