So far, so good... right?
After all of the improvements and progression of the Detroit Lions' roster, they've jumped off to a surprising 5-3 record heading into their bye week. Detroit is currently in a three-way tie for the NFC North with the Chicago Bears and Green Bay Packers. With some big signature victories thus far, the Lions are looking to build on their early-season success.
Regardless of all outside expectations and predictions, this is a much improved team with their sights set on another postseason appearance. With a rematch against each division foe and a favorable schedule, things are looking up for the Lions.
Detroit is in a prime position to strike in the weaker NFC conference. However, nothing is promised, and success doesn't come easy in the NFL. The Lions have a few hills to climb and a couple objectives to accomplish in order to get to the playoffs. If these checkpoints have been reached, Detroit's postseason chances are looking bright.
1. Get healthy
NFL success has to come with a few bumps and bruises, and the Lions have dealt with their fair share this season. Detroit has managed a winning 5-3 record throughout a number of injuries.
The Lions lost big pieces in defensive lineman Jason Jones (ruptured patella tendon) and wide receiver Ryan Broyles (Achilles) for the season. The offensive line has dealt with its issues as well, with tackles Riley Reiff, Corey Hilliard and Jason Fox all appearing on the injury report this past week. We've all heard about the Nate Burleson pizza situation, and other key pieces like Reggie Bush, Calvin Johnson, Ziggy Ansah and Rashean Mathis have had their episodes this season as well.
Now is the prime time to heal up and take advantage of a favorable schedule ahead. Burleson is not expected to return Week 10, but he's made significant progression and will give the receiving corps a boost.
2. Third down success
One of the biggest signs of a young team breaking through is how you fare on third down. In 2013, Detroit has been one of the best on third down on both sides of the ball.
The Lions rank second in the NFL defensively allowing only 29-percent conversions and seventh in the league on offense converting 42.5-percent. Before the bye week, Detroit was also ranked second in total first downs with 185.
Defensively, the Lions have seen elevated performances from linebacker DeAndre Levy, tackle Ndamukong Suh and other key players who have helped the stability on third down. This defensive unit has improved to a degree in open-field tackling and proper angles to the ball resulting in their great third down numbers.
The new-look offensive line has played a vital role on third down offense by protecting quarterback Matthew Stafford and creating plays for backs Reggie Bush and Joique Bell.
3. Schedule advantage
In perfect time to recover, the Lions have a nice stretch of winnable games. Winning streaks don't come easy in the NFL, but Detroit needs to come out on top through at least half of the next eight games coming up.
Outside of the division opponents coming up, the combined record of each team (Steelers, Buccaneers, Eagles, Ravens, Giants) is 11 wins and 30 losses. Only Pittsburgh and Philadelphia are on the road, and the other four are home at Ford Field.
Inside the division, this could be a prime position for the Lions to strike. The Green Bay Packers may have to suffer without their elite gunslinger, Aaron Rodgers, after he injured his shoulder against the Chicago Bears on Monday. The Vikings sit at 1-7 with a current four-game losing streak. Chicago is reportedly getting back quarterback Jay Cutler against Detroit in Week 10, which is far ahead of the original plan. Head coach Marc Trestman aimed at four weeks of Cutler's absence, but he's only missed one game after tearing his groin. Cutler might not be completely healthy, and attacking him should be at the top of Detroit's game plan.
4. Where's the pressure?
The Lions' front four is still the focal point of the defense. As important as the line is to their success, Jim Schwartz's defensive front has underachieved. Even with Jason Jones done for the season, Detroit's front wall must do better than what they've done recently.
The Lions rank 29th in sacks with only 13 on the season, and they only have four sacks in the last four games. Given the depth on the outside and inside of this rush, Detroit should be creating much more havoc than that.
Defensive coordinator Gunther Cunningham doesn't draw up many blitzes for the Lions, mainly because it leaves the weak cornerbacks exposed.
Defensive tackle Ndamukong Suh might be playing the best ball of his career, totaling 3.5 sacks and absorbing constant double and triple teams, which creates one-on-one matchups for his teammates. First-round pick Ziggy Ansah has rounded up three sacks and could present a Defensive Rookie of the Year case with a stronger second half of the season. He's currently nursing an ankle injury suffered against the Dallas Cowboys.
Detroit returns Sunday to face Jay Cutler and the Chicago Bears on the road. The Lions teed off on Cutler in Week 4, causing three interceptions, four total turnovers and three sacks. Pressure on Cutler creates frustration and an out of sync Chicago offense. With their franchise quarterback playing but still recovering, Detroit has to take advantage.