It's that time again (to floss? To make bubbles with my spit?). I may not be hosting the Wheel of Morality, but I'm ready to grade the Detroit Lions on their first quarter performance.
The first four games brought us another Matt Stafford injury, a breakout performance by Javid Best, some failed comebacks, and a lot of questions. Do the Lions have a chance to salvage this season? Is this another repeat of last year's 2-14 or the previous 0-16, or are the Lions actually improved? Are Schwartz's days numbered? Is Stafford a bust, an injury magnet, or just plain unlucky? Is the curse still alive?
Moral No. 4: The answer, my friends, is blowing in the wind. Except in New Jersey, where what's blowing in the wind smells funny.
Translation: I dunno. Nobody knows what the future holds, except that you can pretty much guarantee something stinks there in the Meadowlands.
These Lions have fallen short four times this season. None of the four could you really consider a blowout, but you can't really call them Lions victories that were stolen either. They've played well enough to win all four, but bad enough to lose all four.
Prior to the season, I predicted an 0-4 start for the Lions. I knew that three division games on the road were tough enough, but to throw in a playoff team as your sole home game was dubious at best. However, I believe the Lions outplayed my expectations in all four games. Not enough to win, but enough not to turn the TV off prior to 5:00 left in the fourth (or earlier). Let's see how the team grades out, shall we?
We've been playing with our backup for all but 30 minutes of our games. Stafford was driven to the ground in the first game and hasn't returned since. Some are starting to think he's injury prone, but after seeing the Vick hit this past week, I'm not sure anyone should think Stafford's hit was any less vicious. After all, Vick was sandwiched between two defenders, Stafford was sandwiched (almost the same angle) between a future Hall of Famer and the Earth.
Shaun Hill has filled in nicely for Stafford. Not great, but nicely. He currently ranks eighth in passing yardage and has a better QB rating than Stafford did last year. He's led quite a few comeback attempts so far in this young season. The downside is the costliness of his turnovers. Interceptions never come at a good time, but his seem to come at the absolute worst times.
The Quarterbacks get a C
I think it would be drastically different if Stafford was playing. Hill has been decent, very good and bad all in one package, so he gets an average grade.
Javid Best is making a case for Rookie of the Year. The problem is that he's been erratic. Two TDs against Chicago, but no yardage. Unbelievable stats against Philadelphia. Nearly nothing against Minnesota and average at best against the Packers. Nearly 500 total yards with five touchdowns in four games still puts him on track for a great season, though.
Aside from Best, there's not much to say about the others. Bad to average, a few receptions, hardly any production. If you ever want to look for a symbol of why the Lions are 2-30 in the last two seasons, you barely need to look further than here. It's pretty obvious the difference in talent between Best and Smith.
The Running Backs get a C+
Best has been good. Not great, but above average. The other backs wouldn't crack a D.
Wide Receivers/Tight Ends
As much as people are knocking individuals, the Detroit Lions are boasting the seventh best passing game in the NFL right now. Calvin Johnson's been a bit of a missing piece, but came on strong against Green Bay. Detroit currently had four players in the top 30 in receptions (Pettigrew, Johnson, Best and Scheffler), Pettigrew is also in the top 30 in receiving yards, and Johnson is in the top 20 in receiving TDs.
While their production is top-notch, the biggest thing they need to improve is the dropped balls. However, that has improved immensely over last year and years prior. This unit is so young that the production they're having now is only going to get better.
The Wide Receivers/Tight Ends get a solid B
They're producing when they're given the ball, but they're still making the mistakes of young players. While none of the mistakes (save Johnson's TD gaffe against Chicago) have proven devastating, they're still enough to knock this unit down from an A.
Blame Backus all you want for the Stafford injury, this line is still the best we've seen in seven years. They've given up only eight sacks against some of the most punishing defenses in the NFL. To put things into perspective, the last time the Lions averaged two or less sacks per game was 2003 (how the hell did Joey Harrington get sacked less than once a game???). Most years since then, we were sacked an average of three times, with one year of four per game. Last year after four games, the Lions had been sacked 11 times.
As for the run blocking, though, they've been below average. The Lions have rushed for only 321 yards, good for 24th in the league. Now, they've also faced two of the top 10 run defenses in Minnesota and Chicago, so that might be part of the equation, as we had decent running games against Philly and the Packers. Add in the fact that the Lions usually were trailing, and that might answer that as well.
The Offensive Line gets a B-
They've protected the pass better than any Lions team in recent history, but I'm worried about the run blocking.
Overall, this Lions offense has been everything we've expected. They've put up big yards, kept up with the opponents, and stepped up when someone's injured.
The Total Offense gets a B-
They're making costly mistakes, but they didn't fall apart when Stafford went down, and they haven't given up on seemingly unwinnable games.
The defensive line was upgraded immensely this year and it shows. Ndamukong Suh has recorded three sacks and 13 tackles. He's also been in the quarterback's face countless times and knocked a few passes down. For an interior defensive lineman, that's seriously amazing. Vanden Bosch has also contributed 1.5 sacks and 15 tackles.
In total, this line has sacked the QB 11 times and recorded 61 tackles with one interception. This time last year, the sack total for the Lions team was only six. The only drawback is that we've given up far too many yards on the ground, and this unit is partially responsible for that.
The Defensive Line gets a B+
Wow, is there anything positive here? Wait, Peterson has picked up a fumble. Yeah, that's about it. Between Peterson (12), Palmer (11) and Follett (seven), our three leading linebackers in tackles equate to one Brian Urlacher. The 34 total tackles by all linebackers is atrocious, especially compared to a unit like the Bears, whose three leading linebackers have 74 tackles alone.
We've been killed by the run and the short pass which falls directly in the linebackers' area of expertise. There's no reason that the linebackers should have half the number of tackles the defensive line, or a third of the secondary's. Of all the units on defense, this is easily the worst and it makes the other two look worse because of it.
The Linebackers get an F
I can't even say they get any better than a D-minus. What tackles they're not missing are not seen because they're not in position.
The scapegoat of the Lions defense. Perhaps the most unfairly judged of all the units on this Lions team (even worse than the offensive line). The secondary has been above average this year. Really. This young group has been covering very well, with the exception of a small handful of plays. Many people are concentrating on the exceptions rather than the rule, but it's easy to remember the bad plays and a lot harder to remember the entire picture.
The secondary has recorded 90 tackles, as opposed to the 34 for the linebackers and 61 for the line. Considering the run/pass ratio has been nearly one to one, there's no reason the secondary should have the number of tackles they do.
Too many run plays are broken into the secondary, and that puts the spotlight on a secondary who's usually defending the pass. Only once did I see true broken coverage, on the Berrien touchdown. Otherwise, I've seen great coverage, including the TD pass to DeSean Jackson, where the defender didn't "sell" the push-off.
They've broken up a good number of passes, and intercepted four so far (compared to last year's team total of three through four games). The only knock I'd have on them is the dropped interceptions (four against Philly alone). I think those will improve.
The Secondary gets a B-
They're playing about as well as I expected them to, but the giant hole in the linebacking area makes them look worse than they are. Blown coverage and dropped interceptions hurt, but not only does that happen to the best of teams, it gets better with experience.
The defense has kept this team in all four games. They held a surging Chicago to 19 points, stymied Philadelphia in the second half when they needed to catch up, and held Favre and Rodgers to numbers uncharacteristic of them.
The biggest concern right now is the run defense, as they allowed Adrian Peterson to run reckless and weren't able to stop Green Bay from running the clock out with over five minutes left.
As bad as the pass defense seems (241 yards a game—25th in the NFL), it's vastly improved over last year and seems to be getting better with every game. Five interceptions and 11 sacks are great improvements over last year's three INTs and six sacks, and the Lions are giving up seven points less per game than last year's version.
The Total Defense gets a C+
The linebackers are really hurting us, but the other two units are exceeding our expectations.
Really, the best unit for the Lions thus far. Definitely the most improved. Last year after four games, the Lions were averaging 22 yards per kickoff return and 17 on punts. This year, they're averaging 24.5 yards per kickoff return and 7.2 on punts (the only down).
Last year, their opponents averaged 29.9 yards per kickoff return with one TD, and 11.8 yards per punt. This year, it's down to 18.8 yards per kickoff and 5.1 per punt with NO touchdowns for either. That's an amazing turnaround in just one year.
The best kickoff return any team has had against the Lions ended at the 34-yard line. The Lions have also successfully recovered an onside kick. They've forced one fumble and let up one turnover (the muff by Logan). Hanson's also hitting 75 percent of his field goals, with a perfect score inside the 40. The biggest downers were the muff by Logan, and a couple of face mask penalties. Both could be attributed to youth.
The Special Teams get a B+
They've really given the most this year, and have been great. Young mistakes keep it out of the A range, but any time you out-return the Bears, that has to feel good.
Coaching and Team Grade
The coaching has been okay. They haven't taken many chances, a fact that some think is indicative of their poor coaching. However, they've done what they feel is right, and I haven't seen any blatant coaching mistakes (a la Belichick not punting versus Indy), aside from possibly the FG against Minnesota.
They haven't blamed anyone for the losses, nor the circumstances, which gains my confidence.
The Coaching gets a C+
Better than average, but no real "Come to Jesus" moments.
The Team gets a C+
They haven't gotten over the hump, but with this schedule and an injured starting QB, not many teams would. They've shown some youthful mistakes, but have shown signs of a dominant team in the near future. They haven't won a game, but they never gave up, and were in every game until the end (even the 14-point loss to Minnesota was salvageable).
The future looks bright, with a winnable set of games on the schedule. After competing with our division rivals at their house, I think that all three could be winnable at Ford Field. The AFC East teams all look vulnerable, and the NFC East isn't the beast they used to be. My prediction was 7-9, but I did predict 0-4. Considering they're better than I thought at that time, I still think 6-8 wins is possible, if not probable.