Is this what they mean when they talk about "the difference a year makes?"
It certainly seems that way, as a team that started 2-10 last year is one of only two teams left unbeaten at 4-0. But what do the statistics say about this team, compared to last year?
Well, the most obvious stat says that the Lions are 4-0, as compared to 0-4. But let's break it down a little more than that.
Do the numbers show as much improvement in the Lions as what we've seen on the field, or are they lying like they so often do?
Warning: I'm about to throw a whole bunch of stats at you. All stats brought to you by pro-football-reference.com, NFL.com and some tedious compilation efforts by yours truly.
And Shaun Hill only threw a pass this year because Stafford wasn't needed in the fourth quarter of a 48-3 blowout at home.
You might be surprised to see how close these numbers actually are, but remember that Hill was downright respectable last year in relief of Stafford. Except that he was good for about two picks a game, whereas Stafford has thrown three all season.
Also, Stafford has almost twice many touchdown passes to one guy this season as Hill had to everyone combined.
And this is still a situation where the numbers really don't do justice to how much better Stafford is than Hill, but that's no disrespect to Hill, who was at the helm for half of the Lions' wins last year.
Stafford is a star who is lighting up the scoreboard when it matters, not just padding his passing yards in garbage time. This might be the area where the 4-0 record really is the most important difference.
2011 Stats (min. 10 carries):
2010 Stats (min. 10 carries):
For the record, Maurice Morris has carried the ball only four times this year, as he continues to recover from a thumb injury.
Statistically, the Lions' running game has been a little better than last year, and they appear ever-so-slightly more committed to it based on sheer quantity of carries, though that could be a simple issue of the Lions running more offensive plays overall.
That's hard to believe, since the Lions appear to have all-but-abandoned the running game in every game they've played this year (even the one they won by 45).
Then again, last year's Lions didn't have to play three divisional road games in their first four this year. Chicago and Minnesota shut down what little ground attack the Lions had last year, though Jahvid Best continued to be a factor through the air.
For more on this, check the next slide.
2011 Stats (min. 10 receptions):
2010 Stats (min. 10 receptions):
At first glance, it doesn't look all that different. The Lions' receivers have gotten pretty good production both years.
But if you look closer at the Lions' 2010 numbers, you'll see that only one of the top four receivers is, in fact, an actual receiver. Two tight ends and a running back are mixed in.
In 2011, the Lions have five guys with at least 10 receptions (as compared to four guys over 20), and three of them are receivers.
Also worth noting is that Calvin Johnson has only four more catches than last year, but five more touchdowns and almost twice as many yards. The man catches a touchdown pass once every three receptions. This is where you see Stafford's influence.
The passing game this year is also deeper and more effective. Each of the Lions' leading receivers is averaging over 10 yards per reception, whereas in 2010, two receivers were barely over the mark. That's squarely on the differences in Stafford's arm over Shaun Hill's.
Stafford can hit the deep ball, or laser one in over the middle 20 yards down the field. Hill's a good quarterback; he just doesn't have the same physical tools as Stafford.
It's difficult (and pointless) to table up every defensive player on the Lions and compare stats.
So instead, I will take four key defensive stats (tackles, sacks, interceptions, team stats) and list the results after four games. Will that tell the whole story? No, but what defensive statistic does?
2011 Tackle Leaders:
Stephen Tulloch: 24
Eric Wright: 19
Justin Durant: 18
2010 Tackle Leaders:
Louis Delmas: 25
C.C. Brown: 21
Kyle Vanden Bosch: 20
A couple of things to note here. First, none of the Lions' top three tacklers were with the team last year. That's called improving the defense through free agency.
But there's more. In 2010, the Lions' top two tacklers were safeties, which in most cases means there are too many plays getting to the second level.
This year, two of the top three are linebackers, and one is a cornerback. Stephen Tulloch has been great in every facet of the game, but he has really shined in stuffing the run. These aren't just tackles made after a seven-yard gain. He is making stops.
Justin Durant is third on the team in tackles despite playing only three of four games thus far.
This is an obvious improvement for the linebackers, who have been perhaps the most consistent unit on the defense so far this year.
2011 Sacks Leaders:
Kyle Vanden Bosch: Three
Ndamukong Suh: Two
Stephen Tulloch, Amari Spievey, Cliff Avril, Willie Young: Tied with one
2010 Sacks Leaders:
Ndamukong Suh: Three
Turk McBride/Louis Delmas: Two
Kyle Vanden Bosch/Sammie Hill: 1.5
For reference, Cliff Avril, Lawrence Jackson and Corey Williams also had a sack in the first four games of 2010, bringing the team total to 13, compared to nine in 2011.
Not a huge disparity, certainly (and watch the total jump after the Lions play the Bears this week), but this is one of those situations where the stats doesn't really tell the story.
Sacks are a misleading stat in the first place, but it's even worse in this case. Granted, sacks are harder to come by when an offensive coordinator knows to gameplan around the pressure, and Gunther Cunningham hasn't exactly dialed up blitzes like he did last year.
The reason Tony Romo picked apart the Lions' secondary last week is that he had all day to throw. The Lions got some pressure on him late, but his interceptions were more a product of his bad decision-making than the pressure forcing his hand.
2011 Interception Leaders:
Chris Houston: Three
Stephen Tulloch, Bobby Carpenter, Eric Wright, Amari Spievey: One
2010 Interception Leaders:
Alphonso Smith: Two
Aaron Berry, Chris Houston, Corey Williams: One
This is all about the rise of Chris Houston. The man is one pick away from doubling his career total in interceptions this season. Where he has three this year, last year, he had as many as Corey Williams (and finished the season trailing Williams and Suh in INT return yardage).
This year, he has been a force. He's not just coming up with garbage time picks on halftime heaves or desperation drives. He's ending important drives, shifting momentum and returning bad Romo decisions for touchdowns.
He's also broken up six passes this year. He finished last year with 12 total.
I wonder how many teams are kicking themselves for not giving Houston the money he was looking for in free agency? Through four games this year, he looks greatly improved. A good 12 more games at this level could put him in elite comapny.
2011 Team Defense Statistics:
Passing Yards Allowed per Game: 221.2
Rushing Yards Allowed per Game: 113.0
Points Allowed per Game: 19
2010 Team Defense Statistics:
Passing Yards Allowed per Game: 259.5
Rushing Yards Allowed per Game: 134.5
Points Allowed per Game: 26.5
Individual statistics really don't tell the story. Team stats don't either, but they come a lot closer. The Lions don't look like a much better defense if you only look at sacks and interceptions, but the big picture shows a much nicer scene.
Now, this may be deceptive. Two of the Lions four games have come against a (mostly) Jamaal Charles-less Chiefs, and the Vikings, led by the ghost of Donovan McNabb's future. Not exactly high-octane attacks.
Last year, it was three road divisional games and the Mike Vick-led Eagles at home.
Still, the run defense we've all been concerned about has given up about 20 yards less per game than they did in 2010. The same Adrian Peterson that gashed them for 160 yards in 2010 was held to about half that in 2011.
Meanwhile, the pass defense is giving up almost 40 yards less per game, and has a bunch more interceptions.
The best stat is, of course, that the Lions are allowed a touchdown less per game over last year. A large part of that is something that won't show up on many stat sheets: Teams keep trying to pound the ball against the Lions on fourth-and-short, and nobody ever gets in.
Despite the vast improvement, the Lions are still out of the top 10 in every yardage category and only eighth in scoring defense. There is a long way to go, but the group is at least growing and out of the NFL's statistical basement.
2011 Kicking/Punting Stats
Jason Hanson:10-of-10 FG (3-of-3 from 50-plus yards), 15-of-15 XP
Ryan Donahue: 23 punts, 45.0 Yards per punt
2010 Kicking/Punting Stats
Jason Hanson: 6-of-8 FG, 8/8 XP
Nick Harris: 21 punts, 39.2 Yards per punt
I would compare return yardage, but it seems unfair, given the kickoff rule change. And punt returns are not statistically different this year than last.
There are two things I want to point out here. One is that Jason Hanson's injury, surgery, half-season off and the ensuing lockout might be the best series of things that could have happened to him in the late stages of his career.
Hanson started out looking a bit fatigued and shaky last year. This year, not only is he booming his kickoffs farther (even taking the rule change into effect), but he is more accurate on field goals at any distance.
Hanson is on pace for a 2008-caliber year. And while that doesn't sound great, recall that 2008 was actually a career year for Hanson. He tied Morten Andersen's record for 50-plus yard field goals in a single season, and was two blocked kicks away from a perfect kicking year. Hanson is perfect so far this year, and is on pace to shatter the previous record by going 12-for-12 from 50-plus.
What makes this even more impressive is that he has a different holder than the one he's been working with for most of the last decade.
Ryan Donahue has not only been a flawless holder, but he's booming the ball on punts as well. Most of Donahue's punts this year have been either fair caught or downed inside the 20 (often both).
I wish the best to Nick Harris, but Donahue is proving that the Lions' decision to keep him over the veteran was more than just a cost-saving maneuver.
But to get back to my original point: Jason Hanson for Hall of Fame. Start the campaign now, thank me later.