7 Detroit Lions Facing Most Pressure in 2nd Half of Season
For the second time in the last five years, the Detroit Lions are 6-2 at the halfway point of the season.
For the first time in more than a decade, the Lions are winning and the fans aren't scratching their heads, confused as to how.
The Lions head into their bye week with an undefeated record on the road and a 2-2 record at home that is somehow considered disappointing.
And yet, there are mixed opinions of these Lions, not only around the league, but within Detroit. The stretch this team has to end the season is absolutely brutal, if only because there is no other team that has to play the Green Bay Packers twice in its last six games.
In other words, if the Lions are going to keep playing in January, they need to play even better than they have in the first half. And that hinges on getting production from some key guys, and they know it.
So who is under the most pressure to keep this roll going in the second half?
The first one is easy.
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So far, so good.
The Detroit Lions have played eight games, and Matthew Stafford has started eight games. He failed to finish two games, but that was because he only needed three quarters to blow out the opposition in those games.
Stafford is now back over 50 percent of games started, and has taken enough punishment (more on that later) to dispel the "injury-prone" label.
Stafford played hurt against the Broncos, and it turned out to be his best game in almost a month. The kid has had some growing pains this year, but he will need to step up his play and his toughness to finish the season.
That will start in Week 10, when the Lions visit the place Stafford has never left healthy: Soldier Field.
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Ndamukong Suh has two very different microscopes on him right now.
One is the microscope of public opinion labeling him as a "dirty" player. And really, that kind of reputation has spread to infect the entire team. Suh didn't do anything of note on Sunday, but his reputation puts him at the epicenter of that discussion, even if it's one of his teammates doing something wrong.
Suh is attempting to deal with that in his meeting with league officials today.
The other issue is that Suh has been relatively quiet this season. That's not to say that he hasn't been effective, because the defensive line in general has been very good, and much of that stems from Suh pulling double-teams on every down.
But Suh seems to be wearing down a little bit, and as the Lions pull further into the playoff discussion and the stage gets bigger, Suh will be expected to step up his game even higher than the elevated level it's running at already.
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For Jahvid Best, bad things happen in twos.
Last year, it was turf toe injuries. This year, concussions.
Considering how the only reason Jahvid Best slipped to the bottom of the first round in the 2010 draft was his injury history (concussions in particular), this is less than encouraging.
And even worse is that the running game has gotten more consistent in his absence.
Best certainly provides an explosive spark when he gets it going, but even when healthy, he has been terribly inconsistent. He doesn't need to break an 80-yard touchdown every game, but he can't keep getting outplayed by Maurice Morris, or the whispers about his draft status are going to start creeping in.
Of course, it's downright wrong to put all this on Jahvid himself, which brings me to my next point.
The Offensive Line
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This will probably sound like a broken record by the end of the season.
In fact, it probably already does, which is why I've more or less just accepted that everybody knows the offensive line is bad and talked about other things.
But that doesn't remove the pressure. The Lions are just about out of other areas of the team to correct. They are strong and deep at just about every position, and even the questionable ones have young talent trying to come into their own (see: safety).
That is, of course, except the offensive line, which has been left in place like an old piece of twine on a leaky pipe. Really, Jim Schwartz is a smart man. He knows his line isn't great, and even if they were, they're aging. One way or another, they need replacement in no fewer than three positions.
In other words, Jeff Backus, Dominic Raiola and Stephen Peterman are playing for their jobs. It has been hard to zero in on one of them, because it seems like each week they all play a little below average and one gets completely abused. But it's always a different one, so it gives the impression that only the one guy is playing poorly and that it's an anomaly.
It's not. It's bad everywhere, and everybody can see it. But there are no better options on the bench, so the line isn't really facing much pressure this season. Except that what they do in the second half of this season will determine what happens to them in the offseason. These guys, quite literally, are playing for their jobs.
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Cliff Avril is quietly tied with Kyle Vanden Bosch for the team lead in both sacks (five) and forced fumbles (three).
Nobody is really talking about him right now, but he is on pace for a career year. Which is good, considering this is also contract year for him.
Avril's performance will come under greater scrutiny as the season goes on and the quality of competition (and the scale of the games) increases. But Avril has to know he is going to be a hot commodity at his current rate, especially if he finishes the season as strong as he started it.
The best thing about Avril is that he appears to still be getting better. He still isn't a great run-stopper, but he isn't the same blow-by player he was a couple years ago. And even if he was, he is turning into one of the league's most underrated sack masters, and that will always, always fetch top dollar on the open market.
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There should be no further questions regarding whether Calvin Johnson can play, or to his abilities as a receiver.
The question now is whether the record is a reasonable possibility. Johnson is on pace to break the single-season touchdown record for a receiver set by Randy Moss in 2007. And even the Lions' toughest opponents in the second half aren't there because of stifling defense (Packers, Saints).
So, with the double-teams coming in every game this season, can Johnson continue this torrid pace and make NFL history?
Or will he just end up being a regular old Pro Bowler?
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How many times have you heard and uttered the words "That was just a great play by Louis Delmas."
Once? If that?
The man who was supposed to be ready to come into his own as a major playmaker has become known more for missed tackles than anything.
Delmas has a great front seven in front of him and a healthy body, two things that were blamed for his inconsistency in his first two years.
Now Delmas is solid, but basically invisible. And he's still young, but he overruns plays, misses deep assignments and is more concerned with sticking a highlight-reel hit than finishing a tackle.
He is sixth on the team in tackles, with no interceptions, sacks or fumbles. And lots of his tackles involve bringing someone down 40 yards downfield.
I don't see Delmas as a player who needs any immediate replacement, but he hasn't exactly rounded into the superstar people expected. I'm not even convinced Delmas is better right now than Amari Spievey. Delmas probably has a higher ceiling, but he's not playing to it right now.
Could he still get there? Sure he could. But that's why he's under pressure late in the 2011 season. Because he's not there yet. Not nearly.