Detroit Lions: 5 Players Who Are Exceeding Expectations

Ty Schalter@tyschalterNFL National Lead WriterNovember 9, 2011

Detroit Lions: 5 Players Who Are Exceeding Expectations

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    The Detroit Lions have enjoyed amazing success en route to their 6-2 start. While many predicted the Lions would have a very real chance to make the 2011 NFL playoffs, almost no one foresaw the Lions suffering only two losses in the first half of the season.

    Now, with eight games in the books and eight left to play, the Lions are theoretically on pace for a 12-4 season. That would tie their 1991 franchise record for wins in a season, and be only the third time since the Lions had won double-digit games.

    It's no surprise receiver Calvin Johnson is a dynamic threat that opposing defenses struggle to contain. Several Lions players have stepped up their game this season, though, drastically outperforming expectations. Without the surprising contributions of these five players, the Lions 6-2 start—and anything more they hope to achieve—would be impossible.

Willie Young, Defensive End

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    Willie Young wasn't supposed to fit into the Lions defense. A seventh-round pick from 2010, Young's long spindly legs and 250-pound frame didn't match the three-down Lions DE mold. However, Young's body is developing quickly and his talent is obvious.

    Though he's played in just 138 snaps, Young has 10 tackles, two sacks and a batted pass. According to Pro Football Focus, Young has three quarterback hits and 12 pressures; both are second-best amongst Lions DEs.

    Young is also PFF's highest-graded Lions defensive lineman on the season so far, and it isn't close. His plus-9.6 grade makes him PFF's 12th-best 4-3 defensive end, right behind John Abraham. Look for much more from Willie Young before the season ends.

Stephen Peterman, Offensive Guard

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    Lions fans loved to hate Stephen Peterman last season, and with good reason: his injury-hampered 2010 performance produced a lot of awful game film.

    This season, Lions fans were hoping Peterman could return to his outstanding 2009 form. That hasn't quite been the case, but Pro Football Focus grades Peterman as their 15th-best offensive guard to date (ninth-best right guard).

    Peterman's excellent plus-5.1 pass-blocking grade is 10th-best amongst NFL guards to date; his plus-1.0 screen blocking grade puts him in a nine-way tie for eighth-best. His minus-0.9 run blocking grade isn't as excellent, but it's enough to rank him 27th out of 74 qualifying guards in that area.

    All told, Peterman is having a very solid season on the heels of a disastrous one.

Aaron Berry, Cornerback

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    The Lions' training camp competition at the cornerback position was exactly that: competitive. Besides presumed starters Chris Houston and Eric Wright, players like Alphonso Smith and Brandon McDonald looked to have earned serious playing time, and Nate Vasher and Prince Miller also had solid arguments for making the roster.

    The Lions not only kept Berry over Vasher and Miller, they gave him an interesting role: he plays the right outside cornerback in nickel formations, while Wright slides over the slot. In this "third starter" role, Berry has 15 tackles and a whopping eight passes defensed, all while playing only 248 of 580 snaps.

    At plus-3.3 overall, Berry is also Pro Football Focus's second highest-rated Lions defensive back, behind Chris Houston (19th overall).

Stephen Tulloch, Middle Linebacker

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    Expectations were high for Stephen Tulloch this season. For the first time since Jim Schwartz took over, the Lions would have a middle linebacker who was talented, in his prime and a perfect fit for the system.

    Tulloch has been a revelation, notching 52 tackles, three sacks and a pick in just his first eight games of work. He's graded out as Pro Football Focus' fourth-best inside linebacker in the NFL—behind only Ray Lewis, Patrick Willis and Brian Cushing.

Matthew Stafford, Quarterback

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    Expectations were quite high for Matthew Stafford in his third year—if he could stay healthy, of course. Though Stafford had shown flashes of outstanding play in his first two years, he'd struggled to stay upright and had thrown a lot of picks.

    So far, Stafford has completed 61.2 percent of his 299 attempts for 2,179 yards, 19 touchdowns and four interceptions. Multiply those last three numbers by two and you'll have an idea of just how ridiculous a year Stafford's on pace to have: 4,358 yards and 38 touchdowns with just eight interceptions.

    It's the best statistical season any Lions quarterback has had since 1995, when Scott Mitchell threw for 4,338 yards, 32 touchdowns and 12 interceptions. Since that year was the most prolific any Lions quarterback has ever put together, it's only fitting to say Stafford's exceeding even the fantastic expectations Lions fans had of him.