TIM AND MIKE: What obstacles do the Lions have to overcome to remain at the top?

Posted Nov 13, 2013

Tim Twentyman and Mike O'Hara discuss role players who've been instrumental through 10 weeks and why Pittsburgh (3-6) is a tougher opponent than people are giving them credit for

The most important statistic for the Lions after nine games is their won-lost record. They’re in first place in the NFC North with a 6-3 record.

Calvin Johnson and Matthew StaffordWR Calvin Johnson and QB Matthew Stafford (Photo: G.Smith/Detroit Lions)

But some other stats are important, and players are getting recognized for performance that has resulted in those numbers. What are some of the key stats, and aside from the stars – Calvin Johnson, Matthew Stafford, Ndamukong Suh and Reggie Bush – which players have contributed most to putting the Lions in first place?

Mike: Two stats that stand out are the 3-2 road record, and a 3-1 record in the North. Those have been problem areas in the past, but they’ve been no problem this year.

Sunday’s 21-19 win at Chicago was an example – a double example at that – at how this team has progressed. Soldier Field is a tough place to play for a lot of reasons. One is that the Bears usually are a solid opponent. And the fluky winds and poor condition of the turf make it hard for visiting teams.

The Lions didn’t seem bothered by anything. They hammered the Bears’ running game, got hits on the quarterback, and they played well on offense, with a good blend of passing and running.

Beating division opponents is a priority in winning a division, and the Lions have reversed what they did last year, when they went 0-6 in the North.

The race isn’t over, as Jim Schwartz says constantly, but the Lions are leading the pack. The question now is what obstacles do they have to overcome to remain there?

Tim:  The best formula to being a team that consistently reaches double-digit wins – which in most cases means a playoff team – is to win 6 of 8 at home and split on the road. That totals 10 wins, and more often than not, gets a team to the postseason.

The Lions are 3-2 on the road and 3-1 at home.

They’ve opened as the favorite in every game except the road game in Green Bay. Think about that for a minute. This is a team just a few years ago that lost 26 consecutive games away from home to set an NFL record. Now they are favorites week-after-week on the road, including again Sunday in Pittsburgh (3-6).

This team doesn’t seem to get bothered by a whole lot, including playing on the road, and that's a sign of great veteran leadership, a good locker room and pretty good talent.

Mike: I like the last part – pretty good talent - and I’d say it’s better than "pretty good." They’ve added talent to a good locker room, and that makes for a winning formula.

Players are starting to get noticed around the league, and not just the big names. For example, guard Larry Warford is a nominee for rookie of the week for his performance in the victory at Chicago. He’s a budding All-Pro at right guard.

The breakout player of the last month – a little longer than that, actually – is tight end Brandon Pettigrew. He had a tough start, didn’t catch a pass in a Game 3 win at Washington, but he’s been consistently excellent in the last six games.

He’ll never get recognized the same way receivers such as Jimmy Graham do for putting up big stats, but Pettigrew one of the best two-way tight ends in the league. He’s a mid-range receiving threat, and a load as a blocker.

What he has contributed does not go unnoticed among coaches and teammates.

Tim: I agree completely with Pettigrew and Warford. I think the offensive line as a whole has played very well and is probably the most improved unit on this team.

I’d add LaAdrian Waddle to that list of individual performers. Here’s a guy that’s gone from undrafted to starting right tackle and he's played at a pretty high level the last three weeks.

To your point on Warford, I was talking to someone in the organization the other day and this person said he couldn’t wait until Warford gets "NFL strong," meaning there's still plenty of muscle he can put on. Warford anchors well, but imagine when he gets stronger and perfects the punch and learns to attack defensive lineman. He's still such a young player with a lot to learn.

Sometimes an organization has to have a few breaks and really hit on a player(s). Waddle, Warford and Riley Reiff are terrific young linemen that seem to fit the bill. All are fairly inexpensive when it comes to the salary cap, too. Think about what that means the next few years and what it allows the Lions to do in other spots.

Mike: Getting help from unexpected sources is invaluable in developing a team, and doubly so when talent is added at an inexpensive price. Patriots quarterback Tom Brady is the classic example of that.

The Patriots got him as a sixth-round draft pick, which meant they did not pay a high signing bonus. They had cash to spend on other players until it was Brady’s turn to cash in big.

Waddle and Warford – the WWII duo – don’t compare to a Hall of Fame quarterback, but they’ve brought immense value in their own right.

They have to keep it going, though. Waddle’s had two pro starts, so he hasn’t proven anything. Playing at Pittsburgh Sunday is another big test, as it is for the whole team.

The Steelers have a mystique and a winning tradition. It’s something the Lions have to overcome – along with handling quarterback Ben Roethlisberger. That’s the biggest challenge of all.

Tim: The offensive line needs to continue to do its job in Pittsburgh against that zone-blitzing scheme of Dick LeBeau’s.

The play of the Lions’ defensive line is going to be just as important, however.

The Lions dominated upfront on both sides of the football in Chicago. The offensive line didn’t allow a sack or quarterback hit. On defense, they hit Jay Cutler 11 times, sacked him three more times and pressured him countless others.

Pittsburgh has allowed the second-most sacks in the NFL this year (36) and quarterback Ben Roethlisberger is on pace to being sacked more times this year than in any other season in his career.

Dominate the line of scrimmage – on both sides – and the Lions should win the game as the more talented team.

Am I wrong?

Mike: Not in theory, but it has to be proven on the field. Coming out of the bye, I ranked the Steelers as the Lions’ toughest opponent in their next three games, ahead of the Bears and Bucs. That opinion hasn’t changed.

The Lions have more talent than the Steelers, and they’re favored to win, but there’s something about the Steelers winning tradition and their mystique that makes it hard to pick against them at home.

Put me down as undecided – until Friday.

Tim: This game has the potential to look a lot like the Chicago game last week. It’s a tough road game against a defense that’s good against the pass (fifth) and knows how to get after the quarterback.

If the Lions take care of the football and make a few timely plays on defense, like they did for the most part in Chicago, they have a good shot to come home 7-3 and start their playoff push with home games against Tampa Bay and Green Bay.

I agree with Mike, though, Pittsburgh is a tougher opponent than people are giving them credit for.