LIONS INSIDER

TWENTYMAN: Grading the first half of the season

Posted Nov 4, 2013

Tim Twentyman takes a position-by-position look at the 5-3 Lions

The Detroit Lions will get back to work Tuesday after a mini vacation for the bye week.

Having a Week 9 bye right at the midway point of the season allowed players a chance to reflect back on the first eight games and get their minds and bodies right for a playoff run in the second half.

At 5-3, the team has positioned itself nicely for at least a wildcard spot with four games at home, four on the road and the win-loss record of those next eight opponents well under .500.

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

"I mean we are 5-3 and I don’t think there is anything else that you can say other than that," head coach Jim Schwartz said before the bye.

The first half showed us this offense can put up points, and be very explosive. The trio of Matthew Stafford, Calvin Johnson and Reggie Bush helped the Lions rank sixth in scoring at 27.1 points per game, and third in total offense (416 yards per game).

We’ve also learned that it can be feast or famine sometimes on the other side of the ball as the defense ranks 25th in total yards (381.0), 25th in pass defense (272.5) and 18th in scoring (24.6).

"I don’t put grades on it, I don’t know if it is a D, an A, a B, a C or an F, I don’t know, it will tell over the course of the year," Schwartz said of the team’s first-half performance.

"We found a way to get five wins and we found a way to lose three games. That’s just where it is. We are only halfway through the season and the tale of this season is not going to be written in the first half, it is going to be written in the second half and that is what we have to concentrate on."

QUARTERBACK

GRADE: B-Plus

Stafford’s 2,617 passing yards trails only Peyton Manning (2,919) and Drew Brees (2,672) at the midway point. Maybe more important is his touchdown-to-turnover ratio of 16-6.

Reducing the turnovers and being more efficient were big goals heading into the season for Stafford after having just 20 touchdowns and 17 interceptions last year.

Stafford is completing 62.4 percent of his passes despite the fact the Lions continue to be among the league leaders in dropped passes (25).

He’s had a revolving door at receiver through the first eight games and has completed passes to 13 different pass catchers, including seven different wide receivers. He’s played one game without Calvin Johnson and five without Nate Burleson.

Stafford has taken every one of the Lions’ 556 snaps through the first eight games and is rated among the top quarterbacks in the NFL (120.9) when it matters the most in the fourth quarter.

Stafford, 25, will ultimately be graded on wins and losses, but his start is one of the big reasons the Lions are in the playoff hunt.

RUNNING BACK

GRADE: B-Plus

The Lions knew they needed a versatile player like Reggie Bush in their offense and that’s why they made him such a priority in free agency.

At the midway point, the Lions seem to have hit a homerun with that signing. Bush has 518 rushing yards and 355 receiving yards and is on pace for more than 1,700 total yards this season.

The offense is only averaging about 98.1 rushing yards per game, but that doesn’t account for what the running back position provides from a receiving standpoint in an offense predicated on the pass. It also doesn’t account for the threat of the run and how that translates into freeing up Calvin Johnson and some of the other outside weapons downfield.

The Dallas Cowboys had a game plan to stop Bush and Johnson had 329 receiving yards. Earlier in the season, the Minnesota Vikings tried to take Johnson out of the game and Bush had 190 total yards. That’s the true impact.

Backup Joique Bell continues to be a solid as a runner (236 yards), receiver (296) and blocker. He provides a nice one-two punch from the backfield with Bush. Offensive coordinator Scott Linehan even utilized both players’ skillsets on the field together.

The Lions are averaging 120 rushing yards in their five wins and 63.3 in their three losses. They are 4-0 when they’ve rushed at least 27 times in a game this year. Those are important statistics to remember going forward.

The Lions need to limit the 23 negative rushes (not counting six kneel downs) from the first half, but overall, they’ve gotten the impact they’ve hoped for from the position.

WIDE RECEIVERS

GRADE: B-

The NFL’s leading receiver is coming off the second-best receiving game in league history (329 yards) the last time he was on the field.

Calvin Johnson set an NFL record with 484 receiving yards in his last two games vs. Dallas and Cincinnati.

His mere presence has allowed Bush to see lighter boxes and has allowed him to make a big impact in the passing game.

After Johnson, the team’s leading receivers are two running backs (Bush and Bell) and tight end Brandon Pettigrew.

Part of that is Burleson missing five games because of a broken forearm. Burleson was the team’s leading receiver through the first three games of the season with 19 catches for 239 yards.

Burleson could be back as early as this week, which should bolster the unit.

Kris Durham has turned into a fine option for Stafford on the outside. He’s faster than people give him credit for and he’s made a number of huge catches in the first half, none bigger than the 40-yarder down the sideline in the last minute against Dallas that helped win that game.

With Ryan Broyles gone for the year (Achilles), the Lions will need Burleson to get back soon and for Kevin Ogletree and Jeremy Ross to continue to emerge in reserve roles.

The unit is still dropping too many passes week-to-week, but the chemistry is building with Stafford.

TIGHT ENDS

GRADE: C-Plus

Give Pettigrew some credit, he had a rough start to the season but has bounced back very strong over the last month or so. Pettigrew has always been an above-average blocker, but is proving to be a very sure-handed receiver recently as well.

Rookie Joseph Fauria blew onto the scene with five touchdowns in his first seven catches, including a three-touchdown performance in Cleveland, but he’s gone quiet ove the last two games against Cincinnati and Dallas. Fauria has just one catch for 15 yards over the last two games and was exposed as a blocker against Dallas.

With the release of Tony Scheffler and Michael Williams on injured reserve, the Lions are light at the position and will need Fauria to recapture some of his earlier form.

OFFENSIVE LINE

GRADE: A-

One of the biggest question marks coming into the season has turned out to be one of the most pleasant surprises of the first half.

Rookie Larry Warford, a heavier Dominic Raiola and an always solid Rob Sims have really solidified the inside of that line, which was the biggest problem spot last year. Warford is a legitimate Pro Bowl candidate at the midway point.

Second-year tackle Riley Reiff has been very good and the Lions have gotten good contributions from Corey Hilliard and rookie LaAdrian Waddle on the right side.

With injuries to both Hilliard (knee vs. Cincinnati) and tackle Jason Fox (knee at Green Bay), Waddle had a strong showing his first career start against Dallas.

The unit has allowed just 10 sacks in eight games, which is best in the NFL, and comes out to only 2.9 percent of the time Stafford drops back to pass.

SAFETIES

GRADE: B

Glover Quin has really been one of the unsung heroes for the Lions secondary. Paired with a healthier Louis Delmas, the position is in much better hands than it’s been in the past.

Quin and Delmas have combined for 11 pass breakups and four interceptions. In fact, when the Lions have two or more interceptions in a game this year, they are 3-0.

That’s not to say things have been perfect in the back end, though. The Lions continue to give up too many big plays in both the passing and run games and the play at safety does factor into that.

CORNERS

GRADE: C-

Inconsistent is the best word to use to describe the play from this position over the first eight games of the season.

The Lions rank 25th in pass defense and have just one interception from a cornerback.

The two players who entered the year as starters -- Chris Houston and Darius Slay – have been benched at some point already this season.

Veteran Rashean Mathis, who the team signed midway through training camp Aug. 17, has been somewhat of a savior for the unit. He’s played the most consistent football of anyone in the position.

Houston gained a lot of his confidence back last week with a very good performance against Dallas, but he needs to put good performances on top of good performances moving forward.

Second-year nickel cornerback Bill Bentley got off to a rocky start but has been pretty steady in the middle over the last month or so.

The Lions need to continue to improve on the outside if they ever hope to stop the likes of Aaron Rodgers, Drew Brees, Colin Kaepernick and the other elite NFC passing attacks.

LINEBACKERS

GRADE: B

The emergence of outside linebacker DeAndre Levy has to make this one of the most improved units on the team. Levy seems so comfortable in this scheme and his four interceptions prove he can be a playmaker.

Middle linebacker Stephen Tulloch dealt with knee pain last season and still managed to play all 16 games and lead the team in tackles with 112. With that behind him, Tulloch seems a step faster and is on pace for a 130-tackle performance.

Ashlee Palmer, who stepped in as a starter for Justin Durant this year, has also played well through the first part of the season as a two-down linebacker.

The biggest concern right now for the entire front seven has been the big play in the rushing game. The Lions are still the only team in the NFL that’s allowed four 40-plus-yard runs this season. The Lions are 29th in the league in yards per rush allowed (4.7). The defensive line is the first line of defense, but the linebackers have to be better cleaning up some of those runs in the second level.

DEFENSIVE LINE

GRADE: C-Plus

Ndamukong Suh continues to dominate. According to Pro Football Focus, Suh leads all defensive tackles in quarterback hurries (31) and ranks among the top pass-rushing defensive tackles in the NFL.

The Lions have just 13 sacks on the season, but that’s a bit deceptive. They’ve gotten good pressure in some games that haven’t resulted in sacks.

A pressure that leads to an interception, which has happened on a number of occasions for the Lions through the first eight games (three times for Suh in particular), doesn’t count on the stat sheet, but any defensive coordinator would take that scenario over a sack any day.

The Lions have failed to get adequate pressure in three games this season – Arizona, Green Bay and Cincinnati -- All three of which were losses.

Willie Young has stepped in for Jason Jones (ruptured patellar tendon) and has played pretty well in his fourth season.

Ziggy Ansah has been pretty quiet the last month after getting off to a three-sack start in his first three games. He hasn’t recorded one since. It was kind of expected the rookie would flash, and then disappear at times, but this has been a pretty sustained disappearing act over the last five games.

Defensive tackle Nick Fairley is coming off a good performance against Dallas (three quarterback hits) and the Lions will need more performances like that moving forward. It was his best showing of the season after a very underwhelming first seven games.

SPECIAL TEAMS

David AkersK David Akers (Photo: G.Smith/Detroit Lions)

GRADE: B

The cover teams have not surrendered the big play in any of their first eight games and they’ve faced a gauntlet of good return men in Devin Hester, Patrick Peterson, Randall Cobb, Cordarrelle Patterson, Travis Benjamin and Dwayne Harris, to name a few.

The cover units will only getter, too, with Pro Bowl cover man Montell Owens returning to action in Chicago.

The Lions haven't gotten a whole lot out of their return game outside of a 57-yard punt return by Micheal Spurlock against Chicago that set up a touchdown. Ross had a nice kickoff return of 44 yards against Dallas.

David Akers is 12-of-15 on field goals, but two of those misses have been blocked and not because of bad kicks on his part. They were protection breakdowns. He’s been pretty good.

Sam Martin has 26 touchbacks kicking the ball off when the Lions had just 30 all of last season. Martin ranks third in the NFL in punting average (48.5) and fourth in net average (42.5).

He did drop a snap on field goal against Minnesota earlier this year and shank a punt against Cincinnati that contributed to that loss.