MIKE O'HARA

O'HARA'S MONDAY COUNTDOWN: This Lions team is better than that of 2011 and can accomplish more

Posted Oct 14, 2013

Mike O'Hara looks at how this team compares to the the Lions' 5-1 start of 2011, what lies ahead, and the best and worst of the NFL after six weeks

Where to start with so many choices, after a victory in Cleveland that wrapped up the first six games of the Lions’ season that has kept them in the NFC North race with a 4-2 record and sparks comparisons to the 2011 playoff team that was 5-1 after six games.

Is it with Matthew Stafford’s spike after a first-down scramble that fired up the team to make a second-half comeback to win in Cleveland Sunday? But isn’t the quarterback supposed to be the leader, anyway?

With Reggie Bush validating – again – why many thought the Lions made the best free-agent signing of the offseason by getting his name on a free agent contract in March? But aren’t the stars supposed to come out?

With rookie tight end Joseph Fauria catching three passes against the Browns, all for touchdowns, to give him seven catches and five TDs on the year? Can a player with three catches be the NFC’s Offensive Player of Week 6? Is Fauria the NFL’s ultimate specialist through the first six weeks?

With Calvin Johnson playing on a bum knee and his presence influencing Cleveland’s defense?

Or with two more interceptions by linebacker DeAndre Levy and four catches by tight end Brandon Pettigrew, who has 15 catches on 16 passes targeted for him in the last three games?

How about all of the above, and more?

Winning trumps all in comparisons between 2011 and this season’s six-game start, and the 2011 Lions deserve the edge because of a record that is one game better.

It has to be proven on the field, not in predictions, but for the long haul, this year’s team is better and can accomplish more over the last 10 games.

This week’s Monday Countdown looks at where the Lions are better, and what lies ahead of them that lets them accomplish more. Some of it is related to personnel, some is the luck of the draw in how the remaining schedule unfolds.

There is the best and worst of the NFL after six weeks, and a bonus item – No. 10B – that shows why QB stats often tell a small part of the story.

We start with the place where this year’s Lions have the biggest edge over 2011. As always, feel free to disagree.

1. The running back: Reggie Bush is a difference-maker, and the Lions have him for the last 10 games. In 2011, Jahvid Best’s difference was notable by his absence in the last 10 games.

No knock on Best’s ability or willingness to play, but it’s the cold fact of who’s available to play.

Best went down with a concussion in a Game 6 loss to the 49ers and never played again. Without a breakaway threat at running back, the Lions weren’t the same team that year or last.

The offense is explosive when it has a running back to go with Megatron and the rest of the receiving crew. Without that threat in the backfield, the offense does not have the same firepower.

Bush is a better all-around player than Best. He’s better athletically, and runs in traffic much better.

He went 18 yards with a screen pass for a touchdown in the third quarter to start the Lions on the way to a comeback in Sunday’s 31-17 victory over the Browns.

For the game, Bush had 17 carries for 78 yards, five receptions for 57 yards and 135 yards from scrimmage.

Through six games, Bush has 376 yards rushing, 261 receiving, 637 total yards from scrimmage and three TDs.

Through six games in 2011, Best had 390 yards rushing and 287 receiving, 677 yards from scrimmage and three TDs.

With Best out, the top backs for the last 10 games were Kevin Smith, who’d been out of football, and Maurice Morris.

Edge: 2013. The Lions have Reggie Bush for the last 10.

2. Glad hand: What didn’t show up on the TV screen but should not be a surprise to anyone close to the team was Bush’s action after the game. He shook hands with every player who entered the locker room.

From the day he signed in March, Bush has been anything but the celebrity prima donna some might have expected. He is as good a teammate as you’ll find.

3. Matthew Stafford: That spike in the third quarter against the Browns Sunday said a lot about where Stafford stands compared to 2011. He is a more seasoned quarterback with a grasp of the moment.

Although 2011 was his third season as a Lion, he had rebounded from knee and shoulder injuries that cost him 19 of 32 games in his first two seasons and was on the way to his first full season as an NFL starter.

He is thoroughly comfortable leading a team. No one thinks about injuries any longer. He has 38 straight regular-season starts, the most of any NFC North QB.

Stafford threw for 5,038 yards and 41 TDs in 2011 but he did a lot of his damage late.

After six games, he had 15 TD passes, four picks, a 62.0 percent completion rate and a passer rating of 98.2.

This year he has 12 TD passes, four picks. A 62.8 percent completion rate and a 95.0 rating.

The difference in stats is negligible, except that he threw three more TD passes in 2011.

It’s doubtful that he’ll have to go through a three-game stretch when he played with a broken finger, as he did in 2011, and threw nine of his picks in those three games.

As center Dominic Raiola put it Sunday: “We know what we have there.”

In other words, an offensive leader.

Edge: 2013. As with any young quarterback, the ultimate barometer is winning in the playoffs. But Stafford of 2013 with two more years of experience is better than the 2011 model.

4. Receivers: With Calvin Johnson hurting and Nate Burleson out with a broken arm, the depth and production doesn’t measure up to 2011, when Johnson, Burleson and Titus Young all were healthy. Johnson had nine TD catches in the first six games.

The best should be ahead for this year’s pass-catchers. That includes Pettigrew and Fauria in his role of super-specialist.

Edge: 2011, until this group becomes more consistent.

5. Not-so secret weapon: Fauria has a dream job – touchdown catcher. The Lions use his 6-7 height near the end zone, where he has an advantage on defensive backs and linebackers.

The only specialist close to Fauria in 2011 was Tony Scheffler, another tight end, who is sitting out with another concussion that could threaten his season. In the first six games of 2011, Scheffler caught four passes and scored two TDs.

Edge: 2013, until defenses figure out a way to defend Fauria in the end zone. But Scheffler’s end-zone celebrations were more creative than Fauria’s dances.

6. Last 10 schedule: The Lions have a 6-4 split of home and road games, starting with the next two at Ford Field against the Bengals and Cowboys. There’s nothing easy about either game. Then comes the bye followed by a tough road game against Chicago.

The final seven: at Steelers, home vs. Bucs and Packers (Thanksgiving Day), at Eagles, home vs. Ravens and Giants, at Vikings.

The Lions play a lot of teams that looked formidable when the schedule came out in April but are on the skids.

The Steelers, Bucs, Giants and Vikings are a combined 2-19. The Ravens and Eagles are 3-3.

Win out at home, and the Lions are 10-6 even without another road win. The 2011 Lions lost three of their last six home games.

And unlike 2011, when the Packers started 13-0 and ran away with the North title with a 15-1 record, nobody’s going to dominate the division.

The division winners are guaranteed to start the playoffs at home. It’s something to think about.

7. Secondary primary: Louis Delmas has to prove that he can hold up, but he looks healthier than at any time since 2010. He missed the last five games of 2011 and half of last season with bad knees. The secondary is not the same without him.

Glover Quin, another sharp free-agent addition, and Delmas, give the Lions one of the league’s better safety tandems.

At the end of the 2011 season, the secondary was made up of broken parts and misfits. There are three solid starters in Delmas, Quin and left cornerback Chris Houston. Veteran Rashean Mathis has moved ahead of rookie Darius Slay at right cornerback, but Mathis has gone out with an injury in two of the last three games.

Edge: Most teams worry about the depth of their secondary, and the Lions are no exception, but this unit is better than the one in 2011.

8. Pass rush: Ndamukong Suh is playing well enough to warrant consideration for defensive player of the year. However, the overall pass rush has been below average.

Through five games, the NFL average was 13 sacks per team. The Lions have 12, but through six games. It raises the question of why the Lions don’t blitz more.

Edge: slightly to 2011, with 14 sacks through six games.

9. Special teams: Rookie Sam Martin has upgraded punting and kickoffs, but David Akers vs. Jason Hanson on field goals is a wash.

Edge: Even because of Stefan Logan, who averaged 25 yards on kickoff returns and 9.2 on punts. This year’s punt and kickoff coverage is much better than the last two years.

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

What to watch for: If it gets down to a big return in a big game late in the season, I wonder if Reggie Bush will be back to return a punt?

10.  Experience: Going through a playoff run two years ago should be a help this year. The Lions have a core of players who know what it’s like to play under pressure.

There are no guarantees, but it’s set up for the Lions to match the record of 2011 – at least.

10B. QB stats: Tom Brady was 25-43 for 269 yards, one TD and a passer rating of 74.7. His only TD pass, with five seconds left, beat the Saints.

Matthew Stafford was 25-43 for 248 yards, with a passer rating of 95.9. His spike inspired his teammates, and his four TD passes beat the Browns.

Brandon Weeden was 26-43 for 292 yards, with a passer rating of 76.9. His two TD passes did not beat the Lions, and his horrible throws and decisions helped the Browns lose to the Lions.

Three quarterbacks, almost identical completion stats, and two win and one loses.

11. The NFL’s Best after 6 weeks:

1. Broncos (6-0): Struggled – if winning by 16 is considered struggling -- more than expected to beat Jacksonville.

2. Chiefs (6-0): Avoided upset by Raiders.

3. Patriots (5-1): Brady’s TD pass overcame off day, gave Saints first loss.

4. Seahawks (5-1): Defense stifled Titans, who have major QB problem without Jake Locker.

5. Saints (5-1): Had Patriots beaten but defense couldn’t hold, offense couldn’t finish it.

6. Colts (4-1): Monday night road game at San Diego shouldn’t faze Andrew Luck.

7. 49ers (4-2): Big games from Frank Gore, Vernon Davis beat Cardinals.

8. Bears (4-2): Late interception put lid on win over Giants.

9. Bengals (4-2): Alone in first in AFC North with OT win at Buffalo.

10. Packers (3-2): Big road win over Ravens but losing receivers due to injuries.

11. Lions (4-2): Played their best ball of the year in the last 30 minutes to win at Cleveland.

12. Ravens (3-3): Last two losses have been by five points.

12. The NFL’s Worst after 6 weeks:

5. Steelers (1-4): Lopsided road win over the Jets.

4. Washington (1-4): Not much good to say about a team with such a bad defense.

3. Bucs (0-5): Another home loss. Not much hope for this year.

2. Giants (0-6): Eli Manning has 16 interceptions. Giants should beat Vikes next Monday night.

1. Jaguars (0-6): Covered the spread against the Broncos. Big deal.