The shift in tempo with a corresponding improvement in execution and performance after one month of the NFL schedule is an annual phenomenon that is as predictable as the arrival of the fall colors in Michigan.
“September football,” a high-speed, high-stakes version of the preseason fraught with penalties, turnovers and sloppy play, is behind the Detroit Lions and their competitors as they return from the bye to begin a push for a playoff berth in the final 12 games.
With a 2-1-1 record, the Lions are in position to make a run, starting with next Monday night’s road game against the Green Bay Packers.
For the offense in particular, the first four games represented a valuable break-in period in new coordinator Darrell Bevell’s attack at full speed and full contact, all elements that were missing in the preseason.
The offense was on an upward trend in the last two games – a 27-24 road win over the Eagles, and a 34-30 loss to the Chiefs at Ford Field.
Seeing the offense come around in the first quarter is a welcome development for Bevell, but not unexpected.
It sounds simple, but the best way to improve is to play football – the real game, not preseason practice games that do not offer that opportunity.
“It’s really valuable, because in the preseason we don’t get to play our guys,” Bevell said of the early games on the schedule. “Matthew is not playing with the line, and the receivers and all of those guys were never together.
“You’re hoping to start fast, but offense does take time. I like the fact how each and every game, I think we’ve gotten a little bit better.
“You never have everything fixed. You’re always trying to correct things, and it’s a work in progress.”
Obviously, the offense isn’t the only unit that has benefitted from the first quarter of the season. And it’s not the only one seeking to improve. Getting better is the eternal search in sports.
The defense hasn’t played to its level of the second half of last season, but there are bright spots. Trey Flowers has steadily become a force at defensive end. The secondary has played well, with steady performances from safety Tracy Walker, a 2018 third-round draft pick, and cornerback Justin Coleman, like Flowers a prime free-agent addition.
Special teams rebounded after struggling with penalties, a blocked kick and field goal, and fumbles on returns for much of the first three games.
But the offense has been under the most scrutiny with the hiring of Bevell, an experienced coordinator with a reputation for incorporating a strong running game and downfield passing into his version of the west coast offense that he employed in previous stops with the Minnesota Vikings and Seattle Seahawks.
The running game was slow to come around, until its breakout against the Chiefs, who’ve been one of the weakest teams defending the run.
The passing game has been explosive since the opening game, with Stafford pulling the trigger with his golden arm.
Through four games Stafford has nine TD passes, tied for second most in the league through the first four games, against two interceptions. Stafford has averaged 8.0 yards per pass attempt compared to 6.8 yards for the full season last year under former offensive coordinator Jim Bob Cooter.
Stafford has been able to spread the ball around to his tight ends and receivers. Rookie tight end T.J. Hockenson and wide receivers Marvin Jones Jr., Kenny Golladay and Danny Amendola all have had 100-yard receiving games.
“I like the group of skilled players that we have,” Bevell said. “We’re trying to find different ways to get them the ball, really all over the field. I think it lends itself to having opportunities down the field. I think I talked about it one of the first weeks ... we're trying to be explosive in our passing game. That’s the way to do it.
“It’s important to push the ball down the field, no question. It’s really hard in this league to get five yards, five yards, five yards, five yards, five yards and put that many plays together to be able to finish with the touchdown.
“Your percentage goes way up to score points when you have explosive plays in the drive. It’s critical to be able to push the ball down the field.”