The early results are positive but the operative word is “early”. The first four games of a season – especially when you’re dealing with a new coaching staff – are hardly enough to make a fair assessment of a football team.
Still, with each game, the team reveals more of its true colors and – at the quarter point of the season – we’ve learned much about these Lions.
Prior to the start of the season, Caldwell admitted he’d personally better understand his team at this point.
“You get a real good sense of your team in terms of strengths and weaknesses during this time and usually by the fourth game you have a real good sense,” said Caldwell on the Saturday leading up to the team’s opening-week victory against the New York Giants. “You don’t know up until then. About the fourth game you have a pretty good sense of who you are and you think you know, but typically when you get an opportunity to kind of face other teams that have the same kind of talent that you do, things will start to show up.”
With about a month’s worth of information to assess, what do we know about the Lions, who are they?
The Lions have surprised the football-watching world by entering week four as the league’s top rated defense, allowing only 244.3 yards per game. They weren’t as stingy against the Jets, allowing 336 yards but – believe it or not – the Jets entered the game with the league’s eight-ranked offense, averaging 376.3 yards per contest.
They have registered 12 sacks on the year and secured 5 turnovers while stifling the opposition to less than 20 points per game.
The defense has been powered by the play of the defensive line, led by Ndamukong Suh, a vastly improved secondary and the emerging DeAndre Levy. In his sixth season, Levy is among the league’s best linebackers, leading the way for the defense with 38 tackles. He’s also forced a fumble, intercepted a pass – while deflecting five others – while registering eight tackles for loss – last week’s safety among them.
Also, at the heart of the improvements is new defensive coordinator Tyrel Austin, who has used increased reps in practice to better prepare his unit. Austin, a talented defensive play caller, does a great job of empowering his players by providing them with a level of freedom on defense while incorporating their feedback into his adjustments.
Whether or not the Lions are able to maintain their statistical status as a top-end defense remains to be seen, however the unit certainly isn’t the weakness many expected it to be.
They aren’t impervious to injury
The Lions entered the regular season among the healthiest teams in the league in terms of player availability. That didn’t last long.
The team has already lost starting middle linebacker Stephen Tulloch and top-two nickelbacks Bill Bentley and Nevin Lawson for the season. Starting right tackle LaAdrine Waddle was injured early in game one and hasn’t returned to the lineup yet while his replacement, Corey Hilliard, has been placed on the Injured Reserve list.
Star receiver Calvin Johnson entered week four banged up and played sparingly against the Jets. He has struggled with nagging injuries the last few years and may go through similar challenges this season. Running back Joique Bell left the game against the Jets with a concussion while the team’s third running back, Theo Riddick, left with a hamstring injury.
The above mentioned losses aren’t inclusive of other injured players, such as rookies Kyle Van Noy and T.J. Jones, who entered the year hurt.
If the Lions hope to maintain their current position atop the NFC North, they will have to successfully weather the current storm of injuries while bracing for potential future losses.
The offense has changed
The Lions invested heavily into the offense during the offseason and arguably boast one of the most talented group of skill position players in the NFL.
As an offense, the unit has flashed brilliance through explosive plays and dominating drives but they have also been inconsistent.
The unit under-performed against the Carolina Panthers and Green Bay Packers while showing well at times against the Giants and Jets.
Still, despite the mixed results, the Lions have shown well in some of the most important areas. They have converted just over 55 percent of their third downs. They entered the week leading the league by averaging 34:59 of possession per game and furthered the trend by controlling the ball for 34:53 against the Jets.
They’ve been able to choke the life out of their opponents at the end of games, most recently squeezing the last 3:41 out of the Jets with a 7-play, 31-yard drive while protecting a touchdown lead.
Quarterback Matthew Stafford has played well, completing nearly 63 percent of his passes and complementing his elite physical skills with improved decision making.
We’ve been able to glance into the window that is the 2014 Detroit Lions but a true picture won’t be had until the season concludes this winter.
Still, based on what we’ve learned through a quarter of the season, the early results are promising.