Lions star receiver Calvin Johnson has been dealing with a knee injury, but that hasn't stopped him from being a human highlight reel. (Photos by Daniel Mears/Detroit News)
Allen Park ó Hereís what we can say, definitively, about the Lions at the midpoint of the 2013 season: As long as Calvin Johnson, Matthew Stafford and Reggie Bush are healthy and on the field, they are never out of a game.
The Lions proved that with come-from-behind wins against Minnesota, Washington, Cleveland and Dallas. They can put up points, and in a hurry. They rank eighth in the league averaging 27 points a game, and are No.2 in total offense (416 yards a game).
They also have proved that their margins are still very small. They still give up too much on defense (28th in total yards, 25th against the pass and 20th in scoring). They wonít survive many games losing the turnover battle, as they did Sunday.
ďI mean we are 5-3 and I donít think there is anything else that you can say other than that,Ē coach Jim Schwartz said. ďI donít put grades on it, I donít know if it is a D, an A, a B, a C or an F ó I donít know. It will tell over the course of the year.Ē
The 5-3 start has put them in good position to get, at the least, a wild-card spot. They have four road games left, and four of their final six games are at Ford Field.
ďThere are positives in there. There are negatives in there,Ē Schwartz said. ďWe just have to keep on working.
ďWe are only halfway through the season. 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.Ē
Here is a position-by-position assessment of the first half.
Matthew Stafford has taken every snap through eight games. He trails only Peyton Manning with 2,617 passing yards. He has a 16-6 touchdown-to- interception ratio and four of the interceptions have been on tipped balls. He has been sacked a league-low 10 times in 338 attempts (2.9 percent).
But those are just the cold, hard numbers. They donít show that the Lions are among the league leaders in dropped passes. They donít show that heís once again dealt with a revolving door of receivers ó with Calvin Johnson (one), Nate Burleson (four) and Ryan Broyles (two) missing games, with Patrick Edwards being released, with Kevin Ogletree and Jeremy Ross coming in the last three weeks.
Stafford, for the never-ending criticism of his accuracy and mechanics, has dramatically improved his efficiency and at age 25 has matured into the undisputed leader of this team.
It isnít asked to carry much of the load but there is no doubting the significance of the run game. The Lions are averaging more than 120 yards in their five wins and 63 in their three losses.
Overall, they rank 17th at 98 yards a game.
Reggie Bush has done what the Lions expected him to do. He has made defenses pay for over-playing Calvin Johnson. He has 853 yards from scrimmage, averaging 5.6 yards every time he touches the ball, with several explosive plays mixed in.
Joique Bell has been steady as a rock, in all phases ó running, receiving and pass blocking.
His dependability has kept 2011 second-round pick Mikel Leshoure inactive in five of the eight games.
That the team is the second-most productive passing offense in the NFL, given all the personnel changes, is remarkable. Johnson, who leads the NFL with 821 receiving yards, has cemented his status as the best receiver in the game.
Kris Durham has grown into a dependable secondary receiver, but the injury to Burleson and the slow start and then season-ending injury to Broyles have set the receiver unit back.
Tight end Brandon Pettigrew is having a strong, bounce-back season. He continues to be an excellent blocker and heís back to making big, chain-moving catches. Undrafted rookie Joseph Fauria, though he has tapered off the last two games, has been a pleasant surprise with five touchdown passes.
His emergence paved the way for the release of Tony Scheffler.
They began the season with three new starters and have since gone through three different right tackles. They have had more changes at that one position through eight games than the entire offensive line had the previous three seasons.
Yet, it has remained a high-functioning, stable unit, albeit one still better at pass blocking than run blocking.
Center Dominic Raiola is having one of the best years of his career. Rob Sims, though heís played through a shoulder injury, remains steady. Second-year Riley Reiff started slowly at left tackle but quickly steadied himself and performed well. He showed some Jeff Backus-like toughness, too, playing through a hamstring injury.
The surprise has been the play of rookie right guard Larry Warford. He has been one of the stabilizers for this unit, performing at a consistently high level.
Then thereís the right tackle spot. Jason Fox, Corey Hilliard and now undrafted rookie LaAdrian Waddle have manned the right tackle spot. Both Fox (groin and knee) and Hilliard (knee) have battled injuries. It would appear Hilliard could be out a while longer, perhaps for the rest of the season.
Going forward, it appears Waddle will have a chance to keep the starting job.
Itís been a mystifying half-season for this group. They have been disruptive for stretches and they have disappeared for stretches. Early on they were applying pressure on quarterbacks and forcing turnovers. Lately, they have grown quiet.
They have only 13 sacks and four forced fumbles on the season ó so from that standpoint, itís been disappointing. Perhaps the biggest disappointment has been the inconsistency of tackle Nick Fairley. He endured a slump that lasted about four weeks but heís come on strong the last two games.
Losing veteran Jason Jones to a knee injury stressed the depth at defensive end. Ziggy Ansah is riding the typical rookie rollercoaster ó with his productivity fluctuating from game to game, series to series.
Rookie Devin Taylor, on the other hand, has been a pleasant surprise for the Lions. As his role has increased, his confidence and effectiveness have grown. He especially has been stout against the run.
Tackle Ndamukong Suh and end Willie Young have played well through the first eight games. Suh is playing at his usual Pro Bowl level and Young has emerged as a consistent and dependable edge defender.
If there is a most improved position group on the team, this is it. Middle linebacker Stephen Tulloch is as healthy as heís been in a couple of seasons and heís back to being a sideline-to-sideline force.
There canít be many outside linebackers having a better half-season than DeAndre Levy. His four interceptions are tied for the league lead. His seven pass breakups is tied with cornerback Chris Houston. He and Tulloch are the teamís leading tacklers.
Ashlee Palmer, who replaced Justin Durant, has been solid as a two-down player. The Lions use the nickel more than half of their defensive stops.
Fortunately, the Lions havenít had to test their depth at this position, because that is a question mark ó with second-year players Tahir Whitehead and Travis Lewis, as well as veteran Rocky McIntosh.
The Lions rank 25th in pass defense and have just one interception from a cornerback. So, even though the safety position has been significantly upgraded with a healthy Louis Delmas and Glover Quin, this remains a very fragile position.
Houston, after a rough couple of games, took strides toward re-establishing himself as the lead corner Sunday against the Cowboys. And veteran Rashean Mathis has been somewhat of a savior. His steady play allowed rookie Darius Slay to fight through his growing pains.
Second-year nickel Bill Bentley got off to a horrid start, but heís shown steady improvement throughout the season.
He needs to take a couple more steps forward.
If the Lions are seeking to tweak the roster going forward, this is one position that can use some help.
If the Lions do make the playoffs, and that is the plan, they are likely to face some potent passing offenses led by the likes of Aaron Rodgers and Drew Brees.
The cover teams havenít yielded any touchdowns and just a couple of long returns. That alone is a marked improvement over last season.
Rookie punter Sam Martin already has paid dividends on the fifth-round pick the Lions used on him. Although he had the costly shank against the Bengals, he has the No. 1 net punting average in the league.
Martinís kickoffs, too, have consistently been to the back of the end zone.
Veteran David Akers has made 12 of 15 field goal attempts, with one kick blocked and two misses at Arizona.
The return game has been below average.
But it has not turned the ball over and for the most part, the Lions have been ahead of the field position game.