Five surprises, disappointments for Lions in first half

Rod Beard
The Detroit News

With a 6-2 record going into the bye week, the Lions are leading the North Division and have an impressive win over the Packers, and comeback victories over the Saints and Falcons. Looking back at the first half of the season, here are five surprises and five disappointments from the first eight games:

Five biggest surprises

Golden opportunity: Golden Tate, signed in the offseason to be a second option at receiver to Calvin Johnson, has turned into the biggest free-agent steal in the NFL. Since Johnson has been out, Tate has logged back-to-back 150-yard games with timely touchdown catches. He ranks third in the league in catches (55) and yards (800).

Keeping up with No. 1: The defense has turned out to be one of the team strengths, holding opponents under 300 yards per game and at 15.8 points. The line leads the charge, with Ndamukong Suh and Nick Fairley dominating the middle, and Ziggy Ansah and Jason Jones bringing pressure from the outside.

Culture shock: The Lions have rallied behind first-year coach Jim Caldwell, who has inspired a new attitude, going against the grain of the "same old Lions" moniker the team has earned in the past from inexplicable losses and undisciplined play. Caldwell has them believing in playing together and playing with a purpose.

Secondary thoughts: The defense is strong overall, but the secondary was thought to be one of the weak links of the team. Second-year cornerback Darius Slay and 34-year-old Rashean Mathis have given up few big plays, and safeties Glover Quin and James Ihedigbo have been outstanding, and Detroit has overcome injuries at nickel corner.

Leading the pack: At the midway point, the Lions are 6-2 and lead the NFC North, having dominated the 5-3 Packers in their head-to-head meeting. The Lions were 6-2 after eight games last year, but floundered down the stretch, finish 7-9 and out of the playoff. Things are looking up, with a more favorable schedule, including two games against the Bears.

Five biggest disappointments

Kicking for three: Midway through the season, the Lions are on their third kicker. After drafting Nate Freese in the seventh round, the Lions cut him after a poor start. Then, Alex Henery missed three field goals against the Bills and was released. Matt Prater has made 5-of-7 field goals, righting the ship in the last three games after the poor start.

Stalling Stafford: Since Caldwell's arrival, the emphasis has been on making QB Matthew Stafford more efficient and reducing turnovers. Stafford's stats are below his best seasons but he has only had Calvin Johnson healthy for three games. He's struggled in finding his other receivers, but is building good chemistry with the sure-handed Tate.

The rookie blues: First-round pick Eric Ebron hasn't made a big impact at tight end and second-rounder Kyle Van Noy was on the short-term injured reserve to start the season. Defensive tackle Caraun Reid, taken in the fifth round, was a good late-round find but the second half of the season could provide some more surprises.

Injury bug: Season-ending injuries to Stephen Tulloch, Corey Hilliard, Bill Bentley and Nevin Lawson could have been devastating, but the Lions have overcome them. Calvin Johnson (ankle), Reggie Bush (ankle), Ebron (hamstring) and Joseph Fauria (ankle) also have missed significant time and the offense has been lackluster without them.

Down up front: The offensive line, which was rated among the best in the league last season, has regressed this year with Joe Lombardi's new scheme. Stafford was sacked 24 times in the first seven games and the run game ranks near the bottom of the league. Injuries are partly to blame, but center Dominic Raiola and left guard Rob Sims need to be better.