Although the season remains in its infancy, the past two weeks have revealed much about the 2011 Detroit Lions, and where they are headed.
Fiction: These are the same old Lions
These Lions are different. They are unique. The most convincing argument to support this belief is not the road victory over a good Tampa Bay Buccaneer team, but rather a home victory over a mediocre Kansas City Chief team. The Lions have long been notorious for losing games that they have no business losing, and winning games in which they have no business even being competitive. Even Joey Harrington’s Lions would surprise a superior opponent, and inspire false hope amongst thousands, only to follow that performance with defeat at the hands of an inferior opponent. This should have been the case on Sunday, if this team truly was the reincarnation of Lions past. Detroit defeated what many considered a superior team in Tampa, on the road. They then did what so many other versions of this franchise couldn’t, and followed it by winning a game that they were supposed to win. Regardless of this season’s outcome, whether it be 10 wins, or 6, it is clear that this is a changed franchise, with a completely different mentality.
Fact: The lack of a run game is a major concern
Through two games the Lions have been able to run the ball just enough to allow for success in the passing game, but not enough to command respect from defenses. The Lions’ passing game is explosive enough to compensate for this shortcoming, and has been precise enough so far to make many forget about the disappointing rushing numbers. In today’s NFL, however, teams can rarely be one-dimensional and have continued success. Eventually Detroit will face a solid pass defense, and need to run the ball with some effectiveness. The consequences of a sub-par running attack also reared its ugly head near the end of week one, when the Lions allowed the Buccaneers to sneak back into the game. A solid running game is a major asset when playing with the lead in close game, as it allows you to control the clock, as well as field position. If the Lions plan to hold late leads in close games, the lack of an effective run game may come back to haunt them.
Fiction: Detroit’s porous run defense will be its downfall
The Chiefs were able to run at will against the Lions’ front seven in their first two drives on Sunday, but the defense was able to stiffen when it mattered and force field goals rather than touchdowns. While the run defense surely wasn’t flawless, it has markedly improved from last season. The addition of linebacker Stephen Tulloch has made a drastic impact, as he has clearly been one of the best players on the field for two games. While the personnel upgrades have had an impact, the main reason that this statement is fiction has to do with the Lion offense. As was the case in each of the first two contests, the Lions faced run-first teams, whose game plans consisted of grinding the Lion defensive line and limiting Matthew Stafford to the role of spectator. Neither of these teams accomplished this goal, due to the quick strike capability of the Lion offense. Playing with a lead is a defense’s greatest ally, specifically a defense that is built on a strong pass rush. Simply put, the Lions’ offense is built to compliment, and in some ways protect, the shortcomings of the defense.
Fact: Matthew Stafford is the best quarterback from the 2009 NFL draft class.
Josh Freeman is a quality signal caller by NFL standards. He is simply a winner, complete with the requisite skills for the position, as well as intangibles such as leadership and poise. Matthew Stafford has had little opportunity to showcase his poise and leadership skills due to the extent of his previous injuries, but one thing is certain through the early part of this season. The Lion quarterback has more physical skills than both Freeman, and Mark Sanchez. Stafford has a stronger arm, and is more accurate than the aforementioned players. He has grown mentally, and taken on more responsibility in play calling than either Freeman or Sanchez, and he has done so with significantly less playing time. Sanchez has experienced some success, but this is largely due to the caliber of team that he is a part of, with a strong run game and arguably the league’s best defense. Stafford is working with less talent, and doing more statistically in limited time than Sanchez has done in three years as a starter. It is impossible to predict the success of a player, or fully evaluate them when only in their third year as a pro, but this much is evident. Matthew Stafford is mechanically, and mentally, a better quarterback than Josh Freeman and Mark Sanchez.
Fiction: The 4-game winning streak that ended the 2010 season doesn’t matter
This statement couldn’t be further from the truth. While talent and coaching have their evident impact on sports, mentality and attitude are, in football more than others, truly at the heart of the game. When considering a franchise largely devoid of attitude and identity, what could be more meaningful than confidence? Specifically, confidence that true change is on the horizon? Not only did this team develop the attitude that it desperately needed -nor simply an identity that had been searched for since the premature retirement of Barry Sanders – but most importantly, this winning streak inspired hope. Hope that this team could be different, and that this franchise was no longer the running joke of the sports world. The 4-game win streak provided all of this for the Detroit Lions players, but possibly more important is the lesson that had evaded this franchise for years. These Detroit Lions… have learned how to win.