The first fourth of the 2011 season is in the books, and the Detroit Lions are one of only two unbeaten teams in the National Football League. The season is young, and it would be irrational to draw conclusions from this limited sample, yet there are some certainties to take away from the first four games.
Quarterback : A
Matthew Stafford has not been flawless, but has been as close as can be reasonably expected of a quarterback who has started just 17 games. Statistics are important, and it can be pointed out that Stafford is carrying a passer rating of 100.3, is averaging over 300 yards per game, and has 11 touchdowns to only three interceptions, but there are more important factors to consider. The Lions are undefeated, and have won in several different ways. In week one Detroit built a lead, and had to fight off a comeback to hold on for the victory. In week two they blew out the Kansas City Chiefs. In weeks three and four, the Lions fell behind by more than twenty points, and rallied in the second half to win. Regardless of the type of victory, or how bleak the outlook, Stafford remained poised, and showed true leadership, two of the most important characteristics of a great quarterback.
The runningback unit entered the season with tempered expectations following the season ending Achilles injury of rookie Mikell LeShoure. Maurice Morris, Jerome Harrison, and Keiland Williams have been largely unnoticed, which is no surprise. What is surprising is the ineffectiveness of Jahvid Best, both as a runner and receiver. After the first four games of last season, Best had made a name for himself as a play-maker, and on each and every play had the potential to break a big one. With Best now healthy, and the Lion offense at full strength, Best should be producing explosive plays each week. He has failed to do so thus far, which will become a major issue as the season wears on.
Wide Receiver: A-
Everybody who knows anything about football is aware of the skill possessed by Calvin Johnson. Whether or not Cris Carter agrees, Johnson is an elite receiver in this league. With multiple touchdowns in each game, and a breathtaking catch to help secure an overtime victory against Minnesota, Johnson has established himself as the clutch player that the Lions need at key moments. Wide receiver Nate Burleson has also impressed with his skills opposite Johnson, and has made timely catches throughout the first four games. Burleson is the perfect compliment to the skills of Megatron, as he is athletic enough to take advantage of most teams’ number two cover corner. Rookie Titus Young has had limited playing time, but to this point has impressed with his ability to make acrobatic catches, snag the ball in traffic, and run after the catch. Fans must remember that it is rare for a receiver to contribute in their rookie campaign, and Young has already met the expectations of many.
Offensive Line: C-
The Lions’ offensive line has been a Jekyll and Hyde tale through the first four games in pass protection, while they have been consistently inadequate in the run game. In weeks one and two, Stafford was hardly touched, and was never sacked. In week three against Minnesota, tackles Jeff Backus, Gosder Cherilus, and Corey Hilliard were schooled to the tune of five sacks. Week four yielded zero sacks, but Stafford was hurried and hit constantly. The interior of the offensive line has been unable to open up many running lanes for Best, as the Lions are averaging 74.5 rushing yards per game (29th in the NFL). Cherilus and Peterman have both been guilty of egregious penalties at crucial moments in games, that to this point, haven’t cost the team. If these mental errors continue, they will eventually cost the team big.
The Lions’ offense has shown the explosiveness that many expected out of the passing game, as well as the inconsistency that was equally expected out of the run game. Stafford and the receivers have been precise, and the offensive line, save for one game, have given the quarterback time to throw, and more importantly, kept him on the field. The run game, or lack of, continues to be a major concern, as well as the struggles at the tackle position. The past two weeks have seen the offense struggle early, but come alive late. The defense has been strong enough to keep them within striking distance so far. This team is built to score points quickly, and build leads so the Lion pass rush can take over. If they continue to struggle early, they will eventually dig a hole that even Calvin Johnson can’t help them climb out of.