The Detroit Lions finished the first half of the season with a 3-5 record. Here’s a look at how they have fared and what’s ahead:
First-half rewind, with grade: It couldn’t have started worse, then it couldn’t have gotten much better. And just when things seemed to be leveling off, the franchise traded Golden Tate to Philadelphia for a third-round pick, coach Matt Patricia and defensive tackle A'Shawn Robinson got into tiffs with reporters and the Lions were soundly beaten by Seattle and Minnesota. Then they fired special teams coach Joe Marciano on Monday because Patricia wasn't happy with the overall production and performance of the unit. Detroit rebounded from the season-opening calamity that was the blowout loss to the Jets to beat the Patriots and Packers, arguably the Lions’ two toughest opponents to date. A run game led by Kerryon Johnson has been a surprise, as has the play of the (mostly) healthy offensive line -- at least prior to the 10-sack, 17-hit outing against the Vikings. Detroit’s defense has struggled, particularly against the run, and the special teams have been worse than expected. Overall, though, things are going a little bit worse than anticipated. Grade: Below average
What needs the most improvement? The roster has some holes, particularly at linebacker and the outside cornerback spot opposite Darius Slay now that Nevin Lawson has moved into the slot when necessary -- and Lawson had one of the better games of his career Sunday against Minnesota shadowing Adam Thielen. The defensive line could use some playmakers and the offensive line, with T.J. Lang's continued injury history, is likely going to need a new piece sooner or later. But more than that, it's the coaching. Patricia's team has been handled pretty easily in four of the five losses and he admitted inconsistency has been an issue. The offense, be it through play calls or its play, has struggled to move the ball the past two weeks and the defense still has the same issues against the run. There are a lot of problems and this team is one that appears to be trending downward. Fast.
MVP: General manager Bob Quinn devoted so many resources to the Lions’ run game and offensive line the past two offseasons, and that has finally come to fruition. Much of that is due to Johnson, who might be Detroit’s best back in 20 years. When he’s in the game and given the ball a reasonable amount of times, Detroit’s offense moves better than it has in years. It eats up clock, sells Matthew Stafford’s play-action even better and keeps defenses from focusing too much on the Lions’ receivers. All of that runs through Johnson, who is on pace for a 1,000-yard season. He also has been the benchmark for success. Through the first seven weeks, when Johnson had 12 or more carries and rushed for 70 or more yards, Detroit won. When he didn’t, the Lions lost. But he has been a revelation that has changed the Lions' offense -- and if that continues, Detroit has a chance to be relevant in the second half of the season.
Biggest surprise: The offensive line (at least prior to the Vikings game, which for now we'll call an aberration but will be worth watching). Detroit’s defense was always going to be a work in progress. But the offensive line really struggled to open holes for backs and protect Stafford the past two seasons. This year? The Lions have a run game ranked in the top half of the league (104.3 yards per game, 4.48 yards per attempt) and have protected Stafford well enough for him to have time to find open receivers and not be beat up every week. That’s huge for any success the Lions will have the rest of the way.
Hurdle to overcome: Being unable to stop the run. The addition of Harrison should help -- it showed in his debut against Seattle -- but the Lions are still allowing 142.5 yards per game rushing and 5.14 yards per attempt. Both numbers are in the bottom five of the league. As much as Harrison can help in the middle, outside runs are where Detroit has been poor all season long and that’s more on the linebackers and edge-setters to make sure backs can’t get to the outside. If Detroit can't figure it out, it's tough to expect the Lions to win more than six games.