Everyone is furiously trying to prove that this 6-2 start capped by a blowout of the Broncos is not the same as 2007’s 6-2 start capped by a blowout of the Broncos. I have something different in mind.
In the Old Mother Hubbard series, I attempt to contextualize individual Lions performances. We watch these guys all season long year after year after year, and we lose perspective on their strengths and weaknesses. I use Pro Football Focus data and radar charts to give you an at-a-glance impression of how Lions are performing against the high, low, and average NFL performances at the same position.
So, if we’re taking the temperature of the Lions at the bye/halfway point . . . why not do the same thing?
Here are the offensive team grades through Week 8. The dark red line is the New England Patriots, #1-graded offense in the NFL. The bright green line is the Seattle Seahawks, #32-graded offense in the NFL. The thick black line is, as always, the NFL average, and the Honolulu Blue line is the Lions.
This is going to surprise some folks, because we perceive the Lions offense to be one of the best in the NFL—and indeed it is the 4th-best, scoring 29.9 points per game. Keep in mind PFF’s “consistency bias,” as I call it: PFF’s system prefers consistently above-average play to streaky home-run hitters. It’s true for individual players like Ndamukong Suh and Jahvid Best, and it’s true for the Lions as a whole.
No surprise, the Lions’ pass offense was graded 8th-best, at +33.2. Also unsurprisingly, the Lions’ rushing game was well below average; the third-worst in fact. But look: the difference between the best running grades and the worst running grades is miniscule. Having a very poor running game doesn’t grade out much worse than having an average running game. This is a recurring theme this season.
As far as the offensive line goes, it's no surprise to anyone who’s listened to me or PFF over the years: the Lions do an above-average job of pass blocking. They graded –3.7 (average –6.18) over the course of the season. Also no surprise: they can’t run block for crap. The Lions have the fourth-worst run-blocking line in the NFL to this point, at -40.8 (average –18.15).
On offense, the Lions have taken more penalties than most; they’re ranked 24th with a –5.5 penalty grade. However, since the NFL average is –3.11, that’s not crippling. On the whole, the grades show the Lions have a very good passing offense, a decent pass-blocking offensive line, a terrible running game and a terrible run-blocking offensive line. Add it all up and it’s surprisingly mediocre for a team scoring 30 points per game. Once again, we see: the running game doesn’t matter.
The 49ers have a ridiculous defense. I mean, geez. Just look at that. Also: Indy NOOOOOO!
But check out the Lions: 8th-best graded defense overall, graded +33.7. This jibes with their 6th-lowest scoring defense (18.4 PpG). The run defense is ranked 24th, just –2.2 overall—and the average is +14.8, meaning that’s truly not good. The pass rush, again, is what you’d think: 5th-best in the NFL, graded +21.7 (avg. +8.06).
The jawdropper, though: The Detroit Lions have the best pass coverage grade in the NFL. Not pass defense, not pass rush, not statistical derivation: the play of their corners and safeties grades out better than any other team in the NFL. At +22.1, they’re well ahead of the 49ers’ second-place unit (+14.4), and have lapped the rest of the field (avg. –7.74).
The Lions defense is, as it was last season, heavily penalized. Their -7.9 grade is ranked 27th, well below the –3.4 league average—but not as horrific as it’s been. Special teams-wise, the Lions grade out at +7.4—but that’s not all that, because the average is +12.65.
On the whole, we’re left with a promising, but mixed bag. The Lions offense is struggling to move the ball consistently, but is generating points through the air with home run plays. The run blocking is awful, as is the running game as a whole. The defense is a top ten unit, despite poor run-stopping and penalty grades, because they rush the passer better than most—and cover the pass better than anyone.
At the moment, the Lions are in fantastic shape for the playoffs. My favorite predictive football model, the Simple Rating System, LOVES what the Lions have done this year. It’s a combination of strength of schedule and points differential, and at the halfway point the Lions are the second-highest-rated team in the NFL. Given the teams they’ve played and the results of those games, SRS expects the Lions to be the second-hardest out in football (after the Packers) going forward.
Of course, the Lions play the Packers twice throughout the rest of the season, so SRS would project a final finish of 12-4. Could that really happen? Bizarrely, yes. The road games against Chicago and New Orleans are possible (if not likely) losses—but the Lions should be able to split with the Pack, considering they did so last season without Matthew Stafford. The games at Oakland and against San Diego are worlds less scary than they were a few weeks ago, too.
Let’s be clear: I’m not projecting, or claiming, or promising a 12-4 season. I AM promising, projecting, and claiming that the Lions are going to make the playoffs, as I have since May, and have never wavered from. The Lions are only halfway there, but right now that Lions Kool-Aid tastes sweeter than ever.