Through the first five weeks of the 2023-24 NFL season, the NFC North is flipped upside down from what we’ve become accustomed to over the past two decades. The traditionally mighty Green Bay Packers sit a game below .500 at 2-3, just ahead of the Bears and the Vikings at 1-4. That leaves just the Detroit Lions, a regular bottom feeder in the North, having a hot 4-1 start.
Photo Cred: SI
In a top-heavy NFC, the Lions have the third-best record, behind just the undefeated 49ers and Eagles. The Lions didn’t make a ton of offseason splashes, instead opting to retain a majority of the roster that closed last season. They won nine of their last 10 games and nearly snuck into the playoffs. So, how real are these Lions? Let’s dive into their success on both sides of the ball.
Jared Goff has one of the most unique career paths of any quarterback in football. After starting out as an MVP candidate in Los Angeles, he quickly became a scapegoat for the Rams’ shortcomings. Eventually, he got traded (along with multiple draft picks) to Detroit for QB Matthew Stafford. In his two years in the Motor City, Goff has established himself as a rock-solid, high-end starting quarterback.
Through five weeks, Goff ranks fifth in the NFL with a 71.2 QBR and has done an excellent job of sticking to his strengths. He has been excellent out of play action, ripping in-breakers and seams with the same confidence and assertiveness that he did during his peak years in Los Angeles. Additionally, he’s avoided some of the mistakes that marred the early years of his career. Goff and offensive coordinator Ben Johnson have proved to be a great pair, and Goff’s game has taken a step up over the past two seasons as a result.
Photo Cred: SI (Goff)
As for Johnson, he has emerged as one of the brightest play-callers and play designers in the league. He does an excellent job of playing to his team and his quarterback’s strengths, maintaining balance and being innovative and creative without losing sight of the meat and potatoes of the offense.
At the skill spots, the Lions struck gold in the draft with tight end Sam LaPorta, who already has 25 receptions and three touchdowns in the first five games of his career. Amon-Ra St. Brown is still one of the best young wideouts in football, consistently separating from man coverage and finding the soft spots against the zone to make himself available for Goff. The one-two punch of running backs David Montgomery and Jahmyr Gibbs have complemented each other well, and Montgomery has emerged as a workhorse in the backfield.
Photo Cred: ESPN
The engine that makes it all go is the offensive line. Detroit has the best front five in the league, a unit capable of controlling the game both on the ground and through the air. On the season, Montgomery ranks sixth in the NFL in yards before contact, consistently running through the massive holes created by the Lions’ front. In the passing game, Goff has been sacked only seven times in five games. When this offensive line can impose its will on the opposing defense, the Lions become that much harder to stop.
The Lions had an explosive offense last year, but the defense is where they have taken a step forward in 2023. Last season, Detroit ranked dead last defensively in terms of yards allowed. They were 29th against the run and 30th against the pass. Fast forward to this season, the Lions have actually been a good unit. Through five weeks, they rank sixth in total defense and are giving up just over 68 rushing yards per game.
Up front, former No. 2 overall pick Aidan Hutchinson has taken a massive leap forward, notching 4.5 sacks this season and constantly putting pressure on opposing quarterbacks. On the interior, defensive tackle Alim McNeill is making impact plays and eating up blocks in the run game.
Photo Cred: Tampa Bay Times (Hutchinson)
The secondary is arguably where the Lions have been the most impressive. Already, free agent acquisition C.J. Gardner-Johnson has suffered a torn pec in their Week 2 loss to Seattle, and his counterpart Kerby Joseph has missed two games already this season. Regardless, Detroit’s replacements have stepped in flawlessly. They haven’t statistically been as good against the pass as they have against the run, but part of that stems from playing good passing offenses and protecting a lot of leads.
Third-year corner Jerry Jacobs has emerged as the number-one man on the outside for Dan Campbell’s group and has already picked off three passes in 2023. No one, however, has been as impressive as second-round rookie Brian Branch. He really does it all. He’s gotten reps at both safety and slot corner and has excelled at both. Branch might be the most versatile player on the Detroit defense already, alternating between stuffing a run in the backfield and manning up an opposing team’s number one wideout on a play-by-play basis.
Photo Cred: NBC Sports (Branch)
In Week 1, Branch’s pick-six swung the game in Detroit’s favor, allowing the Lions to upset the defending champion Kansas City Chiefs. In their Week 3 win over Atlanta, he led the team with 11 tackles, including three for a loss. While their near-elite production may drop off as a unit, Detroit has proven to have a strong defense in 2023, led by young stars such as Hutchinson and Branch.
Look, there’s no doubt that the Lions are ahead of schedule. This was supposed to be a year where they competed for the NFC North and scrapped for a playoff spot. Instead, they are the class of the division and look like a top-three team in the NFC through five weeks. They aren’t as complete top-to-bottom as the powerhouses in the NFC (the Eagles and the 49ers), but there’s no question that they can compete.
Offensively, they are very balanced and can attack teams in diverse ways. They may run into problems against a team like San Francisco, who can pressure Goff and make him beat them in the drop back passing game. That being said, there aren’t many teams who can force them into that situation.
Defensively, they were a little shaky against the Seahawks’ elite aerial attack in Week 2. While they played well against the Chiefs, much of that was assisted by the shortcomings of the KC receiving core. They did manhandle an elite running game in Atlanta, and their numbers currently speak for themselves.
With teams like the Baltimore Ravens, LA Chargers, and Dallas Cowboys still on the Lions’ schedule, there’s no question that there is still plenty to learn about this new group. Even if they aren’t the class of the NFC, one thing has become clear just over a quarter into the season. These Lions are real, and they’re ready to roar!