Four-game capsule: The Lions opened the season with a signature fourth-quarter comeback to defeat the St. Louis Rams, but have fallen short in three subsequent attempts. Their offense has been neutered by a simple but effective deep-zone defense, their defense ranks No. 29 in the NFL with three takeaways and their special teams have been atrocious. The Lions are the first team in NFL history to allow a kickoff and punt return for touchdowns in consecutive games.
In comparison to last season, Matthew Stafford and the Lions' offense has sputtered through four games.
MVP: The Lions' bye arrived a bit early for such designations, and it's hard to look past receiver Calvin Johnson, who ranks third in the NFL in receiving yards (423) and fourth in catches (29). That's a pace for 1,692 receiving yards over 16 games. But if you're interested in an outside-the-box observation: Linebacker DeAndre Levy might be having his best NFL season. He was particularly effective in Week 2 against San Francisco, recording 10 solo tackles, and has quietly made impact plays throughout the first quarter of the season. Pro Football Focus has charted him with 14 "stops," which constitute a play that causes an offensive failure. That ranks 10th among NFL 4-3 outside linebackers. He has also done a nice job limiting yardage after receptions where he appeared to be the primary man in coverage. Opponents are averaging 7.5 yards per catch against him, according to PFF, the fifth-best mark among 4-3 outside linebackers.
Biggest surprise: It makes perfect sense for opponents to employ a deep zone defense, rather than man-to-man, against Johnson and the rest of the Lions' passing game. It's more difficult to accept that the Lions haven't found an antidote or alternative. Can the NFL's most prolific passing attack of 2011 really be that vulnerable? Offensive coordinator Scott Linehan is a smart man and will figure it out. But through four games, according to Linehan, opponents have used traditional man-to-man on only five of 296 snaps. The approach has revealed two issues that must be corrected. First, the Lions' running game is way behind the curve. Whether it's due to poor blocking or substandard talent in the backfield, there is no way the Lions should be averaging 3.6 yards per carry against deep zones. Second, their red-zone offense hasn't had a counter for teams that blanket Johnson, leading to an NFL-high 13 field goal attempts by Jason Hanson. Johnson has only been targeted twice in the end zone in four games after getting an average of more than one per game in 2011.
Stat to note: Quarterback Matthew Stafford has completed only 16.7 percent (two of 12) of passes that traveled at least 21 yards past the line of scrimmage. Neither completion was a touchdown. Last season, Stafford threw nine touchdowns on such passes and completed 42.7 percent of them (27 of 64) overall. That's the best illustration I have of their diminished downfield production.
Looking ahead: In eight of the past 12 seasons, at least one team with a 1-3 or worse record through four games has made the playoffs. But the odds are against the Lions overcoming this early hole and making the playoffs. Over that stretch, the ratio has been about one in every seven teams (14.7 percent) with a similar record making the playoffs.