NFL team preview: Detroit Lions
Progress is measured differently for the Lions. When you are trying rise from the rubble left by former president Matt Millen's regime, a certain number of wins or making the playoffs aren't necessarily the indicators of success.
Start with this: Is there a blueprint? Is there a definitive, creditable rebuilding plan in place? And for once the answer is yes. President Tom Lewand, general manager Martin Mayhew and head coach Jim Schwartz, if nothing else, are executing a plan.
In their second year they have already built an offensive foundation. They drafted quarterback Matthew Stafford and tight end Brandon Pettigrew last year. Those two, joining receiver Calvin Johnson, gave the Lions a starting point.
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The goal over the summer was to build onto that foundation, to add play-makers in order to give Stafford more options and to discourage opposing defenses from loading up on Johnson. To that end they drafted tailback Jahvid Best out of Cal, signed free agent receiver Nate Burleson and traded for tight end Tony Scheffler.
The Lions also solidified a long-time sore spot on the offensive line by trading for veteran left guard Rob Sims.
The first building block seems to be in place. The Lions are going to score points. Whether or not they win games will be determined by how quickly the next rebuilding phase comes along -- the defense.
The Lions expended a lot of resources this summer toward building an NFL-level defensive line. They signed defensive end Kyle Vanden Bosch, drafted defensive tackle Ndamukong Suh with the second overall pick, traded for veteran tackle Corey Williams and aligned them with holdover Cliff Avril.
It's a respectable unit, one that gets off the ball and attacks. Teams in the preseason were deploying no-huddle tactics, screens and other short-hitting pass routes to neutralize the force of the Lions' front four.
Unfortunately, one unit does not a complete defense make. And the back seven remains in a state of disrepair.
The Lions have one proven linebacker -- 32-year-old Julian Peterson. The other outside linebacker is first-year starter Zach Follett, who at this time last year was released and playing on the practice squad.
Middle linebacker DeAndre Levy is the leader of the defense, but he has been hobbled by injuries -- first a back and now a groin.
As for the secondary, the Lions upgraded slightly at cornerback with Chris Houston and Jonathan Wade, and Louis Delmas is a potential Pro Bowl player at safety. But Delmas has been slowed by a groin injury.
Schwartz said that the identity of this team would be forged during training camp. If that's so, then this looks like a team that has to score 35 points a game to have a chance to win.
COACHING: Jim Schwartz, 2nd year, 2nd with Lions (2-14).
REMEMBERING: 2009 record: 2-14 (last in NFC North).
PREDICTING: 2010 regular-season record: 5-11 (last in the NFC North).
STRATEGY AND PERSONNEL
The Lions have scrambled all through camp to find healthy linebackers and defensive backs. The concerns over the groin injuries of middle linebacker DeAndre Levy and safety Louis Delmas will carry into the regular season. The Lions signed veteran linebacker Rocky Boiman last week as insurance against Levy. And they've brought in veteran John Wendling in case Delmas breaks down.
--RB Kevin Smith, coming off major knee surgery, continues to struggle. He's averaged just 2.6 yards a carry and had a fumble returned for a touchdown. "It's not about us trusting him, it's about him trusting the knee," coach Jim Schwartz said.
--PK Jason Hanson, who had the knee on his non-kicking leg scoped on Aug. 3, was expected to kick field goals in the final exhibition game and, barring any setbacks, will kick in the opener.
--DE Jared DeVries (knee) was placed on the injured reserve list, meaning he will miss his second straight season due to injuries.
--OT Tyler Polumbus, whom the Lions claimed from Denver a week ago, was traded to Seattle for a non-disclosed 2012 pick.
--OT Jason Fox has been playing through knee pain all camp and could end up on the injured reserve list.
DRAFT PICKS TO STICK
Rd. 1/2, DT Ndamukong Suh, Nebraska -- Installed as the starter the first day he arrived at camp and hasn't budged. He's been a force.
Rd. 1/31, RB Jahvid Best, California -- He has easily beaten out incumbent Kevin Smith and will be the Lions' every-down back.
Rd. 3/66, S Amari Spievey, Purdue -- After a slow start he was moved from cornerback to safety and he's taken well to the position. He's not fast enough to be a cover guy, but he's a big hitter and plugs running lanes well.
Rd. 4/128, OT Jason Fox, Miami -- He hasn't been able to really show his stuff because of a knee injury. He's tried to play through it but hasn't been effective. Still, the Lions want to find a way to keep him.
Rd. 7/213, DE Willie Young, North Carolina State -- A pleasant surprise here. He's 6-4 with long arms and has made several key plays during the preseason, including two game-saving sacks/fumbles.
Rd. 7/255, WR Tim Toone, Weber State -- He's caught everything thrown his way and handled punts in the swirling wind in Denver without a hitch. But he's just not fast enough for this level.
UNIT BY UNIT ANALYSIS
Stafford has always possessed the arm strength, the accuracy and the mental capacity to be an elite quarterback. Now he has some more weapons and schematic tools to work with, including some diverse two-tight end sets, a legitimate game-breaking runner and many more ways to spread the defense. He is in complete command of this offense in just his second year. Hill is a capable back-up, something the Lions haven't really had in years.
The only worry the Lions have about Best is wearing him out. He picked up the Lions' offense quickly. There was no question about his quickness and balance, but he runs better routes and catches the ball better than advertised. He has picked up the blitz protection packages better than anybody hoped, and he has proven to be, if not a great blocker, at least a competitive one. Smith, on the other hand, has come back slowly from major knee surgery. The Lions hope eventually that Best and Smith will be No. 1 and No. 1-A, but Smith has a long way to go. As for Felton, the Lions won't use the fullback often, but he is their only big, power back.
TIGHT ENDS: Starter -- Brandon Pettigrew. Backups -- Tony Scheffler, Will Heller.
Pettigrew is coming off knee surgery, but he had a productive camp. He and the veteran Scheffler will be used together a lot. It may not be the Lions' base offense, but it will seem like it. Pettigrew is the better blocker and Scheffler the better route-runner, but both can play in tight, in the slot or split. They give the defense a lot to think about.
The Lions can finally offer a pick-your-poison trio to defenses. Teams will probably still load their defense to stop Johnson, but they will do so at much greater risk. The addition of Burleson was big for the Lions. Not only he is a proven complement to Johnson -- he once played Robin to Randy Moss's Batman -- but he brings a swagger to this unit that Johnson, for all his talent, never did. Bryant Johnson was the No. 2 receiver last year and is much better suited to the third receiver role. Brian Clark made the team because of his prowess on special teams, and the veteran Northcutt was in a battle with Derrick Williams for the final roster spot.
With the addition of Sims, the Lions feel they filled a 10-year hole in their line. By anybody's assessment, this is a savvy and sound interior unit. There is 34 years of experience there ... and add another 12 years if Jansen plays (which he will). More importantly, the unit, with the exception of Sims, has been together in the same system, with the same coordinator and position coach for the second year in a row. That's only happened one other time in Raiola's 10 seasons. The weakest link will be right tackle. Cherilus, the former No. 1 pick, barely edged out Jansen for the starting job and it could flip-flop throughout the season. But as solid overall as the starting line is, there is no depth and no room for injury.
DEFENSIVE LINEMEN: Starters -- LE Cliff Avril, DT Ndamukong Suh, DT Corey Williams, RE Kyle Vanden Bosch. Backups -- LE Willie Young, DT Sammie Hill, DE Lawrence Jackson, DE Turk McBride, DT Landon Cohen, DT Andre Fluellen.
This, other than quarterback, is the most upgraded position on the team. This is an aggressive, attacking line that will create big problems for quarterbacks and offenses. Already in the preseason, opponents were using no-huddle and quick-hit schemes to neutralize the Lions' speed off the ball. Vanden Bosch is a proven commodity, a fierce and relentless pass rusher. Suh has done nothing to discourage any of the hype that's accompanied him to Detroit. And probably the biggest clue to this unit's improvement is that the second team this year was the starting unit last season. The Lions still had to make a tough decision regarding veteran McBride, who may have been beaten out by Young, and between Fluellen and Cohen for the final tackle spot.
LINEBACKERS: Starters -- SLB Zack Follett, MLB DeAndre Levy, WLB Julian Peterson. Backups -- OLB Landon Johnson, MLB Vinny Ciurciu, OLB Ashlee Palmer, MLB Rocky Boiman, OLB Caleb Campbell, MLB Isaiah Ekejiuba.
Peterson is the only established player here. Levy showed great promise as a rookie last year, but he's been battling a back and a groin injury this camp. Follett is a first-year starter and struggled mightily throughout camp. Behind them are a bunch of special teams stars -- Johnson, Ciurciu, Boiman, Campbell, Ekejiuba. This is a very unsettled group and the Lions, no doubt, will be on constant lookout for help here, especially if Levy is out for any length of time.
Adding Houston and Wade, the Lions upgraded their speed at the cover positions. And, through camp, they have played a lot more press coverage than they were able to in the past. Wade, before losing time with a broken finger, looked especially strong in one-on-one coverage. Houston has the speed to run with anybody, but he has a tendency to lock onto the receiver and lose track of the ball. Bly will be useful, especially in the nickel packages. There is still some good football left in his 33-year-old body. And undrafted rookie Randy Phillips was a pleasant surprise. He was starting in place of the injured Delmas throughout most of the preseason. Success or failure of this unit, though, is tied to Delmas' groin. He is the kingpin back there and if he's slowed, even a little bit, the unit will struggle.
You can't get much more solid than Hanson and Harris, although Hanson is coming off surgery on his left (non-kicking) knee. Hanson had an off year by his standards last year, mostly struggling with the longer kicks. He said that was mostly mental and he expects a bounce-back season. The Lions are going to use Burleson as a secret-weapon returner. They don't want to wear him out doing it full time, but in certain situations, he will be called upon. The Lions also used some resources to improve their coverage teams, bringing in credentialed special teams players like Vinny Ciurciu, Dante Wesley, Isaiah Ekejiuba, Ashlee Palmer and Landon Johnson.