Gunther Cunningham didn’t mince words when asked what his linebackers could do this season that they couldn’t do a year ago.
”Everything,” the Detroit Lions defensive coordinator said Wednesday.
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In 2010, even as the Lions were winning their final four games to provide a rare burst of hope for their downtrodden fans, Cunningham and coach Jim Schwartz knew that they needed to fix the rest of the defense.
They also knew that a complete overhaul wasn’t going to be possible in one offseason, especially one where the players were locked out all summer.
They had to pick their spots and by adding two free agents at linebacker, the coaches think they have found a nice complement to a defensive line that includes Ndamukong Suh, Kyle Vanden Bosch and Corey Williams.
The new linebacker trio, with returning DeAndre Levy between the newly arrived Stephen Tulloch and Justin Durant, will get their longest run of the preseason on Saturday night against Tom Brady and the New England Patriots.
Schwartz stressed it won’t be a make-or-break game.
”They get tested in every preseason game, and there’s not one that is more important than any other,” he said. ”This will be longer, and we’re doing a little more planning for New England, but we’re still not giving them a full game plan to work with.”
Durant, though, thinks it will be a good measure of how far the group has come in a limited amount of time.
”The third preseason game is really important, because it is the closest thing you have to a dry run before the first regular-season game,” he said. ”We didn’t get mini-camps and OTAs this summer, so we’ve had to bond together in a couple weeks.”
Durant is new to Detroit’s system, coming to the Lions from Jacksonville, but Tulloch played for Schwartz and alongside Vanden Bosch in Tennessee.
”Because of Tulloch’s experience in Coach Schwartz’s system, we’ve got two players out there who can make defensive calls – both him and DeAndre,” Cunningham said. ”That helps us a lot.”
All three players are in their mid-20s – Tulloch is the oldest at 26 – which makes the growing process more exciting.
”This is a really young group, with three good players and we already work well together,” Tulloch said. ”Once we’ve been together for a couple years, this should be the best group of linebackers that I’ve ever played with.”
If Tulloch is right – and Schwartz and Cunningham both expect that he is – the Lions will be two-thirds of the way toward building a defense that can match the explosive offense they are also putting together.
Notes: Vanden Bosch and WR Calvin Johnson both missed Wednesday’s practice as they deal with shoulder problems. Schwartz said it wasn’t a serious situation and ”if this were the regular season, they would be day-to-day at worst.” … RB Jahvid Best returned to practice after sustaining a concussion in last week’s preseason win over Cleveland. ”Obviously, he passed all the tests or we wouldn’t have him on the field, but it was still a non-contact practice. We just wanted to let him run around a bit. We’re still going to be cautious.” … The Lions have sold out Saturday’s game against the Patriots, and also announced Wednesday that they have sold out the Monday night game against Chicago on Oct. 10. The team is also close to selling out the Thanksgiving Day game against Green Bay.