Stafford, Suh and Co. ready to roll

The Detroit Lions haven’t been good since the turn of the

century.

They’re saying this will be their year.

For a change, some people outside their organization seem to

agree.

”There’s a lot of hype around this team,” defensive end Kyle

Vanden Bosch said. ”The guys believe and they’re buying into what

we’re doing. I think we’re on track.”

Detroit’s last winning season was in 2000, a year after its most

recent postseason appearance.

Since former general manager Matt Millen was hired in 2001, the

Lions have largely been in an abyss, with losses in more than

three-fourths of their games and avoiding double-digit defeats in

only one season.

The Lions hope they can pick up where they left off last season

when they closed on a four-game winning streak, including victories

over Green Bay and Chicago, with backup quarterbacks Shaun Hill and

Drew Stanton.

Matthew Stafford’s health will probably be the pivotal factor

this season for a franchise with one playoff victory and one Pro

Bowl QB since winning the 1957 NFL title.

Stafford, the No. 1 pick from the 2009 draft, played a mere

three games last year because of an injured right shoulder that was

surgically repaired in January. He was on the field for just 10

games as a rookie because of a sore shoulder and right knee.

”If we can keep everybody on the field healthy, I don’t have

any doubt we’ll be successful,” star receiver Calvin Johnson

said.

That has already been a problem.

The team’s top three picks – defensive tackle Nick Fairley (left

foot), receiver Titus Young (left hamstring), running back Mikel

Leshoure (left Achilles tendon) – are already banged-up rookies.

Leshoure is out for the season while Fairley and Young might be

able to play early in the regular season.

Running back Jahvid Best had a concussion in the second

preseason game; starting cornerbacks Eric Wright and Chris Houston

were slowed by pulled groins; offensive tackles Jeff Backus and

Gosder Cherilus are recovering from injuries.

Stafford, though, looks ready to roll in the Motor City. He was

sharp in preseason practices and games, showing his passes haven’t

lost any zip from surgery and his confidence hasn’t been stunted by

standing on the sideline for much of his brief career.

Johnson is his top target, coming off a season in which he broke

through with a Pro Bowl selection. Nate Burleson is a solid No. 2

receiver and the team’s tandem of tight ends, Brandon Pettigrew and

Tony Scheffler, is formidable.

”I was optimistic last year because I saw the talent, but we’d

show flashes and go in and out like an on-off switch,” Burleson

said. ”This year, I still see the talent and we’re showing it on a

daily basis.”

The offensive line hopes to benefit from continuity, returning

all five starters.

”I think we can beat anybody,” guard Rob Sims said. ”I think

making the playoffs is realistic – we shouldn’t just aim for being

.500 – but there’s a lot we have to do between now and the playoff

time.”

The Lions’ back seven needs to improve and Stafford did his part

to help.

Stafford, whose six-year contract is worth up to $78 million,

and Vanden Bosch agreed to reshape their deals to free up cap space

for the Lions to add much-needed players on defense. The Lions

attempted to address their glaring weaknesses after the lockout was

lifted by signing Wright and linebackers Stephen Tulloch and Justin

Durant.

”If I can restructure a deal to help our team bring guys in

here to help us win, I’m all for it,” Stafford said.

Detroit’s `D’ was led by its front, with Defensive Rookie of the

Year Ndamukong Suh leading the way. The All-Pro defensive tackle

was fined during the preseason for a third time in less than a year

for roughing up a quarterback, but he and his coaches made no

apologies.

”There’s no one that’s ever played like this at defensive

tackle,” Lions defensive coordinator Gunther Cunningham said.

Suh has plenty of help on the line from unsung tackle Corey

Williams, Vanden Bosch and end Cliff Avril.

If opposing running backs get past the line, the Lions’

linebackers are more equipped to make plays than they were a year

ago thanks to veterans Tulloch and Durant.

”We’ve got some thumpers behind us,” Vanden Bosch said. ”When

teams run the ball, they’re going to feel it.”

If teams have time to pass, they might find some holes in

Detroit’s secondary.

The starting cornerbacks, discarded by other teams, have

potentially nagging injuries; safety Louis Delmas hasn’t proven he

can stay healthy; and safety Amari Spievey appears to miss as many

plays as he makes.

Delmas isn’t daunted by the doubters who point to the team’s

past when predicting they’re at least another year away from

postseason play.

”We’re definitely a playoff team,” Delmas said. ”If we don’t

make the playoffs this year, I think people will be highly

disappointed in us.”

Lions coach Jim Schwartz insisted the team had high hopes last

year, coming off a 2-14 mark in his debut as a head coach, and is

aiming high again in his third season in charge.

”Expectations are good and having the confidence and things

like that to do it is good,” Schwartz said. ”But also knowing

that the only thing we can do today is have a good day at

practice.”