Detroit Lions preview (No. 16): Will the defense pick up the pieces?
Our 2015 NFL preview series ranks every team, from worst to first. Today: the No. 16 Lions.
2014 record: 11-5 (lost in wild-card game to Cowboys)
Head coach: Jim Caldwell (second year, 37-27 overall coaching record, 5-2 in playoffs)
Key arrivals: Tyrunn Walker (defensive tackle), Haloti Ngata (defensive tackle), *Alex Carter (cornerback), *Gabe Wright (defensive tackle), Corey Wootton (defensive tackle), Manuel Ramirez (center), Lance Moore (wide receiver), *Laken Tomlinson (guard), *Ameer Abdullah (running back)
Key departures: Ndamukong Suh (defensive tackle), Nick Fairley (defensive tackle), Reggie Bush (running back), Garrett Reynolds (offensive lineman)
2015 schedule (ET)
Sept. 13: at San Diego, 4:05 p.m.
Sept. 20: at Minnesota, 1 p.m.
Sept. 27: Denver, 8:30 p.m.
Oct. 5: at Seattle, 8:30 p.m.
Oct. 11: Arizona, 4:05 p.m.
Oct. 18: Chicago, 1 p.m.
Oct. 25: Minnesota, 1 p.m.
Nov. 1: at Kansas City, 9:30 a.m.
Nov. 8: BYE
Nov. 15: at Green Bay, 1 p.m.
Nov. 22: Oakland, 1 p.m.
Nov. 26: Philadelphia, 12:30 p.m.
Dec. 3: Green Bay, 8:25 p.m.
Dec. 13: at St. Louis, 1 p.m.
Dec. 21: at New Orleans, 8:30 p.m.
Dec. 27: San Francisco, 1 p.m.
Jan. 3: at Chicago, 1 p.m.
TRAINING CAMP QUESTION: Are the kids along the offensive line ready to become men?
The Lions appear set to field what may very well be the NFL’s youngest offensive line. None of the projected five starters — left tackle Riley Reiff, left guard Laken Tomlinson, center Travis Swanson, right guard Larry Warford and right tackle LaAdrian Waddle — is over age 26. Along with protecting quarterback Matthew Stafford, the Lions must field a better running attack after averaging an anemic 88.9 yards a game in 2014. Fortunately, rookie running back Ameer Abdullah has shown promise in the preseason.
IF EVERYTHING GOES RIGHT
The Lions made it to the playoffs last season for the first time since 2011 and only the second time since 1999. But a Week 17 loss to Green Bay cost Detroit the division title and proved there’s still a gap between it and the North’s top dog. That can change if Stafford can take the step from awfully good to great. If receiver Calvin Johnson can stay healthy and everything clicks, this team is good enough even without free-agent departure Ndamukong Suh to again be a threat to win the division.
IF EVERYTHING GOES WRONG
Trading for five-time Pro Bowl selection Haloti Ngata was a nice backup plan to offset the loss of Suh, but Suh is a one-of-a-kind defensive anchor and fellow defensive tackle Nick Fairley’s departure will not help either. If Detroit’s defense goes from allowing a league second-best 17.6 points per game to something far more average, it’s unlikely Stafford and the offense will be able to offset the backslide. In reality, Detroit could be closer to third place in this division than first.
BREAKOUT PLAYER: Tight end Eric Ebron
Too much was expected from Ebron too soon in what became a 25-catch rookie season in 2014. He is now much more comfortable in Detroit’s offense after a full offseason working with Stafford. Ebron also should benefit from the extra attention that opposing defenses give to Lions wide receivers Johnson and Golden Tate.
CIRCLE THE DATE GAME: Week 10, at Green Bay (1 p.m. ET/Nov. 15)
The Lions have lost 24 consecutive games to the Packers in the state of Wisconsin. Ending that futility could help Detroit knock Green Bay off the NFC North throne after winning four straight division crowns.
ALEX MARVEZ’S PREDICTION: 9-7, third place
The positive momentum built by last year’s 11-5 season came to an abrupt halt when the Lions were unable to keep Suh from leaving via free agency to Miami. Suh was the lynchpin to the NFL’s second-ranked defense because of his disruptive interior play and the constant double-teaming he received creating opportunities for others. The defensive departures didn’t end with Suh with three other linemen (Fairley, C.J. Mosley and George Johnson) splitting via free agency. The Lions traded with Baltimore for Ngata and are betting that some of their youngsters like George Webster, Caraun Reid and rookie George Wright can help fill the void created by the mass exodus. The defense will receive a boost if Detroit’s offense improves upon its No. 19 overall ranking from 2014. The Lions focused this offseason on bettering a weak rushing game by using their first two draft picks on Duke guard Laken Tomlinson and the versatile Abdullah. The Stafford-led passing game should be fine, especially if Johnson stays healthy enough to play an entire season for the first time since 2012 and Ebron improves after a disappointing rookie campaign. Worth noting: The Lions haven’t won a postseason game since 1991 or made the playoffs in back-to-back seasons since the Barry Sanders era from 1993 to 1995.