Lions seem to be headed in right direction finally

NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell couldn’t help but notice a great

deal of optimism and confidence that the Detroit Lions are moving

in the right direction when he visited their training camp.

”You can see it and feel it,” Goodell said.

It will be time for Detroit to show it on Sept. 9 at home

against the St. Louis Rams when it kicks off a season of rare high

hopes.

”We’ve got some film on St. Louis and we’re breaking it down,”

Lions linebacker Stephen Tulloch said. ”There’s a new head coach

and a new scheme, so we have to be ready to jump on them.”

Detroit, meanwhile, has the same head coach, coordinators and

general manager for a fourth straight season. That, alone, is

stunning.

”There’s been continuity in the schemes,” coach Jim Schwartz

said. ”It allows the scouting department to have continuity in the

way that we scout, which allows our players to be productive.”

The plan, led by general manager Martin Mayhew, has worked.

After being a league laughingstock for years, including being

bad enough to become the NFL’s first 0-16 team in 2008, the Lions

are coming off a breakout season. They went to the playoffs for the

first time in more than a decade and gained regard as a team on the

rise.

”We’re a target now,” said center Dominic Raiola, who has a

49-127 record since Detroit drafted him in 2001. ”We’re not the

pushover Lions.

”We’ve got the best player in the league.”

Instead of drawing universal laughter at such a bold statement,

some might agree that Calvin Johnson is the NFL’s top player.

Johnson joined Jerry Rice and Randy Moss last year as the only

players in NFL history with at least 95 receptions, 1,600 yards and

15 touchdowns in a season. He was rewarded with an eight-year deal

worth up to $132 million and opportunities to pose for magazine

covers.

The All-Pro receiver knows his position group will be in the

spotlight on a team that has quarterback Matthew Stafford and a

running game that looks shaky at best.

”We feel that if we don’t go, the offense doesn’t go,” Johnson

said. ”We put it on our shoulders already.”

Stafford, staying healthy last season for the first time in

three years, threw for 5,000-plus yards with 41 TDs and just 16

interceptions in a one-dimensional offense. That dimension likely

will stay in the air because speedy RB Jahvid Best will miss at

least the first six weeks of the season, recovering from two

concussions he sustained last year, and powerful Mikel Leshoure has

a two-game suspension. Barring a trade, lackluster options left are

Kevin Smith, Keiland Williams and Stefan Logan.

”We’re going to have to find ways to try and replace (Best),”

Stafford said. ”He’s obviously a guy that does some things for us

that are helpful: screen game, getting him out in space, catching

the ball out of the backfield.”

Detroit’s other glaring weakness is in its backfield on the

other side of the ball.

That was exposed in the Lions’ last two games, losses to Green

Bay to close the regular season and New Orleans in the playoffs,

when they gave up 946 yards passing and nine TDs. The situation got

more bleak in the offseason when starting cornerback Eric Wright

left for Tampa Bay as a free agent and his replacement, Aaron

Berry, got cut for being arrested twice, and safety Louis Delmas

needed knee surgery.

Detroit is desperate enough for help at cornerback that it was

willing to give up a conditional draft pick to Washington for Kevin

Barnes, a player the Redskins planned to release.

Rookie cornerback Bill Bentley, a third-round pick from

Louisiana-Lafayette, is hoping to take advantage of being the first

of three defensive backs the team selected in April.

”They felt like they had a need at corner and obviously liked

what they saw in me,” Bentley said. ”I’m excited about the

opportunity to show that I can be a shutdown corner because I’m a

guy who presses, gets his hands on receivers and makes plays.”

Detroit’s best shot at success on defense likely involves the

Ndamukong Suh-led line pressuring quarterbacks so that they don’t

have time to pick apart a shaky secondary. Suh and defensive tackle

Corey Williams are counted on to provide the push up the middle and

are backed up by Nick Fairley, who may face a league-issued

suspension for getting arrested twice this summer. Starting ends

Cliff Avril and Kyle Vanden Bosch, along with reserves Lawrence

Jackson and Willie Young, allow coordinator Gunther Cunningham to

roll fresh pass-rushers into the game.

”It’s going to be crucial for us up front,” Williams said.

”Whoever’s in the game, we want to take our game to another level

to help the guys in the back end. We’ve got some injuries back

there. We like that everybody puts everything on our

shoulders.”

Follow Larry Lage on Twitter at www.Twitter.com/larrylage

Online: http://bigstory.ap.org/NFL-Pro32 and

http://twitter.com/AP