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
”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
”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
”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
”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
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
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