Lions-Buccaneers Preview

Published Sep. 7, 2011 5:52 p.m. ET

The last time the Detroit Lions played at Raymond James Stadium, they didn't get too excited about snapping the longest road losing streak in NFL history.

The Lions are taking the same reserved approach into Sunday's season opener in Tampa, despite coming off an undefeated preseason that has raised expectations for a franchise that last appeared in a playoff game 11 years ago.

After Dave Rayner's 34-yard field goal sailed through the uprights in overtime for a 23-20 victory Dec. 19 - the Lions' first road win in 27 tries - coach Jim Schwartz viewed the victory as simply a step in the team's maturation.

"It's really not a relief, but it's important for this team to win on the road," he said.

With Matthew Stafford looking good following offseason right shoulder surgery - he completed 25 of 33 passes for 395 yards with five touchdowns and no interceptions during a 4-0 preseason - the Lions, who won their final four games last season to finish 6-10, are cautiously optimistic that the No. 1 overall pick from 2009 can lead them to the postseason.

Stafford, though, has played in just 13 games in two seasons due to shoulder and knee injuries.

"He's got great command, but he was in that same position last year," Schwartz said. "We have to prove it in the 16 games."


A full season with Stafford under center could mean even more impressive numbers for Calvin Johnson, who earned Pro Bowl honors for the first time last season (1,120 yards and 12 TDs) while also catching passes from Shaun Hill and Drew Stanton. It could also mean more Detroit victories.

"If we can keep everybody on the field healthy, I don't have any doubt we'll be successful," Johnson said.

The Lions, though, have already faced their share of injuries, with their top three picks all missing time in the preseason. Defensive tackle Nick Fairley, the 13th overall pick, has been sidelined since surgery last month on a fractured left foot, receiver Titus Young (left hamstring) made his debut in the third preseason game and running back Mikel Leshoure is out for the season with a torn left Achilles'.

Fairley will not play Sunday, but the Lions' defensive line could be one of the league's best with reigning NFL defensive rookie of the year Ndamukong Suh and defensive end Kyle Vanden Bosch anchoring a group that also includes Cliff Avril and tackle Corey Williams.

Thanks to Stafford and Vanden Bosch restructuring their deals, the Lions were able to bolster their linebacking corps with Stephen Tulloch and Justin Durant.

"Have we taken some big steps in personnel on this team? Yeah, we sure have. None of that means a thing if we don't do it on the field," Schwartz said. "... That's the only goal we have right now, is to go have a good week of preparation for Tampa Bay."

The Buccaneers should have no problem getting geared up for the Lions after last season's loss contributed to them joining the New York Giants as the first NFC teams to win 10 or more games without clinching a playoff spot.

"We were 10-6 last year and didn't make the playoffs," said coach Raheem Morris, whose team improved from 3-13 in 2009. "What will guarantee us a playoff spot is if we go out and win the (NFC South) division. "That will be our goal. It's clear-cut and simple."

If the Buccaneers are going to secure their first postseason berth since 2007, quarterback Josh Freeman will likely have to do much of the heavy lifting.

In his first full season as a starter in 2010, Freeman threw for 3,451 yards, 25 touchdowns and six interceptions. Those numbers came after he broke his thumb in the preseason opener.

"Last year at this time I could barely even grip a football," Freeman said. "It was definitely a nervous time, very anxious going into that first game. This year everybody's healthy, everybody's ready to rock and roll."

Two of Freeman's biggest targets will likely be second-year receiver Mike Williams (964 yards, 11 TDs) and tight end Kellen Winslow (730 yards), while LeGarrette Blount enters his second season after rushing for an NFL rookie-best 1,007 yards in 2010.

Defensively, the Buccaneers are hoping a pair of rookies - Adrian Clayborn and Da'Quan Bowers - will strengthen a unit that had an NFC-worst 26 sacks last season.

Rookie middle linebacker Mason Foster could also help Tampa Bay improve after it ranked 28th against the run with 131.7 yards allowed per game.

Detroit's Maurice Morris, who ran for a season-best 109 yards and a TD in last season's victory over Tampa Bay, could play Sunday after missing much of the preseason with a broken right hand.