NFL 2016: Lions leaning on Stafford more than ever
DETROIT (AP) The Detroit Lions will lean on Matthew Stafford a lot this season, maybe more than ever.
The veteran quarterback looks and sounds ready for the challenge.
''I've just been through a lot,'' acknowledged Stafford, entering his eighth season. ''Been through some really good times. Been through some bad times. Seen a lot of defenses.''
Detroit depended on Stafford's right arm quite a bit in the past, too, but he always had a relatively large margin of error when he threw short, long or over to middle to Calvin Johnson.
The spectacular receiver known as Megatron for his superhuman-like skills left the Lions and retired from the league during the offseason after years of making Stafford's job easier.
Stafford's passes, of which there will be many, will have to be more accurate.
He can't afford to throw too high or late and get away with it, as he could with the 6-foot-5 Johnson.
Stafford probably will not be able to count on a running game to create shorter down-and-distance situations, or to get a tough yard or so on third or fourth down. Detroit ranked last in the league in rushing last season and may struggle to show signs of improvement in the important facet of the game.
Stafford, the No. 1 overall pick in 2009, will have to sling it early and often in a pass-heavy offense that will frequently be in hurry-up mode. He has a solid trio of receivers, a talented tight end and one of the NFL's best pass-catching running backs.
Jim Bob Cooter, entering his first full season as offensive coordinator, has relinquished quite a bit of control to Stafford. The Lions will likely use a no-huddle offense, and Stafford will have plenty of opportunities to call plays at the line.
''It's not about what plays I like the best. It's about what plays the players feel the best about,'' Cooter said. ''I've learned early in my time that if the quarterback really likes a play, he tends to make it work and the same thing works at different positions.
''If a receiver really likes a route, that guy tends to get open on that route.''
Golden Tate, who made 189 receptions the previous two years in Detroit, will be Stafford's top target.
Marvin Jones was signed just after Johnson's retirement and Anquan Boldin was added just before training camp, giving Stafford a pair of veteran receivers he can count on.
Tight end Eric Ebron, who missed the preseason with a lower right leg injury, has the potential to be a breakout player in his third NFL season.
Theo Riddick, rarely tackled by the first defender with a shot at him, is coming off an 80-catch season in which he shared the league lead with Danny Woodhead for receptions by a running back.
THE NEW BOSS: The Lions made big changes during their 1-7 start last season, firing general manager Martin Mayhew, team president Tom Lewand and offensive coordinator Joe Lombardi. Team owner Martha Firestone Ford was behind the bold moves. She hired Bob Quinn to run football operations as GM, hoping he can bring some of what he learned with the New England Patriots. He was New England's director of pro scouting for four seasons after serving as assistant director of pro personnel for two years in a 16-year career with the franchise. Quinn has made some tangible changes, including adding a curtain between the locker room and training facilities at team headquarters to keep reporters from seeing who is going in and out of that area.
CALDWELL'S CHANCE: Quinn had the freedom to fire coach Jim Caldwell, but chose to give him a shot to lead the team for a third season after he helped them win six of the last eight games last year. If Caldwell can't improve upon last year's record, getting to at least 8-8, it is difficult to imagine he will be back for a fourth year with the Lions.
WEAK LINK: Detroit didn't run the ball well last season and failed to protect Stafford. The Lions made an investment to improve their offensive line, drafting Taylor Decker out of Ohio State with the 16th pick overall. Decker is expected to start at left tackle, shifting Riley Reiff to right tackle.
D STANDOUTS: The Lions have potential stars in each position group on defense: Ezekiel Ansah at defensive end, cornerback Darius Slay and linebacker DeAndre Levy, who missed most of last year with a hip injury.
EARLY AND LATE: Detroit plays three of its first four games on the road, starting with Week 1 at Indianapolis. The Lions will also play three of their last five on the road, including a prime-time matchup Dec. 26 at Dallas.
AP NFL website: www.pro32.ap.org and www.twitter.com/AP-NFL
Follow Larry Lage at www.twitter.com/larrylage and follow his work at www.bigstory.ap.org/content/larry-lage