Published August 27, 2011
| Sports Network
Recessions are nothing new to the people of Detroit, which may explain the city's tolerance over the repeated failures of the hometown Lions.
The franchise has been the NFL's punching bag for the last decade, having strung together 10 consecutive losing seasons and failing to make the playoffs every year since 1999. And that's precisely why the Lions' strong finish to the 2010 campaign has folks all throughout Michigan brimming with optimism about the team's chances for both the present and future.
It's not often a 6-10 record breeds such hope and excitement for the coming season, but in the case of the Lions, that outlook is certainly understandable. After winning a total of two games combined over the previous two years, Detroit closed out 2010 with a mighty roar, ripping off four straight victories that included the eventual Super Bowl champion Green Bay Packers as one of the victims.
The long and gloomy days of reckless mismanagement and constant personnel blunders finally seem to be in the rear-view mirror for the Lions, replaced by a hungry and exuberant roster full of young talent that's slowly beginning to blossom. A series of fruitful drafts harvested by third-year general manager Martin Mayhew has reaped such rising stars as quarterback Matthew Stafford, 2010 NFL Defensive Rookie of the Year Ndamukong Suh, running back Jahvid Best, tight end Brandon Pettigrew and safety Louis Delmas, all of whom are under 27 years old.
That impressive nucleus, combined with last season's furious finish, has residents in the Motor City believing that the Lions are finally ready to roll in 2011.
"I definitely can see why people have that confidence in us, and I can see guys walking around this building with a swagger," defensive end Kyle Vanden Bosch remarked. "We have a lot of confidence in ourselves and we have high expectations for ourselves."
The rest of the league has began to take notice as well. Once an distasteful destination for potential free agents, Detroit has quickly become an attractive landing spot in players' eyes during the tenure of Mayhew and head coach Jim Schwartz. The duo was able to reel in proven veterans like Vanden Bosch and wide receiver Nate Burleson prior to last season, bringing both leadership and a winning attitude that helped inspire the Lions' step forward.
More seasoned skill was added to the mix for this year, with linebackers Stephen Tulloch and Justin Durant joining a defense that looks to have vast potential under Schwartz's watch.
The offense, headlined by All-Pro wide receiver Calvin Johnson and the speedy Best, also holds plenty of promise, provided Stafford can stay on the field. The 2009 No. 1 overall draft pick has had both of his first two pro seasons cut short by shoulder injuries, though the organization is hopeful his brittleness is now a thing of the past -- just like the Lions' losing ways.
"We look forward to putting all that missed time behind [Stafford]," said Schwartz. "That's key for this football team."
Below we take a capsule look at the 2011 edition of the Detroit Lions, with a personnel evaluation and prognosis included therein:
2009 RECORD: 6-10 (tied 3rd, NFC North)
LAST PLAYOFF APPEARANCE: 1999, lost to Washington in NFC Wild Card
COACH (RECORD): Jim Schwartz (8-24 in two seasons)
OFFENSIVE COORDINATOR: Scott Linehan (third season with Lions)
DEFENSIVE COORDINATOR: Gunther Cunningham (third season with Lions)
OFFENSIVE STAR: Calvin Johnson, WR (77 receptions, 1120 yards, 12 TD)
DEFENSIVE STAR: Ndamukong Suh, DT (66 tackles, 10 sacks, 1 INT)
2010 OFFENSIVE TEAM RANKS: 17th overall (23rd rushing, 12th passing), 15th scoring (22.6 ppg)
2010 DEFENSIVE TEAM RANKS: 21st overall (24th rushing, 16th passing), 19th scoring (23.1 ppg)
KEY ADDITIONS: OLB Justin Durant (from Jaguars), MLB Stephen Tulloch (from Titans), CB Eric Wright (from Browns), RB Jerome Harrison (from Eagles), RB Mike Bell (from Browns), WR Titus Young (2nd Round, Boise State), WR Maurice Stovall (from Buccaneers), WR Rashied Davis (from Bears), C Rudy Niswanger (from Chiefs), DE Keyunta Dawson (from Colts), DT Nick Fairley (1st Round, Auburn), CB Anthony Madison (from Steelers), S Erik Coleman (from Falcons), S Aaron Francisco (from Colts), S Michael Johnson (from Giants)
KEY DEPARTURES: OLB Julian Peterson (released), RB Kevin Smith (not tendered), WR Bryant Johnson (released), WR Brian Clark (retired), DE Turk McBride (to Saints), MLB Landon Johnson (not tendered), MLB Vinny Ciurciu (not tendered), OLB Zack Follett (released), OLB Jordon Dizon (released), CB Jack Williams (released), CB Tye Hill (not tendered), CB Eric King (released), S C.C. Brown (not tendered)
QB: Tough, strong-armed and smart, Stafford (535 passing yards, 6 TD, 1 INT) has all the necessary ingredients to develop into an elite quarterback. The problem is he hasn't been able to stay healthy, having played in only 13 of a possible 32 games over his first two years in the league because of two shoulder separations and a knee problem. He's been injury-free and displayed a great command of the offense this preseason, however, and the sky's the limit for the 23-year-old if he can remain off the trainer's table. The Lions do have fallbacks in the event Stafford does again get hurt, however, as both veteran Shaun Hill (2686 passing yards, 16 TD, 12 INT) and third-stringer Drew Stanton (780 passing yards, 4 TD, 3 INT) led the team to wins last season. Hill is the consummate quality backup -- a capable passer and strong leader who accepts his role and is always prepared.
RB: Injuries are a concern for the Lions in the offensive backfield as well, as Best (555 rushing yards, 58 receiving yards, 6 total TD) has a history of concussions from his collegiate days and was plagued by a turf toe ailment throughout his rookie year. The lightning-fast sophomore showed what he can do at full strength by accumulating 232 yards from scrimmage and three touchdowns against Philadelphia in his second professional game, however, and is an excellent receiver to boot. Detroit planned to lighten Best's load by drafting talented Illinois product Mikel Leshoure in the second round of April's draft, but the rookie tore his Achilles early in camp and was placed on injured reserve. His absence leaves a host of serviceable but uninspiring candidates competing for the backup job, with veteran holdover Maurice Morris (336 rushing, 25 receptions, 5 TD) and free-agent pickup Jerome Harrison (330 rushing yards, 1 TD, 12 receptions with CLE/PHI) considered the front-runners. Jerome Felton (76 rushing yards, 8 receptions) returns for his fourth season as Detroit's primary fullback, but isn't utilized much in the game plan.
WR/TE: The Lions possess one of the game's premier playmakers in the incredibly-gifted Johnson (77 receptions, 1120 yards, 12 TD), a 6-foot-5, 235- pound matchup nightmare who's both fast and physical and nearly impossible to guard one-on-one. He's just one of many options for a potentially-prolific air attack, however, as Burleson (55 receptions, 6 TD) is an established big-play threat and Pettigrew (71 receptions, 4 TD) an excellent safety valve who teams with the athletic Tony Scheffler (45 receptions, 1 TD) to form a high-caliber tight end duo. Detroit also has high hopes for rookie Titus Young, a second- round pick in this past year's draft who can fly and has some polish to his game as well. He should be an upgrade over the underachieving and since- released Bryant Johnson as the No. 3 receiver. Depth was added with the free- agent signings of former Buccaneer Maurice Stovall and ex-Bear Rashied Davis, two special-teams standouts who were brought in to upgrade the kick coverage units.
OL: Since keeping Stafford in one piece is critical to Detroit's playoff hopes, the organization will be keeping its fingers crossed that tackles Jeff Backus and Gosder Cherilus can hold up after both had medical scares in the past year. Backus, entering his 11th season as the team's left tackle, partially tore his chest muscle while working out over the summer, though he's on track to start the season and has yet to miss a game in his career. Cherilus underwent microfracture knee surgery in December, but the former first-round pick did receive a clean bill of health in the preseason. Steady veteran center Dominic Raiola will again anchor an interior that includes two other returnees in left guard Rob Sims and right guard Stephen Peterman, and the Lions added some experienced insurance with the signing of Rudy Niswanger, a 31-game starter at center for Kansas City over the past three years. Tackle Corey Hilliard started four times in Cherilus' place last season and will comprise the reserve ranks on the flanks along with second-year pro Jason Fox.
DL: The Lions placed sixth in the NFL with 44 sacks in 2010, an increase of 18 over the previous season, in large part due to the intimidating presence of Suh (66 tackles) in the middle of the line. The No. 2 overall choice of last year's draft lived up to his high status and more as rookie, leading all defensive tackles with 10 sacks and earning first-team All-Pro honors along the way. He's the headliner of what could be a devastating inside trio with overlooked veteran Corey Williams (37 tackles, 2 sacks) and 2011 first-round selection Nick Fairley, once the heralded rookie returns from foot surgery that's kept him out the entire preseason. The former Auburn star was an absolute force during the Tigers' drive to the BCS Championship title last season, compiling 11 1/2 sacks and a whopping 24 tackles for loss. There's talent on the edge as well, with left end Cliff Avril (33 tackles, 8.5 sacks) also turning in a productive 2010 campaign and Seahawks castoff Lawrence Jackson (34 tackles, 6 sacks) recording six sacks in a part-time role. Vanden Bosch (49 tackles, 4 sacks) is no longer a premier pass rusher, but the 32- year-old's energy and leadership in the huddle were invaluable a year ago.
LB: Detroit needed a major makeover at one of its most glaring areas of weakness and got it with the signings of new middle linebacker Tulloch (160 tackles, 1 sack, 1 INT with Titans) and projected strongside starter Durant (55 tackles with Jaguars), two stout run stoppers brought in to improve the team's No. 24 overall ranking in that area. Tulloch's addition shifts third- year man DeAndre Levy (72 tackles, 2 INT) from the inside to the Will position, which the team believes better suits his best assets as an open- field tackler and coverage linebacker. The Lions re-signed journeyman Bobby Carpenter (40 tackles), who performed ably when forced into the lineup due to injuries last year, to serve as the main backup at all spots, while returnees Ashlee Palmer (55 tackles, 1 sack) and Isaiah Ekejiuba (10 tackles) make their marks as core special-teamers.
DB: The Lions will be counting on a youthful secondary to come of age in 2011, as the team placed just 23rd in pass efficiency defense last year in spite of the strong pass rush from up front. Detroit does appear well set at the two safety spots, however, as Delmas (84 tackles, 2 sacks) has been a solid contributor in his two years in the league and counterpart Amari Spievey (51 tackles, 2 sacks) showed promise in nine starts as a rookie after making the transition from a college cornerback. The two will have a good mentor to lean on this year with the addition of Erik Coleman (20 tackles), owner of 82 career starts in seven seasons with the New York Jets and Atlanta. Chris Houston (56 tackles, 1 INT, 12 PD) was re-signed after playing well at left cornerback upon coming over in a trade with the Falcons, but opposite-side starter Alphonso Smith (39 tackles) had an uneven season despite leading the team with five interceptions. That prompted the Lions to roll the dice on ex- Brown Eric Wright (42 tackles, 1 INT), who's coming off a rough year in Cleveland but has flashed high-level coverage ability in the past. He's been installed as a starter alongside Houston, with Smith likely competing with veteran Nathan Vasher (19 tackles, 1 INT) and Brandon McDonald (19 tackles) for nickel duties.
SPECIAL TEAMS: Kicker Jason Hanson, the only remaining member from Detroit's last playoff entry in 1999, is back for a 20th season with the team and can still get the job done at age 41, connecting on 12-of-14 field goal attempts in a 2010 campaign limited to eight games by a knee injury. Punter Nick Harris seems to be getting better with age as well, as the 33-year-old's 44.6 yards- per-kick gross average in 2010 was the second-highest of his 10-year career. The Lions are in good hands in the return game, with specialist Stefan Logan placing third in the NFC in both running back kicks (26.8 avg., 1 TD) and punts (12.1 avg.). Long snapper Don Muhlbach enters his eighth season in Detroit and owns a reliable reputation as well.
PROGNOSIS: Respect is growing around the league for the Lions, and for good reason. With an offense that has a chance to be explosive, a fierce pass- rushing defense that looks to be improved with the new parts and the fact that its returning members are a year older and wiser, plus the guidance of a veteran coaching staff, Detroit is no longer a pushover and guaranteed win on the slate. Success won't be a sure thing either, as the Lions are still young and relatively unproven in several key spots and the schedule won't be easy. However, if Stafford can stay healthy (a pretty big if) and reach his immense potential as a quarterback, Detroit clearly has the talent to contend for a winning season and playoff berth that have both been a long time coming.