No longer the laughing stock of the NFL, the Detroit Lions come into the 2012 season hungry for further success.
Last season saw the team go 10-6 and post its first winning record since a 9-7 finish in 2000 along with its first playoff berth since 1999. While the team was unable to win its first playoff game since 1991 after an opening- round loss to New Orleans, it did create a lot of hope for the players and the fans of the Motor City.
Just three seasons removed from the one-and-only 0-16 mark in the history of the NFL, the Lions won their first five games of the 2011 season, part of a nine-game winning streak that started in the final month of the 2010 campaign. The team had several come-from-behind wins and a couple of blowouts, most notably a 48-3 rout over Kansas City in Week 2 that set a franchise record for largest margin of victory, but did struggle against the better teams of the league. Detroit suffered losses to Green Bay on Thanksgiving and the last day of the regular season, while also dropping a game to New Orleans marred by several disciplinary problems.
"Anything that happened last year, you have to be guarded about expecting things like that to carry you over," said Detroit head coach Jim Schwartz, who is entering his fourth season with the club. "We have a hard-working team and they're able to keep focused on what's at hand. But you know, I think if you went through our group you wouldn't hear anybody talking about last year's playoffs or this year's playoffs. That's just not the personality of this team."
Most of last year's success can be contributed to a passing juggernaut that was led by quarterback Matthew Stafford and highlighted by superstar wide receiver Calvin "Megatron" Johnson. Stafford finished third in the NFL in with 5,038 passing yards, while Johnson led all receivers with 1,681 yards to help put him on the cover of the Madden NFL '13 video game.
"I think those guys obviously have a good connection and they make big plays on the field," said Schwartz about his quarterback/wide receiver duo. "We all know the more you do something, the better you get at it."
Expect more of the high-flying types of games that the Lions were often involved in last year, as this team will both score a lot of points and give up a lot of points, as the defense is not the strong suit of the Boys in Blue.
Below we take a capsule look at the 2012 edition of the Detroit Lions, with a personnel evaluation and prognosis included therein:
2011 RECORD: 10-6 (2nd, NFC North)
LAST PLAYOFF APPEARANCE: 2011, lost to New Orleans in NFC Wild Card
COACH (RECORD): Jim Schwartz (18-30 in three seasons)
OFFENSIVE COORDINATOR: Scott Linehan (fourth season with Lions)
DEFENSIVE COORDINATOR: Gunther Cunningham (fourth season with Lions)
OFFENSIVE STAR: Calvin Johnson, WR (96 receptions, 1681 yards, 16 TD)
DEFENSIVE STAR: Cliff Avril, DE (36 tackles, 11 sacks, 1 INT)
2011 OFFENSIVE TEAM RANKS: 5th overall (29th rushing, 4th passing), 4th scoring (29.6 ppg)
2011 DEFENSIVE TEAM RANKS: 23rd overall (23rd rushing, 22nd passing), 23rd scoring (24.2 ppg)
KEY ADDITIONS: CB Jacob Lacey (from Colts), WR Ryan Broyles (2nd Round, Oklahoma), WR Jarrett Dillard (from Jaguars), WR Kassim Osgood (from Jaguars), WR Dominique Curry (from Rams), OG Bill Nagy (from Cowboys), OT Riley Reiff (1st Round, Iowa), OT Jonathan Scott (from Steelers), CB Dwight Bentley (3rd Round, Louisiana-Lafayette), S Sean Jones (from Buccaneers), S Reshard Langford (from Chiefs)
KEY DEPARTURES: CB Eric Wright (to Buccaneers), QB Drew Stanton (to Colts), RB Maurice Morris (free agent), WR Rashied Davis (to Bears), OLB Bobby Carpenter (to Patriots), OLB Isaiah Ekejiuba (free agent), CB Aaron Berry (released), CB Brandon McDonald (to Buccaneers), S Chris Harris (free agent)
QB: The top overall pick of the 2009 draft, the former Georgia Bulldog Stafford came into his own last season by emerging as one of the elite quarterbacks of the NFL. He passed for 5,038 yards along with 41 touchdowns against just 16 interceptions while completing 63.5 percent of his throws. More importantly, though, was the fact that he started and finished every single game throughout the season after his first two campaigns were both cut short by injury. Stafford had eight 300-plus yard games last season, including a whopping 520 in a Week 17 loss to Green Bay. He also threw a touchdown pass in every game. As Stafford goes, so shall the Lions. However, the team does have a competent backup in Shaun Hill, who only attempted three passes last season, but played admirably in 11 games in 2010 after Stafford went down just three games in.
RB: Thanks to injuries in the backfield, the Lions running game was just about non-existent last season. While finishing fourth overall in passing offense in 2011, the team was just 29th in rushing yardage and had just two games in which a back went over 100 yards. Jahvid Best (390 rushing yards, 27 receptions, 3 total TD) is a remarkable talent when he's on the field, but the problem is he's not on it enough. He had his 2011 season cut short after six games with a concussion and has been on the physically unable to perform list all of this preseason. If and when he is able to take the field, the speedster will certainly improve the lethargic rushing attack, but Best also had concussion problems while in college at California, so there is definite concern about his long-term sustainability in the league. If Best is unable to play, the burden will fall on Kevin Smith (356 rushing yards, 22 receptions, 7 total TD), who also has had injury problems in his pro career after being drafted by Detroit in 2008. He has had his moments as well, as highlighted by a three-touchdown, 201 yards-from-scrimmage performance against Carolina last season which earned him NFC Offensive Player of the Week. 2011 second-round pick Mikel Leshoure was arrested twice for marijuana possession in the offseason and is suspended for the first two games of 2012. He also has had injury problems, as he missed all of his rookie year with a torn left Achilles tendon and was sidelined for most of training camp with a right hamstring injury.
WR: Arguably the best receiver in the game, Johnson posted 1,681 yards on 96 catches with 16 touchdowns in a banner 2011 campaign. He began his fifth NFL season with two touchdown catches in each of the first four games and tied Cris Carter's league record for most consecutive games with multiple touchdown grabs. Johnson saved his best for last, coming up with a 244-yard, one- touchdown performance against Green Bay in the final week of the regular season. All of that helped earn him an eight-year extension worth $132 million, with $60 million guaranteed, in the offseason. Defenses will definitely be paying attention to him at all times, but with his natural ability and a talented quarterback tossing him the ball, Johnson should continue to produce at a high level. He's not the only one that can catch the ball from the receiver position, as the Lions also have Titus Young and Nate Burleson. Young showed flashes of brilliance in his rookie year by posting 48 catches for 607 yards and six touchdowns last season, including scores in three of the last four games. With Johnson likely to garner the bulk of attention from defenses, Young will have the potential to make some more big plays and rack up a lot of numbers. Coming into his 10th season, Burleson (73 receptions, 3 TD) should continue to put up consistent numbers, especially with opponents having a lot of other threats to worry about. Rookie Ryan Broyles, who the Lions selected with the 54th overall pick of April's draft, had 349 catches in college, an NCAA FBS record. Coming off a torn ACL that ended his final season at Oklahoma early, expect him to see limited playing time at first, but his role should increase as the season progresses and he's also capable of performing duties on special teams.
TE: The receiving threats don't end with the wideouts, as the Lions boast a pair of talents at tight end in the combo of Brandon Pettigrew and Tony Scheffler. The 20th overall pick of the 2009 draft, Pettigrew posted career high numbers in catches (83), receiving yards (777) and touchdowns (5) last season, while the ex-Bronco Scheffler saw his production drop a little with 26 catches for 347 yards, though he did post a career-high in touchdowns with six. With linebackers and defensive backs having to pay so much attention to the plethora of outside threats, the two have the potential to post big numbers. That's especially true for Pettigrew, who had two games with 100-plus receiving yards last season.
OL: Detroit used its first-round pick in this past draft to shore up its offensive line, taking Iowa tackle Riley Reiff with the 23rd overall choice. The former Hawkeye will one day take the spot of 35-year-old Jeff Backus on the left side, but it's not likely to be this year with Backus still playing at a solid level. Reiff could see more time at right tackle, where returning starter Gosder Cherilus' play has often been inconsistent. Guards Rob Sims and Stephen Peterman, both of whom started all 16 games last season, provide some consistency in the interior, while center Dominic Raiola will enter his 12th season with the Lions and has missed just four games during that entire time. The health of Stafford is paramount to the success to this team, so the Lions will be counting heavily on the front five to do their jobs.
DL: The strength of the Detroit defense lies along a front line headlined by tackle Ndamukong Suh. The 2010 NFL Defensive Rookie of the Year is a monster when he's on his game, but the problem is that he's lost his cool way too much and taken bad penalties at inopportune moments. After a 2010 season that saw him total 10 sacks and 66 tackles, Suh saw those numbers drop to four sacks and 36 stops in 2011. Finding his dominant form will mean a lot to this team should he be able to once again wreak havoc at the line and in the backfield. Complimenting Suh is a talented group highlighted by tackles Corey Williams and 2011 first-round pick Nick Fairley. Williams had two sacks and 31 stops in 15 games last year, while Fairley missed the first four games and six total in his rookie campaign and recorded just one sack and 15 tackles. As his development increases, look for Fairley to take more of the snaps from Williams as this season goes on. Detroit's ends are nearly as talented as its tackles, with veteran Kyle Vanden Bosch and Cliff Avril further cementing the line. Vanden Bosch, 33, had one of his better seasons in 2011 after he totaled eight sacks and 35 tackles in his 10th NFL season, while Avril led the team with 11 sacks along with 36 stops in his fourth pro season. That's not the end of Detroit's prowess up front, as the team has talented backups to rotate in and keep everyone fresh, including tackle Sammie Hill (24 tackles, 1.5 sacks) and ends Lawrence Jackson (26 tackles, 4.5 sacks), Willie Young (14 tackles, 3 sacks) and rookie Ronnell Lewis (4th Round, Oklahoma).
LB: Detroit's linebacking corps was decent last year and received a strong performance in the middle from Stephen Tulloch, whom the team signed as a free agent from Tennessee prior to the start of last season. Playing and starting in all 16 games, he totaled a team-leading 111 tackles along with three sacks, three fumble recoveries and two interceptions. Tulloch has played in every game over his five years in the NFL and should that continue this season, he's a lock for leading the Lions in tackles once again. Alongside Tulloch will again be the tandem of DeAndre Levy and Justin Durant. Levy, a third-round draft choice in 2009, improved for a third straight season after he finished just behind Tulloch in tackles (109) while also notching a sack and an interception. Durant was another free-agent signing prior to the start of 2011, as he came from Jacksonville. He missed the first three games with a hamstring injury, but did post 68 tackles and a sack. Detroit's run defense finished 23rd last season, giving up 128.1 yards per game and 10 touchdowns.
DB: Detroit's defense finished 22nd against the pass last year and wasn't bad at times, but after lynchpin safety Louis Delmas (51 tackles) went down with a right knee injury near the end of the season, things fell apart. Delmas missed the final five regular-season games, and the Lions gave up 1,687 yards and 14 touchdowns through the air. In the final contest, Green Bay backup quarterback Matt Flynn picked the Lions apart for 480 yards and six touchdowns in a 45-41 Packers victory that forced Detroit into a Wild Card matchup on the road against New Orleans that it promptly lost. Things don't look much better coming into this season, as Delmas had knee surgery early in training camp and will most likely miss the entire preseason. Though Schwartz is hopeful his free safety will be ready when the regular season starts, it may be wishful thinking to count on him lasting through the grueling schedule. Should Delmas continue to have injury issues, veteran Erik Coleman will take over free safety. He brings plenty of experience, but also had knee problems that caused him to miss most of last season. Amari Spievey (70 tackles, 1 sack, 3 INT) and free-agent addition Sean Jones (92 tackles, 1 sack with Buccaneers) can both play strong safety competently, so there's good depth there. At cornerback, the Lions will have Chris Houston (54 tackles, 5 INT) back at one side and either ex-Colt Jacob Lacey (72 tackles, 1 INT) and rookie third-round pick Dwight Bentley (Louisiana-Lafayette) on the other, with Alphonso Smith (27 tackles, 3 INT) in reserve. As mentioned earlier, without a healthy Delmas on the back end, things are very dicey in the Lions' secondary.
SPECIAL TEAMS: Coming into his 21st season, venerable kicker Jason Hanson will still be the leader of the special teams. While his leg might not be as strong as it used to be, he can still attempt field goals of 50-plus yards and be counted on to hit most of them, especially under the dome at Ford Field. Last season, Hanson was 17-for-18 inside of 40 yards, 2-for-4 from 40-49 yards and 5-for-7 from 50-plus. He also set an NFL record for the most games played with one team (310), as he has spent his entire career with Detroit and missed just nine games. Sitting fourth on the NFL's all-time list with 2,016 points, Hanson needs just 46 to pass John Carney for third place. Ryan Donahue, 23, and Ben Graham, 38, are battling for the punting job. Donahue missed eight games last season with a quad injury, but the job is his to lose after averaging 42.7 yards per kick and showing a strong leg. Stefan Logan should again handle punt and kickoff return duties, with Broyles possibly getting some time back there as well. Detroit had no returns for touchdowns last season, but finished sixth in the league in kickoff return average and 12th in punt returns with Logan handling the load.
PROGNOSIS: As the offense goes, so will this team. The Lions will put up a ton of points and should the running game get its act together, they could put up two tons of points. Of course, they may have to, because once the play gets past the line, things will get dicey for the Lions on defense. The team has two important two-game stretches this season and may need to go at least 2-2 in those four outings to have a shot at the playoffs. The first comes out of a bye week in early October, when the Lions will have road games in Philadelphia and Chicago. The next crucial sequence will be a Week 11 home game against Green Bay followed by the Thanksgiving matchup with Houston. Should they happen to prevail in three or even all four of those games, an NFC North crown is not out of the question for the Lions, though a lot of other things will have to fall their way with the Packers and Bears both tough competition. That being said, making the playoffs and getting wins in the playoffs are the goals of this team, and anything less will be disappointing.