Detroit Lions 2014 Season Preview

( - There was a point last season where the Detroit Lions were in the drivers seat and appeared poised to capture their first division title in 20 years.

Holding a mark of 6-3 after capping a season-sweep of Chicago in Week 10 and sitting in first place in an injury-plagued NFC North, the Lions went belly up, dropping six of their final seven games and missing the playoffs for the 13th time in the past 14 seasons.

The collapse led to the firing of head coach Jim Schwartz and the hiring of Jim Caldwell to guide this offensive-heavy team and hopefully bring some discipline to a consistently sloppy and under-achieving team.

Caldwell comes to Detroit from Baltimore, where as an offensive coordinator he helped the team to a Super Bowl championship with a 34-31 victory over the San Francisco 49ers in the big game two seasons ago.

Prior to his stint with Baltimore, Caldwell had spent 10 seasons with the Colts, the last three as head coach. While in Indy he won a Super Bowl with Peyton Manning at the helm, but his last season saw the Colts finish 2-14 as Manning sat out the entire campaign with neck problems.

As has been the case for the past several seasons, the Lions figure to be an offense-heavy team guided by quarterback Matthew Stafford and All-Pro wide receiver Calvin Johnson.

In addition, the team has a dynamic backfield in Reggie Bush and Joique Bell, along with a potent tight end corps highlighted by first-round draft pick Eric Ebron. Also, a solid offensive line will provide the pass protection and run blocking, led by 14-year veteran center Domonic Raiola.

On the defensive side, Detroit sports one of the better defensive lines in the NFC with the likes of Ndamukong Suh and Ziggy Ansah. The main weakness, though, remains the defensive backfield which has been a constant sore spot for years.

2013 RECORD: 7-9 (3rd, NFC North)

LAST PLAYOFF APPEARANCE: 2011, lost to New Orleans Saints in NFC Wild Card Round

HEAD COACH (RECORD): Jim Caldwell (first season)

OFFENSIVE COORDINATOR: Joe Lombardi (first season)

DEFENSIVE COORDINATOR: Teryl Austin (first season)

KEY ADDITIONS: WR Golden Tate (from Seahawks), DT Vaughn Martin (from Dolphins), DE Darryl Tapp (from Redskins), QB Dan Orlovsky (from Buccaneers), S James Ihedigbo (from Ravens), TE Eric Ebron (1st round, North Carolina), LB Kyle Van Noy (2nd round, BYU).

KEY DEPARTURES: DE Willie Young (to Bears), WR Nate Burleson (to Browns), S Louis Delmas (to Dolphins), CB Chris Houston (released)

QB: Matthew Stafford is back for his sixth season in the NFL after the team took him with the top overall pick in 2009 out of Georgia. After a tough first two seasons saw him play just 13 games due to injury, Stafford has played in all 48 games the past three seasons, but inconsistent play has been a trademark of this talented signal-caller.

Sloppy mechanics, including a penchant for slinging the ball side-armed, and questionable decision-making has plagued Stafford. However, he has a cannon on his shoulder and has seen his risk-taking pay off from time-to-time, including a one-yard lunge into the end zone with the clock running down and no timeouts left in a 31-30 victory over Dallas last season. This could be a make-or-break season for Stafford, as he has to start living up to his potential and guiding this team to wins.

"He is a fine leader. Since I've been here you can tell the players gravitate toward him, they have a keen interest in what he has to say," said Caldwell of his No. 1 signal-caller.

Backing up Stafford should he fall is 30-year-old Dan Orlovsky, who is a competent caddy and is back with the team for a second stint after bouncing around from Houston to Indianapolis to Tampa Bay.


RB: Dual threats in the backfield is a big thing in the NFL these days, and the Lions have one of the better combos in Bush and Bell.

Bush, who signed with the team last year from Miami, had one of the best years of his career as he totaled 1,006 yards on the ground with four touchdowns, and also had 54 catches for 506 yards and three scores. Bell, meanwhile added 650 yards and eight touchdowns on the ground, while catching 53 passes for 547 yards. The two became the first running back tandem in NFL history to each have 500 yards running and receiving in the same season.


WR: There isn't much to be said about Johnson that hasn't been said over and over again. He is the best wide receiver in the league, and can do just about anything he wants on the football field.

Following the 2012 season that saw Megatron set a receiving yards record with 1,964, he calmed down a bit due to nagging injuries in 2013, grabbing 84 passes for 1,492 yards and 12 touchdowns. The 28-year-old remains in the prime of his career, but the mounting injuries are a concern due to the amount of targets he receives. A major injury to Johnson could spell doom for the team.

"Maybe the humblest individual that I've ever been around, and not only that but maybe the hardest worker," said Caldwell of Johnson. "He's a tremendous person. He's just tireless in terms of his efforts to get out there on the field and help his team."

In order to take some of the pressure off Johnson, he Lions brought in free agent Golden Tate from Seattle. Tate caught 64 passes for 898 yards and five scores in 2013, winning a Super Bowl in his fourth season in the league.

Ryan Broyles (third season) and Kris Durham (fourth season) will also see some touches in an offense that figures to be pass-heavy, as should Kevin Ogletree.


TE: The Lions surprised everyone in the draft by taking tight end Ebron out of North Carolina with the 10th overall pick. A finalist for the John Mackey Award as the nation's top tight end in 2013, he gives Stafford another target to work with as he was considered the best tight end in the process.

Detroit drafted Ebron despite having two decent producers at tight end in Brandon Pettigrew and Joseph Fauria. Pettigrew is entering his sixth season after being drafted by the Lions with the 20th overall pick in 2009, the same year they drafted Stafford. He signed a four-year contract in the offseason after catching 41 passes for 416 yards and two touchdowns in 2013 but has always been inconsistent.

Fauria played his first season in 2013 after gaining a spot with the team as an undrafted free agent from UCLA. While he only caught 18 passes for 207 yards, seven of those completions went for touchdowns.


OL: An offense can only be so good as its offensive line, and that bodes well for Detroit which will be bringing back many of the pieces from last year's front that allowed just 23 sacks, the second fewest in the NFL behind Denver's 20.

Back for his 14th season in the NFL and with the Lions is center Raiola. The Nebraska product hasn't missed a game the past five season and has only missed four in his entire career.

Flagging Raiola are Rob Sims, entering his ninth season and fifth with Detroit, and second-year man Larry Warford, a rising star. Sims came to Detroit in 2010 and has started every game since. Warford, meanwhile, was a third-round pick in the 2013 draft out of Kentucky and was considered one of the best guard prospects of his class. He didn't disappoint as he had a fantastic rookie season, starting and finishing all 16 games.

Anchoring the left end of the line is tackle Riley Reiff, a first-round pick in 2012. He started eight of his 16 appearances in 2012, and took over the left tackle position starting in 2013. At right tackle, LaAdrian Waddle, who started eight games last season as an undrafted rookie out of Texas Tech, and Corey Hilliard, entering his eighth season, are battling for the starting spot.


DL: As has been the case for the past several seasons, the strength of the Lions defense lies in the front four, as the team possesses one of the better defensive lines in the NFL.

At the tackles the Lions have a standout in Ndamukong Suh and two excellent options in Nick Fairley and C.J. Mosley. Suh is entering his fifth season with the team, but contract issues loom large with him as he has a huge salary-cap hit, and there is a chance the team might be looking to trade him unless they think he could be a key to a deep playoff run.

Fairley, the 13th overall pick of the 2011 draft, had been the other starter, but his weight has been a problem this preseason and Mosley, a 10-year veteran, could be the starter at the beginning of the campaign.

Holding down the ends are Jason Jones and the immensely talented Ansah. Jones is a seven-year veteran who started the first three games last season for Detroit before suffering a season-ending knee injury. Ansah was the fifth overall pick of the 2013 draft out of BYU and had a fantastic rookie season, totaling eight sacks, two forced fumbles and 32 tackles in 14 games, including 12 starts.


LB: Leading the linebacker corps is middle linebacker Stephen Tulloch, who led the team with 135 tackles last season. He added 3 1/2 sacks and was effective in pass coverage.

At the right outside linebacker is DeAndre Levy as he finished second on the team in tackles in 2013 with 119. Also, he was the teams leader in interceptions with six, finishing second in the NFL in that category, and is an excellent asset for pass defense.

Battling for the other outside linebacker position is Ashlee Palmer and rookie Kyle Van Noy. Palmer started 10 games and appeared in all 16 last season for Detroit, but totaled just 33 tackles and was commonly substituted during passing situations.

Van Noy was Detroit's second round pick, 40th overall, out of BYU in this year's draft and signs are pointing to him being the starter in Week 1. A talented playmaker who can tackle, rush the passer and operate effectively in pass coverage, he has a knack for making big plays and has been impressive in the preseason.


DB: The Achilles heel of this defense for the past several years has been the play in the secondary, and it remains to be seen how the defensive backs will do this year.

The starting cornerbacks will be Darius Slay and Rashean Mathis. Slay was a second-round pick in the 2013 draft and appeared in 13 games last year, starting four. Mathis played his first season in Detroit in 2013 after spending his first 10 seasons with Jacksonville and started 13 of the 15 games he appeared. Neither of the two are shutdown corners, but they certainly aren't the worst duo in the league.

The two starting safeties will be James Ihedigbo and Glover Quin. Ihedigbo comes from Baltimore where he started all 16 games last season and finished with 101 tackles, 11 passes defensed and three interceptions in his sixth season in the pros. Quin is a cornerback turned safety, and provides adequate pass protection on deep plays.

Of course, as is obvious, if the front seven can play as solid as some are expecting, it will greatly benefit the secondary and take off some of the pressure.


SPECIAL TEAMS: Handling place kicker duties is still up in the air with the team as they drafted Nate Freese in the seventh round of this year's draft, and he is battling with Giorgio Tavecchio.

Taking care of returns will be Jeremy Ross, as he took over the job last season when he was promoted from the practice squad after Nate Burleson was injured. He averaged 29.3 yards per kick return, and 16.2 yards on punt returns. Also, he became the first Lion in almost 36 years to return a punt and kickoff for touchdowns in the same game when he did so against the Eagles.

Punter Sam Martin will hope to improve on his rookie season that saw him finish in the top-10 in both gross (47.2 yards) and net (40.4 yards) averages.


COACHING: As mentioned, two of things Caldwell will need to do if this team is to be successful is get the team to play a more disciplined style, and fix some of the problems with his star quarterback.

As far as the quarterback goes, he did coach one of the best ones to ever play under center in Manning. Getting Stafford to stop with the questionable sidearm passes, along with keeping him from forcing plays where they're not and cutting down the turnovers will be key to getting more success, at least on the offensive side of the ball.

Discipline has been a big problem for the Lions the past several years, and how much of that was due to Schwartz, and how much was due to the players remains to be seen. The preseason thus far has seen the team take a lot of penalties, so cutting down on that should be a focus point for Caldwell.

Caldwell brought Teryl Austin in from Baltimore to serve as defensive coordinator, as Austin has been the defensive backs coach with the Ravens for three seasons.

At the head of the offense is Joe Lombardi, who comes to the team from New Orleans where he was the quarterbacks coach from 2009, working with All-Pro Drew Brees.


THE SKINNY: After making the playoffs in 2011, the team has regressed the past two seasons. Although their record in 2013 was better in 2012, the collapse has led some to speculate that this is just a typical underachieving Detroit team that has a lot of flash, but no desire to win.

The window for this current team is closing, as several big contracts could lead to the team needing to trade or release some of their bigger names rather soon.

As is expected, the offense is there and could wind up being even more potent with the addition of Tate and Ebron, and especially if Stafford can fix the mechanical and decision issues he's had in the past.

They're in a tough division and close out their season with road trips in Chicago and Green Bay, so if this team is going to make the playoffs, they're going to have to find a way to play disciplined and take the game to their opponents.