The Detroit Lions are leaning on their defensive line to help the franchise bounce back from a poor season that made its recent playoff appearance look like it might've been a fluke.
Defensive tackles Ndamukong Suh and Nick Fairley should be crashing pockets. And the new defensive ends, first-round pick Ezekiel "Ziggy" Ansah, Jason Jones and Israel Idonije, seem set up to have success.
The Lions, though, will need more than a dominant defensive line to make this season more than 2011 — when they snapped an 11-year playoff drought — and less like last year's 4-12 flop that finished with an eight-game skid. Here are five things to know about Detroit's season:
STAFFORD'S SUCCESS: Detroit drafted Matthew Stafford No. 1 overall in 2009, counting on him ending the franchise's decades-long search for a star quarterback. After overcoming an injury-riddled start of his career, he threw for more than 10,000 yards the last two seasons with 61 touchdowns and 33 interceptions. Stafford was rewarded with a three-year extension in July, putting him under contract for $76.6 million over the next five seasons. To reward the investment, he has to help the Lions beat good teams. Stafford is 1-22 against teams who finished that same season with a winning record in the same season, giving him a .043 winning percentage that is better than only Randy Johnson's rate of success among QBs who have made 20-plus starts, according to STATS. Stafford insists he's not concerned with such statistics.
"It's something different every time," he said. "You don't traditionally lose games for the same reasons over and over again."
SAFETY FIRST: The Lions will be dramatically better on defense if safety Louis Delmas can stay healthy for a change and teams with safety Glover Quin to patrol the secondary. Delmas is a hard-hitting, emotionally charged player who lifts the spirits of all those around him. Delmas, though, played in just eight games last season, 11 the year before because of knee injuries. Quin has been everything the Lions hoped he would be, showing why he started 60 games the last four years for the Houston Texans.
"We need to get Lou and Glover on the field and create that kind of camaraderie and synergy between those two guys because there's a lot of unspoken communication between those two safeties," Schwartz said.
NEW-LOOK O-LINE: Detroit's offensive line has just two returning starters, center Dominic Raiola and Rob Sims. Riley Reiff, a first-round pick, will replace retired left tackle Jeff Backus. After three preseason games, the Lions didn't know — or weren't saying — who was starting at right guard and tackle in place of Stephen Peterman and Gosder Cherilus. Jason Fox seems to have beaten out Corey Hilliard for the job at right tackle. Third-round pick Larry Warford might win the competition with Dylan Gandy and Jake Scott.
"We have a lot of different options and a lot of guys that can potentially get the job done," Schwartz said.
MEGATRON RETURNS: Calvin Johnson broke one of Jerry Rice's single-season records last year with 1,964 yards receiving and also led the league in yards receiving in 2011.
"I didn't understand what a freak of nature he is until I got here and saw some of the stuff that he does," first-year Lions running back Reggie Bush said. "That's why they call him Megatron. It's going to be fun to play with him this year. For a running back like me, it's a dream come true. I love having a guy like that on the outside. I definitely feel like we're going to complement each other. I'm going to make his life a lot easier. And he's going to make my life a lot easier."
As much as Bush can help Johnson by turning short passes into big games, the Lions need Nate Burleson and Ryan Broyles to have success after having season-ending injuries last year.
SCHWARTZ'S SEAT: The Lions' entire organization is desperately hoping for a return to the playoffs this season, and perhaps no one is rooting for that outcome more than Schwartz. He is entering his fifth year and it is difficult to envision him getting a sixth season if this year is anything like the last.
"The heat on the seat kind of varies from week to week," Lions general manager Martin Mayhew said. "Some guys whose seats are real cool right now, they're going to be hot come January. So we'll see what happens."
Schwartz took on a tough job, leading a team that was coming off the NFL's first 0-16 season, and seemed to have the players headed in the right direction in each of his first three seasons. The Lions took a big step back last year and Schwartz was unable to do enough about it, losing nine games by single digits and four games by three or fewer points.
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