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TGS 2012 PRO FOOTBALL PREVIEW... DETROIT LIONS
by Bruce Marshall, Goldsheet.com Editor


At the risk of sounding snarky, we have one thing to say about the Detroit Lions in 2012.

Let’s see them do it again.

Mind you, we at TGS and others had foreseen the Lions’ breakthrough prior to last season, when Detroit completed its rehabilitation from the nightmarish 0-16 debacle of 2008 and earned its first postseason berth of the millennium. Indeed, last year’s 10-6 mark earned Detroit its first playoff invitation since 1999. But the Lions were also an ordinary team after their quick 5-0 break from the gate, plagued by bouts of inconsistency and immaturity that eventually prompted a special meeting with commish Roger Goodell regarding proper behavior.

All of which makes it fair to ask if Detroit is really ready to make the next step to serious contender status, plateau as the Atlanta Falcons have done the past few years, or even regress from last season’s perch.

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The thought of Detroit progressing to the NFL elite might seem an odd one to modern-day fans who have not even seen the Lions notch a postseason win since Wayne Fontes’ side, with RB Barry Sanders at the height of his powers, reached the NFC title game in 1991. Having been in business since 1957, however, TGS can recall an era in which Detroit was a powerhouse. That initial publishing season was also one in which the Lions won their last NFL championship, doing so in swashbuckling fashion.

Those were still the days of 12-game regular-season schedules, and midway through the ‘57 campaign there was little indication that Detroit was going anywhere, languishing as it was at 3-3. But the Lions, led by a defense featuring Hall-of-Famers LB Joe Schmidt and DBs Night Train Lane and Yale Larry, began to roar at midseason, winning five of their last six to force a Western Conference playoff game vs. Y.A. Tittle and San Francisco 49ers. Then, after trailing 27-7 at halftime, the Lions clawed their way back to a 31-27 win at Kezar Stadium to qualify for the NFL title game at old Briggs Stadium vs. the Browns, and a chance to avenge a 56-10 loss to Cleveland in the title game three years earlier. Which the Lions did, and then some, riding 4 TD passes by QB Tobin Rote to a 59-14 romp.

And we haven’t seen a Detroit championship in the 55 years since.

As mentioned, the emergence a year ago wasn’t hard to predict, as the Lions had patiently put the pieces together for a contender through bountiful recent drafts. Playmakers such as QB Matthew Stafford, WR Calvin Johnson, and DT Ndamukong Suh and other key weapons had been added annually to the personnel mix, as Detroit collectively matured under HC Jim Schwartz, who took over following the 2008 fiasco as the franchise emerged from the dark ages that accompanied the days of Matt Millen as the GM before embarking upon a more sensible path under Millen’s successor, Martin Mayhew.

In the fourth season of this progression from the depths of the NFL, most of the pieces seem to be in place to continue the upward trajectory. The coaching staff has remained in place since 2009, with the same coordinators, schemes, and systems. The Lions also saw little need to become a major player in offseason free-agency, involved in no blockbuster deals save for inking WR Johnson to a new eight-year deal.

It’s the next step up the NFC ladder, however, that will be the tricky one.

Already there are some cracks forming at the foundation. The running back situation is a question mark with the status of another of the recent draft bounty, RB Jahvid Best, up in the air following a spate of concussions, and injuries having slowed other alternatives such as Mikel Leshoure (who is also suspended for the first two regular-season games) and Kevin Smith. All of which could negatively impact the offense’s desire to get more balanced, which was reflected in the selection of rugged Iowa OT Riley Reiff in the first round of the draft.

Although QB Stafford, entering his fourth season, indeed seems well on his way to NFL stardom, having overcome earlier concerns about toughness and leadership after throwing 41 TD passes a year ago. But there is a bit of concern that his arm could be overworked after attempting an NFL-high 663 passes last season, or almost 42 per game.

Opposing stop units also have to concern themselves with WR Johnson, the big-play “Megatron” who caught 16 TD passes among his massive 96 receptions a year ago. Defenses also tilt toward Johnson at their own risk, as Stafford has plenty of capable secondary receiving options led by Nate Burleson and Titus Young (combined 121 catches and 9 TDs in 2011), while TE Brandon Pettigrew has emerged as a force after catching a whopping 83 passes a year ago.

But the infantry, which for the moment is relying upon upon serviceable sorts such as aforementioned Kevin Smith and Keiland Williams, could be lacking the extra dimension that a homerun threat such as a healthy Jahvid Best could provide. Stafford and the aerial show are dangerous, but without better balance, the Lions could become too predictable on the attack end this fall.

Defensively, most eyes are on the enigmatic DT Suh, whose fits of rage have earned him suspensions from commisioner Goodell and whose performance dropped off in his second season a year ago after making quite a splash as a rookie in 2010. After leading all of the league’s DTs in sacks as a frosh the year before, Suh led the NFL in personal fouls and emotional meltdowns last season. Critics who suspected that Suh was merely an overrated diva have added plenty of ammunition to their arsenal in the past twelve months.

Still, when Gunther Cunningham’s defense is on song, it can cause mayhem, as the platoon generated seven defensive touchdowns, 41 sacks, and 17 forced fumbles a year ago. Much of the disruptions originate along the DL, however, which is why getting Suh back in good spirits is so crucial. Most of the eye-opening stats by last season’s Detroit “D” came earlier in the season (and before Suh’s most-infamous meltdown in the Thanksgiving Day loss to Green Bay), not down the stretch when the Lions played .500 ball the last two months of the season.

Cunningham has a deep DL, however, that can somewhat compensate for Suh’s flightiness by rolling eight players in and out of the lineup. Still, Suh’s unpredictability, and the iffy status of another high-profile DT, ex-Auburn star Nick Fairley, are causes for concern. Fairley, who performed in spurts as a rookie a year ago, could be looking at a league-mandated suspension stemming from an offseason DUI, although the trial date has been postponed until November. Whether commissioner Goodell waits until then, or acts unilaterally beforehand, regarding Fairley’s fate, remains to be seen.

Cunningham has some other concerns with his platoon as preseason progresses, namely at the safety spots, which are currently a mess after starting FS Louis Delmas underwent knee surgery early in training camp and starting SS Amari Spivey battles concussions through preseason, putting his availability in question. Head coach Schwartz indicated more roster moves could be forthcoming after hastily signing ex-Chief S Reshard Langford after the opening preseason loss to the Browns.

Meanwhile, the RCB spot, vacated by Eric Wright’s departure to Tampa Bay in free agency, is likely to be manned by rookie Bill Bentley, a third-round pick from the Louisiana Ragin’ Cajuns who has impressed in preseason work.

Concerns on the special teams mostly involve the coverage units, which the Lions believed they helped address in the draft by adding several rookies (4th-round DE Ronnell Lewis from Oklahoma, 5th-round LB Tahir Woodhead from Temple, and another 5th-rounder, CB Chris Greenwood, from Albion) who bring speed and intensity to the mix . The kicking game remains in good hands with vet PK Jason Hanson, while Oklahoma rookie WR Ryan Broyles (2nd-round pick) likely makes more of an immediate impact in the return game.

Spread-wise, oddsmakers began to catch up with the Lions just before midseason a year ago, as Detroit dropped 9 of its last 12 vs. the number, which came on the heels of a breathtaking spread run in which Schwartz’ team compiled an 18-3 mark vs. the points since the start of the 2010 campaign. The Lions have also trended “over” 23-11-2 since late in the 2009 season.

Summary...While we don’t suspect the Lions were a one-hit wonder a year ago, and the pieces seem to be in place to continue their ascent into the elite class of the league, contenders often pause on their way up the NFL elevator, and we wonder if Detroit might be one of those sorts in 2012. The Stafford-Johnson passing connection remains one of the NFL’s most-lethal, but there are legit concerns about the Lions providing even a minimum of balance to their offensive mix. And then there are the issues on defense, mostly dealing with the maturity of potential all-everything DTs Ndamukong Suh and Nick Fairley. If those two continue to provide more distractions instead of tackles and sacks, the “D” will suffer.

Maybe Detroit has another 10-win season and playoff berth in it, and perhaps the Packers and other NFC North contenders regress, but something tells us the Lions land a bit short this fall.


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