After more than a decade of futility, the Detroit Lions returned to the NFL playoffs. Yet they served notice in the season finale, a 44-41 loss to Green Bay, and their 45-28 loss to the Saints in the NFC Wild Card game, that they’re a team on the move. In those games they weren’t overwhelmed as much as just slightly outclassed by two teams that were NFL Champions in two of the last three years. Much like the Oklahoma City Thunder of the NBA, you’re watching a team grow right before you with a run against the best their sport has to offer which will allow them to mature into champions. Will it happen this year??? Do you realize they did it without their best offensive draft pick in RB Mikel LeShoure, who missed the season with an injured knee??
Quarterback: Now last year we told you a Lion turnaround was imminent yet couldn’t happen without a healthy season from Matthew Stafford. http://taylorblitztimes.com/2011/05/19/2011-detroit-lions-preview/ Yet who could foresee the type of record setting season he turned in. For the season, his 421 of 663 for 5,038 yards for 41 touchdowns to just 16 interceptions shattered team records. He joined Dan Marino, Kurt Warner, Peyton Manning, and Tom Brady as the only other quarterbacks who threw for more than 40 touchdowns in a season. Only three other quarterbacks in history had thrown for more than 5,000 yards either. Not bad for a QB completing his first healthy season.
One aspect of his value is how he improved as the season went on. In the Thanksgiving Day game where the Lions could make the leap to NFL elite status with a win over the Packers, Stafford turned in a subpar performance throwing for 276 yards & 3 interceptions in a 27-15 loss. Five weeks later he turned in a performance for the ages throwing for 520 yards and 5 TDs including a last minute touchdown drive in Lambeau Field. Although the Lions lost 44-41, he had come within 32 yards of breaking Norm Van Brocklin’s 62 year old record of 551 yards in a game. In this game he showed the go for broke moxie he displayed in bringing the Lions from behind as he had at Oakland two games prior. He grew as the season progressed and stands to come into 2012 as one of the NFL’s best. At quarterback the Lions are Super Bowl quality.
Offensive Backfield: Injuries forced this backfield to be in flux in 2011. When 2nd round draft pick Mikel Leshoure went down with an achille’s injury, Jahvid Best was forced to be a feature back when he’s more of a 3rd down guy. Best’s season was down production-wise in 2011 which saw him rush for only 390 yards and 2 scores, while catching 27 passes for 287 yards and another touchdown. He had 58 receptions in 2010 but a heavier workload saw him face time lost due to injury as well.
Although the team had to go running back by committee, each of the top three rushers on this team averaged 4 yards per carry or better. Kevin Smith #30 was the most productive back last year (72 car. 356 yds 4TDs) with a 4.9 yard average. Yet he also saw down time nicked with injuries. Lions’s brass must feel good about Mikel Leshoure’s recovery since they haven’t gone out to sign a more full time running back. http://prod.www.lions.clubs.nfl.com/news/lions-insider/article-1/RB-Mikel-Leshoure-participates-in-full-practice-for-first-time-since-Achilles-injury/ced9adaf-f263-4e05-a58d-66f0c3e3887d In fact he took several snaps in the June minicamp and came off looking like he was 100% healthy and ready for the new season. For those of you who can’t remember, he ran for over 300 yards in a game for the Illini and over 1,700 yards in his last collegiate season. He is 6’0 and 227 lbs, and an every down back. If he comes back 100% and takes the starting job, running back is average with a chance to be good. We have to wait and see… If he’s hurt and the backfield is thrown in flux again they drop back to below average…
Receivers: What else can be said of the electrifying talents of Calvin “Megatron” Johnson?? Going into last year, we felt he could possibly go for 90-100 receptions and 1,500 yards and he did not disappoint. Johnson’s 96 receptions for 1,681 yards 16 TDs made him a consensus All Pro. For the better part of the season he was on pace to break both Randy Moss’ touchdown record of 23 and Jerry Rice’s record of 1,808 receiving yards set in 1995. Do you realize he only needs 1,128 yards to hit the 7,000 yard mark for his career?? He’s the best weapon in the game today and his 11 catches for a team record 244 yards in the last game of the season put the Green Bay Packers and the rest of the league on notice. “Megatron” will flirt with a 2,000 yard season this year.
Last year this team received steady play from veteran Nate Burleson (73 rec / 757 yds) although he only caught 3 touchdowns. Will he be able to stay on the field with the Lions making Oklahoma wideout Ryan Broyles their 2nd round pick in the draft?? Keep in mind last year’s 2nd round pick Titus Young, from Boise St came on in the second half of the season. Of his 48 rec. for 607 yards and 6 touchdowns, 29 of those catches and 5 scores came in the second half of the season. All of this before we get to talented TE Brandon Pettigrew… No wonder this team couldn’t be stopped throwing the football. Even without a running game. This is already a Super Bowl caliber receiving corps. If Broyles can make the transition and come on late in the season…. dare we say it??
Offensive Line: This offensive line had mixed reviews last season as the team needs to protect Stafford better, they let him get hit 78 times last year along with 36 sacks. Too much for a quarterback who before last year had proven to be injury prone. To that avail the Lions made T Riley Reiff their #1 draft selection to help fortify the line. The question is will he fight for Left Tackle Jeff Backus’ job or Gosder Cherilus on the right?? Both tackles are former #1 selections but Backus is going to be 34 years old when they go into camp. He will take over for Backus at Left Tackle later but he should unseat Cherilus as the starter on the right now. Why??
When you look at the statistics for this line everyone is expendable. On obvious rushing downs where it is 3rd or 4th and 2 or less, this team could only rush for the first down 57% of the time to the left, 54% of the time up the middle and 40% on the strong side. Are you serious?? Those rankings are 26th, 23rd, and 31st and have to improve. The strong side is your power rushing side and you need to have push. Have attitude about it. Yet how much can you attribute that to their not having their best running back out there for the season?? On second thought, it doesn’t matter we’re only talking 2 yards so the line has to take the blame for those short comings. This line had better play better or it could be the weak link that allows a promising team to fall to injury or short of it’s goal. Even with improvement this group still receives a below average grade.
Defensive Line: This unit is one of the team’s strengths. Of the 41 sacks (10th in the NFL) last year, 19 came from Defensive Ends Cliff Avril with 11, and Kyle Vanden Bosch with 8. Avril has learned a tremendous amount from his counterpart and coming into his 5th season and 4th straight with improved sack totals, we see a Pro Bowl year for him with 15 sacks. The defensive ends did benefit from the attention DT Ndamukong Suh drew after his stellar rookie campaign. Suh suffered a sophomore slump though with 39 tackles and 4 sacks which was down from his 66 tackle 10 sack performance from a season before. The frustration for Suh boiled over with several personal foul calls when he lost his composure. The most visible was his ejection after kicking a Green Bay Packer lineman in a national televised game on Thanksgiving.
They need him to lead by example especially with fellow DT Nick Fairley coming into camp injury free and with the same temprament. Fairley needs to show up to back his high draft status and give Lions fans what they’ve been envisioning since his selection. If these two can channel that fire and brimstone energy into just going after running backs and quarterbacks, this group is good and can make the transition to Super Bowl quality if Fairley can start and make plays for the Lions. It’s critical to the team’s overall psyche and growth when players start to reach their potential
Linebackers: This is an uninspiring group at first glance and just like we said before last year they could use a free agent pick-up here. In space, The Chancellor doesn’t like the play of DeAndre Levy he seems stiff out in the open and a step slow reacting to plays. His great speed masks it to the layman football watcher but coaches can and do take advantage of that with intermediate passing routes to his flank. He moved back from the middle after playing inside for 2010. He did make a respectable 109 tackles but only forced 1 fumble and only defensed 1 pass. He needs to play more instinctive, especially behind this line. In Super Bowl XXXV, Ray Lewis playing in a 4-3, defensed 5 passes in that game himself!! So asking for more than 1 pass defensed over an entire season isn’t being difficult. Hopefully he can play more instinctive in his second season back outside.
Now one player who did play well last year was Middle Linebacker Stephen Tulloch #55. Of the Lions’ back 7 on defense, he was the most consistent performer with 127 tackles, 3 sacks, 2 interceptions, and 7 passes defensed. He’s in his prime and for management’s sake should hope his improvement can be mirrored by Levy. The Lions are looking to shake things up at linebacker and selected two in the draft who seem to be paying dividends in OTAs already. Fifth round pick Tahir Whitehead out of Temple, and seventh round pick Travis Lewis from Sooner Nation. We think Travis Lewis will get on the field and replace Justin Durant by season’s end. If the Lions can get these young linebackers making plays this could be an above average group. As of right now we have to give them a below average grade and see how the position battles of summer camp pan out.
Secondary: What is FS Louis Delmas back there reading?? Although he missed 5 games, he made 61 total tackles yet didn’t register 1 interception for a second straight season. This is one of the reasons the team finished with 21 interceptions while giving up 26 touchdowns and finished 22nd against the pass. With a pass rush this strong more plays needed to be made by the safeties. Delmas makes big hits but needs to arrive two steps before and make the interception. He has to show up this season. Amari Spivey improved in 2011 yet needs to step it up just a little bit more. In 2011 he made 75 tackles (up from 33 in 2010) intercepted 3 passes and had 1 sack. At cornerback Chris Houston (56 tackles / 5 ints) was solid although Houston missed 3 games. Chris proved to be the playmaker on this defense returning those 5 interceptions for a whopping 225 yards and 2 touchdowns.
The Lions made a serious statement in the draft taking 3 secondary players: CB Dwight Bentley in round 3, CB Chris Greenwood in round 5, and Jonte Green in round 7. They were prepared to replace CB Eric Wright, who departed via free agency and penciled nickel back Aaron Berry as the starter. Competition should be fierce for this cornerback spot with the signing of former Indianapolis Colt Jacob Lacey. This team has a few “ifs” in the secondary yet if they can stay healthy and Delmas can begin to read quarterbacks this secondary can be good. We have to wait until after training camp to find that out so they get a slightly below average grade for now.
Overall: This team grew up in a major way last season. However, Head Coach Jim Schwartz has to get his team’s head out of the clouds and clean up the off the field issues. He has to keep his players from thinking they have arrived because of a little success. This is where he has to prove his mettle this year. One thing the Lions have this year is a relatively easy schedule, http://www.detroitlions.com/assets/pdf/2012_Det_Schedule.pdf They don’t play the bulk of their division rivals until we get to the second half of the season. More important they play 5 of their last 7 at home and the team should have growing pains ironed out by then. One game to circle is the week 6 matchup with Philadelphia. Each team wants to prove they are among the NFC elite and this game will have wildcard ramifications if either doesn’t finish strong. The winner of this game will have a championship building block level of confidence come playoff time.
The health of Mikel Leshoure and the running game, an explosive Nick Fairley to add nastiness to the defense and further bolster a strong pass rush, and an improved Delmas could pay huge dividends if all come to pass. How huge?? A trip to Super Bowl XLVII down in New Orleans awaits them if they do. Last year they went 10-6 and fought tooth and nail in their final games and playoff loss. We shall see how the preseason shakes out but this season just like last year, should end in the Super Dome.
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