2010 Detroit Lions Season Preview: New Gunslinger in Town
Progress has been slow but finally steady in Detroit, at least since Jim Schwartz and Martin Mayhew took over as head coach and general manager, respectively. Still, last season's two-win showing won't get anyone overly excited. And at least on paper, the Lions still look overmatched in the NFC North.
Offense: There might not be many long-term solutions already in place for the Lions, but it appears they've solved their quarterback conundrum. While Matthew Stafford's numbers as a rookie weren't terribly impressive, it was his moxie and the way he seemed to embrace his role as the franchise's young face that turned heads last year. Stafford won many over in the Lions' dramatic win over Cleveland, when he shook off a shoulder injury to get the Lions in the end zone for the game-winning touchdown as time expired. While he threw five scores on that day, he only had 13 for the season against 20 interceptions.
Those numbers -- combined with a paltry 53 percent on completions -- won't sell anyone on the idea that Stafford is the second coming of Joe Montana. However, his big arm and toughness are the kind of physical tools that teams in the NFL love to work with. No, Stafford hasn't refined all his skills yet. But the fact he has them gives him a very bright future, even in a quarterback wasteland like Detroit.
With Calvin Johnson continuing to put up All-Pro numbers, and young tight end Brandon Pettigrew ready to take the next step, the passing game has a chance to be very good -- if Stafford gets better and the line in front of him improves. The line's a major issue still despite some improvements in recent years. The team needs more consistency, especially from right tackle Gosder Cherilus, who was benched for a time last year.
Now that the Lions appear to have found a quarterback, they must deal with the running game. For Stafford to maximize his potential, Detroit must run the ball well. Rookie Jahvid Best joins hard-luck veteran Kevin Smith in the backfield. If either or both can find a way to resurrect the long-dormant Lions rushing attack, Detroit's offense stands to take a huge step. Heat Index: 5
Defense: The Lions have finished dead-last in total defense for three years running, and if they are to turn that around, it's likely going to be two new faces on the line that make all the difference. Veteran end Kyle Vanden Bosch was signed from Tennessee as a free agent, and the Lions used the No. 2 overall pick in the draft on big-play tackle Ndamukong Suh. The two play different positions, but their roles -- cause trouble in the backfield -- are similar. Expectations are, too. Vanden Bosch got a lot of money from the Lions, while Suh was highly-regarded and heavily hyped in college at Nebraska and will have a lot of work to do to reach what everyone thinks his potential is. The Lions are also trying to resurrect the career of Corey Williams, a big tackle who had a nice season for the Packers in 2007, was then badly miscast in Cleveland's 3-4 defense, and is likely thrilled to be back with a 4-3 team.
While the team could actually be solid at linebacker, there are huge questions in the secondary, where Detroit can't seem to find a starting four to their liking. Look for them to use Eric King and Chris Houston as the primary cornerbacks, while young star-in-the-making Louis Delmas tries to produce a strong second season at safety. Heat Index: 5
Special Teams: No problems here. Jason Hanson is in his 19th year in the NFL. He's been kicking for the Lions since 1992. He doesn't have the range he used to, but he is deadly accurate inside of 40 yards, and there's simply no reason for Detroit to bring in someone different. Punter Nick Harris hasn't been around that long, but he is a veteran who has plenty of experience and hasn't lost much leg over the years.
Best might see some time in the return game, and Derrick Williams could also serve as a return man for the Lions. While the kicking game is solid, the return team and the coverage unit still need work. These are areas that will improve as the team upgrades the overall level of talent, because right now, the Lions aren't deep enough to field quality units on special teams. Heat Index: 6
Coaching: Schwartz did the best he could last year. The front office worked feverishly to improve the depth, and Schwartz worked hard to improve the morale. He did that, coaxing a couple of home wins out of the group, but the Lions suffered some blowout losses where the team simply looked like it had no intention of competing. Of their 14 losses, 11 were by double digits, virtually nixing any idea that the team improved because they managed two wins. Everyone knew this would be a long-haul process, and Schwartz has shown no signs of giving up. He'll keep digging and trying to get the team to play better, and he will wait patiently as the talent slowly improves around him. Heat Index: 6
Intangibles: It's a losing atmosphere still, and that can't be attractive to free agents. That Stafford so enthusiastically has embraced his role as franchise player is nice, but until the team can look at their backup players without wincing in fear, things won't get significantly better. A road losing streak that dates back to Week 8 of the 2007 season has to end at some point. Perhaps that Nov. 14 date at Buffalo -- or Dec. 19 at Tampa Bay -- could get the job done. Heat Index: 3
Total Heat Index: 25/50. The Lions simply aren't ready for prime time. Stafford, Best, Johnson, and Pettigrew are a nice core, but they won't get it done without a shocking improvement from the offensive line. As long as games can be won and lost in the trenches, Detroit won't be a winner on either side of the ball. Suh is a nice piece to the defensive puzzle, but Detroit still has virtually no line depth. They need Williams to return to previous form, or it could be a long year for the rookie.
Even if Detroit is better than last year -- and that wouldn't take much -- there isn't anything better than a 4-12 season in the cards, given the talent disparity and tough schedule.