NFL Team Previews: Detroit Lions

The Detroit Lions finally broke through last year. Matthew Stafford stayed healthy at quarterback, the team won 10 games and made the playoffs for the first time since 1999 and posted its first winning record since 2000. Now NFL fans are wondering if Detroit can take the next step—this is an organization that has never been to the Super Bowl, much less won it, and their last title was in 1957. Is this the year in Motown? TheSportsNotebook takes a close look at the Lions to find out…

OFFENSE: Stafford has the weapons in the passing game and they start with Calvin Johnson, whom some believe is better than Arizona’s Larry Fitzgerald and virtually anyone would consider those two to be the NFL standard at the position in either case. But defensive coverages can’t lock in on Johnson, because Nate Burleson is a potent threat, second-year-man Titus Young is emerging as a quality #3 and tight end Brandon Pettigrew is a reliable target over the middle. With Stafford showing he won’t beat himself—his TD/INT ratio last year was 41/16, the only way to stop the Lion passing game is to put the quarterback on the turf.

Unfortunately for Detroit getting to Stafford is more than feasible. The team can’t keep a running back healthy, so there’s nothing to stop lineman from turning loose and disregarding the run. The offensive line has weaknesses in the interior, where Dominic Raiola is aging at center and Stephen Peterman is mediocre at guard. Neither is awful, but there’s also no standouts anywhere up front. At the very least, Jeff Backus is competent at left tackle and taking care of Stafford’s blind side. The whole task of pass protection would be made much easier if running back Kevin Smith could stay healthy. Smith’s ability to cut back would make defensive lineman pay a price if they just turned loose on the snap, as that creates a lot of space on the backside of a running play for someone like Smith.

DEFENSE: The offense line can take heart in one thing—the defensive front best equipped to beat them is the one they face in practice. Detroit can get tremendous gut pressure in its 4-3 as tackles Ndamakong Suh and Corey Williams crush the pocket and defensive ends Cliff Avril and Kyle Vanden Bosch can pound the edges. This is as good a front four as there is in football and they’re backed up by a linebacking corps that’s steady in making the plays the need to make.

Where Detroit’s got issues—big issues in fact, is the secondary. Jacob Lacey is a liability at one corner, as is Amari Spievy at strong safety. Louis Delmas, the free safety, has a knee problem that leaves him questionable for the start of the regular season. When you consider that even a talented, healthy starting four would still have its hands full with Chicago and Jay Cutler and still need additional reinforcements against Green Bay’s Aaron Rodgers and has array of targets, you can see how big this problem is going to be for the Lions. The front four will get the kind of pressure that will cover a lot of weaknesses, but it won’t cover all of them.

LAS VEGAS OVER/UNDER WIN PROJECTION: 9—This number surprises me, given the general current of optimism surrounding the team. It isn’t often you can take an up-and-coming team to just match its previous win total and cash the Over, and you’re guaranteed a push as long as they win more than they lose. For that reason I’m on the Over. I can only speculate that the strength of the NFC North is driving the number downward. I know there are concerns with this team—I’ve outlined some, and we can that Suh’s immaturity on the field does make him kind of a poster-child for the team. They’ve got the talent, but do they have the intangible quality of a champion that it will take to move past Green Bay? On that question, the answer is now. But Stafford and the passing game, along with the defensive front can deliver them ten wins.