The streaks are almost all gone now, which means the Detroit Lions finally are ready to put their past behind them. The Matt Millen era is a fading memory, along with the historically awful 0–16 season that capped it in 2008. In the span of two weeks last December, the Lions ended both a 19-game losing streak in the NFC North and a 26-game losing streak on the road. And by winning four in a row to finish the season — even without their franchise quarterback — the Lions have suddenly offered tangible evidence that they’re a team on the rise.
Three years of rebuilding the roster under general manager Martin Mayhew and head coach Jim Schwartz have produced an offense loaded with young talent at the skill positions, while a defense that was once the league’s laughingstock now actually is among the more menacing up front.
Can Matthew Stafford stay healthy? The answer to that question will likely decide this team’s fate in 2011. While the Lions’ front office has done its job putting the playmaking pieces around Stafford, he’s the one who will make it all come together. Stafford played in parts of only three games last season after suffering a separated right shoulder in the season opener at Chicago and then doing it again in his second game back against the Jets in November. He underwent surgery to repair his throwing shoulder in January and spent 10 weeks doing rehab with Dr. James Andrews and his staff in Pensacola, Fla. The results looked promising in player-organized workouts in May and June: Stafford added muscle and strength in his upper body and was training and throwing without restrictions. Still, the former No. 1 overall pick, who suffered left shoulder separations as a rookie starter, has played in only 13 games in two seasons, while missing 19.
Injuries also derailed Jahvid Best’s rookie season, one that began with a bang — five TDs in his first two games — but quickly ground to a halt due to turf toe problems. Healthy again, the burner wasn't expected to be asked to do as much as part of a backfield tandem with rookie Mikel Leshoure. But an injury derailed Leshoure, who has his rookie season shelved due to an Achilles injury. Jerome Harrison and Mike Bell were brought in during camp to battle for Leshoure's spot, and that leaves Best leading the crew of Maurice Morris, Jeroma Harrison and Mike Bell as camp progresses.
Brandon Pettigrew emerged as one of the NFL’s best young tight ends, with 71 catches despite a number of drops. When he’s paired with Tony Scheffler in two-tight end sets, that’s two more big targets for Stafford to go along with Calvin Johnson, who finally got his due with a Pro Bowl invitation in 2010. The addition of veteran Nate Burleson helped free up Johnson last season, and the hope is that rookie Titus Young will stretch the field further as a No. 3 receiver, providing a legitimate deep threat.
Continuity’s the key for the offensive line, with all five starters returning for the first time in what seems like an eternity in Detroit. Right tackle Gosder Cherilus remains a question mark coming off microfracture knee surgery, and right guard Stephen Peterman — hampered by a foot injury last fall — needs a bounce-back season. But while the much-maligned group took a lot of heat due to Stafford’s injuries, the Lions actually allowed the sixth-fewest sacks in the NFL despite the third-most pass attempts. That’s even more impressive when you consider that most of the season was played with a second- or third-string quarterback.
The Lions’ biggest strides in 2010 came in the front four, where the addition of veteran end Kyle Vanden Bosch and rookie tackle Ndamukong Suh had a tremendous impact on this team’s identity. Vanden Bosch, the prime free agent target of Schwartz (his coordinator in Tennessee), immediately asserted himself as a team leader. Almost as quickly, Suh became a dominant force alongside Corey Williams, producing 10 sacks on his way to All-Pro and Defensive Rookie of the Year honors. Now with rookie first-round pick Nick Fairley joining the rotation at tackle, the Lions can ease Suh’s workload — he played more than 950 snaps — without sacrificing pressure. And with the maturation of ends Cliff Avril and Lawrence Jackson, coordinator Gunther Cunningham now has the athletes to fit his attacking, four-wide scheme. Or, as Vanden Bosch puts it, to “throw fastballs the whole game.”
The Lions wanted to upgrade their athleticism at linebacker in free agency, and they did so by signing Stephen Tulloch and Justin Durant. Tulloch, who will start in the middle, will be reunited with Schwartz, his former coordinator in Tennessee. Tulloch’s arrival will push third-year pro DeAndre Levy to outside linebacker. Durant, who comes over from Jacksonville, should contend for the starting job on the other side.
Detroit is set at free safety with Louis Delmas, but there will be competition at strong safety between Erik Coleman and Amari Spievey. At cornerback, the Lions failed to make a huge splash in free agency, but they did re-sign Chris Houston and brought in former Brown Eric Wright. Nathan Vasher, Alphonso Smith and Aarron Berry will also be in the mix, but the latter two seem best-suited for nickel and dime roles in the secondary.
This unit showed significant improvement last year under new coordinator Danny Crossman, partly because he had better overall roster depth to work with than his predecessor, Stan Kwan. Special teams standouts like John Wendling and Isaiah Ekejiuba made an impact, but none more so than returner Stefan Logan. A waiver wire pickup in August, he was the only player in the NFL to rank in the top five in both punt and kickoff returns.
Punter Nick Harris rebounded from a subpar 2010 season, while Don Muhlbach remains one of the league’s better long snappers. But Jason Hanson, a mainstay as the Lions’ kicker for nearly two decades, finished last season on injured reserve. And at age 41 with two knee surgeries and an Achilles problem the last two years, he’s no longer Mr. Reliable — at least when it comes to his health. Dave Rayner, who made 13-of-16 field goals in his absence, is the guy if Hanson falters.
Fans in Detroit are trained to be skeptical, but there’s reason for excitement based on last year’s improvements. The Lions scored 100 more points in 2010 than they did in 2009, and they allowed 125 fewer points than they did in ’09. They went from a team that was routinely getting blown out in the fourth quarter to one that was in nearly every game last season, and they finally figured out how to win down the stretch.
It has been more than a decade since the Lions posted a winning record (9–7 in 2000), but that’s the next step for this team. And barring another Stafford injury, a .500 or better record — with an outside shot at the playoffs — is a fair expectation in 2011.
Outside the Huddle
On second thought
Nate Burleson took a little grief when he left Seattle for Detroit a year ago, signing a free agent deal with a team that had gone 2–30 the previous two seasons. “A lot of people, they kind of mocked my decision and really didn’t give me too much encouragement when I came to Detroit,” Burleson says. “But I went back home this offseason, the same people said that I might have made the best move of my career.”
Mikel Leshoure, the Lions’ rookie running back out of Illinois, showed up at player-organized workouts in May wearing his new allegiance on his sleeve. He got a huge tattoo of the Detroit Lions logo on his forearm, complete with the date he was drafted. “Regardless if I get traded or leave, this date will never change,” Leshoure says. “I’ve accomplished a lot of things in my life, but to be drafted to the Detroit Lions is definitely the biggest step of my life.”
Fairley dominant up front
GM Martin Mayhew called it “sort of a dream scenario” when a run on quarterbacks helped Nick Fairley fall to the Lions at No. 13 overall in April’s draft. And there was little, if any, hesitation about adding a player who didn’t fill a serious need. “The philosophy here was, ‘We’re drafting to our strength,’” coach Jim Schwartz says. “Defensive line is a strength of what we do. When we won our last four (games) last year, you could probably have a quiz show to find out who our corners were in those games. But we were good up front. And being good up front is what drives our defense.”
The abbreviated offseason shouldn’t hurt the Lions as much as some other teams. Schwartz returns the bulk of his staff — including his offensive and defensive coordinators — for a third consecutive season. Meanwhile, the Lions will face six teams with new head coaches in 2011, including four in the first two months of the season.
What’s in a nickname
With time to kill during the lockout, Schwartz took to his Twitter account, holding an impromptu contest for fans to give the Lions defensive line a nickname. The winner was “Silver Crush” — a play off Detroit’s dominant “Silver Rush” unit of the late 1970s and early ’80s — beating out other a few other Schwartz favorites, including “The Dis-Assembly Line.”
Schwartz, a well-known rock ’n’ roll enthusiast, got a thrill in May when Detroit rock legend Bob Seger invited him backstage before a concert at the Palace of Auburn Hills. Seger then told the crowd the Lions would make the playoffs before he dedicated the song “Old Time Rock ’N’ Roll.”
His own man
The night he was drafted, receiver Titus Young laughed when he was asked about comparisons that called him a poor man’s DeSean Jackson. “I’ve never been another man’s nothing,” Young said. “I’ve always known that I’ve been Titus Young from Day 1. My mother named me Titus Demetrius Young. She didn’t name me nothing else. I know who I am and I know people compare you to people. But God made me to be me. He made me to be Titus Demetrius Young. You can compare me all you want to, but I’m no man’s poor man.”
Detroit Lions Fantasy Team Breakdown