Athlon Sports is counting down its 2012 NFL preseason Power Rankings with in-depth team previews, schedule analysis and more as the start of the NFL season draws near.
The Detroit Lions check in at No. 10.
The Lions went from 0–16 to the playoffs in three seasons under a new regime. And the pieces are in place for Jim Schwartz’s team to take another step this season. Detroit returns 21 of 22 starters from a team that went 10–6 and looks like a dark horse Super Bowl contender in the NFC.
With a dynamic offense led by budding star quarterback Matthew Stafford and a defensive line built to create havoc around controversial star Ndamukong Suh, the Lions are thinking big again. But the big question is whether they can handle success after making the playoffs for the first time in a dozen years. And what once seemed like a laughable notion in Detroit — fighting complacency — is now one of the big challenges for Schwartz and his staff. Because for once the immediate help isn’t coming via the draft or free agency; it has to come from within.
Stafford, the 2009 No. 1 overall pick, answered some genuine concerns about his durability by playing all 16 games last year after two injury-plagued seasons to start his NFL career. And other than some erratic throws while playing with a splint on a broken right index finger in November, he passed the test with flying colors. In fact, at age 23, he became only the fourth quarterback in NFL history to pass for 5,000 yards in a season — joining Dan Marino, Drew Brees and Tom Brady — while also throwing 41 touchdown passes.
Receiver Calvin Johnson’s All-Pro season led to a monster contract extension — with $60 million guaranteed in the deal, he’s the highest-paid non-quarterback in the league — and huge expectations for what could be the NFL’s best passing offense. The emergence of second-year wideout Titus Young alongside Nate Burleson, coupled with big, athletic tight ends Brandon Pettigrew and Tony Scheffler, gives Stafford and offensive coordinator Scott Linehan, a creative play-caller, plenty of options.
But better balance is the goal now. Stafford led the league in pass attempts last season, in part because the Lions were 29th in rushing yards with the second-fewest attempts in the NFL. “Last year, the easiest way to win with all of our injuries was to throw the football a lot,” Stafford says. A torn Achilles in training camp sidelined rookie Mikel Leshoure for the entire season, and all-purpose burner Jahvid Best’s season was over in mid-October after a second concussion in three months.
Unfortunately, both backs remain hampered by injuries. Best has yet to be cleared for practice and will more than likely start the season on the physically unable to perform (PUP) list, which means he would miss the first six games of the season at minimum. Leshoure missed the first part of training camp with a hamstring issue and there's no timetable for when he will be able to fully practice.
On top of his injury issues, Leshoure is suspended the first two games of the season for violating the league's substance-abuse policy. That’s why the Lions re-signed Kevin Smith, a former starter in Detroit who jumped off the couch and gave the team a lift in midseason before getting injured again himself. Smith and Keiland Williams will more than likely share the bulk of the carries at least to start the season.
The offensive line returns intact for a third consecutive year, but it’ll be tough to repeat last year’s biggest feat — none of the five starters missed a game due to injury. Jeff Backus has started 176 consecutive games at left tackle, but he’s coming off surgery to repair a torn pectoral, and he’ll be pushed by rookie first-round pick Riley Reiff, as will inconsistent right tackle Gosder Cherilus.
Ask Schwartz or general manager Martin Mayhew about the team’s weak link and they start to get a little defensive. That’s because the defense that allowed 90 points and more than 900 yards in a pair of critical January losses — one to a Green Bay team resting for the postseason, the other in a wild card playoff loss to New Orleans — wasn’t the one they saw for much of 2011. And with 10 starters back — cornerback Eric Wright was the lone offseason departure — it’s not the one they expect to see this fall.
The Lions are built to pressure opposing quarterbacks, and despite recording 41 sacks last season there’s a feeling that the front four underachieved. With a healthy Nick Fairley, hobbled by a broken foot much of his rookie season, and more controlled aggression from Suh on the interior, the potential for more is still there. The team slapped defensive end Cliff Avril with a franchise tag, so he’ll still have something to prove after last year’s double-digit sack total. And a mix of veteran Kyle Vanden Bosch and productive reserves Lawrence Jackson and Willie Young also will bring the heat.
An upgraded linebacking corps made more plays last season, but the run defense must get better if the Lions, who aren’t about to ditch their wide-9 defensive scheme up front, are going to beat some of the better teams on their schedule. Re-signing the man in the middle, Stephen Tulloch, was arguably Mayhew’s most important offseason move. Justin Durant and DeAndre Levy are the other starters, but the Lions expect backup Doug Hogue to take a big step in his second season.
The secondary is either incomplete, or a concern — or both. If the Lions don’t add a veteran starter at cornerback this summer, Aaron Berry and Jacob Lacey will vie for the job opposite Chris Houston, who started last season playing like a Pro Bowler. Meanwhile, the jury is still out on Amari Spievey as a starting safety next to Louis Delmas, whose late-season injury absence played a critical role in the team’s defensive collapse. Delmas also underwent knee surgery at the start of training camp, which could impact his availability for the start of the season.
The cap-strapped Lions didn’t add a premium free agent defensive back this winter, and they balked at the price to trade up in the first round of the draft to acquire one. They did, however, use their last six picks in the draft on defensive players, including a pair of small-school cornerbacks, Dwight Bentley and Chris Greenwood, who could see playing time as rookies.
At age 42, Jason Hanson is still kicking — and kicking well — entering his 21st season. The Lions will have open competition this fall at punter, though. Ryan Donahue won the job over incumbent Nick Harris in camp last year, but Aussie veteran Ben Graham took over at midseason when Donahue was injured. Long-snapper Don Muhlbach, re-signed this winter, also is back, along with return specialist Stefan Logan. A Pro Bowl alternate in 2010, Logan saw his role diminished last season by the new kickoff rules. The likely threat to his job on the roster, rookie wide receiver Ryan Broyles, will be brought along slowly; he’s coming off ACL surgery last November.
Final Analysis: 3rd in the NFC North
It’s a balancing act now. If the Lions can find some punch in the running game — and a lot may depend on whether Best can take the hits — the offense should be hard to stop. Depending on what happens in the secondary, though, it might need to be again this fall. Still, after last year’s major step forward, it’s time for the Lions to seriously contend for a division title and a home playoff date.
Related: 2012 Detroit Lions Schedule Analysis
Outside The Huddle
Calvin Johnson doesn’t believe in curses, which is saying something for a player who endured the Matt Millen era in Detroit and a winless season in 2008. And that’s why he was openly lobbying for a spot on the cover of EA Sports’ new “Madden 13” video game, despite the fact that so many previous selections suffered serious injuries or career setbacks. “I’m not a big guy for curses, and I don’t even think about it,” says Johnson, who beat out Aaron Rodgers and Cam Newton, among others, in fan voting. Newton, the other finalist, even created a YouTube video in which he challenged Johnson to a game of Madden. But Johnson admits he’s better at the real thing than he is the video game. “I’m not the best; I play rarely,” Johnson says. “I’m more of a FIFA guy, more of a soccer guy.”
For the first time since Barry Sanders retired, the Lions are a genuine draw on national television. They’re scheduled for five national TV games this season, including four in prime time, for the first time since 1998. Last year marked the Lions’ first Monday Night Football appearance in 10 years (a home date with Chicago in Week 5) and their first Sunday night broadcast (at New Orleans in Week 13) since 2005.
Dominic Raiola knows it’ll end one of these years. But now in his second decade as the Lions’ starting center, he insists his time’s not up. “I got this little pill. You ever see that movie ‘Limitless’?” jokes Raiola, drafted in 2001 along with starting left tackle Jeff Backus. “No, you know what? We are getting old. Me and Jeff — Jeff’s 34, I’m 33. We are getting old, but I’m going to keep plugging away until this engine dies.”
You’ll excuse the Lions’ Jim Schwartz if he started having flashbacks when the NFL schedule was released in April. His team opens at home against the St. Louis Rams, now led by one of his coaching mentors, Jeff Fisher. Next comes a prime-time road game at San Francisco that’ll inevitably be dubbed the “Handshake Bowl” after last year’s postgame dust-up involving Schwartz and 49ers coach Jim Harbaugh. And in Week 3, Schwartz takes the Lions to Tennessee, where he was an assistant coach from 2000-08 under Fisher.
The Lions hadn’t drafted three players from the same school in one year since 1958, the year after their last NFL championship. But this year they added a trio of Oklahoma Sooners in wide receiver Ryan Broyles, defensive end Ronnell Lewis and linebacker Travis Lewis. “We don’t rate them higher because they’re from Oklahoma, but it just worked out that way,” Schwartz says. “They’ve had a good program, and those guys have been very productive over the years.”
Let It Snow?
There are plenty of reasons why the Lions haven’t won a game in Green Bay since 1991, and most of them have to do with the many awful teams they’ve fielded over the years. But the schedule-makers aren’t helping. This season, they’ll travel to face the Packers at Lambeau Field after Dec. 1 for the seventh time in nine years.
First-round pick Riley Reiff grew up without a local NFL team to cheer for in Parkston, S.D., (pop. 1,508), but he says he cheered for the Oakland Raiders. “Our mailman was a Raiders fan and he liked to talk,” Reiff explains, “and he talked me into being a Raiders fan, too.”
Hammer time Ronnell Lewis, nicknamed “The Hammer” by Sooners coach Bob Stoops, grew up in tiny Dewar, Okla., and says he used to ride bulls in the rodeo. “It’s an adrenaline rush, like taking a skydive or swimming with sharks,” he says. “It’s pretty intense.” But it’s also in his past, he says. Why? “It hurts,” he says.
2012 Athlon Sports NFL Power Rankings and Team Previews:
No. 32:Jacksonville Jaguars
No. 31:St. Louis Rams
No. 30:Minnesota Vikings
No. 29:Indianapolis Colts
No. 28:Cleveland Browns
No. 27:Miami Dolphins
No. 26:Arizona Cardinals
No. 25:Tampa Bay Buccaneers
No. 24:Kansas City Chiefs
No. 23:Oakland Raiders
No. 22: Washington Redskins
No. 21:Seattle Seahawks
No. 20: Carolina Panthers
No. 19:New York Jets
No. 18:Buffalo Bills
No. 17:Tennessee Titans
No. 16:San Diego Chargers
No. 15:Cincinnati Bengals
No. 14:Philadelphia Eagles
No. 13:New Orleans Saints
No. 12:Dallas Cowboys
No. 11:Denver Broncos
No. 10:Detroit Lions
No. 9: Tues., August 21
Order your 2012 Deroit Lions Athlon Sports NFL Preview magazine here
Related: 2012 Detroit Lions Schedule Analysis