The days of 0-16 are all but forgotten as the Detroit Lions have moved on from those dark days to become genuine contenders both in the NFC North and the NFC overall. In 2011, Detroit finally emerged from the wilderness with some outstanding quarterback play from former #1 overall pick Matthew Stafford as his 663 passing attempts led the league showing just how heavy a passing offense this team employs. Wide receiver Calvin Johnson’s physical play and natural talent were rewarded with some monster games as he stormed his way to the NFL’s receiving yards title.
2011 was a year of achieving long term goals for this team. They began 5-0 beating the Buccaneers, Chiefs, Vikings, Cowboys and Bears – the first time the Lions had gone 5-0 since 1956. Their eventual 10-6 record was their first winning season since 2000 and their first ten win season since 1995. Finally, they achieved the seemingly impossible by beating out the highly competitive Chicago Bears to receive a wildcard berth to the playoffs, their first such appearance since 1999. Certainly 2011 was a historic year for this embattled franchise and without a doubt they intend to continue that momentum into 2012.
2011 Record: 10-6
Key Additions: None
Key Losses: Aaron Berry, Chris Harris, Eric Wright, Drew Stanton, Maurice Morris
Offense: The main focus of this team’s offense is the passing game as illustrated by Matthew Stafford leading the league in pass attempts in 2011. He has some very good targets too headlined by the league’s top receiver Calvin Johnson whose physical size, amazing hands and blistering speed torched some of the league’s best defenses in 2011. Veteran Nate Burleson is back to provide a steady option on the outside as second year receiver Titus Young continues to come along. The newest player to this mix is second round pick Ryan Broyles but coming off an ACL tear late in the 2011 college season this highly talented wideout isn’t expected to make an impact until later this season if he does at all in 2012. The team does have a very good pair of safety valves also in the form of tightends Brandon Pettigrew and Tony Scheffler. Both have been inconsistent producers since joining the Lions but always seem to be there or thereabouts.
If the passing game is highly prolific, the running game is all but non-existent which is peculiar considering the depth of talent the team has. Jahvid Best and Mikel Leshoure are both recent high draft picks and both have exceptional game-breaking skills but both have had severe injury concerns since joing the league and Best’s career is in jeopardy as he continues to have difficulty with concussion symptoms. The oft-injured Kevin Smith is left to led the vastly diminished running game but shouldn’t see a huge number of carries due to his brittle nature. Third down relief and goal-line duties should go to Keiland Williams who himself does have talent but has failed to shine in the NFL so far.
On the offensive line is where some of the biggest question marks lie. This unit has needed upgrading for a long time and until drafting tackle Riley Reiff in the first round this year Detroit had largely ignored the need to protect Stafford by acquiring top talent. As a group this is a bunch of no-names led by 2001 first round pick Jeff Backus who the team re-signed this offseason but whom is expected to be the man that Reiff eventually replaces. The two biggest notes here is the poor play continuing to be displayed by center Dominic Raiola who has been doing just enough but no more and 2008 first round right tackle Gosder Cherilus needs to step up and show why the Lions drafted him high.
Defense: For all that this team’s offense has driven their success, it is the scrappy defense that has helped keep Detroit in games and is highlighted by one of the scariest defensive lines in football. The rotation of star Ndamakong Suh, Corey Williams and Nick Fairley is feared throughout the league. It always helps to have a pair of good ends when you have such outstanding anchors and this team has it in the form of veteran Kyle Van Den Bosch and franchise player Cliff Avril who is quickly becoming one of the best ends in the NFL.
The linebacking corps is one of the less fancied groups in the league but is made to look very good by the defensive line and are generally highly productive. Stephen Tulloch leads this unit at middle linebacker and is a tackling machine who is one of the better run stuffers around. On the outside former Jaguar Justin Durant was a nice addition last year but is no more of a role-player than anything else these days. The big boom or bust production man here is DeAndre Levy who will have some very big days but will also be held in check at times and often faces tough double teams. On days where the defensive line are at their best, expect Levy to be the star.
The biggest worry on this team is the secondary which is merely a bunch of spare parts thrown together to make a bunch of starters who most teams would prefer to leave on the bench. The cornerback corps is as poor as there is in football – Chris Houston has his good days but is far from a starting caliber corner, Alphonso Smith gets embarrassed often in coverage and Jacob Lacey while talented has failed to make an impact on some bad secondaries in the past having been tossed aside by the porous Indianapolis Colts. At safety it’s a little better as Louis Delmas is at the very least a starting quality player who many teams would love to have – the only problem is that he can’t seem to stay healthy and is again struggling this offseason. This ugly looking unit is rounded out by strong safety Amari Spievey – a player who will show up at times but more often than not fails to stand up and be counted when it counts.
Coaching: Jim Schwartz is well known for having arguably the feistiest and most aggressive attitude of any coach in the NFL and this is reflected in his players who continue to be under scrutiny for questionably dirty plays at times. You may not agree with the way Schwartz does things and it may not turn out players who have the traits normally liked by NFL teams but you cannot argue with results as the passion shown by Schwartz is reflected in his players who will fight tooth and nail for the man who is the unquestioned leader of this team.
Breakout Player: Mikel Leshoure was drafted in the second round last year but didn’t take the field in the regular season following an achilles injury that had him put on IR in the preseason. He may be suspended for the first two games this season due to offseason infractions and is continuing to have injury issues this offseason but once he finally gets his chance I expect big things from this talented youngster. Watch out for him to have some big games down the stretch to take some of the pressure off the passing game.
2012 Prediction: This is a strong team who can easily compete for a playoff spot as potentially the second NFC wildcard from the NFC North. I’m tempted to say they fall just short with nine wins but I’ll give the talent here the benefit of the doubt and say 10-6.
Overview: In this era of dominant passing offenses this team has the ability to take that concept to a whole other level with the ability of Matthew Stafford as the myriad of outstanding receivers. The defensive line will continue to bully opposing offensive lines but if this team is going to be truly competitive they need production from the running game, the offensive line to step up and a miracle year from the secondary.