32 Teams in 32 Days: Detroit Lions
August 9, 2012Eastern Indiana Sports
Last season was the breakthrough that Detroit Lions fans had been waiting more than a decade for. After years of abject misery, interspersed and exacerbated by the occasional teasing of a new dawn, Detroit had a successful football team to be proud of, a playoff team no less. It wasn’t always pretty, it wasn’t always conventional and it wasn’t always popular. In their own way the Lions went about their business and registered their most successful season since 1995. The offense led by the combination of Matthew Stafford and Calvin Johnson was explosive while the defense offered enough big plays to allow that offense to win games rather than fight to keep their head above water in shootouts.
The next step for the Lions is to make last season repeatable and feed off of their bad boy image rather than being dragged down by it. In the last two seasons the Lions have stepped past the Bears and Vikings in the NFC North, but one season will not placate a fan base that was starved for success for so long.Now Stafford and Johnson must lead a Detroit team that remains as a contender in the division and looks to take strides to be a contender in the entire conference.
Can the Lions maintain and improve on their standing in the division, marking a new era in Detroit? Or was last season a high water mark for Detroit? Will the Bears and Vikings move back to and past the Lions as their inconsistencies and ill-discipline catch up with them?
Five Reasons to be Confident
1) Magnificent Megatron
There are a host of superlatives that could be used to describe the season that Calvin Johnson put together for the Lions in 2011 and how important he was to them. Matthew Stafford may have snagged the 5,000 yard passer and the Comeback Player of the Year Award, but there can be little doubt that Johnson was by far the most important player to the Lions. That should continue moving forward and by and large the Lions’ success will hinge upon Johnson’s continuing exceptional performances. Teams knew last season that he was the focus of the Lions passing game, with everything important going through him (26.7% of the regular season offensive yards). Even considering that teams couldn’t shut him down and with Stafford willing to put the ball up to Johnson in any situation, and against any coverage, Johnson simply had to deliver and did. Unless injury makes a cruel intervention in the Lions star wide receiver’s season there is little reason to believe that Johnson won’t be as difficult to cover in 2012 as he was in 2011.
2) A Clean Bill of Health
Don’t shout it too loudly but Matthew Stafford stayed healthy last season. Lions fans will now be scrambling for their four leaf clovers and lucky rabbits feet to ensure that I haven’t just jinxed the signal caller’s fitness for 2012. As good a backup situation as the Lions have with the competent Shaun Hill, the Lions’ passing game is completely different with Stafford under center and far more in tune with the identity of the team. While he makes more mistakes and his decision making is at times baffling, his willingness to simply let go and trust Calvin Johnson allows the Lions to make plays that they shouldn’t. The difficulty is balancing the sometimes absurd decision making with not talking yourself out of targeting Johnson when he is “covered”. With Stafford under center for 16 games as in 2011 the Lions have a punchers chance every time they take to the field.
3) Defensive Line Safety Net
If you play aggressively and far up the field on the defensive line you need to have a linebacker who is able to knife through traffic and clean up the mess that can be left behind. The Detroit Lions are coming off just such a season and in spite of dangerously flirting with losing him to free agency have the perfect player for that linebacker spot in the form of Stephen Tulloch. The Lions allowed Tulloch to test the open market and only a surprisingly stagnant linebacker market in free agency saw Tulloch return to the Lions. With players like Kyle Vanden Bosch, Cliff Avril, and Ndamukong Suh charging far upfield, someone needs to be able to cover ground laterally to limit the gains when those upfield players are caught in the wrong spot. Tulloch’s development from a downhill thumper to an athletic tackle-to-tackle lateral run defender–without losing that ability to come downhill–will once again be crucial to the continuing development of the Lions’ defense.