With NFL training camps just around the corner, we’re taking a team-by-team look at how the offseason played out and what you can expect in 2012. Click here to read them all.
As they scuffled through year after year of disappointing finishes, the Detroit Lions often spent the offseason overhauling their roster, be it out of necessity or because of a coaching change.
Things have been much different so far this year. The Detroit Lions of 2011 are, more or less, going to be the Detroit Lions of 2012. Of the 22 regular starters from last year's wild-card team, 21 are back, with only cornerback Eric Wright departing via free agency. For a team that has weathered so much turnover in the past decade-plus, the continuity the Lions have achieved in the build-up is rather remarkable.
Does that mean Detroit's a Super Bowl contender in 2012? Well, the team's strengths from last season are still its strenghts; its weaknesses are still its weaknesses. Whether or not that will be good enough to secure the Lions their first playoff win since 1991 (and just their second in the Super Bowl era) remains to be seen.
2011 Record: 10-6 (second place, NFC North; lost to Saints in NFC wild-card round)
Key Subtractions: QB Drew Stanton, CB Eric Wright
Team Strengths: QB, WR, TE, DT, DE
Team Weaknesses: OL, CB, S
Three Things to Watch:
1. Will the secondary be any better?: Detroit's defensive backfield needed a GPS to find opposing receivers at times last year -- heck, the Lions' inept secondary helped turn Matt Flynn into a multimillionaire by coughing up 480 yards passing and six touchdowns to him in Week 17.
The Lions actually allowed less passing yards in 2011 than 10 teams, including the Packers, Saints, Giants and Patriots, all of which went further in the playoffs than Detroit. Still, when the Lions needed a stop, the pass defense often let them down. They allowed 300-plus yards through the air nine times between the regular season and one playoff game.
Jim Schwartz's team played it pretty low-key on personnel changes, those numbers considered. Gone is 16-game starter at cornerback Eric Wright (four interceptions) and taking his place in the starting lineup is Aaron Berry, who was torched in Detroit's playoff loss. The Lions also signed Indianapolis' Jacob Lacey and drafted Bill Bentley, Chris Greenwood and Jonte Green in the third, fifth and sixth rounds, respectively.
2. Can the offense strike a better balance?: If you liked passing, you had to love Lions games last season. Not only was Detroit fairly inept at slowing down aerial attacks, as we just covered, but no team in the league threw the ball more than the Lions. Detroit attempted a whopping 666 passes, with Matthew Stafford's 663 falling just 28 short of Drew Bledsoe's single-season NFL record.
Stafford was sensational all year, finishing with 5,038 yards passing and 41 touchdowns in the regular season, and Detroit's receiving/tight end corps paced by Calvin Johnson has developed into one of the league's finest. Still, the Lions would love to run the football more effectively, especially late in games and to help their own defense stay off the field a bit.
The Lions remain unsettled at running back, though, with Jahvid Best and Mikel Leshoure returning from serious injuries (and Leshoure facing a two-game suspension for an offseason arrest), and the fragile Kevin Smith slotted in behind them. Detroit needs at least one of those backs -- and ideally two -- to step up and carry the load ... and it wouldn't hurt if the offensive line paved the way a little more effectively either.
3. How will Detroit deal with raised expectations?: It's one thing to sneak up on everyone and play the sleeper role. It's quite another to maintain success when the whole world expects you to excel.
That is perhaps the biggest challenge the Lions face in 2012, as they enter a season for the first time in ages with a bit of a target on their backs. How will this team respond if it loses in Weeks 2 and 3 at San Francisco and Tennessee? Can it handle five nationally televised games, including three on the road against the 49ers, Bears and Packers?
Schwartz will have his work cut out for him getting a consistent effort for 16 games when he rarely has the opportunity to play the underdog card. Getting his team to stay out of legal trouble -- a problem that plagued the Lions all offseason, resulting in the suspension of Mikel Leshoure and likely suspension of Nick Fairley -- would be a good start.
Outlook: It has probably been a good 20 years since the Lions entered a season with this much positive mojo. That 1991 playoff victory came after a 12-4 year that saw Detroit capture the then-NFC Central and host a divisional round game. Barry Sanders was the centerpiece of a talented offensive, while Chris Spielman anchored a solid defense.
Detroit went 5-11 in 1992 and has not notched a postseason win since.
But it's hard to ignore what's happening in the Motor City. Schwartz has established a culture where getting to the Super Bowl is the primary focus and, for once, that actually feels attainable for Detroit. The off-field issues have detracted from that aim a bit since the end of 2011, but when the ball's put it play, it's all systems go. Stafford, Johnson and the Lions' defensive line -- a powerful quartet of Kyle Vanden Bosch, Corey Williams, Ndamukong Suh and Cliff Avril -- cannot do it alone. Detroit should be in the hunt for another playoff appearance and could light up scoreboards even more this fall. For the 2012 season to bring anything more than 2011 did, however, the Lions must improve on the offensive line and in the secondary, where they so often faltered last year.