NFL Training Camp Snapshot 2013: Detroit Lions
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Every year there are a number of coaches that begin the season on the hot seat. Entering 2012, that notion wouldn’t have crossed the mind of most Lions’ fans in regards to coach Jim Schwartz. Detroit was coming off an impressive 10-6 season and playoff appearance, the products of shrewd personnel moves and good coaching, a franchise quarterback finally coming into his own and a insanely gifted receiver turning a good passing game into one of the league’s best. For the first time in a long time, there was plenty of optimism surrounding the Lions.
One year later, the overriding sentiment has changed. Schwartz is at a crossroads; the Lions will likely need to make the playoffs, or at least get close, to prolong his coaching tenure. There are no excuses for following a 10-6 season with a 4-12 one, not in the minds of NFL front office types.
By the end of the season, the only Lions-related storyline worth following was whether Calvin Johnson would break Jerry Rice’s single-season receiving record. He did, which is good news. The bad news? No measure of individual receiving success will save Detroit from a another last place finish in the NFC North if it isn’t accompanied by an improved defense, a reliable run game and a viable receiving threat to complement Johnson. Those were three of Detroit’s biggest flaws last season, and general manager Martin Mayhew tried to address them, along with other various roster flaws, through free agency and the draft.
The question now is whether 2012 was a regrettable downward aberration, or a regression to normalcy. This season will provide the answer
• Biggest storyline: Will the defense be better?
The most troubling part of Detroit’s second-half collapse last season, beyond the sheer disappointment of an eight-game, season-ending losing streak, was a defense that gave up 31, 34 (twice), 35, and 38 points on separate occasions. Predictably, the Lions finished the year ranked 27th in points allowed. The offense, explosive though it was, couldn’t compensate for the defense’s underwhelming performances.
This offseason, the Lions rightfully focused a large share of their draft and free agency efforts on improving their talent and depth on defense. Jason Jones (Seahawks) and Israel Idonije (Bears) will bolster a line that already stands among the league’s better units. Safety Glover Quin (Texans) will stabilize the secondary. And draft picks Ziggy Ansah, Darius Slay and Devin Taylor comprise a promising trio of youngsters who should contribute early and often this season.
With the possible exception of the linebacking corps, which will return in the same poor shape in which it finished last season, the defense appears to have improved in several key spots. The Lions have relied on their offense to win games in recent seasons, and that won’t change in 2013, but more stability and consistent production on the other side of the ball will make them a more complete team, and help provide more formidable resistance in a division populated with the likes of Aaron Rodgers, Brandon Marshall and Adrian Peterson.
• Most intriguing position battle: Cornerback.
An upgraded secondary will go a long way in improving this Lions' defense. Keeping Louis Delmas -- who missed multiple games over the past two seasons with knee injuries and has been limited to individual drills in training camp -- healthy over the course of an entire season will help. Offseason additions Quin and Chris Hope bring stability to the safety position, and veteran cornerback Chris Houston should bounce back after his play declined in the second half of last season.
The other cornerback spot is up for grabs, and Friday night’s preseason opener did little to create separation between the four main competitors: Slay, Ron Bartell, Jonte Green and Bill Bentley. Slay is the most athletic of the four, while Bartell, Green and Bentley are more experienced and could be better equipped to manage the read-making required of Cover 2 cornerbacks.
Throwing first-year cornerbacks into starting roles is always risky, but if Slay continues to improve throughout the preseason, and demonstrates a solid understanding of the scheme, he should beat out Bentley and Bartell -- if not by Week 1, then almost certainly by season's end. His athleticism and overall upside is too valuable to leave on the sidelines, even if, as is the case with most rookie defensive backs, he struggles to grasp some of the finer nuances of scheme and coverages early in the season.
• New face, new place: Reggie Bush, running back.
The release of Jahvid Best this offseason marked the end of a disappointing, injury-ravaged two-year career. When healthy, Best gave the Lions a ground-tethered home run threat that forced defenses to respect the run game. He also distracted attention from Detroit’s most important offensive weapon, Calvin Johnson. When Best was forced to miss the rest of the season after suffering another concussion in Week 6, the Lions built their run game around Mikel Leshoure and Joique Bell, neither of whom offered the explosiveness or big-play ability Best possessed.
Rekindling the dynamism and unpredictability lost with Best’s retirement was, presumably, the biggest motivation in signing Bush this offseason. Over his last two seasons in Miami, Bush developed into an effective between-the-tackles runner while still flashing the burst and explosiveness that made him an electric multi-purpose utility threat in New Orleans. He should inherit the "lion’s share" of Detroit’s rushing workload this season, and combine with Leshoure and third-down specialist Bell to give the Lions more stability and versatility in their rushing attack.
Bush may never live up to the Canton-destined forecasts that accompanied his NFL arrival, but he remains one of the most explosive backs in the league, and should immediately upgrade Detroit’s rushing attack while helping to provide more stability and balance to an offense that desperately lacked it through large stretches of last season.
• Impact rookie: Ziggy Ansah, defensive end.
Early in the first quarter of Friday night’s preseason win over the Jets, Ansah demonstrated exactly why his abilities translate capably to the NFL, despite frequent cries he was too raw or unrefined to warrant a first-round pick. Mark Sanchez dropped back and floated a textbook screen pass, which is right when Ansah, in the midst of fighting off a blocker, reached up, contorted his body, ripped the ball out of the air and ran it back 14 yards for a touchdown.
If you can restrain your Sanchez-prompted laughter for a moment, the athleticism and ball skills Ansah flashed on that play are downright impressive. His pass-rushing technique and scheme knowledge will need some fine-tuning, and Ansah probably won’t be a dominant player his rookie season, but it’s not crazy to think he can get after the QB better than the declining Kyle Vanden-Bosch (who Detroit released in February after a disappointing 2012).
The Lions watched their best pass-rusher, Cliff Avril, leave in free agency this offseason, and drafting Ansah -- along with signing Jones and Idonije in free agency -- will help account for his departure. Ansah’s presence at one of the end spots adds more natural talent and athleticism to what should be one of the league’s best defensive lines.
• Looking at the schedule: This is … not going to be easy.
Last season, Detroit lost all of its division games. Making a playoff push in 2013 will require, at bare minimum, a .500 division record. The NFC North didn’t get any worse this offseason; if anything, it got more competitive.
The Lions play two division games between Weeks 1 and 4, and both (home against Minnesota and Chicago) feel like must-wins. Road trips to Arizona, Washington and Green Bay, and a home game against Dallas round out one of the more difficult first-half schedules of any other team in the league.
The second-half slate is arguably more daunting, starting with a four-week stretch featuring road games at Chicago and Pittsburgh and home tests against Tampa Bay and Green Bay. After a Week 14 trip to Philadelphia, the Lions finish up with Baltimore and the Giants at home, followed by a season-closing trip to Minnesota.
If that brief breakdown didn’t make it clear enough, perhaps the combined winning percentage of Detroit’s 2012 opponents -- 0.539, good for second in the league -- will: this is a brutal schedule. From top to bottom, Detroit drew very few, if any, “guarantee” games. Even road games at Cleveland, Arizona and Philadelphia could be perilous. Reaching the playoffs in a stacked NFC was already going to be extremely difficult. With this schedule, the challenge is impossible to understate. If Detroit makes the playoffs this season, it will have earned it.