Physical against wideouts and backs, Bodden fits the Tampa Two.
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September 7 at Atlanta 14 GREEN BAY 21 at San Francisco 28 Bye
October 5 CHICAGO 12 at Minnesota 19 at Houston 26 WASHINGTON
November 2 at Chicago 9 JACKSONVILLE 16 at Carolina 23 TAMPA BAY 27 TENNESSEE (T)
December 7 MINNESOTA 14 at Indianapolis 21 NEW ORLEANS 28 at Green Bay
Ernie Sims, Linebacker: Brian Urlacher says it takes three years for a middle linebacker to grasp the Tampa Two defense. Sims, who led the Lions in tackles last season, is entering his third year. He acknowledges he was overchasing in '07: "This year [the defensive backs] will make their plays, and I'll make mine." Sims's tackle total may drop, but Detroit will be better for it.
One of the league's worst secondaries has been rebuilt in the image of one of the best. Welcome to Tampa Bay North.
A prediction for 2008? Jon Kitna's not even touching that one. The Lions quarterback defers to outspoken cornerback Leigh Bodden, who came to Detroit from Cleveland in a Feb. 29 swap. "What did Jon say last year?" Bodden asks. "Ten wins? I'll go with that."
It's appropriate that Bodden, not Kitna, is making the predictions this year. Following the departure of pass-happy offensive coordinator Mike Martz, the Lions' success in '08 depends largely on the play of a completely reconfigured defensive backfield. (Also: Kitna's credibility is suspect; he overshot the 2007 win total by three.)
Last year, while playing mostly in coach Rod Marinelli's favored Tampa Two scheme, which relies on a hard-hitting but quick secondary, the Lions' defense allowed 258.2 passing yards a game, a mark exceeded only by the Vikings. They also gave up a league-worst 32 passing touchdowns. The secondary's deficiencies set off a domino effect, with Martz's offense throwing more often as the Lions fell behind. In Week 10, for example, when the Cardinals went up 10-7 on Detroit midway through the second quarter, the Lions threw the ball almost exclusively after that -- 36 passes and five runs en route to a 31-20 loss. For the season, Detroit had 324 rushing attempts. The only team to have fewer in a season since 2000? The '06 Lions.
Detroit is resolved to run more in '08, but for that to happen, the Lions had to revamp their defense, particularly the secondary. ("If we're running the ball, we're probably defending well," says Marinelli.) In January they hired Buccaneers assistant secondary coach Jimmy Lake, who helped run a unit that led the league in passing defense in 2007. Then they signed three former Tampa Bay defensive backs: safeties Kalvin Pearson and Dwight Smith and cornerback Brian Kelly. (All three played earlier under Marinelli, who was a Bucs assistant from 1996 to 2005.) As icing, Detroit traded mammoth defensive tackle Shaun Rogers to Cleveland for Bodden, an up-and-comer, and added former Buccaneer Chuck Darby to fill Rogers's voluminous void on the line. Hence the popular off-season moniker for Detroit: Tampa Bay North.
Marinelli needs some of that Bucs know-how to rub off quickly. The coach is entering his crucial third season, and the majority of his acquisitions (average age: 30) already have their best years behind them. The youngest, Bodden, 26, has never played Tampa Two, but he does fit the system's mold for a cornerback: He's a hard hitter who's comfortable jamming at the line and playing the run. "Now I think what may have been the weakest aspect of this team is possibly our strongest," says defensive coordinator Joe Barry, another Tampa Bay coaching alum.
Some of the Lions' offensive stars have taken notice of the overhauled defensive backfield. "Guys like Kitna and [receiver Mike] Furrey have come up and said, 'I like what you guys bring to that secondary,' " says Smith. "They know we're here to make their lives easier."
Come Week 1, Bodden should be starting at one cornerback, alongside second-year safety Gerald Alexander, who struggled with a weak supporting cast in '07 but showed promise with a 15-tackle game against San Diego late in the year. Smith and Kelly should complete the backfield, with Pearson as a nickelback. More important, the new guys will bring confidence and experience from having played the Cover Two successfully before.
"In Tampa, I had leaders in John Lynch, Warren Sapp and Derrick Brooks," says Kelly. "Now, I'm expected to come here and be that kind of mentor and teach this system. The smartest thing I could do is to pull out my Super Bowl ring and let them know what it's all about."
Failing that, the Lions could get a more straightforward lesson come Nov. 23. That's when Tampa Bay South comes to town. -- Adam Duerson
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