Bobby Ross's first training camp as coach of the Lions was
unlike anything Detroit players had seen in recent years. Ross's
predecessor, the ultraloose Wayne Fontes, would pick up kids in
his golf cart and chauffeur them around the practice field to
watch various drills. Camp Fontes may not have had a
country-club atmosphere, but it was close. Camp Ross was intense
to the point of being grim. After receivers dropped a couple of
balls in a drill one day, Ross vented. "Start over!" he yelled.
"The whole drill! We aren't doing this just to do it!"
The handful of players who tired of Fontes's easygoing style
suddenly have hope with Ross and his equally tough assistants.
"With this coaching staff," wideout Johnnie Morton says of the
new mood in camp, "Detroit's not as cold anymore."
Not long after being named coach in January, Ross announced he
was moving the club's training camp from the Silverdome 85 miles
north to Saginaw. Under Fontes, players stayed at a hotel down
the road from their training-camp site, but they weren't far
away from the distractions of families and friends. Ross
believes that getting away from the comforts of home helps the
players to bond, not to mention toughen up.
Last season Detroit had one of the league's softest defensive
fronts, a unit so porous that it offset perhaps the NFL's most
lethal weapons. Imagine this: The Lions had Barry Sanders, who
won his third league rushing title, and they still went 5-11, in
large part because the opposition outrushed them by 12 yards a
game. How was that possible?
"Well," says defensive end Robert Porcher, "we had that
bend-but-don't-break philosophy, and unfortunately we bent quite
a bit against the run. But all through training camp we've
really been focused on the run. There's a lot of precision in
our practice sessions. Coach Ross is into every little detail.
He's not going to let us fail."
Indeed, after watching film from 1996, Ross was chagrined by how
poorly the Lions tackled, how ineffective they were in shedding
blockers and how undisciplined they were about staying in their
rushing lanes. "The starting point for us to be a good team is
stopping the run," Ross says. "It's strange, but when I looked
at how they played last year, they were first in the league on
yards per carry allowed on first down. You can be sure we'll be
better. We have to be."
Sounds good, but this is mostly the same cast of characters that
ranked 25th in the league against the run last year. (The
notable exception is tackle Mike Wells, a fourth-year player who
made one start in '96; he replaces Henry Thomas, who signed with
the Patriots as a free agent.) The front seven players average
only 263 pounds, and they could get manhandled by a couple of
the NFC Central's bigger offensive lines. For instance, the
Packers' front averages 300 pounds, the Vikings' a stouter 308.
Ross is counting on 291-pound tackle Luther Elliss, a
first-round draft pick in '95 who started 30 games in his first
two seasons, to plug some of the holes. "Elliss could be a
big-time player," Ross says. "He reminds me of [Raiders Pro Bowl
defensive tackle] Chester McGlockton."
Ross won a national championship at, of all places, Georgia Tech
in 1990, and he took the overachieving Chargers to their first
Super Bowl, in '94. Run defense was one of the reasons for the
"The players are not afraid of hard work, even though we might
have gotten away from it," Porcher says. "If it's not demanded,
when you get tired in the fourth quarter, you're not going to
have it in you to play hard. That's how we'll be different.
We'll have it in the fourth quarter."
That will mean something only if the Lions can stop the run in
the first three quarters.