4 Detroit LIONS

Is that the sun peeking through the clouds over the Motor City 11?
September 05, 2010

AFTER SIGNING a free-agent contract with the Lions last March, Nate Burleson and his wife, Atoya, sat down their six-year-old son, Nathaniel, to play a little game. Burleson, a wideout who had scored 15 touchdowns over the previous four seasons in Seattle, wanted to see if Nathaniel could guess his father's new football home. Two dozen teams came out of little Nathaniel's mouth—Super Bowl champions, playoff regulars, marquee franchises—but no mention of a club that has won a total of two games the past two seasons.

"Finally, I said, 'No, son, I'm playing for the Detroit Lions,'" says Burleson, recalling his boy's wide-eyed stare. "He looks at me and, with a high-pitched voice, goes, 'Detroit?'"

Nathaniel's shock was understandable considering the Lions' dismal decade, but the outlook in Detroit is sunnier in coach Jim Schwartz's second season. An influx of new players hit the Motor City during the off-season, and after years of misbegotten personnel moves, the Lions have built from the top of their last two drafts—quarterback Matthew Stafford, tight end Brandon Pettigrew and safety Louis Delmas in 2009; defensive tackle Ndamukong Suh and running back Jahvid Best in 2010—the engine that could ultimately lift them out of the NFC North cellar.

Is Detroit about to become an NFL destination?

"When people ask me with a negative connotation about going to Detroit—the city, the economy, the team—I say what about New Orleans?" says Burleson, who signed a five-year, $25 million deal. "After [Hurricane] Katrina nobody wanted to be there, the locals or the players getting drafted or traded there. All of a sudden New Orleans is a place to go. The Saints revived the city. I honestly believe if we continue to work hard and bring the right guys in, we can turn around the organization and help revive [this] city."

The turnaround will have to begin on the field, where the Lions have so often looked overmatched. Schwartz and general manager Martin Mayhew addressed several deficiencies through aggressive off-season moves: signing Burleson and defensive end Kyle Vanden Bosch (who played under Schwartz in Tennessee) and trading for tight end Tony Scheffler, cornerback Chris Houston and defensive tackle Corey Williams.

Burleson and Scheffler should help draw attention from go-to receiver Calvin Johnson, who has faced double and triple teams since his rookie season in 2007. And if the talented Suh can adapt quickly to the Lions scheme, Detroit should be able to create pressure on the passer with only four linemen, much like Schwartz's defenses did in Tennessee.

"We took a different approach to free agency," Schwartz says. "Instead of trying to get a lot, we targeted two guys, Nate and Kyle, and went all in. But we were also able to supplement that through trades. What may turn out to be the key was picking up those other players. I think we're in a much better place than we were last year."

Stafford, to be sure, is in a better place. After splitting reps last summer with Daunte Culpepper and fighting through injury during his rookie season, Stafford enters 2010 in good health and as the unquestioned starting quarterback, if not a fully formed one. He and Johnson have been logging extra practice time on the field and occasionally hanging out away from the facility, trying to build the kind of relationship between a quarterback and a top receiver that has defined winning teams in the past.

Stafford impressed observers by playing through knee and shoulder injuries as a rookie, but he also missed six games.

"I was pretty much playing hurt the whole year," says Stafford. "Your best asset is being available. It kills me to be injured, and I'll try to play through just about anything to be out there."

Stafford stands to gain the most from the Lions' influx of players, a point he clearly recognizes. "We don't want it to be like it has been," Stafford says of the losing. "We do have a lot of weapons, but it's up to us to get some rhythm and get it going and move it forward. Come the first Sunday, Week One, it's, 'Go out there and prove it.'"

To themselves, to the city of Detroit and to little Nathaniel Burleson.

PROJECTED STARTERS

WITH 2009 STATS

COACH JIM SCHWARTZ

OFFENSE

2009 Rank: 26

QB MATTHEW STAFFORD

G 10

ATT 377

COMP 201

PCT 53.3

YARDS 2,267

TD 13

INT 20

RATING 61.0

RB JAHVID BEST (R)

G 9

ATT 141

YARDS 867

AVG 6.1

REC 22

YARDS 213

AVG 9.7

TTD 16

FB JEROME FELTON

G 13

ATT 15

YARDS 46

AVG 3.1

REC 13

YARDS 133

AVG 10.2

TTD 0

WR CALVIN JOHNSON

G 14

REC 67

YARDS 984

TTD 5

WR NATE BURLESON

G 13

REC 63

YARDS 812

TTD 3

TE TONY SCHEFFLER

G 16

REC 31

YARDS 416

TTD 2

LT JEFF BACKUS

G 16

HT 6'5"

WT 305

LG ROB SIMS

G 14

HT 6'3"

WT 312

C DOMINIC RAIOLA

G 16

HT 6'1"

WT 295

RG STEPHEN PETERMAN

G 9

HT 6'4"

WT 323

RT GOSDER CHERILUS

G 15

HT 6'7"

WT 325

DEFENSE

2009 Rank: 32

DE CLIFF AVRIL

G 13

TACKLES 41

SACKS 5½

INT 0

DT NDAMUKONG SUH (R)

G 14

TACKLES 85

SACKS 12

INT 1

DT COREY WILLIAMS

G 16

TACKLES 31

SACKS 4

INT 0

DE KYLE VANDEN BOSCH

G 16

TACKLES 44

SACKS 3

INT 0

LB LANDON JOHNSON

G 10

TACKLES 20

SACKS 0

INT 0

LB DEANDRE LEVY

G 16

TACKLES 85

SACKS 0

INT 1

LB JULIAN PETERSON

G 16

TACKLES 76

SACKS 4½

INT 0

CB CHRIS HOUSTON

G 12

TACKLES 47

SACKS 0

INT 1

FS LOUIS DELMAS

G 15

TACKLES 94

SACKS 1

INT 2

SS C.C. BROWN

G 16

TACKLES 69

SACKS 0

INT 0

CB ERIC KING

G 4

TACKLES 7

SACKS 0

INT 0

SPECIAL TEAMS

P NICK HARRIS

PUNTS 74

AVG 42.9

NET 36.8

K JASON HANSON

FG 21--28

XP 25--25

POINTS 88

PR DENNIS NORTHCUTT

RET 22

AVG 8.6

TD 0

KR AARON BROWN

RET 42

AVG 22.6

TD 0

New acquisition

(R) Rookie: College stats

TTD: Total touchdowns

2010 SCHEDULE

2009 Record: 2--14

September

12 at Chicago

19 Philadelphia

26 at Minnesota

October

3 at Green Bay

10 St. Louis

17 at N.Y. Giants

24 BYE

31 Washington

November

7 N.Y. Jets

14 at Buffalo

21 at Dallas

25 New England (T)

December

5 Chicago

12 Green Bay

19 at Tampa Bay

26 at Miami

January

2 Minnesota

(T) Thursday

SCHEDULE STRENGTH

NFL Rank: T12

Opponents' 2009 winning percentage: .508

Games against 2009 playoff teams: 8

ANALYSIS

For a team desperate to build confidence, the Lions have a schedule designed to shake it. Not only do they face all three NFC North opponents, on the road, in the first four weeks, but they also have eight dates against teams from the powerful NFC East and AFC East. At least quartback Matthew Stafford faces only one potential cold-weather game—Week 10 against Buffalo.

SPOTLIGHT

Kyle Vanden Bosch, Defensive end

HE SPENT spent five seasons in Tennessee on one of the league's most feared defensive lines, suffocating offenses by rushing the quarterback, pinching in the running back and effectively shrinking the field. In Detroit, those objectives remain unchanged.

As does the defensive strategy. "It's the same scheme I played for the last five years," says Vanden Bosch, who signed a four-year, $26 million deal to play for Jim Schwartz, his former Titans defensive coordinator. "So it's been easy for me to come in and pick it up and help some of the younger guys new to the system. Nobody [around the league] expects much from us, and I think everybody here sees that as a challenge."

While Vanden Bosch is 31 and coming off a three-sack season, Schwartz says the defensive end looked as good on film as he did when he notched 12 sacks in 2007. "Sacks are a funny thing," Schwartz says. "Sometimes if [opponents] want to be able to take you out [of the play], they can. It was a dynamic change without Al [Haynesworth] next to him. I've heard people make the analogy in baseball—it's not so much what your batting average is, it's how you're hitting the ball. I have a lot of experience with Kyle, but I made sure that that didn't affect our judgment of him."

Schwartz let other members of the coaching staff and personnel department thoroughly evaluate Vanden Bosch independently before weighing in. "The last thing you want is to let you your past or your personal experience taint the judgment of others," Schwartz says. "When I saw that everybody felt the same way about him, then I said certain things about my history with him. Kyle's not here to do anything other than play football, sack the quarterback and be a marquee player."

PHOTOSCOTT TERNA/CAL SPORT MEDIAA MAN NAMED SUH Detroit is counting on pressure-packed play from the big rookie. PHOTOPETER READ MILLER

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