2 DETROIT LIONS

September 04, 2011

Playoffs? If the franchise QB is healthy, there's reason to believe

All eyes in Detroit, and in the NFC North, are on quarterback Matthew Stafford. In seven years of high school and college ball he never missed a game to injury. In two seasons in the NFL he has missed 19. Since the Lions drafted him out of Georgia in 2009 with the No. 1 pick, Stafford has separated his throwing shoulder three times; in January he had the joint repaired by noted orthopedist James Andrews, who said after the surgery, "Matthew has one of the strongest arms in the league, and I am confident he will be as strong as ever."

Fast-forward to an August day in training camp in suburban Detroit. With the first units on the field in passing drills, Stafford riddled the secondary. In 16 plays he threw effortlessly, accurately and beautifully. Six times—almost myopically—he targeted star fifth-year wideout Calvin Johnson ("Wouldn't you?" he said later), completing all six passes. On one of those, a deep seam up the right side, Louis Delmas, the Lions' best safety, and starting corner Chris Houston converged on Johnson, bracketing him side and back ... and Stafford's 42-yard pass dropped into the in-stride receiver's hands as Johnson sprinted past the double coverage.

The Lions' defensive upgrades include free-agent linebacker Stephen Tulloch and tackle Nick Fairley, the No. 13 pick, from Auburn, who will line up next to the NFL's 2010 Defensive Rookie of the Year, Ndamukong Suh. But it's Stafford's ability to stay in the lineup that will determine whether Detroit is a serious playoff contender in the stacked NFC for the first time in years.

"Does your shoulder hurt at all?" Stafford was asked after an August practice.

"Did you see me out there?" he responded with a smile.

The right shoulder was supposed to take six months to heal, Stafford said, but he felt fine in four: "I worked six days a week on it. What else was I going to do? And I rehabbed really quickly. There's no question in my mind I can stay healthy for a full season."

Both Stafford, 23, and coach Jim Schwartz say the quarterback is not going to change his playing style because of the injuries. "I haven't been hurt because I've been out of the pocket scrambling," he said. "I don't scramble a ton."

Well, not really. In November 2009 he went on a wild run with seconds left in the fourth quarter against the Browns and had his left shoulder crushed into the turf by defensive tackle C.J. Mosley. That separation didn't require surgery. But last year the right shoulder was twice separated—the first on a blind-side sack in the pocket by the Bears' Julius Peppers, the second when Stafford fled the pocket against the Jets and got tripped up, landing hard on the shoulder.

On Stafford's wild scramble against Cleveland, Schwartz remembers saying, "Get rid of it, get rid of it." It would make sense for the coach to lean on his quarterback to take fewer chances, but Schwartz won't do it: "I've said nothing to him that I haven't said before. I've told him he doesn't have to have the mentality that he has to make every play. I'm hoping what we can do on defense now makes it clear to him he doesn't have to make a play every time he drops back. On second-and-10, discretion should be the better part of valor. If you know the defense isn't going to make a play, sometimes you take a chance you shouldn't; that should be different now. On third-and-10 if you want to take a chance, O.K.

"That's more of the conversation I've had with him. But I'm not going to dictate to him how to play a game he's been successful at for years."

Former Giants quarterback Phil Simms was hurt in four of his first five seasons in the NFL and developed a reputation for being injury-prone. Then he became a near iron man and a Super Bowl champion. The most encouraging aspect for the Lions is that they now have enough weapons—including field-stretching rookie receiver Titus Young from Boise State—to prevent teams from blanketing Johnson with two men. That will open up more options for Stafford in the passing game. Still, Detroit's offensive line, with aging left tackle Jeff Backus (33) and shaky right tackle Gosder Cherilus, is going to expose the quarterback to pressure. Stafford has to learn to take fewer chances—or risk going down in history as a great prospect who got too beat up too soon.

"What's there not to love about our receivers?" Stafford says. "Calvin makes my job so easy. You throw it up there, and if he's not catching it, no one is. With him and all our receivers, it's great to think about what we can do for a full season."

Emphasis on full.

PROJECTED LINEUP

WITH 2010 STATS

OFFENSE

2010 Rank: 17

QB MATTHEW STAFFORD

ATT 96

COMP 57

PCT 59.4

YARDS 535

YD/ATT 5.57

TD 6

INT 1

RATING 91.3

RB JAHVID BEST

ATT 171

YARDS 555

REC 58

TTD 6

WR CALVIN JOHNSON

REC 77

YARDS 1,120

AVG 14.5

TTD 12

WR NATE BURLESON

REC 55

YARDS 625

AVG 11.4

TTD 6

TE BRANDON PETTIGREW

REC 71

YARDS 722

AVG 10.2

TTD 4

TE WILL HELLER

REC 29

YARDS 296

AVG 10.2

TTD 3

LT JEFF BACKUS

G 16

SACKS 4

HOLD 2

FALSE 1

LG ROB SIMS

G 16

SACKS 3½

HOLD 1

FALSE 1

C DOMINIC RAIOLA

G 16

SACKS 3

HOLD 3

FALSE 3

RG STEPHEN PETERMAN

G 16

SACKS 4

HOLD 1

FALSE 6

RT GOSDER CHERILUS

G 12

SACKS 2

HOLD 2

FALSE 0

RB MAURICE MORRIS

ATT 90

YARDS 336

REC 25

TTD 5

WR TITUS YOUNG (R)

REC 71

YARDS 1,215

AVG 17.1

TTD 10

DEFENSE

2010 Rank: 21

DE CLIFF AVRIL

TACKLES 32

SACKS 8½

INT 0

DT NDAMUKONG SUH

TACKLES 66

SACKS 10

INT 1

DT COREY WILLIAMS

TACKLES 37

SACKS 2

INT 1

DE KYLE VANDEN BOSCH

TACKLES 49

SACKS 4

INT 0

LB DEANDRE LEVY

TACKLES 72

SACKS 0

INT 2

LB STEPHEN TULLOCH

TACKLES 160

SACKS 1

INT 1

LB Justin Durant

TACKLES 55

SACKS 0

INT 0

CB Eric Wright

TACKLES 42

SACKS 0

INT 1

SS AMARI SPIEVEY

TACKLES 46

SACKS 0

INT 2

FS LOUIS DELMAS

TACKLES 84

SACKS 2

INT 0

CB CHRIS HOUSTON

TACKLES 54

SACKS 0

INT 1

DB NATHAN VASHER

TACKLES 17

SACKS 0

INT 1

SPECIALISTS

K JASON HANSON

FG 12

FGA 14

XP 19

PTS 55

P NICK HARRIS

PUNTS 90

GROSS 44.6

NET 35.8

BOLD: Projected starter

Italics:New acquisition

(R) Rookie: College stats

TTD: Total touchdowns

OFFENSIVE LINEMEN

SACKS: Sacks allowed

HOLD: Holding penalties

FALSE: False starts

2011 SCHEDULE

2010 RECORD: 6--10

September

11 at Tampa Bay

18 Kansas City

25 at Minnesota

October

2 at Dallas

10 Chicago (Mon)

16 San Francisco

23 Atlanta

30 at Denver

November

6 BYE

13 at Chicago

20 Carolina

24 Green Bay (Thu)

December

4 at New Orleans

11 Minnesota

18 at Oakland

24 San Diego (Sat)

January

1 at Green Bay

COACH: JIM SCHWARTZ

AGE: 45

THIRD SEASON WITH THE LIONS (8--24)

The former Titans defensive coordinator has used his own blueprint to remake the Lions' D, beginning with a strong front that has backups who can provide almost as much pressure as the starters. Schwartz's plan still needs some refining, but after a four-game winning streak to end last season, the troops at Ford Field are confident he knows what he's doing.

SPOTLIGHT

ERIC WRIGHT, Cornerback

The Lions are gambling, and gambling big, that increased pressure from an improved front seven—including rookie tackle Nick Fairley, on the mend from surgery for a stress fracture in his left foot, and middle linebacker Stephen Tulloch, formerly of the Titans—will make up for their shortcomings in the secondary. Rather than seriously enter the bidding for a high-profile cornerback, Detroit reached toward the bottom of the free-agent barrel and signed Wright to a one-year, $2 million contract. (The Lions did pursue the Bengals' Johnathan Joseph but weren't close to matching the Texans' five-year, $48.75 million deal, with $23.5 million guaranteed.)

A four-year starter in Cleveland, Wright was yanked for poor play by coach Eric Mangini last December and now hopes to rebuild his career in Detroit. He's not alone. The Lions are banking that a handful of corners who failed elsewhere—Wright, Chris Houston (Atlanta), Alphonso Smith (Denver), Nathan Vasher (Chicago)—can form an adequate group. There's plenty of focus on Matthew Stafford's health in Detroit, but there's cause for concern on the other side of the ball. If the Lions are going to make the playoffs for the first time since 1999, they're going to have to do it with one of the worst crops of corners in the league.

PHOTOTOM DIPACE (SCHWARTZ) PHOTODAVIE E. KLUTHO (STAFFORD)BACK IN BLUE Whle Stafford (9) vows not to ratchet back his style to avoid injury, Schwartz says that an improved defense will allow the QB to take fewer risks. PHOTOJOHN BIEVER (WRIGHT)

HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
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HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
IN
Eagle (-2)
Birdie (-1)
Bogey (+1)
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