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2008 Season Preview: Detroit Lions
Jeff Risdon. 27th August, 2008 - 1:14 pm

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Last Season: 7-9, 3rd in NFC North, -1 turnover ratio, -98 point differential

Additions: CB Leigh Bodden, S Dwight Smith, CB Brian Kelly, DT Chuck Darby, TE Michael Gaines, S Kalvin Pearson

Subtractions: DT Shaun Rogers, RB Kevin Jones, CB Fernando Bryant, LB Boss Bailey, DE Kalimba Edwards, RB TJ Duckett, OL Damien Woody, S Kenoy Kennedy, QB JT O?Sullivan

Rookies of Note: RB Kevin Smith, LB Jordon Dizon, T Gosder Cherilus, DT Andre Fluellen

What I like

Offense: The best offseason move for the Lions was the much-warranted firing of Offensive Coordinator Mike Martz, who has been replaced by Jim Coletto. Martz is a creative wizard who formulated a potent passing offense, but his high risk/reward schemes and baffling play selections made him a poor fit for what Head Coach Rod Marinelli is trying to accomplish. The biggest beneficiaries of the change will be the linemen, a group of limited ability asked to do far too much in Martz?s complex offense. First round rookie Gosder Cherilus will start at RT from Day One, and the Lions feel they?ve solved the revolving door that has plagued that position in recent years. He excels at run blocking and loves to get down and dirty, which will endear him to Marinelli and a fan base tired of seeing their linemen wind up with clean knees and dirty butts. C Dominic Raiola should thrive in Coletto?s simplified power blocking scheme, and last year?s rookie G Manuel Ramirez fits the Coletto mold well. Perhaps the biggest OL beneficiary of the new offensive system is LG Edwin Mulitalo, a downright nasty run blocker who can handle bulky tackles as well as anyone.

QB Jon Kitna will also benefit although his fantasy rating might take a hit. After taking a beating under Martz?s complex passing system, the move to a more traditional offense should bring out the best in the cagey veteran. Having freedom to check out of plays and make more simple reads will play to Kitna?s advantage. His arm strength remains top notch, and despite his advancing age, Kitna can still buy time with his legs. Getting some play action opportunities will be a welcome addition to the Detroit arsenal as well. The team rallies around Kitna?s toughness and energy, and his selfless dedication is precisely the example that Marinelli desires.

The weaponry is certainly there for Kitna; the Lions boast the best 1-4 WR corps in the league. Roy Williams is the de facto #1, even though his increasingly frequent concentration lapses and preference for running shorter routes keep him from being thought of as an elite wideout. His size and willingness to use it over the middle, coupled with impeccable footwork, made Williams into a Pro Bowl caliber player, and the simplified route trees and threat of the run should get Williams back to that level after a down 2007. Calvin Johnson is healthy, and that spells doom for DB's. His package of size, speed, hands, and balance make him a nightmare matchup. Every Lions observer I?ve spoken to, as well as those from opposing teams, tells me Johnson has looked amazing in the offseason and will quickly justify being the #2 overall draft pick in the 2007 draft. Most teams struggle to cover those two, and then the Lions have the ability to unleash both Shaun McDonald and Mike Furrey on the defense. McDonald led the team in catches last season and works great in the slot. He?s a less physical version of Wes Welker. Furrey led the NFC in catches in 2006 and is the type of sure-handed possession receiver every team needs. He is faster than people expect and runs outstanding routes for a guy who has only played the position for three years.

Defense: Coach Marinelli wants his charges to be a more physical, consistently aggressive group, and it looks like he finally has what he wants. WLB Ernie Sims is a hitting machine who has steadily improved his pursuit angles and ability to shed blocks. He even flashed a little heretofore unknown ability to drop into coverage. End Dewayne White earned his lucrative free agent contract by being a physical pass rusher off the edge. DT Corey Redding had a down year in 2007, but his strong play the prior two season at the 3-technique earned him the franchise tag. Expect a rebound to form, though his sack total probably won?t top 3. Paris Lenon has developed into a competent LB, very good at making tackles after receptions and in sniffing out screens and draws. Jared Devries is one of the underappreciated talents in the league, a high-motor DE who improved his footwork and figured out leverage about halfway through 2007. He?s a little old (32) to raise the bar any further, but if he plays in 2008 the way he played in the final 4-5 games of 2007 the right end position is solid. The Lions have a whole cadre of adequate pluggers (Chuck Darby, Shaun Cody, Langston Moore) and speedy young pass rushers (Ikaika Alama-Francis, showing great progress after a wasted rookie year, Corey Smith, Coach Marinelli favorite rookie Andre Fluellen) that the DL shouldn?t get pushed around as much as in past years.

Ugrading the secondary was an obvious priority to anyone who watched the Lions in 2007, and Matt Millen did just that by trading for Leigh Bodden and signing Brian Kelly. Those two will start at CB and both are big steps up in talent and consistency. Second-year safety Gerald Alexander has been one of the surprise standouts in camp and preseason, building on the lumps he took as a rookie. Bringing in Dwight Smith, like Kelly another former Buc, to be the other starting safety gives the Lions a credible starting secondary with lots of range and some ball skills. Keith Smith fits well as a nickel back so long as he gets deep outside help, which Dwight Smith can provide a lot better than departed Kenoy Kennedy. It?s not a great secondary by any means, but it?s a group that isn?t going to cost the Lions games as it has the past few seasons. With the real iffy QB play in the NFC North, where the best opposing QB they face is, uh, hmmm, the tallest short straw, the strong run support ability of Kelly and Dwight Smith more than makes up for any coverage inadequacies.

Kicker Jason Hanson remains the most consistently impressive Lion in the post-Barry Sanders era. His leg strength remains above average, his kickoffs sail deep, and his accuracy is still excellent. He is nursing a leg injury in preseason that bears watching, though Dave Raymer has filled in nicely. The Lions have been greatly successful at blocking kicks, though the departed Rogers is the king of that freakish talent.

What I dislike

Offense: The biggest question is at RB. I really like rookie Kevin Smith, but he?s making a huge leap from non-BCS college football to the NFC North. His running style reminds some of Clinton Portis, others of Corey Dillon in his prime, and he has realistic potential to lead all rookie rushers in both yards and TDs. He also is a guy who will be prone to 8-carry, 11-yard quarters. The team tried to give away Tatum Bell, but nobody wanted him, so the RB battle is between an unproven, often stiff-running 3rd round rookie and a disgruntled, underachieving ?power? back that runs soft and fumbles too much. Colossal waste of a draft pick Brian Calhoun has one last chance to prove himself, though he probably won?t beat out plucky Aveion Cason for the 3rd down back role. Running behind a tough line with a more focused, coherent gameplan will help whoever totes the rock, but RB is a major question mark.

The offensive line will be better, but it?s still far from a strength. LT Jeff Backus doesn?t deserve all the grief he takes from Lions fans, but he is in the lower echelon of starting left tackles. He fares particularly poorly against 3-4 fronts, where he is responsible for picking an assignment rather than knowing his enemy. Cherilus will start right away on the other side, a tall order for a rookie, though I think Lions fans will learn to love him quickly. RG Stephen Peterman is a pretty solid run blocker, but teams exploited the duo of Peterman and Raiola up the gut regularly with stunts, blitzes, and shifts. Watching Raiola try to slow down Tommie Harris, Kevin Williams, or Cornelius Griffin last season was not pretty for Lions fans. The tight ends are an underwhelming lot, though a healthy return from Mark Campbell will at least provide added punch in the passing game.

For all the aforementioned positives that Jon Kitna brings to the team, opponents have figured out how to exploit his negatives. Chief among them is ball security; Kitna never throws the ball away and often forces some truly awful throws when on the move. His hyper-emotional reactions to miscues have a nasty habit of carrying over into the huddle, destroying confidence and breeding contempt. Touch on shorter passes is not a Kitna trademark either. But he absolutely has to remain healthy, because the other options are not pretty. Drew Stanton missed his rookie year with injury in a move that many team observers called an IR stash. Stanton comes from a spread passing attack where if option #1 was covered, he took off. He must improve his accuracy, decision-making, and patience before he exits the ranks of ?5 worst backup QBs?. 3rd stringer Dan Orlovsky has held that role for years now; he?s one of those guys who isn?t good enough to play but shows just enough to not get cut. At this point in the preseason, Orlovsky has rocketed past Stanton, which says more about Stanton?s inability than anything.

Then there is the schematics issue. The team has great talent and depth at WR and a strong-armed QB to deliver it in Kitna. In spite of those assets, the team appears hellbent on installing a bludgeoning run game behind the shaky OL with major questions at RB, not to mention perhaps the weakest collection of FBs and TEs in the league. You win by playing to your strengths, not by attacking with your weaknesses. There absolutely has to be a greater commitment to the run than under Martz, but this team has the personnel to carve up defenses via the air. Finding that balance will be a major key for the Lions success in 2008 and beyond.

Defense: The Lions had one true difference maker on defense, and they dealt Shaun Rogers away. When in shape and motivated, Rogers is absolutely dominating and unblockable even by double teams. That usually lasted until about mid-October, after which his lack of conditioning and knee problems would limit him to less-effective spot duty. Even so, his massive presence on the interior DL will be missed. If DT Corey Redding cannot rebound from a subpar 2007, what was the strength of the team the past few years will be a costly liability. The rest of the interior linemen are led by import Chuck Darby, nearing the end of a long and largely anonymous career, and rookie Andre Fluellen, who often looked dominant at Florida State when he wasn?t babying minor injuries or eating too many doughnuts.

Detroit employs the Tampa 2 coverage scheme as its base defense. To make that work effectively, the front four has to generate consistent pressure without benefit of the blitz. In 2007 when Dewayne White was healthy, he was the edge rusher the team believed they were getting in free agency. Once he was slowed and Rogers lost his legs, the defense collapsed, getting little pressure on the QB and allowing large chunks of yards up the gut on the run. I gushed over Jared Devries above, but his pressures are often those where he gets to the QB just as the follow through is finished. The Lions have toyed with some zone blitzing this preseason and looked good doing so, but I?ll believe that tactic when I see it in games that actually count.

The linebackers have to play better. As good as Sims is, he doesn?t force many turnovers or instigate much contact at or behind the line of scrimmage. Paris Lenon makes most of his plays 8-10 yards down the field and spends more time on his butt during run plays than any NFL starter has a right to be down. Extremely undersized rookie Jordon Dizon will be the other starter. He has looked good thus far and shined at the Senior Bowl, but he?s another read-and-react LB, not an attacker who will make plays in the backfield or force lots of turnovers. There is no depth that belongs on the field behind them, so Dizon must learn on the job quickly.

Best Case: The DL and special teams play the way they did during the 6-2 start in 2007; the passing offense plays to its potential, with the increased rushing attack removing some of the burden; the young talent on defense gels and shows the toughness and speed Coach Marinelli craves. The schedule makers provided the Lions an opportunity for another strong start, and if they can stay healthy and focused, the momentum just might carry them to 9 wins and a legit shot at a Wild Card berth.

Worst Case: The offense can?t consistently move the ball and finish drives often enough to cover for the pervasive weaknesses on defense; the running game remains a running joke, and the coaches alienate the talent at WR by sticking to the ineffective run too long; the linebackers don?t start making plays behind a line that isn?t as dynamic as it needs to be.

Bellwether Games: Weeks 5 and 6 will likely sort out the Lions place in the NFC North. The team comes out of its bye hosting Chicago, then visiting Minnesota. There is a fair chance the Lions will be 2-1 or even 3-0 entering this stretch, and beating their division rivals just might show these Lions are for real. But if the Lions lose both, it?s another S.O.S. season under Millen. The schedule gets progressively rougher as the season progresses, so if the Lions aren?t 3-2 or better after the MIN game, they might not top 5 wins.

Prediction: This team has the best chance of any Lions team this century to break through and win more than 8 games and secure a playoff berth. Of course, these are the Lions and this long-time Lions fan (my #20 Lions jersey says ?Sims? and it isn?t a throwback) knows better. Expect two or three games where the Lions look dominant, a handful of gut-wrenching close games, and a handful of games where you wonder what they?re doing in the NFL. I would love nothing more than to be proven wrong, but as Detroit great Chuck Daly once opined, ?A pessimist is an optimist with experience.? The forecast is for a 6-10 finish, fighting with the Bears for 3rd in the NFC North.

Jeff.Risdon@RealGM.com