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The Infamous Five – Detroit Lions

August 7, 2010

Infamous Five, number 2 – Detroit Lions

2009 record – 2-14

It’s about time for some optimism in the Motor City, isn’t it? After decades without any playoff wins, one of the longest championship droughts in professional sports and, well, the Matt Millen era, fans in Detroit haven’t had a lot to cheer about (deja vu). After last year saw a step forward (admittedly a step forward from the worst season in the history of the NFL), a young nucleus of talent has emerged. If the Lions are going to improve, however, much work is still to be done.

Head coach Jim Schwartz and GM Martin Mayhew’s approach seems to owe a lot to the Millen days – namely, they wrote down every Millen transaction and tried to do the complete opposite.

The Lions draft history has been traditionally horrible, from Andre Ware to Mike Williams. But finally, it seems like the Lions have finally stumbled upon sensible draft practice: it’s a discovery which is sure to pay dividends. The first pick of the Mayhew era, QB Matthew Stafford, looked good in limited time last year, showing guts by throwing a game-winning TD pass with a dislocated shoulder and displaying the leadership and skill that made him such a prized asset coming out of Georgia. This year, the Lions traded back into the first round to grab running back Jahvid Best, who had an injury-plagued final year at California, but has the potential to be a home-run hitter at the next level. Add him to a backfield with bell-cow Kevin Smith and you have that oh-so-fashionable NFL commodity – the backfield committee.

In case you didn't know, Ndamukong Suh isn't a small man.

Schwartz, we all know, is a defensive guy. So when the Lions made Ndamukong Suh (name meaning ‘House of Daggers’ = awesome) the second overall pick in the draft, it was no big surprise. For all the rumblings about Russell Okung, Suh was always the pick and should shore up what has long been one of the worst run defenses in the league. Schwartz knows how to use a big, athletic D-tackle – just look at what he did with Albert Haynesworth in Tennessee.

Schwartz himself should also be much improved in 2010, having had a full season under his belt in his new role as head coach. He seems to have the measure of the organisation and the respect of his staff and team, two key features to most successful head coaches’ careers.

The Lions have really borne the brunt of some horrible records – the last three years combined offer a paltry 9 wins – but much of that also comes from playing in a tough division, and at least two of the Bears, Packers and Vikings almost always reach the playoffs. The last time Detroit won this division (1993), it was still called the NFC Central and the Buccaneers were in it: the Bucs have also won this division more recently than the Lions, despite not having played in it since the 2002 season.

Another painful Detroit memory of misplaced optimism. Irony factor high.

Looking at history, as is evident from the above, is a tremendously painful exercise for Lions fans. But it seems like they’re on the mend for the first time in a decade. Schwartz is trying to establish the run-first, power defense style of play he learned under Jeff Fisher in Nashville, and Mayhew’s savvy player acquisitions are cheap and un-flashy – Jon Jansen, Julian Peterson, etc. The Lions are trying to build through the draft, and only bring in outside talent if they can do so cheaply (see also: Tony Scheffler).

The problem facing the 2010 Lions will most likely be pass defense: when Favre returns, the QBs in the division are Cutler, Rodgers and Favre, a talented triumvirate. These three QBs threw for 14 TDs and just 1 INT (Aaron Rodgers in week 6) against the Lions a year ago. In such a pass-happy division, the Lions will need to markedly step up in the secondary. Emerging safety Louis Delmas has the tools, but starting corners Chris Houston and Eric King are big question marks, and no starting strong safety appears to have yet emerged.

Of course, with the burgeoning talent on offense – we have hitherto failed to mention the downright frightening ‘Megatron’ Johnson – some problems may well get covered up, but sooner or later the Lions’ defense is going to have to really improve. Schwartz will get the best out of his roster, but his defense on paper leaves a lot to be desired.

We’d be thrilled to see the Lions escape the NFC North basement because, frankly, it’s about time. However, with a really gruelling schedule (they play the NFC and AFC East, even games against the Rams and Bucs can’t make up for that) and a lot of uncertainty on the defensive depth chart, Lions fans might have to wait until 2011 to clamber out.

2011 prediction: 5-11

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