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2012 NFL Season Preview

CBSSports.com Staff
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By Jason La Canfora | CBS Sports NFL Insider

Offense

Matt Stafford threw for bleeping 5,000 yards, people, that pretty much says it all. The Lions were a team that could score in bunches and score quickly and were seemingly never out of a game. The connection of Stafford to Calvin Johnson became as feared as any in the NFL. Don't expect that to change anytime soon.

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Brandon Pettigrew is going to start to be mentioned along with Rob Growkowski and Jimmy Graham as part of this new era of dominating young tight ends. This passing attack is as dynamic as any in the game and the offensive line, though not great, was good enough to finally keep Stafford upright for a prolonged period of time.

If you have a young franchise quarterback, then you are going to be a contender and the Lions brass, GM Martin Mayhew and coach Jim Schwartz in particular, must be applauded for completely changing the persona of this franchise and digging out of the long malaise that hung over Detroit and the Ford Family for so long. This team plays an exciting brand of football and, should they get anything substantial and sustained out of the running game this season, there is no reason to believe they won't be even better on this side of the ball in 2012.

Defense

The Lions will live and die with the pass rush. If they can get the Ndamukong Suh of 2010, that would go a long way to elevating everything else. Suh did not make the same impact and his temper issues dwarfed his on-field accomplishments. Call it a sophomore slump, but he has too much talent and works too hard not to be more of an impact player on a consistent basis in this upcoming season.

Getting Cliff Avril locked up long-term is the other vital piece of business along the defensive line. Having a multitude of pass rushing options, many of which are versatile and can move around, is what the Lions are all about. Coordinator Gunther Cunningham gets that part of the game as well as anyone, and perhaps he needs to dole out a little more tough love with this bunch in 2012 to get the discipline, on field and off, where it needs to be.

Reckless penalties, and a growing reputation as the new age Bad Boys of Motown, won't do the club any favors. As they continue to look to stabilize in the secondary and at linebacker, the leaders along the defensive line must be the unit's biggest strength. Getting another stellar year out of linebacker Stephen Tulloch would help, too. And the corners will likely be under fire. Detroit is demanding better play on the back end, where they were vulnerable and flat out awful at times (as anyone watching Matt Flynn's exploits at the end of the season could attest to).

Key Changes

Roster Additions: DE Everette Brown, RB Joique Bell

Roster Departures: CB Eric Wright, QB Drew Stanton, RB Aaron Brown

Staff: No major changes.

The Lions have reached a stage where the biggest transactions they could possibly make are by locking up their young core long-term. Thus, getting Calvin Johnson signed for seemingly the rest of his career, and creating a little cap space in the process, was the primary objective of this offseason. It's a process that must continue as Detroit searches for that first Super Bowl title.

The biggest loss is Wright, someone who his peers around the league always believed had some elite coverage skills. He finally put it all together in 2010 for Detroit, but the Lions, again, facing a cap crunch, could not manage to keep him from signing a fat free-agent deal with the Bucs.

Many fans would have wanted to see more money thrown at the corner position, but that wasn't going to be possible in this particular offseason with the cap so stagnant. It's an area the team will continue to try to address, and the Lions were very actively exploring trades to get an elite corner in the draft, but it couldn't come together. Third-round pick Dwight Bentley will get a good look this summer.

Running back is the other area to watch. The Lions have kept an eye on Ryan Grant along with a few other more noteworthy free agent running backs, realizing they may need to still scoop up a veteran due to some injury concerns at the position, or just a lack of production. It's been something of a revolving door for them at the position and I suppose that might not change for a while. Which brings us to ...

X-Factor: Health

Stafford needs to keep this going. Without him everything falls apart and the first two years of his career were filled with more pain than glory. RB Jahvid Best has had serious concussions already in his brief career and that will be an ongoing saga given the brutal nature of this sport. RB Mikel Leshoure missed all of 2011, his rookie year, due to injury, and how quickly will he be 100 percent?

You would tend to think the law of averages would swing in Detroit's favor, but you just never know. Tackle Jeff Backus isn't getting any younger and he's had health issues of his own. You're talking about some seriously critical offensive positions that have fallen prey to some bad luck on the injury front and with teams like Green Bay and Chicago regulars on the schedule, with the pass rush issues they present, protection will always be paramount for the Lions as long as Stafford is under center.

Lions gone wild

The Lions have had a brutal offseason. Titus Young is getting in fights with teammates, guys are getting arrested in bunches for drug issues or DUI, as in the case of Nick Fairley, and Suh comes into 2012 as someone already with a suspension history. The uncertainty of who will get suspended when is very real, and the Lions aren't far enough along in their rebuilt program to be ready to withstand continued distractions and issues such as these. They already know Leshoure is out for two games for his offenses.

Schwartz and his staff must find a way to curb this kind of behavior now, and even Schwartz himself will be watched closely after the run-in with Jim Harbaugh following a loss to the 49ers last season. The league office sees all and the Lions know that a locker room filled with burgeoning character issues (most of the infractions have involved their younger players) is not conducive to maintaining a level of success.

Do the right thing

So, we've well chronicled the off-field issues of the young Lions. Now they need more from their recent draft picks on the field as well. Nick Fairley won't get another pass. Leshoure and Best have to avoid injury and add a thunder and lightning element to the run game. They need youngsters to emerge to upgrade an iffy secondary. This year's first-round pick; Riley Reiff, is he a tackle (which the Lions need) or does he end up playing more guard at this level? The influx of talent must continue and the bulk of their last few draft classes need to be known more for what they're doing on the field, and less for missteps and injuries.

Don't believe the hype

Schwartz worked tirelessly last season to instill in his team that idea that they haven't accomplished much of anything yet. It would be easy to have this fleeting success go to a young team's head, considering the depth the Lions have climbed out of.

But this league is designed, through the draft and scheduling procedures and revenue sharing to propagate parity, and it's not easy to keep piling up the playoff appearances year after year. The Lions can't afford a dose of complacency to seep in, not now. That will remain the coaching staff's mantra, and how quickly this young and at times troubled group of players takes to it, and the momentum that carry into 2012, could prove to be a big part of the story of their season.

Insider's Take

"I'm buying the Lions, they're a good young team ... but I'm just not sold they'll be able to duplicate what they did last year. They're headed in the right direction but sometimes you have to take a small step back as you continue to try to move forward.

"You have to look at their psyche -- this is a young team with a young coach coming off an offseason filled with all kinds of arrests and problems, and that all of a sudden has to deal with some expectations. They have dominant players on offense, but the defense isn't special, especially once you get past the line. The linebackers are okay and I still have concerns about how they'll hold up on the back end."

Xs and Os

By Pat Kirwan | NFL Insider

The Lions went from the most embarrassing 0-16 team in NFL history back in 2008 to a legitimate playoff team this past season, and it happened because of a quarterback, a wide receiver that beats double coverage and a defense.

Lions' Rivals: NFC North

2012 Preview • Schedule
Bears @ Lions: 12/30 (1 p.m. ET)
Lions @ Bears: 10/22 (8:30 p.m. ET)

2012 Preview • Schedule
Packers @ Lions: 11/18 (1 p.m. ET)
Lions @ Packers: 12/9 (8:20 p.m. ET)

2012 Preview • Schedule
Vikings @ Lions: 9/30 (1 p.m. ET)
Lions @ Vikings: 11/11 (1 p.m. ET)

They lost their running backs last year and OC Scott Linehan went right to the pass. The Lions called more pass plays than any other team in the NFL. In fact the Lions finished the season 33.6 percent run and 66.4 percent pass. Detroit would like to run more and will do so if the running backs stay healthy.

The Lions like 12 personnel with 1 RB, 2 TE, and 2 WR. Brandon Pettigrew and Tony Scheffler are the two tight ends, and they caught 109 passes last year. Look for more 11 personnel this year with WR Titus Young in for Scheffler and a healthy Jahvid Best in the backfield or motioning to an empty set. QB Matthew Stafford loves the shotgun set for the run and the pass game. Stafford threw 13 touchdown passes in his six division games without a real run threat to keep the defense honest. The Lions' offensive line struggled to protect Stafford, especially in division games where he was sacked 15 times, and 10 of those 15 were against the Vikings. Detroit was 5-1 when Best was healthy because of the conflicts he presented as a runner and receiver. Best was on pace for 72 receptions for the season last year and will be a big factor this year out of the backfield. When Best was on the field for the first five games, Calvin Johnson caught 36 passes and nine touchdowns. Detroit can't wait to get back to the classic conflicts Johnson and Best can create. I expect a lot more no-huddle spread from this offense in 2012.

The Detroit 4-3 defense is built to not have to blitz. The coaches expect the front four to get to the quarterback. Gunther Cunningham will stunt the front but he expects Cliff Avril, Ndamukong Suh, Corey Williams and Kyle Vanden Bosch to get to the QB. The front four accounted for 35 sacks last year and they should be even better in 2012.

One issue with the Lions' front four is they get off the ball and get upfield so well that they can be trap-blocked in the run game. The 49ers ran for 203 yards against Detroit last year and the Vikings had 401 on the ground in two games. Beyond the fact that the Lions rush the passer and still get seven in coverage is the fact that the defense can create turnovers.

Detroit's defense got the ball back 34 times and led the NFL in scoring off of turnovers. Detroit plays a lot of cover two, but spread sets that open up a tight end make them vulnerable because of their safety matchup with Amari Spievey.

Draft Recap

By Rob Rang | NFLDraftScout.com Senior Analyst

The Lions surprisingly waited until the third round of the draft to address their defense. Once general manager Martin Mayhew and co. turned their attention to this side of the ball, however, they stayed there, using each of their final six picks on defenders, including three on cornerbacks.

Lions Draft Analysis

The club's first two picks, however, left some scratching their heads.

Sources told me the Lions always recognized that their top draft-day priority was to protect the investment they'd made in quarterback Matthew Stafford. Former Iowa left tackle Riley Reiff's short arms may have been enough to push him down the board into Mayhew's lap at No. 23 overall, but his stellar technique, versatility and grit made him an attractive option to the Lions, who had been looking for a young talent capable of pushing incumbent starters Jeff Backus and Gosder Cherilus at left and right tackle.

The more polarizing selection was clearly Oklahoma wide receiver Ryan Broyles a round later. Broyles, the NCAA's career receptions leader despite a season-ending ACL injury last year, has a game built around his flexibility and burst out of his breaks as a short to intermediate route-runner. He also has terrific hands. Simply put, Broyles gains separation and catches the football, which is why some clubs graded him as the top slot receiver prospect in the 2012 draft.

The rest of the Lions' picks:

1st Round - No. 23 overall - Riley Reiff, OT, Iowa
2nd Round - No. 54 overall - Ryan Broyles, WR, Oklahoma
3rd Round - No. 85 overall - Dwight Bentley, CB, Louisiana-Lafayette
4th Round - No. 125 overall - Ronnell Lewis, OLB, Oklahoma
5th Round - No. 138 overall - Tahir Whitehead, OLB, Temple
5th Round - No. 148 overall - Chris Greenwood, CB, Albion
6th Round - No. 196 overall - Jonte Green, CB, New Mexico State
7th Round - No. 223 overall - Travis Lewis, OLB, Oklahoma

 
 
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