Black & Blue Review

The Detroit Lions are apt to run a very aggressive defense, while the Packers have been trying to buy their way to a better defense. In Minnesota, despite off-season acquisitions there are questions about the defense.

Ask Donnie Henderson how aggressive he will be as the Lions' new defensive coordinator and there's a good chance he'll roll his eyes, get a silly grin on his face and shake his head.

"Me?" he's likely to ask. "Who told you anything like that?"

The fact is Henderson — with the approval of head coach Rod Marinelli — is likely to run the most aggressive defense the Lions have seen in years, possibly since the days of Alex Karras and Joe Schmidt in the 1960s.

Henderson wants to find ways to get after the quarterback, even though the Lions are not blessed with a marquee pass rusher, and Marinelli's influence is almost certain to be seen on the defensive line, the area he developed as a position coach at Tampa Bay before being hired as the Lions' head coach in January.

The Lions will have a number of changes in their defense — a shakeup in the linebackers with Boss Bailey expected to surface at middle linebacker, the departure of defensive tackle Dan Wilkinson with Shaun Cody considered the heir apparent, the arrival of first-round draft pick Ernie Sims who some have compared favorably to a young Derrick Brooks, and a new look in the secondary with Fernando Bryant back to full health.

Bailey has battled injuries during his first three NFL seasons, but Henderson likes his speed and athletic ability, and will probably move Bailey from the Sam position to the Mike.

Wilkinson apparently isn't ready to hang up his cleats after 12 NFL seasons but had reservations about starting over with a new, gung-ho coaching staff. So the Lions released him, clearing the way for the younger, more active Cody to step into full-time duty.

The secondary will certainly be younger than it was a year ago with the departure of R.W. McQuarters and Andre Goodman during free agency. Bryant is likely to join Dre' Bly as the starting cornerbacks and two youngsters — Keith Smith and Stanley Wilson — will be expected to move into nickel and dime roles.

The biggest influence on the defense, however, is at the top with Marinelli and Henderson.

"It reminds me of my first couple years in the league with (Tom) Coughlin," Bryant said. "The pace and the intensity and the coaching that you're getting is remarkable. It's in your face, what you're supposed to do, no exceptions. No mistakes are tolerated. It's good."

QUOTE TO NOTE: "I think the fact we stunk it up the last five years might have something to do with it." - Fullback Cory Schlesinger explaining why most of the Lions players have bought into the aggressive, disciplined approach of coach Rod Marinelli and his staff

There was no mistaking the off-season focus of general manager Ted Thompson, who didn't rest on the laurels of a Packers defense that ranked first against the pass and seventh for total yards last season.

He committed potential earnings of more than $60 million to nab three starters in free agency and made another sizable investment in taking linebacker A.J. Hawk with the No. 5 overall pick in the draft. The Packers could have at least five new starters.

Hawk's arrival came on the heels of Thompson completing his free-agent dealings with the signing of four-time Pro Bowl cornerback Charles Woodson to a seven-year, $39 million deal. Woodson, provided he can dodge his susceptibility to injury, stands to make more than $10 million this year and will team with Al Harris to give the Packers one of the top shutdown tandems.

Throw in Marquand Manuel, a productive safety in Seattle's run to the Super Bowl last season, and the secondary is the strength of the defense. Manuel has unseated the pedestrian Mark Roman at strong safety and will be counted on to bring a hard-hitting mentality that has escaped the defense in recent years.

Ryan Pickett was an enforcer up front for St. Louis in 2005, so much that the Packers meted out a four-year, $14 million contract in tapping the former first-round draft pick as the aging Grady Jackson's replacement at nose tackle. Though not nearly as heavy as Jackson, Pickett is beset by weight issues and admitted he had to shed 10 pounds by training camp to come down from 325.

Although Woodson gives the defense a star presence that had been lacking, the reshaped linebacker corps is where the appeal lies.

Middle linebacker Nick Barnett, the defensive leader last season, is the lone returning starter after veterans Na'il Diggs and Robert Thomas were released. Hawk, and his reckless abandon, will start from the get-go on the weak side, giving the Packers two young cornerstones at linebacker around whom to build for the future. If not a third with third-round draftee Abdul Hodge, who will be Barnett's understudy for the time being. Ben Taylor, meanwhile, was a free-agent addition by way of Cleveland who has taken hold of the starting spot on the strong side.

Thompson turned to Canada to try to resolve the team's punting woes, and Jon Ryan has been as good as advertised. The deep-hitting Ryan distanced himself from incumbent B.J. Sander in off-season workouts.

QUOTE TO NOTE: "You never know when your body is going to give out. I've been so fortunate after 15 years, this will be 16, that I've been able to play every game. You figure it's just a matter of time before something gives out. It's like driving a car — eventually, you're going to have a blowout. I don't want that to happen. I've had a lot of success. I don't need to play. I'm playing because I like to play; I love the game." — Quarterback Brett Favre while he was in Chicago on June 27 to shoot a commercial for Sensodyne toothpaste.

The Vikings' early splurge into free agency netted them a new starter at strong-side linebacker.

Ben Leber, limited to nine games last season with San Diego because of a foot injury, is considered a good fit for the pass rushing and coverage skills needed in the version of the Cover-2 defense the Vikings will employ.

The Vikings wanted to be cautious with Leber's foot injury early on and limited him during a pre-draft minicamp in April. But he has appeared to be going full speed the past two months.

Other than Leber, the Vikings' linebacker group still has plenty of question marks.

First-round pick Chad Greenway, who like Leber is a native of South Dakota, could end up starting on the weak side if he picks up things quickly. Right now, Leber and E.J. Henderson are the starters at the strong and weak side, respectively.

That leaves Napoleon Harris -- a major disappointment after being acquired from Oakland in the Randy Moss trade last year -- and Dontarrious Thomas as candidates to start in the middle. If Harris and Thomas struggle, Leber and Greenway could wind up starting on the outside, with Henderson in the middle.

The Vikings don't have nearly as many question marks, or potential changes, on the front and back ends.

The only significant addition to the line is DeQuincy Scott, also a free agent from San Diego. Scott likely will serve as the backup to Erasmus James at right end, taking the place of Lance Johnstone (Oakland).

In the secondary, Tank Williams left Tennessee to take Corey Chavous' place as the starting strong safety. Chavous signed with St. Louis.

The 6-foot-3, 223-pound Williams, whose 2004 season was cut short after nine starts when he tore the anterior cruciate ligament in his left knee, was third on the Titans with 83 tackles last season and will provide a hard-hitting presence in the secondary.

QUOTE TO NOTE: "Football is played in pads. We've got some shorts All-Americans out here and we'll see if they can play with those hats on come a month or so." -- Defensive coordinator Mike Tomlin, who is looking forward to training camp.

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