John Crist: The Lions look to have a great deal of talent at the skill positions on offense, with Matthew Stafford having a cannon for a right arm, Jahvid Best possessing game-breaking ability and Calvin Johnson providing a matchup nightmare for any defensive back. But as Bears fans are learning, none of that matters if you can't block anybody. How is the offensive line coming together in the Motor City right now?
Nate Caminata: The only thing that probably impressed Detroit's coaching staff and fans more than Stafford's arm in the preseason was the pocket in which he as able to throw. Granted, it's exhibition, and opponents will ensure that the gunslinger doesn't have all day to pick and choose which weapon he wants to use, but the Lions offensive front appears vastly improved from one season ago. Most of that credit should be heaved upon Rob Sims, who the Lions acquired at a bargain price from Seattle. He gives Detroit what it has lacked for the better part of a decade – a solid guard – and really helps anchor the unit. Jeff Backus, Detroit's starting left tackle, has improved via that affiliation.
Gosder Cherilus won the starting right tackle gig outright, and while the jury might still be out on him – he is, of course, a Matt Millen selection – he has made a strong case for himself in the past two weeks. There are improvements still to be made, but consider this unit solid at the moment, which will go a long way in protecting the team's investment under center.
JC: While coach Jim Schwartz has gone out of his way to put his stamp on the Detroit defense, the fact remains that this team really hasn't stopped anybody for quite some time. First-round pick Ndamukong Suh has been labeled as a can't-miss player and maybe the best defensive tackle prospect to come along in a decade. Is the future of Schwartz's D going to hinge on the development of Suh?
NC: I don't think it necessarily hinges on Suh, but he's certainly a big part of the future in Detroit. Suh has been simply dominant, and there may or may not be a warrant out for his arrest in Cleveland for his assault on Jake Delhomme earlier in the preseason. However, the Lions have a young, talented middle linebacker in DeAndre Levy, a leader and fiery safety in Louis Delmas and additional talent across the defensive line in Corey Williams, Cliff Avril and Kyle Vanden Bosch. They'll be excellent in the trenches, and while the linebacking core is questionable, it's enigmatic enough to provide potential and hope.
The only hang up lies within the secondary, which was torched in 2009 by just about every opposing quarterback and will continue to struggle in 2010. Detroit will rely upon Suh and Co. to make up for those shortcomings.
JC: Although not nearly as advertised, the Lions have also had their fair share of problems on special teams, specifically on the coverage units. Is there any reason to assume this club will be able to shut down some of the better return men in the game and give the other two phases better field position? Also, is there a kick or punt returner capable of going the distance and delivering that lightning-strike TD?
NC: Detroit made a wise move when they dumped Stan Kwan in favor of ex-Panthers special teams coordinator Danny Crossman in the offseason. And through roster attrition, the special-teams unit has been upgraded as a result.
They signed Isaiah Ekejiuba from the Raiders, a special-teams ace, and recently picked up 5-6 return man Stefan Logan to handle punt-return duties. Logan did well enough in Pittsburgh last season to break the team's single-season mark for return yards. While they no longer feature the every-kickoff threat like the days of Mel Gray, Desmond Howard or Eddie Drummond, the result of these moves has been a more confident, speedy and capable unit.
JC: Who is the one player in each phase of the game – offense, defense and special teams – Detroit can least afford to lose this season?
NC: Stafford on offense, for obvious reasons that apply to most ballclubs. He's the clear, unquestioned leader of the team and being relied upon to terrorize defensive backfields in 2010.
Defensively, the Lions cannot afford to lose Delmas, because he's the glue holding an already precarious secondary together. Levy is a close second given the importance of the middle linebacker position in Detroit's 4-3 defense.
On special teams, I'm not sure any one particular player would be horribly damaging to lose, but kicker Jason Hanson has always been a reliable safety valve and one they've depended on for well over a decade. That won't change this season, either.
JC: The Lions are coming off a 2-14 showing, plus they authored the only 0-16 campaign in NFL history the season before that. There is certainly reason for optimism, mostly because they appear to have the most important component for success in this league: a franchise QB. Still, realistically, how much better is this team going to be and how many wins is a reasonable expectation?
NC: Other than gaining experience, there isn't much more the Lions can do to improve the offense. Stafford has major talent at absolutely every skill position, including tight end and running back – it denotes progress when I've written this much WITHOUT mentioning Johnson – and he will move the football with the type of ease that will turn heads. He's just that good. Defensively, the Lions have a potentially dominant defensive line that is both skilled and deep, anchored by Suh and Williams, who pair with solid defensive ends in Vanden Bosch and Avril. However, the Achilles' heel, as it was last year, remains in the secondary.
Because of the paradox between Stafford's offense and the defensive backfield, expect to see the Lions in many shootouts. But now they have the offense to make a game of it. I don't think it's unreasonable to predict between five and seven wins for the Lions, and I'm leaning towards the latter of that prognostication.
Be on the lookout for Part II of this Behind Enemy Lines series, where John answers five questions from Nate, on Thursday.
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