ALLEN PARK -- During the 2011 offseaon, the Detroit Lions spent significant resources upgrading their defense.
The rebuilding process has been underway for years, during which time the defense had seemed to only represent a red carpet, leading opposing offenses towards the end zone.
Last year was the first time since 2005 the Lions hadn’t finished ranked in the league’s bottom 10 for total defense. In fact, the Lions had spent four consecutive seasons ranked as one of the NFL’s three worst defenses, including three straight campaigns as the worst.
In 2010 the Lions took a leap in the right direction. Through defensive line-led dominance, the team moved its rank from 32nd to 21st – a substantial leap, despite the fact that they still finished in the league’s bottom half.
The problems were obvious: the team had major deficiencies in the back seven.
The Lions addressed those deficiencies by adding two new starting linebackers (Justin Durant and Stephen Tulloch) and a starting cornerback in former Browns' DB Eric Wright.
The linebacker unit has been particularly renovated. Last year the unit consisted of players such as Landon Johnson, Julian Peterson and Zack Follett.
None of the three are currently on an NFL roster. Something that head coach Jim Schwartz would rather forget, while focusing on the improvements that have been made.
“Thanks for reminding me on that, said Schwartz. “We’re much improved in that position. We have players that fit the scheme, we have a lot more speed at that position and we have multi-dimensional players. We can use all those guys in a lot of different roles.”
The Lions have spent the shortened offseason building chemistry amongst the defensive new comers.
They will have no more time to prepare as Week One will mark an immediate test.
“You talk about the running back and quarterback and we haven’t mentioned Kellen Winslow yet,” said Schwartz. “(He’s) one of the best tight end receivers in the National Football League and a very key part of their offense, particularly on third down… we have our work cut out for us in a lot of ways.”
Another player the Lions will focus on stopping is running back LeGarrette Blount. Last year the Lions defense struggled to bring the bruising back to the ground on first contact, as he seemed to leave a trail of broken tackles behind on his way to 110 rushing yards and a score despite only 15 carries.
“He averaged 5.0 yards a carry last year,” said Schwartz of Blount. “We had something to do with that last year, because we had a couple (plays) where we couldn’t get him on the ground and he made some plays on us.”
It’s not just Blount the Lions need to focus on getting to the ground, as quarterback Josh Freeman is a strong passer with the ability to escape pressure.
“I think we had about four or five times that we couldn’t finish plays to get him on the ground,” said Schwartz, referring to some missed sack opportunities during last season’s Week 15 matchup. “We did a good job rushing, we did a good job blitzing or covering or one of those things, and he was able to buy time and sort of shake our guys off. We need to play good team defense against all their players, not just those two, but particularly those two.”
The Lions have spent an offseason upgrading, adjusting and preparing their defense. On Sunday afternoon, all of their work will be put to the test.
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