Inside the Game: Passing game must improve

Let's face it; you can't win in the NFL if you're 31st out of 32 teams in the passing game. You know that and I know that. Turns out, Steve Mariucci knows it too. Lions' insider Mike Fowler breaks down the Lions' offense, including quarterback Joey Harrington and the receiving core, and who needs to step up as the 2003 season approaches. In-depth analysis inside!

(ALLEN PARK) -- Let's face it; you can't win in the NFL if you're 31st out of 32 teams in the passing game. You know that and I know that. Turns out, Steve Mariucci knows it too.

Little wonder Mariucci put so much emphasis on the improving this part of the Lions west coast offense. Mariucci held a one-week camp focusing exclusively on the passing game. A big portion of it was directed at helping quarterback Joey Harrington, who's headed into his second year as a pro to improve.

Mariucci took the gloves off right away. Unlike last year when Harrington was treated as if he was a visiting dignitary in Lions workouts, Mariucci threw the kitchen sink at the kid immediately.

He came with zone blitzes, safety blitzes and linebacker blitzes, all designed at making it difficult for the second-year quarterback to complete even the simplest of routes. After a rocky start, you know what? Harrington picked it up. He started reading the hot receiver, he checked down to the back. Sure he got some knocked down and he threw some away and he got some others picked, but the important thing is that he learned what to do under pressure.

It's little wonder that all-pro Brett Favre improved so much under the teaching of Steve Mariucci when he was Favre's quarterbacks coach in Green Bay. Harrington likely will blossom under Mariucci's tutelage whether sooner or later.

Detroit hopes it's sooner.

An 8-8 season is a realistic goal in the weak-as-warm water NFC North division.

While Green Bay was the cream of the division in 2002, they clearly took a step back defensively and the all-world Favre is a year older. Chicago was nearly as bad as Detroit last season while Minnesota wasn't much better.

If Detroit is to make par in 2003, clearly they'll have to get better production from some key players on the roster.

Quarterback Joey Harrington: It isn't all on him, but the quarterback is the trigger man. He has to set the tone, he has to have the swagger, and more than all of that, he has to make plays. Harrington showed flashes, but then was all but shut down the last eight games of the season before being shelved with an irregular heartbeat. Harrington will need to be 100% healthy and he'll have to learn how to defeat defenses that have figured out his weaknesses. Simply put, he'll have to make a leap to the next level. If not, Detroit will be hard pressed to find more than five wins.

Running back James Stewart: Stewart was the Lions offense last year. As he went, so went Detroit, at least most of the time. The seven-year veteran responded by giving Detroit its second 1,000 season in his four years as a Lion. He isn't the prototypical west coast offense back so Detroit will likely try to replace him after this season when he's due a big salary leap. Stewart needs to come back with another big season so he's still wanted, if not by Detroit, then by some other team.

Tight end Mikhael Ricks: Ricks' numbers aren't what you'd expect from a Pro bowl tight end, but he did make a few plays for Detroit. Look for Harrington to rely on Ricks more when teams blitz as he checks down in his progressions. If Ricks can be as steady moving the chains as he was in making longer plays, he could be a real asset to the Detroit offense.

Wide receiver Charles Rogers: Nobody ever gets a free pass, but Rogers will get the equivalent of one. Few rookie wide receivers come in and make an immediate impact, but the Saginaw native is capable. He's as talented as any receiver to come out of the college ranks in years, but will that talent show through? Barring injury, he's likely to be an impact player for years to come, but the first year is always the toughest. Still Rogers will make a few big plays, much like Harrington did a season ago. Let's hope Rogers resembles Terrell Owens and not Germane Crowell.

Wide receiver Az-Zahir Hakim: Simply put, Detroit needs Hakim in the worst way. If he's back to the player he was in St. Louis, Detroit will get a big season from this veteran. There are still concerns over the serious hip injury he took last season. He is nowhere near 100%. He says he's pointing towards the start of the season to be completely healthy. Much of Detroit's chances depend on Hakim being healthy and productive in a big way.

Wide receiver Bill Schroeder: No player in the Lions passing game is more on the spot than Schroeder. If he doesn't have a steady year -- stop the drops and the alligator arms -- his career could be over. Schroeder was run out of Green Bay because of it and needed to re-establish himself as a clutch guy. Instead, he did just the opposite, he re-established himself as soft in many circles. In practice, Schroeder is virtually uncontainable, but if he's hit, look out. This is it for Bill Schroeder, another poor season and he could be out of the league.

Fullback Cory Schlesinger: Many have felt that Schlesinger deserved Pro bowl consideration for his tough blocking to spring Stewart, but the award continues to go to Tampa Bay's Mike Alstott. While Schlesinger's a stellar blocker, he needs to do more than just block. He needs to catch passes for first downs and pick them up in short yardage situations. The presence of coach Tom Rathman, one of the best fullbacks to play in the NFL in the last decade, should help Schlesinger improve in those areas. If he does, he could finally get a Pro bowl nod.

Coaching: If Steve Mariucci is the same guy he was in San Francisco, the coaching improves 100%. Mariucci is not above allowing his assistant coach to call plays. He isn't going to try to coach the team by himself. In short, Detroit won't lose games because of Mariucci outsmarting himself. They'll win the five games they should have won last year. How many more can "Mooch" bring to the table? If he can get three more and finish 8-8, they'll change those flags from "Hockeytown" to "Iron Mountain South."


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