The Lions entered training camp with two main goals - one, install their new zone running scheme, and two, improve a defense that allowed the most yards and points last season.
The running game remains a work in progress. But the defense looks better - leaner and quicker on the front end, more skilled and solid on the back end. If the Lions can get the running game going, they have a chance to have their first winning season since 2000 and first playoff berth since 1999.
The key to the Lions' total team approach is their running game. Last year, offensive coordinator Mike Martz helped expose the Lions' weakness on defense instead of protecting it, rarely running the ball. The defense was on the field far too much, as coach Rod Marinelli illustrated for the team in camp.
"He did a chart, how many plays we were out there," defensive end Dewayne White said. "We were out there playing 18 games in a 16-game schedule."
That is a big reason why Martz was fired and replaced by offensive coordinator Jim Colletto. The Lions want to run the ball well, but they need to at least run it well enough.
The idea is to open up the passing game for wide receivers Calvin Johnson and Roy Williams, keep pass rushers from pinning back their ears and coming after quarterback Jon Kitna, and control the clock to keep the defense off the field.
The passing game has looked sharp. In the first three exhibitions, Kitna was 18-for-21 for 280 yards and two touchdowns overall - with no sacks, no interceptions and a passer rating of 150.5.
"We have some pretty good receivers," Kitna said. "When we get protection, those receivers are not going to lose very often. I think we've proven that over the past couple years."
The running game has struggled. The Lions say it's because they are learning a new scheme and haven't had the chance to wear down an opponent for four quarters.
"It's going to take some time," Kitna said. "It will. You can't just change your whole philosophy on how you run it and expect it to just click overnight."
The Lions will remain committed to the run.
"It's got to get better," Marinelli said. "It's got to be more consistent. We had a couple that broke, which is good. But what I want is a punishment. I want to punish a defense. I want to take their legs out of them so they can't rush. That's what I'm trying to do. Will we run for 2,000 yards? I don't know. But I want to be physical."
Now that they have traded Shaun Rogers, the Lions don't have a defensive lineman over 300 pounds. They have a lean, quick group that has put pressure on Cincinnati quarterback Carson Palmer and Cleveland QB Brady Quinn, with help from blitzes.
But the greatest improvement has been in the secondary. The Lions acquired Leigh Bodden from Cleveland in the Rogers trade, and they also signed Tampa Two veterans Brian Kelly, Dwight Smith and Kalvin Pearson.
"Our secondary's really drastically improved," Marinelli said.
The Lions seem to know the system better and are playing faster.
"I'm so excited about the defense - the secondary, the linebackers, everybody knowing the defense better, knowing where to be," White said. "We're just right now keep building chemistry and keep learning."
COACHING: Rod Marinelli, third year, third with Lions (10-22).
REMEMBERING: 2007 record: 7-9 (third in NFC North).
ROARREPORT.COM PREDICTING: 2008 regular-season record: 9-7 (2nd in NFC North).
(Detailed season prediction forthcoming)