Now more than ever before, the Lions are Rod Marinelli's team.
In his third year as the Lions' coach, Marinelli has cleared out the locker room and finally has the type of players he wants - lean, fast, tough, hardworking guys who will do anything to play. He also has made a commitment to the run and brought in more players who know the Tampa Two defense.
The question is whether that will translate into more wins. It's a sad statement that the Lions' seven wins last year were the most they have had since Matt Millen took over as team president in 2001. They haven't had a winning season since 2000 and haven't made the playoffs since 1999.
Three keys for the season
1. The Lions must run the ball at least well enough to open up the passing game for wide receivers Calvin Johnson and Roy Williams, keep the pass rush off quarterback Jon Kitna and keep the defense off the field. The Lions finished last and second-to-last in rushing the last two years under pass-happy Mike Martz. New offensive coordinator Jim Colletto has installed a zone blocking scheme.
2. Kitna must make good decisions. Martz did not allow Kitna to audible. All adjustments were built into the plays. Colletto has given Kitna more control at the line of scrimmage. That should allow Kitna to take advantage of matchups, like single coverage on Johnson. But it also places more responsibility on his shoulders, and he has been known for throwing interceptions late in games.
3. The defense must improve. The Lions' defense allowed the most yards and points last season. The running game should help, but it's the defense's job to get off the field. The Lions forced a lot of turnovers last season, at least in the first half of the year, but they struggled to get off the field on third down - when opponents needed third down.
Players To Watch
- WR Calvin Johnson: Two things slowed Johnson last year after he was the second overall pick in the draft: He had to learn the most complex offense in the NFL, Mike Martz's, and he suffered a back injury in Week 3. Now he is healthy and playing in a simplified offense. He has been freed to let his physical skills take over.
- RB Kevin Smith: At a time when the running game is so important to the Lions, they are going to rely a lot on a rookie. They traded up in the third round to get Smith, who was very productive in the same zone scheme at Central Florida. If Smith succeeds, he will be a star. He loves to talk and his personality will make him a media darling.
- LB Paris Lenon: The Lions tried hard to upgrade middle linebacker in the offseason. They tried to trade for Jonathan Vilma. They looked into veteran free agents Al Wilson and Dan Morgan. They wanted to draft Jerod Mayo but settled for Jordon Dizon. But at least for now, Lenon has held onto the starting job. He and the rest of the Lions' linebackers need to make more plays.
- FB Jerome Felton - The fifth-round pick out of Furman not only might start, he might be the only pure fullback the Lions keep on the roster at a time when they are emphasizing the running game. Felton ran the ball a lot in college, but he has shown he can be a physical blocker. He is smart and always seems to be in the right spot.
TOP GAME TO WATCH: Lions at 49ers, Sept. 21: The Lions cannot let Mike Martz and J.T. O'Sullivan beat them, not after they fired Martz last year.
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)
Picks To Stick
- Rd. 1/17, OT Gosder Cherilus, Boston College -- Expected to replace George Foster at right tackle at some point. But hasn't won the starting job yet and has cross-trained at left tackle in case Jeff Backus goes down.
- Rd. 2/45, LB Jordon Dizon, Colorado -- Has speed and instincts, but has not shown he is ready yet to handle the mentally demanding position of middle linebacker. Will begin as a backup and learn.
- Rd. 3/64, RB Kevin Smith, Central Florida -- Has the vision and cutting ability of a zone runner, though he lacks top-end speed. Should start and get plenty of carries.
- Rd. 3/87, DT Andre Fluellen, Florida State -- Has been inconsistent in camp, typical for a rookie. Probably won't be active for games at first.
- Rd. 3/92, DE Cliff Avril, Purdue -- Fast, but hits full speed on third step. Needs to improve get-off. Could help on third down as a rookie, but perhaps not immediately.
- Rd. 5/146, FB Jerome Felton, Furman -- Smart, physical blocker. Might be only pure fullback Lions keep on roster and should start.
UNIT-BY-UNIT ANALYSIS (assumed roster)
- QUARTERBACK: Starter - Jon Kitna. Backups - Dan Orlovsky, Drew Stanton. Kitna became the first Lions quarterback to post back-to-back 4,000-yard seasons. He likely won't do it three years in a row, now that Mike Martz is gone. But he shouldn't take as many sacks (114 over the past two years), either. The Lions' plan to keep pass-rusher off him with roll outs, bootlegs and a commitment to the run. Kitna also will have more control at the line of scrimmage, so he can take advantage of one-on-one matchups with star WRs Calvin Johnson and Roy Williams. Orlovsky has little regular-season experience - only 17 attempts, none since his rookie year. Stanton has no regular-season experience, and he has a sprained thumb that should keep him out until at least Week 3.
- RUNNING BACKS: Starters - HB Kevin Smith, FB Jerome Felton. Backups - RB Tatum Bell, RB Aveion Cason. Smith, a third-round pick, and Felton, a fifth-round pick, might be the only rookies in the starting lineup for the opener. Smith has the vision and cutting ability to fit the Lions' zone scheme. Felton is a smart, physical blocker who always seems to be in the right spot. Bell was unimpressive in the preseason but was once productive in a zone scheme in Denver. Cason has value as a kick returner and possibility as a punt returner, too. With Jon Bradley on injured reserve with a shoulder problem, the Lions might not keep a fullback other than Felton.
- TIGHT END: Starter - Dan Campbell. Backups - Michael Gaines, Casey Fitzsimmons, John Owens. Campbell is a complete tight end. He is a force as a run blocker, and he has shown he can make big plays as a pass-catcher. The problem is staying healthy. He has come back with a cadaver's Achilles tendon in his bad elbow, and he has struggled with a hamstring injury in camp. Gaines wants to show he can be the man, but he is known for his blocking. Fitzsimmons is the opposite, known more for his pass-catching than blocking. He has great value on special teams. Fitzsimmons can play fullback if needed, though he isn't as comfortable behind the line of scrimmage.
- WIDE RECEIVERS: Starters - Calvin Johnson, Roy Williams. Backups - Shaun McDonald, Mike Furrey. The strongest unit on the team. Johnson seems primed for a breakout year, after being slowed by a back injury virtually all of his rookie season. He can outrun, outmuscle and outjump just about any cornerback in the league. If opponents give him single coverage, look out. If they give him double coverage, then the Lions can go to Williams, who has played in the Pro Bowl. McDonald and Furrey led the Lions in catches the past two years under Martz. They won't do that again, but even catching fewer balls, they should have a role and provide solid depth. Furrey can play outside, if needed.
- OFFENSIVE LINE: Starters - LT Jeff Backus, LG Edwin Mulitalo, C Dominic Raiola, RG Stephen Peterman, RT George Foster. Backups - OT Gosder Cherilus, C/G Corey Hulsey, G Manny Ramirez, C/G Andy McCollum. Backus and Raiola are the mainstays of the line. Both have played all 112 games of the Matt Millen era. Backus has started them all, Raiola all but the first 16. Backus struggled under Martz and should benefit not having to hold up in pass protection for a long time down after down. Mulitalo played under Colletto in Baltimore and knows the zone blocking scheme well. Raiola is a fireball of a leader and athletic. The trouble is on the right side of the line. The coaches love Peterman's competitiveness but not his consistency. Foster has been better than he was last season, when he was benched multiple times. The offense is simpler and like the one he used to run in Denver. But Cherilus is expected to take over at right tackle at some point.
- DEFENSIVE LINE: Starters - LE Jared DeVries, UT Cory Redding, NT Chuck Darby, RE Dewayne White. Backups - DT Shaun Cody, DT Langston Moore, DE Ikaika Alama-Francis, DE Cliff Avril, DE Corey Smith, DT Andre Fluellen. Now that Shaun Rogers has been traded, the Lions have no defensive lineman over 300 pounds. They are lean and quick. Redding and White have played at an elite level for a portion of a season but now need to do it for a full season. DeVries and Darby are salty veterans who find a way to get the job done. Moore and Smith are role players who have a knack for making plays. Cody, Avril, Alama-Francis and Fluellen are all recent second- and third-round drive picks who need to develop and make an impact. The Lions have a lot of depth here and might keep 10.
- LINEBACKER: Starters - WLB Ernie Sims, MLB Paris Lenon, SLB Alex Lewis. Backups - Buster Davis, Jordon Dizon, Anthony Cannon, Leon Joe. Sims is a playmaker. The rest need to make more plays. The Lions tried hard to upgrade the middle and strong side in the off-season, but Lenon and Lewis are still the starters, respectively. The hope is that Dizon, a second-round pick, will learn quickly and be ready to start in the middle at some point, moving Lenon to the strong side. Davis is short, only 5-9, but has made an impact in camp. Cannon has value on special teams. Joe was signed in camp and brings some experience and depth.
- DEFENSIVE BACKS: Starters - LCB Brian Kelly, SS Dwight Smith, FS Gerald Alexander, RCB Travis Fisher. Backups - CB Leigh Bodden, S Kalvin Pearson, S Daniel Bullocks, CB Keith Smith, S Greg Blue. The Lions upgraded the secondary dramatically in the off-season. They acquired Bodden, who had six picks last season, as well as Tampa Two veterans Kelly, Pearson and Dwight Smith. They have better ball and man skills, and shouldn't play as much zone and as far off the line of scrimmage this season. Bodden was expected to start, but he has had to learn the scheme and Fisher has held him off so far. Alexander was pressed into starting service last year as a rookie after Bullocks suffered a torn ACL, and he looks solid in his second season, always in the right spot. Pearson has the ability to start at safety or play corner in a pinch. Bullocks would give the Lions another starting-caliber safety if he can get back into form after missing a year. Keith Smith has shown speed and improvement. Blue is a big hitter and fan favorite.
- SPECIAL TEAMS: K Jason Hanson, P Nick Harris, LS Don Muhlbach, KOR Aveion Cason, PR Aveion Cason, Shaun McDonald or Devale Ellis. Hanson is still going strong entering his 17th season in Detroit. Harris has great touch, excelling at dropping the ball inside the 20, and Marinelli has emphasized "superior punting" this year. Muhlbach is one of the best in the business. The return game is suspect. Cason has good hands but doesn't break anything big. The punt return job remained wide open as of this writing. The Lions could give it to Cason or McDonald to conserve a roster spot, or Ellis could win it and be the Lions' fifth wide receiver. It looked like Ellis' job early in camp, but Ellis faded.