Get bigger, get stronger. That was the intention of Lions GM Martin Mayhew as he attempted to build a team for head coach Jim Schwartz. But although the Lions have put on the weight, but via free-agency and diet, the weakest parts of the team are perhaps the two most important: The offensive line, and the defensive line.
The underlying concern to Matthew Stafford's success, and whether or not Detroit's trio of talented linebackers can thrive, is in the trenches.
On defense, the Lions have ditched the Tampa Two. The defensive linemen used to be taught to fill gaps and force ballcarriers to the outside. They took on a lot of blocks with their shoulders, trying to "get skinny," as the coaches say, and penetrate.
Now the ends line up wide and try to funnel ballcarriers to the middle. The defensive linemen generally take on blocks more directly with their helmets and hands.
"You're going to see guys extending their hands and trying to attack blocks and control blocks a little bit more, trying to knock guys back," coach Jim Schwartz said.
The problem? When Detroit's defensive ends push ballcarriers towards the middle of the line, who will clean up?
In Tennessee, Schwartz had star defensive tackle Albert Haynesworth, a 6-foot-6, 320-pound mammoth that could handle those duties. The Lions attempted to coherece Haynesworth into signing during free-agency, but couldn't compete with Washington's unprecedented contract offer.
Instead, the Lions signed Grady Jackson and drafted Stillman College project Sammie Hill.
Jackson has size, listed at 6-foot-2, 345 pounds. But he's 36, missed the offseason program because of a knee problem and is being eased into camp. The Lions hope he can play 15-20 snaps to help stop the run.
Hill has size, too, listed at 6-foot-4, 329 pounds, but he's raw. Hill has been practicing with the first-team, but is expected to be replaced by Jackson -- who is also facing a possible four-game suspension -- during the regular season.
The other five defensive tackles are all listed at 300 or 302 pounds.
Defensive line coach Bob Karmelowicz said he is trying to get each player to understand how his body works and how he can be effective in this system.
"We're not making robots," Karmelowicz said. "We want to make productive players. That's what our goal is. It's a long involved process. It takes time."
On the offensive side of the football, the Lions ran a zone-blocking scheme almost exclusively last season, thinking if they kept it simple and kept at it, they would break through in the running game.
They will keep some of the zone scheme, but now they will do more power blocking. The philosophy will be the same as the one Schwartz has outlined for the defense: Be multidimensional. Do what it takes to win that week.
"We're going to try to take advantage of what the defense gives us, whether that's running the zone play or the power play or combinations of those," offensive line coach George Yarno said. "What we want to do is put them in the best position to have success based on what we see and who we're playing against. You'll see us do quite a few different things."
Each of the past three seasons, the Lions have ranked in the bottom three in the NFL in rushing and sacks allowed. Although other factors were significant -- scheme, situations -- the offensive line shouldered a lot of blame.
Four of last season's starters return: left tackle Jeff Backus, center Dominic Raiola, right guard Stephen Peterman and right tackle Gosder Cherilus. Daniel Loper is the leading candidate to take over at left guard, but he never started a regular-season game in four years with Tennessee.
Because of that, many doubt the line can improve much.
"That's fine," Yarno said. "You challenge us, we're going to rise to the challenge. I love challenges. So you say I'm not good enough, I'm going to prove to you that I am. Just give us a chance to prove it."
- Lions coach Jim Schwartz knows that talk of losing the traditional Thanksgiving Day game is a hot-button issue in Detroit, and before an open practice at Ford Field, he brought it up in front of 15,387 fans and NFL commissioner Roger Goodell. Schwartz took the microphone and addressed the fans, who came despite gloomy weather and the Lions' 0-16 record last year. He noted that Goodell was in attendance. "I just said, 'Hey, look, anytime I hear somebody around the country talk about taking that game away from Detroit, I'm going to remind the commissioner about 15,000 people standing in the rain for two hours to see a practice,' " Schwartz said. "I think that says something about our fans. I think that says something about our tradition here. That needs to be remembered, and it needs to be rewarded."
Goodell was standing a few yards away on the sideline. He had popped in for a quick visit, on his way to the Hall of Fame induction ceremony Saturday night in Canton, Ohio. Asked about the possibility the Lions could lose the Thanksgiving Day game, Goodell said: "I don't see that in the near future."
- Goodell said the league soon will determine the status of defensive tackle Grady Jackson. While with the Falcons last season, Jackson appealed a four-game suspension for taking a diuretic the league deems a masking agent under its steroids testing policy. The Lions knew about the situation when they signed Jackson as a free agent.
"Right now we're going through the process," Goodell said. "We should have some indication, I would say, in the next couple weeks -- clearly before the season." Goodell declined to go into detail. "There's a lot of detail to it, but we're not going to be discussing it publicly until we make a decision," he said.
- Goodell commented on calling Lions owner William Clay Ford Sr. last year to suggest possible replacements for fired president Matt Millen.
"Mr. Ford was very welcoming to that call," Goodell said. "I gave him additional names that he could think of, and the great thing is, he had two great people right here (president Tom Lewand and general manager Martin Mayhew). I think they've proven themselves already in the short term, and I know they're determined to show it in the long term."
Goodell thinks the Lions have a chance of putting out a better product.
"They made a lot of changes," Goodell said. "I think they put the team in a new direction, and it's quite a positive direction. You can feel it, just walking through the locker room and talking to the coaches and the players. There's a lot of determination in there to represent this community in a positive way and really play good football this year."