Behind Enemy Lines: Breaking Down the Lions

Is Matthew Stafford, who won't play on Sunday, injury-prone? What are the issues for the perpetually lousy Lions, who are 0-3 again but appear to have decent talent? Those answers and more from our Lions insider, Nate Caminata.

We go Behind Enemy Lines with Packer Report publisher Bill Huber and Roar Report publisher Nate Caminata. Be sure to check out Part 3 on Saturday, when Bill and Nate detail the big machups and offer our predictions.

Bill: Are there any concerns that Matthew Stafford is injury prone? He's missed a lot of time in his career and the Packers still haven't seen a healthy Stafford. Shaun Hill hasn't been half bad though, had he?

Nate: Any time you have the kind of investment in a player that Detroit has with Stafford, any concern, especially with injuries, becomes paramount. With that said, Stafford's injuries have been freakish in nature. He took an exceptional hit last year against Cleveland, which dislocated his non-throwing shoulder, had his knee twisted against Chicago later in the year, and this season, Julius Peppers hogtied him before throwing him to the turf. In each scenario, they were hits you don't see quarterbacks traditionally absorb. Thankfully, he's a tough kid, and began a throwing regimen this week with Detroit's training staff. I would expect him to return next week when Detroit returns home to play the Rams.

Hill, meanwhile, has been solid in his stead, but he just simply isn't Matt Stafford. He has starting experience, which is why the Lions feel fortunate to have him behind center, but he still lacks the powerful arm that this team has built its offense around, making it difficult for him to take advantage of one-on-one opportunities in the middle of the field that Stafford routinely exposed. Hill will finish each game with decent numbers, but tossed two red zone interceptions last week, and never put the offense into any kind of rhythm. Like any team missing its starting quarterback, the Lions are anxiously awaiting the return of the original.

Bill: Tell us about Jahvid Best. He ran rings around the Eagles a couple weeks ago but is battling turf toe. And if he's limited, what are the Lions' other options?

Jahvid Best
Leon Halip/Getty Images
Nate: Best will certainly be limited, and might not even play, which is another hit to a team that has been decimated with injuries since Week 1. Expect the Lions to package Maurice Morris, who ran for more than 100 yards in his last start as a Lion, with the return of incumbent starter Kevin Smith. Smith, who suffered an ACL injury last year, has been brought along slowly by the ball club, certainly assisted by the performance of Best. The workload will be shared with fullback Jerome Felton. Because Smith hasn't seen live game action since last year, it's difficult to assess how effective he can be on Sunday. Regardless, the absence of Best nullifies Detroit's big-play potential coming out of the backfield.

Bill: This season started off with such promise — at least by Detroit's standards — but it's off to its fifth 0-3 start in 10 years. On paper, these aren't the same old Lions. What are the issues and what do they need to, A, get back to respectability and, B, actually contend for a playoff spot. And what's the feeling among the fans, who haven't seen a good team in forever?

Nate: At the very least, it's difficult to assess the Lions and their potential without actually seeing them on the field. While some may chalk it up as an excuse, it's a team that has played primarily without its starting quarterback, No. 2 receiver (Nate Burleson), with other injuries derailing the backfield.

With that said ...

A) Win. Winning is the only currency that matters in the National Football League, and if you don't have much, or any of it, respect will remain out of reach. Until Detroit is able to start winning football games consistently, they'll be considered a league doormat by everyone, including their own peers.

B) Beyond winning, they have to establish the identity they thought they could forge this season. Obviously, Stafford's injury has hindered that effort, but once he returns, there's plenty of time left in the season to at least show opponents and fans how this team is capable of performing. No one doubts the level of talent, and given experience, and everything that comes along with those two things, the Lions are fielding a team with postseason potential.

Naturally, the fans of Detroit have heard these things before, but even entering 2010 there was newfound hope and (albeit shortsighted) expectations. While many are clamoring "Same Old Lions," I think the rational, faithful fans will be patient through the first part of the season before judging what many foresee to become a solid football team.

Bill: One unit of the game that isn't a weakness is the defensive line. Ndamukong Suh is off to a great start, former Packer Corey Williams looks at home back in a 4-3 and Kyle VandenBosch is a wise old pro. Still, I'm surprised to see the Lions are last in the NFL in run defense, which makes for an interesting matchup against a Packers offense that can't run the ball at all. What are the issues there?

Ndamukong Suh
Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images
Nate: I'm not sure the statistics are really indicative of Detroit's talented defensive line, and they're also a bit skewed from big runs in the past two weeks. The team gave up an 80-yard touchdown run to Adrian Peterson last week and a 46-yarder to Philadelphia's LeSean McCoy before that, two plays that should have been limited by the linebackers and defensive backfield in both instances but weren't.

However, if it exposes anything, it's that Detroit's defensive line might be their last line of defense. The Lions have another M*A*S*H unit at linebacker, which has been missing starting middle linebacker DeAndre Levy and outside linebacker Zack Follett (concussion). The team has plugged in replacements to no avail. The secondary was an expected weakness, but beyond poor downfield coverage, their tackling has left more to be desired, as well.

Entering the campaign, the Lions were aware that the strength of the unit lied within the defensive trenches. I just think they anticipated more help to accompany them.

Bill: Calvin Johnson is a terrific talent but do the Lions have a receiver opposite him to prevent defenses from ganging up on him? Is that why the Lions are going to their tight ends so frequently?

Nate: Nate Burleson was explicitly signed to a big-money deal with the idea to help free up Johnson, who faced double- and triple-coverages every game of the 2009 regular season. In the first quarter against Philadelphia, Burleson left with an ankle injury and hasn't returned since. He hasn't practiced this week and could be a scratch for the game. Detroit has flirted with different replacements, but really, they've been relegated to last season's struggles without a talented No. 2 that can stretch the field like Burleson.

And this is where Stafford's arm is missed: the Lions have two solid tight ends in Brandon Pettigrew and Tony Scheffler, who are often left one-on-one in the middle of the field. Stafford made it a point to thread the needle to his tight ends in training camp and the preseason, and did so exceptionally. Hill has tried and failed to do the same.

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Bill Huber is publisher of Packer Report magazine and and has written for Packer Report since 1997. E-mail him at, or leave him a question in Packer Report's subscribers-only Packers Pro Club forum. Find Bill on Twitter at and Facebook under Bill Huber.

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