Behind Enemy Lines: Lions Pt. 1

Nate Caminata of Roar Report fills us in on the rebuilding Lions, who seem poised to break out of the NFC North cellar this season. The starting point isn't just Matthew Stafford, but a leadership group that quickly has remade the roster.

Bill Huber: I'm not sure when the last time there was a positive vibe around the Lions on a national level. What's it like for someone who's part of it? Is there a genuine feeling that this is the leadership group to turn the franchise around?

Nate Caminata: I think everyone from ownership down to the locker room attendant is feeling the same vibe. Vice President Martin Mayhew has done a fantastic job distancing himself from the Matt Millen era, making key acquisitions (Tony Scheffler, Nate Burleson, etc.), ridding of players who didn't produce (Ernie Sims, Roy Williams, etc.) and providing a sense of hope and future behind the youthful talent in Matthew Stafford, Calvin Johnson, Ndamukong Suh and others. It also has to be said that there probably hasn't been this much anticipation for a Lions team (maybe any NFL team) coming off such poor results the year before (2-14), which is a reflection of the genuine attitude change from front office brass and the team itself.

Certainly, it's difficult not to get excited about a team that has as much talent as Detroit. This isn't the first time Lions fans have had lofty expectations and sugar plums dancing in their heads, yet it might be the first time their collective excitement is justified by a head-turning product. Stafford is far and away a better quarterback than Joey Harrington, the team fields a dynamic backfield there isn't another player with more pure talent than Calvin Johnson, and the defense has been revamped for 2010. Maybe, just maybe, the positive vibe will translate onto the field ...

Bill: The key to everything is whether Matthew Stafford is a legit quarterback. From my faraway perspective, the jury is still out. If there's one thing we know for sure is that he's tough. What are your thoughts on his rookie season and is he the guy to take this franchise to the promised land?

QB Matthew Stafford
Tony Ding/AP Images
Nate: I think if Stafford can't do it, no one ever can in Lion land. You would be hard-pressed to find a former Detroit quarterback with the type of moxie offered by Stafford, and one that could actually back it up with his arm. Stafford made his mark (and earned the "tough" reputation) in the team's Week 11 win over Cleveland. He set a rookie NFL record with five touchdown passes, the last being a game-winner in which he ignored a separated shoulder. But anyone who dissected Stafford's play prior to that contest understood he has the skill to put together a game like that. He was almost instantly comfortable with the team's playbook, and had endeared himself to fans and teammates with his arm and ability to pop back up after a hit. Yet the one thing he didn't have was talent around him. Kevin Smith was ineffective as a running back, and defenses rolled up to three defensive backs to eliminate Calvin Johnson.

Remember, Stafford inherited a team that went 0-16 the year before, so if there was ever an excuse about a lack of supporting cast, he had it. The team has made additions in 2010 to make sure the same doesn't happen again, acquiring tight end Tony Scheffler (Denver), receiver Nate Burleson (Seattle) and plucking Jahvid Best (California) in the draft. With a year under his belt, and more at his disposal, we'll know right away if Stafford's epic performance against the Browns was a preview or an apparition.

Bill: Stafford's best friend will be a good running game. What is the state of the ground attack, with Kevin Smith coming off a torn ACL and being somewhat of a disappointment after a promising rookie year, and what are the Lions expecting of super-fast first-rounder Jahvid Best?

Nate: Smith is medically cleared to participate fully in training camp, and the Lions are reasonably sure his knee will respond — although time will only tell, especially with a running back of his nature. But Smith won't have to carry the load exclusively in Detroit; he'll share carries with Jahvid Best, and possibly veteran Maurice Morris if he cracks the roster. Best gives the Lions a lightning-quick threat out of the backfield and a player who can take it the distance at any point. The Lions are tinkering with Best on sweeps, screens, and other scatback-specific plays to help leverage the Cal product's skill-set. 

With the shared duties and a multifaceted look in the backfield, it should help relieve pressure on Stafford and Co., keeping the defense honest. Primarily, however, those runners will have more opportunities to roam with an improved passing attack, which will be the focal point of the team's offense.

Bill: It was another big offseason for the Lions, who have done a remarkable job of upgrading their talent with solid veterans. It seems like the approach the Packers took back in the early 1990s with Mike Holmgren and Ron Wolf, using the veterans to take the team to respectability before the young guys were ready. Tell us about some of the veteran fresh faces.

DT Corey Williams
Mike Roemer/AP Images
Nate: The most striking names are certainly Tony Scheffler and Nate Burleson on the offense. Because of the investment and interest in Stafford, many eyes will be on those two players, who have made a splash on the field during OTAs. Burleson's speed in the seam makes him an asset to be reckoned with (defenses can no longer focus exclusively on Calvin Johnson), while Scheffler might hold the keys to the entire offense. Scheffler will be used heavily in two tight end sets with Brandon Pettigrew, and his knowledge and veteran savvy on the field will be essential to Stafford really opening it up.

Names that are just as critical to the team's success, but maybe not as prevalent, are those of Kyle Vanden Bosch and Corey Williams. The team struggled to pressure opposing quarterbacks last year, which put additional pressure on the league's bottom-dwelling secondary. Vanden Bosch was successful under Jim Schwartz in Tennessee, while Williams returns to a 4-3 defense, where he flourished in Green Bay. Don't discount veteran cornerback additions Jonathan Wade, Dante Wesley or Chris Houston. They replaced a jettisoned pair of veteran corners that were ineffective last year. Veteran guard Rob Sims will help solidify a nagging hole on the left side of the line.

Bill: There's talk that the Lions might overtake the Bears for third place in the division. Not sure I'm buying that, but the Lions certainly are in the upswing and the NFC North might wind up being the best division in football. Is 2011 the year when the Lions really make some noise? 2012? Or could it actually be this year?

Nate: I think the Lions will absolutely make noise this year, but maybe not enough to curb the impatience of Lions fans (mainly because, short of a Super Bowl win, it isn't possible). 

Although they're probably not in playoff realm yet, they're far from the perennial doormat that wallowed in for years. In the NFL, parity helps every team attempt to improve every season, and the Lions are finally starting to play catch-up. But like every young team, mistakes will continue to be made as chemistry is forged. Barring any catastrophic injuries, they can be anywhere from a six- to a seven-win team if things go well, which given their reputation, will make them a story to follow in 2010.

In 2011, they could be the team to follow.

Bill Huber is publisher of Packer Report and Nate Caminata is publisher of Roar Report. Come back on Thursday for Part 2.

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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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