With a 4-12 record from 2012 in the rear-view mirror, the Detroit Lions are looking to establish a more versatile, protective attack on offense.
The Lions already have the most productive receiver in the NFL last year, Calvin Johnson, who was the first player in NFL history to reach 1,900 yards receiving. Johnson finished with a record-setting 1,964 yards.
Like Adrian Peterson leading the NFL in rushing last year, Johnson led the league in receiving.
"Both of those guys are supremely talented players, two of the best at their position in the NFL right now, and both of them have the potential when it's all said and done to be guys that are all-time greats," Lions coach Jim Schwartz said. "Both of them have that dynamic that they're very difficult to take out of a game plan.
"Calvin got doubled all year last year. We didn't run the ball very well. We lost a lot of wide receivers, didn't have enough ability to make teams pay for doubling him. But he set that NFL record even though every time he was doubled."
Schwartz said he believes the Peterson and Johnson share similar qualities: driven with a strong work ethic, yet humble.
"Calvin's very, very competitive. You see him dive for balls in practice and training camp and OTAs. He is incredibly, incredibly competitive and he wants to go out and do well. More than anything, it's about what the team does. Calvin's not a selfish player at all. He wants to win."
While QB Matthew Stafford threw for 4,967 yards and had 20 touchdowns and 17 interceptions, Schwartz admitted that the Lions didn't run the ball well enough last year.
Mikel Leshoure led the Lions with 798 yards rushing. As a team, they had only 1,613 yards rushing and a 4.1-yard average.
They are hoping the free-agent addition of Reggie Bush helps them, on the ground and in the aerial attack.
"He's valuable in both realms," Schwartz said. "… He's a guy that if we get him to the safety he can make a safety miss. He has potential taking it to the house. He can take a short pass, a screen pass and he can make it into a big gain. He's an outlet for the quarterback. A guy like that is a tough matchup and sometimes you can check the ball down to him and still have a chance to make a first down from a third down and long. Particularly with the way teams play Calvin Johnson and the attention he gets, we needed a guy that could force defenses to play. I think Reggie is that guy for us."
The Lions finished 23rd in the league last year, averaging 100.8 yards rushing per game. But Schwartz's concern about the running game goes beyond the typical average.
He was rightfully concerned with the lack of explosive runs. Last year, the Lions tied for last with only four runs of 20 yards or more. By comparison, the Vikings had 33 of them. Minnesota also led the league with eight runs of 40 yards or more. Detroit had one.
But Schwartz is hoping a new season brings about more wins.
One way to do that is by taking better care of the ball, another Lions lowlight in 2013. He said turnovers were a common theme in games in which the Lions struggled.
"Turnovers was the biggest thing, the turnover differential. We didn't get very many turnovers last year. Our takeaways from went from 34 to 17 I think last year, so they decreased by 50 percent. I think we only threw one more interception than we did the year before, (but) we fumbled it more than we did the previous year. Turnovers are the No. 1 most correlating statistic for winning in the NFL. We turned it over more than we should and we didn't get very many turnovers on defense, so I think you look at our games we still played a lot of close games. That's one of the things that was good about our preseason – again, it's hard to read too much into preseason games; everybody has different agendas playing games and playing different people – but I thought we protected the ball well in our preseason games and we were opportunistic on defense. If we can stay with that over the course of the season, I think you'll see a big difference in our team."
The Lions tied for 23rd in the NFL with 11 interceptions on defense, were 26th with 11 forced fumbles and 25th with six recovered fumbles.
On offense, Stafford's 17 interceptions tied for eighth-most in the NFL last year and the rushing attack tied for 13th with seven fumbles.
"Turnovers are the No. 1 most correlating statistic for winning in the NFL," Schwartz said. "We turned it over more than we should and we didn't get very many turnovers on defense, so I think you look at our games we still played a lot of close games."
The Lions had only one fumble in the preseason and Stafford threw one interception.
Schwartz said it's hard to read too much into the preseason, but he was clearly interested in erasing the memory of the Lions' eight-game losing streak at the end of the season.
"You always want to win games. I think winning can be a habit," he said. "We didn't finish the year very well last year. Minnesota did. We were hovering around .500 and then went on a losing streak. Minnesota was hovering around .500 – I think they were 6-6 – and won their last four and got to the playoffs. We certainly needed to get that taste out of our mouths. We got a lot of players back from injury and that made a big difference for us."
Tim Yotter is the publisher of Viking Update. Follow Viking Update on Twitter and discuss this story on our subscriber message board.
Lions seeking versatility, momentum change
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