Preview: The Heavily One-Sided Lions

The Lions are built for scoring on offense and giving up big scores on defense, making it an interesting study under head coach Rod Marinelli and offensive coordinator Mike Martz. We take a position-by-position as the strengths and weakness in the starting ranks.

For years, a matchup between the Vikings and the Lions has meant the same thing – a win for Minnesota and a loss for Detroit. It's become almost comical. The Vikings have won the last 10 meetings and 14 of the last 15 dating back to 1998, and that streak is longest current winning streak by one team over another in the league. So it came as something of a shock and/or a surprise that Lions QB Jon Kitna predicted 10 wins or more for the Lions – who have the NFL's worst record since 2000.

But this is a team that is clearly divided into two distinct and separate groups. The offense is clearly capable of scoring 30 points in any game it plays. But the defense is just as capable of giving 31 to anyone it plays. Detroit opened up a 17-0 lead against Oakland last week only to have the Raiders rally to take a 21-20 lead before the Lions scored 16 points in the final five minutes to blow the game open. On offense, it all starts with Mike Martz, who in his second season as offensive coordinator for the Lions, has got his players on the same page of his "War and Peace"-sized playbook.

Kitna, who made the bold prediction of greatness for the Lions, was one of the NFL's yardage leaders at QB last year. However, the massive touchdown numbers that the Rams piled up under Martz didn't materialize. What did pile up was the interception total. Kitna had 20 interceptions last year – six of those in two games against the Vikings. In those games, he completed 51 of 83 passes for 574 yards and two touchdowns. But the six interceptions are what did him in. Last week against the Raiders, Kitna had three touchdowns and 289 yards, but also had two interceptions. If the Vikings can pick him off a couple of times on defense, the chances of a Raiders-like collapse are minimal. But whether he's successful or not, don't be stunned to see Kitna air the ball out 40 times or more.

One of the reasons, aside from the Vikings run defense, that Kitna may have to throw 40-50 passes is that the Lions running game has serious depth issues. Kevin Jones hasn't played since suffering a Lisfranc injury in his right foot at the Metrodome last year and still isn't at 100 percent. T.J. Duckett is also injured, leaving just Tatum Bell and Brian Calhoun as the running backs that will likely see action Sunday. Bell came over from Denver in the Dre Bly trade this offseason and has the speed to break off big plays at any time. He had 87 yards on 15 carries last week and looked the part of a go-to running back in the offense, adding four dump-off receptions to the mix. He has a history of fumbling, which you can bet the Vikings will try to exploit when he gets wrapped up, but he is a dual threat that could pose problems for the Vikings. But, if Bell can be shut down like Jones was last year (19 carries for just five yards), the Vikings could make the Lions one-dimensional on offense.

If that happens, Martz won't shed any tears. Even with a Hall of Famer like Marshall Faulk in his backfield at St. Louis, there would be games where he had 10 carries or fewer and the Rams threw 50 times. That same prospect could happen Sunday and he has amassed an arsenal of weapons. Topping the list is fourth-year pro Roy Williams. An impact player from the day he stepped on the field, he was the lone bright spot among the three lottery receivers the Lions drafted in recent years. He has great size and an ideal combination of strength and speed. He's willing to go over the middle to make a catch and can beat single coverage over the top. Teams tried double-teaming him last year and some got away with it, but with the arrival of rookie Calvin Johnson, the second overall pick in this year's draft, the Lions have a new and frightening addition to their offense. College scouts are almost in unanimous agreement that Johnson is a can't-miss prospect who could be a Pro Bowler for years to come. Blessed with a freakish combination of size (6-5, 239) and speed (sub 4.4 40 times), he is going to be a dangerous player who may have as much of an impact early in his career as Randy Moss did with Vikings. But it doesn't stop there. St. Louis transplants Mike Furrey and Shaun McDonald also fit into the mix, and former Viking Troy Walters also sees some reps from time to time. Tight end Dan Campbell is used much more as a blocker than a receiver, but don't be shocked to see three or four receivers on the field for most plays between the 20-yard lines.

The biggest difference between the Martz offense of the Rams and that of the Lions is up front on the offensive line. While this group is solid, it has been inconsistent in learning the techniques needed to succeed in the quick-pass scheme. In the second year, if they can stay, this group of linemen will make enormous strides. This is a veteran group that includes seventh-year left tackle Jeff Backus, seventh-year center Dominic Raiola – both of whom were taken with the first two Lions picks of the 2001 draft – nine-year right guard Damien Woody, nine-year left guard and 2007 free agent signee Edwin Mulitalo and right tackle George Foster – acquired in the Bly trade. The Lions have pieced together a line that looks more formidable than last year and, if they can stay healthy, you will see more praise being heaped upon them as the year goes on.

As the old "good news, bad news" joke goes, the Lions offense shows a lot of promise, while the defense has a lot more question marks than it does answers. Up front, however, the Vikings and the Williams Wall may have a contender to the throne for the title of best interior line tandem in the division. Shaun Rogers has been a stud for years and Cory Redding impressed ownership enough in his first four years that the team gave him a contract that eclipsed the monster deal signed by Kevin Williams. Both are excellent run stoppers and can collapse the pocket with the pass rush. That's the best news the Lions have on defense, where things start to slip quickly. The best end on the team – James Hall – was traded in the offseason and the Lions have tried to patch a DE corps together. DeWayne White played under head coach Rod Marinelli in Tampa Bay and was brought in during the offseason to help replace Hall. On the right side, Kalimba Edwards has been a career-long bust who has never lived up to his potential. Jared DeVries, who started nine games last season, fits in the rotation and will see playing time. Edwards and White can be manhandled and taken out of their game. It will be up to the them to pressure Tarvaris Jackson and, after allowing Josh McCown to complete 30 of 40 passes for 330 yards and a couple of touchdowns, it was clear they didn't get that job done in Week 1.

The linebackers are a mixed bag that has yet to show any cohesiveness or game-changing ability. In the middle, Paris Lenon and Teddy Lehman have rotated back and forth as the starters, primarily because neither has shown the ability to be dominant. Lenon was the full-time starter in 2006, but Lehman has been pushing him for playing time. But both are a step down from the ideal MLB snarler most teams are looking for. On the outside, Boss Bailey and Ernie Sims are both tremendous athletes, but each has limitations. In the case of Bailey, it has been health. Last season was the first time he played all 16 games and he spent much of the season playing through injuries that cut into his effectiveness and forced the Lions to sit him for stretches of games. Sims is a vicious hitter, but is undersized at 6-0, 232 and for teams that throw to tight ends, he's a mismatch waiting to happen. Depth is thin behind them, which doesn't bode well since Sims has a serious neck condition that saw him free fall on draft weekend 2006, and Bailey's injury history is well-chronicled. If anything happens to them, an already-weak Lions defense gets that much worse.

The secondary of the Lions is arguably the worst in the league. While the term "shut-down cornerback" is used a little too liberally for our liking, Bly fit in that category. He could lock down with a team's top receiver and take him out of the game plan. With Bly gone to Denver, this is a secondary that can get scorched early and often. A case can be made that few if any of the Lions starters in the secondary would start for most other teams. At cornerback, nine-year veteran Fernando Bryant has lost more than a step and has become a liability. Third-year corner Stanley Wilson is in his first season as a starter and was inconsistent last year. The team brought in Travis Fisher via free agency to compete for a starting job, but his play wasn't up to snuff and he's slotted as the nickel back. At safety, Kenoy Kennedy is a big hitter, but often arrives too late to be a positive in pass coverage. The team lost slated free safety starter Daniel Bullocks for the season and is going with rookie Gerald Alexander, a late second-round pick to be their starter. If the Vikings get aggressive deep, look for Alexander to be the target, although as awful as this group is across the board, nothing should be viewed as shocking or too surprising if the Vikings look to attack with the passing game.

Detroit is the NFL version of Dr. Jeckyl and Mr. Hyde. The offense has been built to lead the team to the playoffs, but it looks like it came at the expense of the defense. For the Vikings, the game has huge importance for the early portion of the season, since it would give the team two conference wins to start the year and momentum for a great start heading into the bye week. The question facing the team, coaches and fans now is which will be stronger – the strength of the Lions offense or the ineptitude of the Lions defense? That will be the question that will need to be answered Sunday.


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