Preview: Lions still thin at many positions

The Lions are still trying to restock their talent base. That process has started at certain positions, but overall this is a team still thin at too many spots. We review the Lions, position-by-position to differentiate between the feasible talent and the units that lack luster.

It's hard not be confident that the Vikings are going to open the 2009 season with a record of 2-0 as they head into Ford Field to play the Detroit Lions. Why? The Lions currently have the fourth-longest losing streak in NFL history at 18 straight games. One more loss and they will tie the second-longest losing streak currently shared by the Chicago Cardinals in 1942-43 and '45 (that team merged with the Steelers in 1944 and went 0-10, but those losses didn't count against the Cardinals franchise record) and the 1961-62 Oakland Raiders. This is a franchise of futility that looked awful in Week 1 in a 45-27 loss to the New Orleans Saints in which they were torched for six touchdowns by quarterback Drew Brees and allowed journeyman running back Mike Bell to rumble for 143 yards.

Lions fans hope new head coach Jim Schwartz will change the culture of losing. Many of the players from last year's 0-16 team are gone, as well as general manager Matt Millen and head coach Rod Marinelli. As one of the first moves made by the new coaching regime, the Lions used the first pick in the 2009 draft to take quarterback Matthew Stafford. Blessed with a cannon arm and a load of upside, Stafford is expected to be the franchise QB of the Lions for years to come. However, after being outplayed by former Viking Daunte Culpepper in the preseason, Schwartz gave the starting nod to Stafford. He struggled in his first start, completing just 16 of 37 passes for 205 yards and three interceptions. He was pressured in the pocket and forced to release the ball quickly, which led to turnovers that allowed the Saints to score 28 first-half points and put the game on ice. The Vikings are going to look to do the same, as they will try to blitz Stafford and force him to take chances, which for young quarterbacks is typically a recipe for disaster.

The only way the Lions will be able to keep the heat off of Stafford is to establish the running game, something that has been easier said than done for them. In the last three years, the team has finished in the bottom five among rushing teams in the NFL. But there is hope with second-year running back Kevin Smith. A versatile runner and receiver, Smith ran for almost 1,000 yards as a rookie and caught 39 passes. The team will lean heavily on him to be the centerpiece of the offense. He is backed up by veteran Maurice Morris, who spent his first seven seasons with the Seattle Seahawks. He is more of a between-the-tackles runner but has some shiftiness to get outside. At fullback, the team added veteran Terrelle Smith to be a solid lead blocker and will occasionally use second-year man Jerome Felton as a short-yardage back. However, this is Kevin Smith's show and he is likely to get the lion's share of the carries Sunday.

The receiver corps is led by third-year man Calvin Johnson. A physical specimen with a rare blend of size, strength and speed, he is clearly the home-run threat on the Lions. Although he had just three catches in the opener, he gained 90 yards and is likely going to require safety help every time he heads down the field. The team went outside the organization to shuffle the supporting cast, adding veterans Bryant Johnson, Dennis Northcutt and Yamon Figurs. The team has high hopes for third-round draft pick Derrick Williams, but he likely won't get too many opportunities early. At tight end, the Lions have a pair of strong veteran blockers in Will Heller and Casey FitzSimmons, but the talk around Lions camp was first-round rookie Brandon Pettigrew. While he is a huge player with solid blocking skills, the Lions envision him as being their version of Antonio Gates – a big tight end who can create mismatches down the field. He hasn't shown that ability yet, but the Vikings will need to be wary of him.

One of the reasons the Lions went 0-16 last year was because of an offensive line that struggled from beginning to end. They have veteran talent up front, with former first-rounder Jeff Backus at left tackle, Dominic Raiola at center and Stephen Peterman at right guard. They have bolstered the line with some young talent as well. Gosder Cherilus, a first-round pick last year best known to Vikings fans as the player who took a cheap shot at Jared Allen's knee, is at right tackle and rookie Daniel Loper is expected to be the long-term starter at left guard. However, Loper has been slowed at practice with a knee injury. If he can't go, the Lions will likely turn to third-year man Manny Ramirez, a 335-pounder who started three games last year. This is a group that can be overpowered by the Vikings' front wall and will have to play at the top of their game not too be overrun by the Vikings.

As bad as the offensive line has been for the Lions, the defensive line has been no better since Shaun Rogers was traded away. Schwartz and defensive coordinator Gunther Cunningham are looking to install a defense that will rely on the defensive ends lining up wide and forcing plays inside. Unfortunately, they don't have the talent to get that accomplished on a regular basis and injuries are a major concern. Left end Cliff Avril is a question mark with a hamstring injury and his primary backup, Andre Fluellen, has been limited in practice with a knee injury. On the right side, Dewayne White is a solid run stopper but doesn't pose a huge threat as a pass rusher on a consistent basis. With the injuries to Avril and Fluellen, the Lions may have to count more on backups Copeland Bryan and Jason Hunter, which could spell doom if they are expected to bottle up Adrian Peterson. Things are just as difficult in the middle, where defensive tackle Grady Jackson has been sidelined with a knee injury that will likely limit his playing time Sunday. The other starter is fourth-round rookie Sammie Lee Hill, who is still getting his feet wet. If Jackson can't go, untested Orien Harris and Landon Cohen will be counted on to fill the void. This is a matchup the Vikings have the potential to dominate, as the Lions underachieving line is thinned by injury.

While the pass rush isn't coming consistently from the defensive line, the strength of the defense is at linebacker. The Lions invested a lot of free-agent dollars in signing Julian Peterson and Larry Foote to join fourth-year tackling machine Ernie Sims. This may be the best linebacker unit the Lions have had in years and will be the focus of trying to stop Peterson as well as put pressure on Brett Favre. They have some depth here with youngsters Jordan Dizon, Darnell Bing and DeAndre Levy, but, on a defense devoid of depth and top-end talent on the line and in the secondary, this is clearly the strength and the group that will be assigned to take on the most responsibility in controlling the Vikings offense.

The secondary is a mixed bag as well that has been thinned due to injury. The unit underwent a complete overhaul in the offseason, as the team signed free agents Anthony Henry and Phillip Buchanon to take over as the starters. Depth has been compromised by a pair of injuries – a knee injury to William James and a shoulder injury to Eric King. While both are expected to play Sunday, they will likely be limited, which means we may see former Viking Marcus McCauley, who was claimed by the Lions after he was released by Minnesota. At safety, the Lions think they have a future star in rookie Louis Delmas, who is teamed with veteran signee Marquand Manuel. The Lions believe Delmas can develop into a Troy Polamalu type, but the rookie from Central Florida is still learning the game and, like Tyrell Johnson last year, could be prone to making mistakes, which in the deep secondary can often result in giving up long touchdowns.

There are many reasons why the Lions are trying to snap an 18-game losing streak, especially in the trenches where games are won and lost. The Vikings have been established as a double-digit favorite for a reason – this is a Lions team that looks capable of continuing its losing streak well past Week 2. There has been an upgrade of talent at several positions, but there are still too many weak links to think that they can hang with the Vikings. But, considering Minnesota won their two games against Detroit last year by a total of six points, you can't take anything for granted.


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