NFC North breakdown: Lions

July, 8, 2010
7/08/10
12:57
PM ET
Ndamukong SuhLeon Halip/US PresswireThe Lions are expecting big things out of rookie defensive tackle Ndamukong Suh.
John Niyo of the Detroit News takes a little time out to discuss the Detroit Lions for Day 3 of our NFC North beat reporters series.

We’ve already covered the Vikings, and Packers, and plan on getting to the Bears on Friday.

Five things the Lions need to worry about

1. The secondary: It’s still a huge question mark. Another offseason overhaul means three new starters among the defensive backs. Although they have upgraded speed at the corners, are these guys really going to be able to play more press coverage? And is anybody capable of filling that starting strong safety spot next to Louis Delmas? Trust me, opponents are going to test them to find out.

2. Middle linebacker: Revamping the D-line was a primary goal this offseason, and there's no doubt they did that by adding Ndamukong Suh, Corey Williams and Kyle Vanden Bosch. But for the moment, it's a second-year guy, Deandre Levy, starting at middle linebacker. Another of last year's rookies, Zack Follett, a guy who started 2009 on the practice squad, is starting on the weak side. You can cover up a linebacker easier than some other positions, but obviously they're putting a lot of trust in Levy.

[+] EnlargeStafford
Andrew Weber/US PresswireMatthew Stafford missed some time last year due to injury and he's been limited in early workouts this offseason.
3. Matthew Stafford: Can Stafford stay healthy? He went down with a dislocated kneecap in Week 4 as a rookie, and then went down for the count with a separated shoulder late in the season. He looks to be healthy again this offseason, but without him -- and honestly, Shaun Hill's an upgrade over last year at the backup quarterback spot -- the Lions' offense isn't going anywhere.

4. Offensive line depth: A bad offensive line isn't what got Stafford beat up last season. But an o-line that's probably average at best did get beat up by injuries, and an offense that couldn't generate enough big plays. They've added weapons like Jahvid Best and Tony Scheffler and Nate Burleson to try to solve that last part. But the O-line depth remains a big concern.

5. Possible slow start: It's hard to look at the Lions' schedule and find a lot of wins. This is a team that's 3-37 the last two-plus seasons. But after an offseason that has people thinking optimistically again, an 0-4 start would be tough to handle. Still, they start with three division games and Philly, and three of those first four are on the road.

Five things not to worry about

1. Scoring: This offense is going to score some points. Stafford's struggles as a rookie -- and really, his numbers were nearly identical to Mark Sanchez's as a rookie -- had as much to do with the lack of talent around him as much as his own mistakes last season. Receivers couldn't get open and running backs couldn't break off big gains -- they had just five runs of 20-plus yards all season. But they've added a big-play back in Jahvid Best, who they can get creative with, a No. 2 receiver in Burleson, who can take some pressure off Calvin Johnson, and maybe most important, another big pass-catching tight end in Scheffler. Expect to see a lot of two-tight end sets with Scheffler and Brandon Pettigrew. Then watch them move Best all over the place to create some mismatches.

2. Ndamukong Suh: He won’t be a bust. Sure, rookie defensive tackles historically struggle in the NFL, and many haven't proven worthy of their draft status. Almost any scout will tell you Suh is a rare specimen. And maybe one of the more underrated offseason moves -- the Lions' trade for Corey Williams -- should give the No. 2 pick a pretty good tag-team partner inside.

3. Free-agent addition Vanden Bosch: He won’t be a bust, either. A lot of people seem to think Vanden Bosch can't get it done anymore. But there's a reason coach Jim Schwartz showed up on his doorstep at the stroke of midnight the first day of free agency. He knows he's got a right-side anchor who knows this scheme, and a guy who will bring it every play, which is what this team has lacked for too long.

4. Calvin Johnson: He’s going to make the Pro Bowl this season, provided he stays healthy, which I suppose might be something to worry about. Johnson and Stafford barely got to know each other on the field last season due to their injuries. But they've had a full offseason together, and I'll be shocked if it doesn't show on Sundays. Burleson is a guy who can play the role Bryant Johnson couldn't last season, and with teams forced to respect Best's speed out of the backfield, Johnson's going to get his chances to shine. Finally.

5. The fans: After all they've been through, they're still here. This franchise has gone 33-111 since the start of Matt Millen's reign of terror, and this city and state have gotten clobbered economically. Yet I'll be surprised if the Lions don't sell out all but a couple of games this season. I don't know that they'll get a winner this year -- I'm thinking 5-11 or 6-10 -- but they certainly deserve one.

Michael C. Wright

ESPN Chicago Bears reporter

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