ALLEN PARK, Mich. -- The same question surfaced at every stop on my NFC North training camp tour. In some form or fashion, division rivals wanted to know: Have the Detroit Lions improved as much as advertised?
After all, Lions Fever long ago engulfed the blog/region/nation. A four-game winning streak to end 2010, the return of quarterback Matthew Stafford and an exciting draft class all suggested the Lions were ready to break free from a decade of disappointment.
But even after spending three days in the Detroit suburbs, I still don’t think I’ve seen the 2011 Lions. What I saw was Lions Lite.
By the time I arrived at Lions camp, the team’s top three draft choices -- defensive tackle Nick Fairley, receiver Titus Young and running back Mikel Leshoure -- had been sidelined by significant injuries. Left tackle Jeff Backus (pectoral) wasn’t practicing and neither was backup Jason Fox (foot). Tight end Brandon Pettigrew, meanwhile, was nowhere to be seen after suffering an ankle injury.
What’s important, however, is that the franchise had neither panicked nor fallen into a funk. Leshoure’s is the only season-ending injury, and it was obvious even to an amateur observer that the Lions still have a talented collection of players on the practice field, one that romped to a 34-3 victory over the Cincinnati Bengals in its preseason opener Friday night. Many in that collection are entering their third year in the same system, and all of them are determined to give us something the NFC North has never seen: a four-team division.
"This team can be great," said receiver Rashied Davis, a part of two Chicago Bears teams that advanced to the NFC Championship Game. "I really think that. It is a great bunch of guys and there really is tons of talent."
THREE BIG ISSUES
1. Backus' status: The Lions are equipped to absorb injuries at many positions, but left tackle isn’t one of them. Fox’s injury has only exacerbated the issue and left the Lions using players who would otherwise be relegated to their third team at the most important position on the line.
Torn pectoral muscles usually require season-ending surgery. The Lions haven’t revealed the severity of the injury, but their insistence that Backus will be ready for the regular-season opener suggests the muscle isn’t completely torn. Backus hasn’t missed a game in his 10 previous seasons, and quite frankly the Lions are banking on his durability in this instance.
"You've just got to go on history there," coach Jim Schwartz said. "He has started 160 straight games. Jeff is obviously experienced and is a hard worker and doesn’t need every single rep in training camp. We can afford to take it slow with him and get him back the right way rather than have to rush him back too soon."
In the end, the question isn’t likely to be whether Backus plays, but if the injury has (temporarily) diminished his effectiveness. After all, an offensive lineman needs full extension and strength in his arms to ward off pass-rushers.
2. Stafford's return: I know it might ring hollow for those of you concerned about his health, but Stafford was zinging the ball all over the field during my time in Lions camp. He is now completely at ease in coordinator Scott Linehan’s offense and clearly bulked up this offseason to better prepare for the rigors of a 16-game season.
I saw Stafford loft 25-yard touch passes into the back of the end zone just as easily as he rifled 30-yard ropes over the middle. I realize that practice throws don't always predict game performance, and I know that his biggest challenge is durability and not ability. But to the extent that he could over three days of camp, Stafford sure looked like a quarterback who is ready to break through to NFL stardom.
"It's hard because he’s missed a lot of time on field," Linehan said. "But you can see the ownership he’s taken in this offense. He spends a lot of time with the players, with the system and in the building. It’s not just me talking in the meeting rooms anymore. He’s spot-on. He’s going to have a great career. I really think that."
3. Secondary issues are now secondary: The Lions' systematic rebuild of their defense is now two-thirds complete. They’ve built one of the best defensive lines in the game. They have three credible starters at linebacker. All that remains is the secondary.
The Lions weren't as worried about their secondary during the early portion of training camp as some other people were. Safety Louis Delmas has been a constant presence, having regained his health following offseason surgery on his groin. Cornerback Chris Houston re-signed after a brief foray on the free-agent market, strong safety Amari Spievey reported to training camp in good physical condition and new cornerback Eric Wright has been a consistent playmaker during team workouts.
I saw Wright end a team drill with a strong anticipatory interception of Stafford. A few days later, defensive coordinator Gunther Cunningham had this hyperbolic but revealing assessment: "To me, there’s only one athlete like this in the NFL. And he’s old. That’s Champ Bailey. [Wright] is a pure, one of the most outstanding athletes to come out of the draft in a long time."
The Lions have some decent depth behind Wright and Houston. Aaron Berry has again impressed coaches when he has been healthy, and the Lions should get back Alphonso Smith (foot) before the start of the regular season.
The secondary might be a weak link on a relative scale, but it might not be as weak as some might have feared.
A second consecutive offseason spent working together has left Stafford and Calvin Johnson in position to do some serious damage. It’s obvious to anyone watching Lions practice that the two have developed a level of chemistry that only time can bring.
"I feel like he trusts me that I'm going to put the ball in a good place to give him a chance," Stafford said, "and I definitely trust him when I put it up there that he's going to come down with it or nobody is."
Injuries have limited the two to 13 games over the past two seasons, but there is a feeling in Lions camp that the pair is ready to break out in 2011. The duo got off to a strong start Friday night on a back-shoulder touchdown pass to end the Lions’ first possession.
What is the true impact of Leshoure’s injury? It’s hard to know because we’re not entirely sure how the Lions planned to use Leshoure and Jahvid Best. Was Leshoure going to be the change of pace? Or was Best?
If Leshoure continued his early-camp performance, it’s very possible it could have been the latter. Best himself said the team had given him no indication whether he would get 20 carries per game, 10 carries per game or fewer.
"I was figuring that about midway through the preseason it was really going to start to show," Best said.
So what now? For the short term, at least, Best is firmly entrenched as the No. 1 back. In Friday night’s preseason opener, Best was either the ball carrier or the intended target on seven of 11 plays run by the Lions’ first-team offense.
But if the Lions’ aggressive move to draft Leshoure told us anything, it's that they don’t want Best carrying the entire load. The first candidate to be his running mate is newcomer Jerome Harrison, who was the first back off the bench Friday night. It’s too early to know if Harrison is up to the job, but the Lions really want to get Best some help -- from somewhere.
For the first time in a long time, place-kicker Jason Hanson isn’t guaranteed a spot on the roster. For that matter, the Lions also have a legitimate challenger to punter Nick Harris in Ryan Donahue. But Hanson’s roster battle with Dave Rayner has generated some attention. Schwartz said that "everyone on our 90-man camp roster has a chance to make the team." He noted that Hanson is kicking "very well," as is Rayner. "It’s a good situation for us," Schwartz said. Both kickers were booming kickoffs well into the end zone during my stay at camp. (Given the NFL’s shift of kickoffs to the 35-yard line, that’s to be expected.)
Cunningham joked (I think) that he "took the over" on the pre-camp weight of Spievey and defensive tackle Sammie Lee Hill. He was pleasantly surprised. The Lions are especially pleased with the way Spievey has taken ownership of his position. He looked lean and active during the early part of camp and appeared healthy as well. "Amari's in great shape," Cunningham said. "His communication skill is much higher than it was, and he and Delmas really know each other."
Most linebacker groups have a run-stopping plodder who is an obvious candidate to leave the field in the nickel. But with DeAndre Levy, Stephen Tulloch and Justin Durant, the Lions really don’t have one. Tulloch was leaving in the nickel during the portion of camp I watched, but he is a quick linebacker in his own right, and Schwartz insisted the Lions will mix and match their nickel lineups this season. "Our group gives us the flexibility to do that," he said.
Coaches couldn’t stop raving about Rashied Davis’ impact on the locker room. "There’s a guy I can’t say enough about," Linehan said. "That’s the kind of pro you want to have. I’m able to show the young guys that this is a 32-year-old veteran that is a special-teamer. Been in this league X amount of years because he just does everything 100 percent and right. That’s just been a great example for those guys."
One of my favorite sights of Lions training camp the past two years: veteran defensive end Kyle Vanden Bosch’s insistence that he touch the ball on every play. Sometimes that means reaching one step over from his current position. Often, however, it means chasing a ball carrier as far as 30 yards downfield. By the way, it appears Vanden Bosch is fully recovered from neck surgery that ended his first season with the Lions.
Will Wright re-establish his career with the Lions? He has the raw skills to do so, and now he has a defensive line that will, without question, make his job easier. "The D-line plays hard and it’s relentless," Wright said. "It’s contagious. From a total defensive standpoint, those guys rub off on us, especially the defensive backs."