NFC North: Stephen Tulloch

ALLEN PARK, Mich. – Old is again becoming new for Detroit Lions linebacker Tahir Whitehead.

When Stephen Tulloch was placed on injured reserve Monday, ending his season after getting injured while celebrating a sack of Aaron Rodgers on Sunday, one of the immediate options was to move Whitehead back from the strongside linebacker spot he won in camp to the middle linebacker slot inhabited by Tulloch.

Levy
Whitehead
Whitehead had initially been Tulloch’s backup during spring workouts and to start the preseason. For a while, it appeared that would be his role with the Lions. He had always been one of Detroit’s best special-teams players, and he eventually he showed he could be a good linebacker, too.

So he moved into the lineup and out of the backup role. Now he’s sliding back into the middle.

“It puts you right in the middle of the defense,” Whitehead said. “It allows you to be able to flow sideline to sideline, as you saw with Tully over the years, make a lot of plays playing in the middle. It frees you up to do a lot.”

It also might have happened because Lions coach Jim Caldwell didn’t want to disrupt the flow of his other starting linebacker, DeAndre Levy.

Levy, the team’s weakside linebacker, is having another standout season. Levy has been so dominant, it made the coaches debate whether or not moving him out of his current spot was a smart thing. Levy has 27 tackles and an interception already this season for the NFL’s top-rated defense. Levy also likes being in a weekly routine, and there is no telling if a position switch would change that.

The coaches decided it wasn’t worth the move, so Whitehead will play the middle and Levy will stay in the same spot and continue to have to sometimes cover on the outside. That’s not an issue, as he is considered one of the top coverage linebackers in the league.

New York Jets coach Rex Ryan went a bit further, calling Levy’s coverage skills “special.”

“This is a really instinctive player and he’s a guy that, outside of the kid from Carolina (Luke Kuechly), I always say that you put him in the same rep as the kid from Carolina,” Ryan said. “… [Levy] is instinctive, he plays the run, he’s got great timing. He’s a heck of a football player when you stack him behind that defensive line of theirs.

“He’s impressive, man. Really impressive.”

Caldwell did not rule out eventually moving Levy to the middle, but it could be dictated by both the opponent and Levy’s play. If Levy continues at his current pace and Whitehead picks up Tulloch's responsibilities, he might never have to rethink that decision at all.

ALLEN PARK, Mich. -- Stephen Tulloch was hopeful Sunday afternoon, even if the early evidence showed otherwise.

Tulloch injured his left knee celebrating a sack of Aaron Rodgers, a player he has faced multiple times in his career and has a tremendous amount of respect for. In doing so, he'll watch the rest of the Detroit Lions' season from the sidelines after injuring the ACL in his left knee.

It'll be the first time Tulloch will miss games in his NFL career and for him, for the Lions, the injury couldn't have come at a worse time. Detroit's defense was starting to show signs of being a really strong unit this season with Tulloch in the middle backing up the defensive line.

The way new Lions defensive coordinator Teryl Austin was scheming, too, fit Tulloch's game so well. In three games, Tulloch already had two sacks -- inching closer to his career-high of 3.5 set last season. He was able to blitz more than he had in the past and was provided with open rush lanes because of Detroit's defensive front.

He was a major asset next to emerging star DeAndre Levy at linebacker, a consistent player who never got hurt and had five straight seasons of 110-plus tackles in the middle of the Tennessee and Detroit defenses.

Now, with one celebration, his 131-games played streak is over. His 100-plus tackles streak is over. And the Lions have a massive hole to fill in the middle of their defense, a defense that has already had to deal with season-ending injuries to two cornerbacks.

Tulloch can't even know how his body will respond to this because he hasn't been injured on the professional level before. He doesn't know what it is like to watch from the sidelines -- something he was frustrated with even after Detroit's win Sunday.

This is going to be an adjustment for him.

It'll be a shift for the Lions, too.

Detroit coach Jim Caldwell didn't indicate how the team will replace Tulloch in the middle, but the immediate option would seem to be sliding Levy over to the middle to handle setting the defense, something he did after Tulloch's injury Sunday.

Levy is exemplary in his preparation each week, so making that shift shouldn't be a huge deal for him, but it will take some getting used to. Theoretically, though, it might take some coverage responsibilities away from Levy if they made the move. That could be problematic for the Lions because Levy is one of the best coverage linebackers in the NFL -- proven again Sunday when he broke up a fourth-down pass in the end zone while covering Green Bay receiver Jordy Nelson.

Another option would be Tahir Whitehead, who backed up Tulloch intermittently during the preseason and spring workouts. Moving him to the middle would allow Levy to stay where he might fit the defense the best and it still keeps the Lions' top two available linebackers on the field.

Ashlee Palmer would then likely slide into Whitehead's spot in Detroit's base 4-3 defense, at least until Kyle Van Noy returns from abdominal surgery.

The third option for the Lions is to try and sign a veteran linebacker off the street, although there aren't a ton of options available. Pat Angerer is a middle linebacker who has experience with Caldwell from their time in Indianapolis together and he was released from Atlanta during the preseason. Former Saints linebacker Jonathan Vilma is also a free agent.

Detroit recently signed linebacker Jerrell Harris to its practice squad and released Brandon Hepburn, who landed on Philadelphia's practice squad.
DETROIT -- Observed and heard in the locker room after the Detroit Lions' 19-7 win over Green Bay.
  • Vaughn
    Cornerback Cassius Vaughn -- one of the long line of Lions' nickelbacks so far this season -- was spotted with a walking boot on his left foot after the game. When he was asked about how the foot was feeling, he responded with a simple "it’s good" before heading on his way. Vaughn missed two practices this week with what was listed as an ankle injury. The Lions have played six players at nickel this season: Bill Bentley, Nevin Lawson, Vaughn, Don Carey, Danny Gorrer and Mohammed Seisay. Carey re-injured his hamstring in the first quarter Sunday.
  • Linebacker Stephen Tulloch, who injured his knee in the game, had posted on Instagram earlier in the day about the death of his former teammate in Tennessee, Rob Bironas. Tulloch played with Bironas for five seasons and said the two went to country music concerts together. "It hurt me big time, man," Tulloch said of the news.
  • The Lions didn’t seem to be making a big deal about beating Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers for the first time in his career, when he played a full game. Instead, they brushed it off as just another win early in a season. That is a mantra Jim Caldwell started in his postgame news conference when he said "I didn’t pay much attention to it."

Stephen Tulloch has knee injury

September, 21, 2014
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DETROIT -- Stephen Tulloch was really excited after sacking Aaron Rodgers in the first quarter Sunday against Green Bay.

And it may have cost the Detroit Lions middle linebacker.

Tulloch appeared to injure his knee on the celebration of his sack of Rodgers. He went to sideline after the play and trainers and doctors began looking at his legs. He came back into the game for one play, but ended up on the ground after it.

He officially was questionable to return, but was not spotted on the Lions’ sideline in the second quarter. He was replaced in the game by Tahir Whitehead.

Lions vs. Packers preview

September, 19, 2014
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It is a rivalry filled with dirtbags, scumbags, stomps and a winning streak going on longer than some NFL rookies have been alive. And that is just the past few decades.

Whenever the Green Bay Packers and Detroit Lions play each other, something ends up happening. So far, two of the major instigators of the recent vintage -- Packers lineman Josh Sitton and Lions defensive tackle Ndamukong Suh -- have remained quiet. That doesn’t mean something won't end up happening between now and game time.

So what happens during the game? NFL Nation Lions reporter Michael Rothstein and Packers reporter Rob Demovsky break down what you might see Sunday.

Rothstein: So, Rob, the Lions are going to have their third different starting slot corner in as many weeks on Sunday. How have the Packers done in three-wide sets this season and is that an exploitable area for Aaron Rodgers?

Demovsky: The three-receiver set is essentially their base offense. They use it primarily when they go no-huddle. But it really has not mattered much what the Packers are in personnel-wise, they’ve been looking to Jordy Nelson time and again. At some point, teams are surely going to force other receivers to beat them and that’s where Randall Cobb could come in. Although he caught a pair of touchdown passes last Sunday against the Jets, he had only 39 yards receiving. Given that he’s their slot receiver, perhaps this is a matchup the Packers will look to exploit this week.

I know it’s early in the season, but Nelson is putting up Calvin Johnson-type numbers so far. In fact, Nelson and Johnson come into this game ranked Nos. 1 and 2 in receiving yards. Nelson turned 29 this offseason and doesn’t look like he’s lost a step. Johnson will turn 29 at the end of this month. Is there any reason to think he’s slowing down at all?

Rothstein: Not at all. There was perhaps some concern over that during spring workouts, but he came into training camp looking like the receiver who has dominated the NFL over the past four seasons. The Lions brought in Golden Tate and Eric Ebron to help elongate Johnson's career as much as to help Matthew Stafford from taking nasty hits. So far, it has worked. Johnson is still being targeted a ton, but Tate is tied for 25th in the league in catches and 19th in yards with 150. Not bad for a true No. 2 receiver.

As long as Johnson can avoid injuries, he should still be in his prime for another couple of seasons. He takes extremely good care of himself and the Lions are doing their best to manage him. In the preseason they barely played him. Even during regular-season games, they are doing what they can to keep him fresh. That'll be one difference for Green Bay. There will be plays he's healthy on the sideline as the team tries to keep him as healthy and fresh as possible.

While the receivers will get the attention, the last time these two teams played, Josh Sitton called Ndamukong Suh and friends "dirtbags" and the Lions defensive line responded with their best game of the season. Is there still a similar level of dislike there or has that changed with the switch in the Detroit coaching staff?

Demovsky: Certainly the change in the coaches eased some of the tension between the Packers’ players and the Lions. Let’s face it, Sitton was pretty blunt in what he said about Jim Schwartz, so some of that is now gone. And Evan Dietrich-Smith, the player Suh stomped on, is no longer with the Packers. That said, there’s always going to be an emotional charge as long as Suh is on the other side. That will never go away as long as he’s there and Sitton and T.J. Lang are here. But both of those players are experienced enough to know now that this game is bigger than the individuals. And besides, the last time the Packers were at Ford Field, they took a beating, so if anything, the Packers might go back there humbled.

How much carryover, if any, will the Lions take from that 40-10 win over the Packers last Thanksgiving given that Rodgers did not even play in the game?

Rothstein: Not much, I don't think. So much has changed since then, from Rodgers now being healthy to the Packers switching defensive fronts to the Lions changing coaching staffs and offensive and defensive philosophies. I think it helps the Lions -- and Stafford -- that he finally beat Green Bay so there's potentially an underlying confidence thing there, but not a ton to it. Detroit doesn't seem focused on last season at all. For instance, when I asked Suh about that game last year and the aforementioned dirtbags comment, he smiled and basically said that was last season and had nothing to do with this season.

One of the Detroit offensive linemen, Rob Sims, mentioned the defensive line looks a lot different this year both in size and personnel. How much has the defense really shifted and how much 3-4 might the Packers still run, if any?

Demovsky: It’s like someone took Dom Capers’ old playbook away from him given how much 4-3 he’s running. It’s the first time he has done that since he came to Green Bay in 2009. What’s more, when he’s playing a four-man line, he’s using Clay Matthews off the line of scrimmage almost like an inside linebacker. They’re also much smaller across the front without those big three defensive tackles they had last season. It’s a completely different look, and it remains to be seen whether the change has been for the good. So far, they have struggled to stop the run, allowing 176.5 yards per game, which ranks 31st in the NFL.

The Packers have not been able to run the ball at all up the middle this season, and it looks like it might not get any easier this week. Why has the Lions' run defense been so effective?

Rothstein: It starts with that familiar guy from earlier, Ndamukong Suh. While teams still like to double him as much as possible, he is so difficult to deal with when an offensive line is trying to run block. Plus, the Lions have become much more aggressive this season with sending their linebackers, so rush lanes up the middle that used to be available in the Wide 9 defensive front are no longer an option for opposing teams.

But it starts with Suh and then linebackers DeAndre Levy and Stephen Tulloch. Those three players are going to make it difficult for any team Detroit faces to run up the middle. Here’s what you need to know there. The Giants and Panthers tried 34 rushes either up the middle or behind guards the first two weeks of the season. They’ve gotten pretty much nowhere, gaining only 69 yards. It’s a strength for Detroit, without a doubt.

Lions Camp Report: Day 6

August, 2, 2014
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ALLEN PARK, Mich. -- A daily review of the hot topics coming out of Detroit Lions training camp:
  • The Lions had a scrimmage Saturday during their yearly family day, dividing the roster into the first-team offense and second-team defense on one side and the second-team offense and first-team defense on the other. The first-team offense and defense had all the typical players save Calvin Johnson, who did not practice Saturday. That wasn’t surprising considering the Lions’ focus on keeping their star as fresh as possible. In their daily switch, LaAdrian Waddle lined up with the first team at right tackle and Corey Hilliard with the second team, but that competition between two players who will make the roster continues. Defensively, Tahir Whitehead received a lot of time at linebacker spelling Stephen Tulloch.
  • Big day for Eric Ebron, who caught a really long pass from Matthew Stafford and appeared to be more confident on the field than he has at any point this camp. It’s still going to be a learning process for him for a bit and there will certainly be mistakes, but Saturday was encouraging. Lions coach Jim Caldwell also seemed comfortable with Ebron’s progress as he learns the multitude of spots he is expected to line up at this fall. Ebron’s play was one of the highlights for the Lions’ offense of the scrimmage considering his issues with drops.
  • The Lions had some issues snapping the ball when Dominic Raiola was not part of the scrimmage. Both Darren Keyton – playing with the first group – and Travis Swanson had bad snaps to quarterbacks, causing issues. In Swanson’s case, it led to a fumble recovery for a touchdown by rookie Larry Webster, one of the better plays the defensive end has made during camp. While Swanson is still expected to be the backup center when everything shakes out a month from now, those issues amplified the importance of Raiola and his presence again this season.
  • Detroit’s cornerback situation behind Darius Slay and Rashean Mathis could get interesting. Jonte Green had his best day of camp thus far, breaking up two passes intended for receiver Ryan Broyles, who has not run with the first team much this camp. Chris Greenwood struggled again Saturday as well as those two potentially compete for one roster spot. Slay, Mathis, Bill Bentley, Nevin Lawson and probably Cassius Vaughn appear to be ahead of both Green and Greenwood on the depth chart – although Lawson is going to mostly play nickel. Still a long way to go in this competition with not much settled in the first week.
  • Another good day for Detroit’s kickers as Nate Freese and Giorgio Tavecchio made all their field goals attempted during the scrimmage, including a 50-yarder from Tavecchio that sailed through the uprights with ease. Unlike last season, when David Akers won the kicking job fairly easily, this season it seems like this could go on for a while. A wrinkle here could be something Caldwell said Saturday – that the team would consider using punter Sam Martin on extremely long field goal attempts. He compared it to his situation in Indianapolis, where Caldwell considered using punter Pat McAfee on long field goals. McAfee never attempted a field goal in a game, though. So something to consider as this competition progresses -- especially as Martin has an extremely impressive camp punting.

The Lions will take Sunday off before practicing again Monday at 8:30 a.m.
ALLEN PARK, Mich. -- Dominic Raiola has been through four full-time head coaches, an interim leader after one was fired and losses upon losses since being drafted by the Detroit Lions in 2001.

The most consistent thing he’s seen in his career, other than the losses, is the cycle of a new coach coming in, trying to rebuild, failing and then eventually being replaced by another coach attempting to make changes in his own vision.

The reason for the failures of those coaches are many, but now in the latter stages of his career, Raiola believes one thing has been fixed with the Lions when it comes to his sixth NFL head coach.

“The expectation is always to win, but this might be, not might -- this is the best chance for any of the head coaches that’s come in in their first year, the best chance for them to win right now,” Raiola said. “With the collection of talent in the room, the collection of coaches on the staff, the attitude of the building, the culture of the building and what it is right now, what it went through in the offseason, this is the best chance since I’ve been here.”

[+] EnlargeJim Caldwell
AP Photo/Carlos OsorioFirst-year head coach Jim Caldwell believes the Lions have the pieces in place to win consistently.
Raiola has been steadfast in his support of Jim Caldwell since his hiring in January and has consistently lauded how Caldwell has treated his players. Raiola has praised the accountability Caldwell has forced Detroit’s players to take and how he treats every player, from the top-end guys down, the same.

He’s seen the maturity from the players who were young when Jim Schwartz took over a 0-16 team with rookie quarterback Matthew Stafford in 2009. It is that leadership combined with Caldwell that gives Raiola the faith that this time it will be different.

That this staff and this collection of players will do what no Lions team other than the Barry Sanders-led group in the early 1990s has been able to do with consistency: win.

“We’re at a point now where we’re no longer a young team in the NFL,” linebacker Stephen Tulloch said. “We have players who have experience, that have been to the Super Bowl, won the Super Bowl and know what it takes to get to that next step.

“Bringing in coach Caldwell helps us achieve and see things from a different view. Players are excited about the future here and what we have in front of us. We have a lot of ability in this locker room, in this room, probably the most ability I’ve been around in my career, top to bottom.”

In past years, as Schwartz said after his dismissal, Detroit was a top-heavy franchise without much depth toward the bottom of the roster. The Lions tried to remedy that in the offseason, making some moves on offense but leaving some questions -- particularly at cornerback and receiver.

Caldwell, though, appears to believe in the talent Detroit has. When asked bluntly why he can be the coach to win in Detroit when so many others have not, he pointed to the players on the roster.

“Number one, that we have a good nucleus,” Caldwell said. “If I felt we didn’t have talent here, I’d tell you, you know what, we’re lacking a little bit. We’ve got a long way to go, et cetera. We’ve got a chance.

“... When I had a chance to coach against this particular team, I had a real good bird’s-eye view of what was here. That was one of the reasons why I was so interested in this job. It’s a great job, great situation, great ownership. We have a talented group. Now it’s our job to get those guys in position to win and win consistently, but I do think that nucleus is here to get that done.”

To focus that nucleus, Caldwell is attempting to transform a team that was careless with turnovers and penalties into a disciplined group that no longer turns the ball over with frequency or commits penalties at inopportune times.

“We’re going to field a team that has the right kind of Lions DNA, and that’s a smart, a fast and a physical team,” Caldwell said. “We expect you to see that on the field.”

With the talent on the roster and many of those top players in the best years of their careers, the Lions should be able to produce that on the field. However, the question, as is always the case with Detroit, is whether it will or not.
ALLEN PARK, Mich. -- Ndamukong Suh might not be under contract with the Detroit Lions beyond this season, but coach Jim Caldwell is confident a deal will get done with the All-Pro defensive tackle.

“Absolutely,” Caldwell said Sunday. “I’m always optimistic. I think you know me by now, and I think without question they are working at it, and I think something will be done at the appropriate time.”

When the appropriate time is, however, is unknown. When the offseason began, both team president Tom Lewand and general manager Martin Mayhew said publicly that they wanted Suh in Detroit and that Suh wanted to stay in Detroit long term. They believed a deal would get done soon, with Mayhew saying at the NFL combine it would be done close to the start of the regular season.

March came and went, and other than a change in Suh’s agent from Relativity Sports to Jimmy Sexton and CAA, no contract was agreed to. The offseason continued to progress, and then ESPN Insider Chris Mortensen reported last week that a team source was not optimistic a deal would be done before training camp begins Monday.

While this would appear to be a distraction heading into camp, Caldwell said he has experience dealing with players entering the final year of their contract.

“I’m not worried about it in that regard because Tom and obviously Martin and ownership will get that taken care of, and I’ve been through it a few times,” Caldwell said. “I’ve been through it with Peyton [Manning], and I’ve been through it most recently with [Joe] Flacco, and so there’s a number of guys that are going through that throughout the league and our team is no different.”

Caldwell said he would not be treating Suh, the No. 2 pick in the 2010 draft who has a $22.4 million cap number this season, differently than before. He was pleased, though, with how Suh showed up to camp, saying he is in the best shape he’s ever been in.

Players also insisted Suh’s contract situation would not be a distraction as camp begins, saying Suh is under contract and will be in camp. Suh told The Associated Press on Saturday that he felt his contract status would not distract him as the season approaches.

As far as selling Suh on remaining in Detroit long term, opinions differ on how to do that. Longtime center Dominic Raiola said winning this season would be a good way to sell Suh and other players on wanting to stay with the Lions.

Linebacker Stephen Tulloch said he wouldn’t have to sell staying in Detroit to Suh.

“We don’t have to say anything to Suh,” Tulloch said. “Suh’s a businessman, as we all know.”
ALLEN PARK, Mich. – There is now one day left.

The Detroit Lions finished up the second day of their mandatory minicamp Wednesday and it was probably the most balanced day the team has had during their sessions. After the first two weeks of open practices where the defense was dominant and the last couple of practices where the offense has been better, neither group seemed to take over the practice.

Johnson
That might be a good sign for the Lions that the offense is catching up to the defense even if both sides of the ball were without key contributors. Here are some thoughts, notes and observations from the day.
  • A decent amount of players missed practice Wednesday. Wide receiver TJ Jones, cornerback Chris Houston and linebacker Stephen Tulloch were not spotted at practice. Defensive end Ezekiel Ansah (shoulder), guard Rob Sims, wide receiver Golden Tate (shoulder), wide receiver Kevin Ogletree, running back Mikel Leshoure and running back Joique Bell (knee) all sat out practice. Ansah, Tate and Bell were expected. Sims has missed team drills all offseason, as had Glover Quin, who only worked in individual drills Wednesday.
  • Jason Jones appears to be slowly moving back to health. He seemed more active Wednesday than he has during past open practices, including working some with the first unit. He is still coming back from a ruptured patella tendon suffered last season, but he will be a contender for the closed defensive end spot in the fall opposite Ansah on the defensive line.
  • Player of the practice: For the second straight day, it is Calvin Johnson. Any question about Johnson’s health are now gone. He was once again the best player on the field and caught everything around him. He appears to be completely over his injuries and has his timing with Matthew Stafford down once again. He beat any cornerback the Lions lined up against him during 1-on-1 periods and on one play leapt over DeAndre Levy to catch a pass that he ended up running in for a touchdown.
  • During those 1-on-1 drills between defensive backs and receivers, the receivers clearly won the day. They had at least six completions to start the drill, including Kris Durham reaching out to make a difficult catch in front of Darius Slay. Corey Fuller also beat Aaron Hester on a post route that was pretty impressive.
  • Sequence of the day: Two impressive plays in a row. First, safety James Ihedigbo jumped a route from Stafford to Brandon Pettigrew to break up the pass. It was a great break on the ball by Ihedigbo. Stafford followed it up, though, with a perfectly threaded ball to Patrick Edwards into a small window over safety Don Carey. It was the best throw Stafford made on the day.
  • Carey is starting to really emerge as the probable third safety, although this is not unexpected. He once again filled in for Quin during team drills and has been a decent presence back there. In the secondary, Jonte Green is the one player who doesn’t seem to be getting as many reps as one might think.
  • As they did Tuesday, Rodney Austin and rookie Travis Swanson both took first-team reps at guard and center. While Austin worked some at center Tuesday, Swanson was there Wednesday. In some ways, this is a test from Jim Caldwell to see if both of them can play both guard and center, something imperative for a reserve interior lineman. With Sims out, Austin has spent the majority of spring working with the first team at left guard.
  • This is getting repetitive, but Theo Riddick continues to be impressive. He seems a little faster than last season and might have improved more than anyone else on the roster from last season. He is putting himself in position to have a real role in this offense this season after being primarily a backup in 2013.
  • Written about Eric Ebron’s drops here a bit, so worth noting when he makes the type of catch the Lions drafted him for. He extended on what looked like a poorly thrown ball to stretch in front of safety Isa Abdul-Quddus to make the grab before hitting the ground. It is one of the best catches he has made in the open practice setting this spring.
  • With Tulloch not in attendance, Tahir Whitehead took a lot of the first-team snaps at linebacker next to Levy. He was pretty active there. While he is primarily a special-teams standout – he’ll end up having a roster spot because of his special-teams play – that the Lions staff inserted him there behind Tulloch would appear to indicate he is having a pretty good spring. After practice, Caldwell cited how Whitehead controls the movement of other players in that space as one of the reasons they like him behind Tulloch.
  • Really good day for Sam Martin. The second-year punter had some help with the wind, but he crushed almost all of his punts. It is tough to see yard lines because of how the Lions’ outdoor practice fields are set up, but he said after practice one of his punts went over 80 yards and had a few go at least 70 yards. He said his shortest on the day was 63 yards. Strong day for him.
DEARBORN, Mich. -- There was a chance that Willie Young could have returned to Michigan much earlier than Saturday, that his cameo appearance at Stephen Tulloch's charity softball game would have been just another weekend.

Young spent his first four seasons in the NFL with the Detroit Lions, first as a reserve defensive end before blossoming into a starter in 2013. Then, with a chance to move on after last season, he took it, he departed for the division rival Chicago Bears during free agency.

Even if staying in Detroit was an apparent option.

Young
“They did [show interest] but we definitely broke ways on good terms,” Young said. “I definitely enjoyed my years here, I can say that. Thankful for the opportunity I was able to create for myself here and landing me in Chicago right now.”

Thus far, his time with the Bears has been uneventful. He lives by the team’s practice facility. He said in his first month or so of living in Chicago, he has been downtown twice.

He’ll eventually get down there more often, but he said he has spent his time trying to learn his second NFL playbook with his second NFL team and to be comfortable with all of the new things he is learning. He said the Bears’ scheme, a 4-3 like what the Lions ran under Gunther Cunningham, isn’t too much different than what he played in during his time in Detroit.

But getting used to new surroundings is still a change.

One thing that won’t change for Young this season is Thanksgiving. Even though he’ll be part of the opponent, he’ll spend his fifth straight Thanksgiving playing football at Ford Field -- this time as part of the Bears.

“It’s a little bit more than another game,” Young said. “I keep saying it’s just another game, but the thing is you’re playing against guys that you practiced against for so many years.”

Young felt a bond formed there. It’s part of the reason why even though he left the Lions, he drove the four-plus hours -- including, he said, traffic and a flat tire -- to show up at Tulloch’s charity event.

He wanted to show support and visit with his former teammates, much the same as Cleveland wide receiver Nate Burleson. Burleson was released by the Lions in February but also showed up at the game to hang out with the Lions.

To both men, this showed there was something more to their time in Detroit other than football.

“It definitely means a lot. It does. It absolutely does. Just to know that guys go against each other, all day every day,” Young said. “On Sundays, it looks like we’re out to decapitate each other but at the end of the day, somewhere along the way, some people lose sight of the fact that it’s a brotherhood to me.

“I don’t know, man. I really just, you feel the brotherhood and it doesn’t change. Especially with the guys you sweat with every day, line up with every day, put your hand in the dirt with every day, fight with, all that.”

That’s why Young was welcomed back, even if he’ll be playing for a rival next season. He was once a part of them and even though his jersey may have changed -- that bond still remains.
DEARBORN, Mich. -- Walking in from the distance, slowly creeping closer to his former teammates and still friends for part of this reunion weekend, Nate Burleson looked like a giant traffic cone.

This may have been a charity softball game put on by Detroit Lions Stephen Tulloch and Dominic Raiola, but the former receiver made sure that even as he visited his old team, he wanted to make sure everyone knew where he went as well.

[+] EnlargeNate Burleson
Andrew Weber/USA TODAY SportsFormer Lions WR Nate Burleson said he's glad to serve as a mentor to his new teammates in Cleveland.
Hence the orange shirt, orange shorts and straw hat with an orange piece of cloth on it. Make no mistake, Burleson is a Cleveland Browns wide receiver now. Detroit may feel like his second home, but his job is now a state away.

“I’m enjoying it, man. I’m having a good time,” Burleson said before the Tulloch charity softball game Saturday. “We’re a young team. We’ve got a good team. It’s good to be a part of a team that’s doing something.

“It’s similar to the situation when I came here. It wasn’t a desirable place, but Cleveland is one of those places where they deserve to have a good season.”

Much like he tried to do with the Lions the past few seasons, Burleson is aiming to be a mentor to a young team with stars like Josh Gordon and Johnny Manziel. Considering Burleson was close to retirement after being released by Detroit in February -- he said he had conversations with a television network for an analyst role this season -- he understands part of his role with the Browns is to teach the young players to become professionals.

Even as he started his time in Cleveland, he wasn’t sure how everything would go. He looked around and saw players a decade younger than him. Then he worked through one-on-one drills and everything still felt like it was working out well.

So he knew he made the right decision to return for at least one more season in the NFL. After all, television networks aren’t going anywhere even if he was on the move from the Lions.

Burleson had indicated throughout last season he wanted to finish his career in Detroit. He had made plans to do so, but understood he was an injury risk after missing almost half of the 2013 season with a broken forearm suffered in a pizza-related crash on Interstate 696 in Michigan. The season before, he broke his leg on Monday Night Football.

For a team that is focused on winning now, they couldn’t take that risk. Burleson played in 15 games the past two seasons, totaling 66 catches for 701 yards and three touchdowns.

“There’s no hard feelings, I think mostly because of the injuries,” Burleson said. “When I was on the field I was productive. I feel I was a great complement to Calvin [Johnson]. Just too many injuries and as an organization, I understand it. It would have been great to have me back for one more year but there’s such a big question mark, 'can he stay healthy?' Unfortunately, that’s part of the game and I was OK with it.”

There wasn’t anything wistful for Burleson about his return to Michigan this time. He continued to mesh with his old teammates on offense -- they were Team Raiola in the softball game -- but his next trip back might carry a bit more emotion.

The Lions and Browns play in the preseason opener, meaning the first-ever game for Manziel, the first-ever game for Jim Caldwell as the coach of the Detroit Lions and in a small sidebar, the return of Burleson to a place he outwardly seemed to love.

“Have I thought about it? Are you kidding me? Man, I’m racking my brain figuring out what celebration I’m gonna do because I’m gonna get a fine,” Burleson said. “I’m gonna get a fine. Seriously. I'm going to go to my coach and say, ‘Hey, look, I’m going to get a fine. I’m going to do something crazy.’

“It’s going to be a little bit of an appreciation celebration to the fans and the city of Detroit. It’s also going to be kind of a poke in the back saying you should of kept me because I’m still ballin'. Nah, you know me, I’m a prideful individual so I’m going to do something that’s representing Cleveland, representing Ohio, and it’s going to be fun and classy.”

Arrow indicates direction team is trending.

Final Power Ranking: 21
Preseason Power Ranking: 24

Biggest surprise: The offensive line was supposed to be one of the biggest question marks for the Lions this season with three new starters and a center who was supposed to be on the tail end of his career. Instead, the group ended up being one of the top units in the NFL. Larry Warford, a third-round pick in the 2013 draft, looks to be an anchor at right guard for the next decade. Center Dominic Raiola had arguably his best season and the Lions discovered another rookie, undrafted free agent LaAdrian Waddle, as a consistent starter at right tackle. Four of the five -- all but Raiola -- are under contract for next season. Raiola has expressed a desire to return if possible.

Biggest disappointment: At one point, Detroit was 6-3 and looked to be in control of the NFC North and a playoff berth. Then everything unraveled. The Lions lost five of their next six to fall out of playoff contention. In each of those losses, Detroit had three or more turnovers. Matthew Stafford, who appeared in the first half of the season to be moving closer to becoming an elite quarterback, regressed. Reggie Bush, brought in as a high-profile free agent in the offseason, had issues with fumbles. Calvin Johnson had the most drops in a season in his career. Almost everything imploded on the Lions, who will watch the playoffs from home again this year.

Biggest need: In the draft, the Lions need to look at a speedy wide receiver on the outside to complement Johnson along with finding a young, shutdown cornerback early on to play alongside Darius Slay, last season’s second-round draft pick. Depending on whether tight end Brandon Pettigrew and Raiola return, those are two other positions to look at, and the Lions could also use depth at linebacker. Perhaps the biggest need of all is a guru to work with Stafford to help fix his mechanical issues and decision making. Whether that person is brought on staff as a dedicated quarterback coach or an outside influence like Steve Clarkson or George Whitfield Jr., Stafford could use some specialized refresher courses at least.

Team MVP: Johnson was the team's best player, and he showed his value when he was out, as the Detroit offense couldn’t move the ball well in games he missed. But the most valuable Lions player this season was linebacker DeAndre Levy. He had career highs in tackles, solo tackles and interceptions this season. But to me, the image of him hobbling out of the locker room after the Lions’ 23-20 loss to the Giants in Week 16, after he legitimately gave every piece of himself to his team only to lose, showed his value. Levy doesn’t say much, but he was the top player on the Lions' defense and consistently made plays for Detroit all season long.

All-NFC North: Detroit Lions

January, 2, 2014
Jan 2
10:00
AM ET
NFC Teams: East | West | North | South AFC: East | West | North | South

Despite their collapse in the second half of the season, the Lions were well-represented on the ESPN.com All-NFC North team, placing four players on the offense and six on its defense.

This, though, might speak to the overall rough nature of the NFC North, where injuries took a lot of stars on other teams away. Every player I felt that should have made it for the Lions did, other than maybe punter Sam Martin.

But even for some of those who did make it from the Lions, it was more a case of limited pickings in the division than anything else. That has to be why Matthew Stafford was named as the division’s quarterback -- due to injuries to Jay Cutler and Aaron Rodgers, along with the dysfunction at quarterback in Minnesota.

The other surprise to make it was Louis Delmas, but there was a lack of safeties in the division and Delmas was the only player other than Glover Quin to receive a vote, so he made the team.

Otherwise, status quo for the Lions, who expectedly had Calvin Johnson, Dominic Raiola and Larry Warford join Stafford on the offense. And they had Ndamukong Suh, DeAndre Levy, Stephen Tulloch and Willie Young join Quin and Delmas on the defense.

ALLEN PARK, Mich. -- The Detroit Lions huddle up and even then, so close to the end zone, it isn’t explicitly verbalized. But the knowledge is there.

When they are within 10 yards of the end zone, the Lions feel they should score touchdowns. Pretty much every team feels that way. But this season, no team has been more efficient in scoring touchdowns from that distance than Detroit.

Detroit is the best in the NFL at scoring touchdowns when in goal-to-go situations. The Lions are also best in the NFL at preventing touchdowns when opponents are in the same situation.

[+] EnlargeReggie Bush
Tim Fuller/USA TODAY SportsReggie Bush and the Lions' offense score touchdowns on 83.3 percent of their goal-to-go possessions.
In understanding why the Lions are in position to make a run to their first divisional title in 20 years, this might be one of the most important and overlooked numbers.

Yet when Lions offensive players were asked about their efficiency this week, most of them expressed surprise.

“I know the defense is great but I didn’t know that about us,” wide receiver Kris Durham said. “I think it’s just the weapons that we have and the way that [Scott] Linehan puts us in position and obviously, it’s just a combination of everything.

“Feel like the line is doing their job. Backs and receivers are doing their job. Matthew [Stafford]’s putting us in the right position and Linehan is calling good plays.”

Inside the red zone, the Lions' offense has been good. When it becomes goal-to-go, no team in the league has been better. Detroit has scored touchdowns on 83.3 percent of its goal-to-go possessions, the only team in the NFL to top 80 percent.

It is also over a 20 percent jump in efficiency from the Lions’ red zone efficiency, which stands at 61.7 percent. But getting so close, for Detroit, is part of why the Lions brought in some of the players they did.

“We’re kind of a hurry-up, we’re going to keep you spread out and basically going to play a numbers game,” running back Reggie Bush said. “If you put too many in the box, we’re going to throw the ball. If you try to double Calvin [Johnson], then we’re going to try and run the ball.

“And then we have Big Joe [Fauria], who is 6-foot-8, and Calvin on the other side. It’s kind of pick your poison.”

While the Detroit offense has the multitude of options to score, the defensive explanation is a bit more succinct. It’s all about the run. And how the Lions defend it.

The Lions are third in the league in red zone efficiency defense. But when it comes to goal-line defense, Detroit is the best team in the league, only allowing touchdowns 47.1 percent of the time.

[+] EnlargeEddie Lacy
AP Photo/Paul SancyaThe Lions have the third-best rushing defense in the league, allowing 82.67 yards a game.
“It’s crazy. I think we just practice so much, we situational practice so much with those situations and having the guys that are going to be around for a long time,” linebacker Stephen Tulloch said. “That we trust and understand where they are going to be at and how their leverage is at and play within a defense.

“Guys play into what is going on and we can understand that this person is going to be there and I’m going to be here and as long as we play assignment football so teams can’t drive on us and score on us.”

Much of the reason for the defensive success comes from Detroit’s run defense. The Lions have the third-best rushing defense in the league, allowing 82.67 yards a game. But where the defense has been more impressive, and this ties into both the run defense and the goal-line defense, has been the lack of scoring from opponents on the ground.

Detroit has given up five rushing touchdowns this season, but all came in the first four games. The Lions have gone eight games without allowing a rushing touchdown. They have gone four games keeping teams under two yards a carry.

So it is all interrelated, but it starts there.

“We kind of just do what we do and it’s hard to run on us,” safety Glover Quin said. “A lot of times when you get down there, you have to be able to run the ball. It’s hard to throw the ball because [there's] not a lot of space.

“So if you can stop the run inside the 10s, you got a good chance of keeping them out of the end zone.”

And this season, no team has been better at stopping that on defense and converting those chances on offense than the Lions.

Goal-to-go efficiency ratings were culled from ESPN Stats & Information. Follow ESPN Stats & Information on Twitter @ESPNStatsInfo.
ALLEN PARK, Mich. -- Pittsburgh may not appear to be the typical Steelers team this season, under .500 and barely hanging on in the AFC North divisional race, but don’t tell Detroit that.

The Lions are convinced the Steelers are a good team that has played a lot of close games -- and they aren’t underestimating the Pittsburgh defense, which is still one of the top units against the pass in the league.

“I don’t know that you’ll ever have a Pittsburgh Steelers defense that’s underrated,” Detroit coach Jim Schwartz said. “They have played some really good games this year.

“We’re going to have our hands full. They have players.”

So how does Detroit beat Pittsburgh? Here are four keys.

[+] EnlargeNdamukong Suh
Andrew Weber/USA TODAY SportsLions defensive tackle Ndamukong Suh will have his sights set on rattling Steelers quarterback Ben Rothelisberger's cage on Sunday.
Pressure Ben Roethlisberger: The Lions reasserted themselves as a front four last week against Chicago with defensive tackles Nick Fairley and Ndamukong Suh each reaching the Bears' quarterbacks four times. Now they face a quarterback known for staying with a play and in the pocket until the last possible second in Roethlisberger -- as well as the quarterback who has been sacked more than any other in the past five seasons.

So the more pressure Detroit is able to get on Roethlisberger, the better its chances are of forcing him into a mistake or bringing him down a few times, crushing Steelers drives.

Embrace the favorite role: It is a new place for the Lions, perennially looked at as a potential spoiler for playoff teams by this time of the season instead of a team trying to reach a divisional title. But this is where the Lions are now and this will be the first time they will be on the road in that type of role. While Detroit’s players have said they don’t look at themselves in that favorite type of role, that is what they are now. A game like this against Pittsburgh is one they potentially should win and, if they are going to elevate from playoff contender to a team that could make a run in the playoffs in January, one they should be able to win. It’d be a big confidence boost in that regard.

Don’t be rattled by a Matthew Stafford interception: Here’s a fun stat. In Detroit’s six wins this season, Stafford has thrown an interception in each game. In its three losses, he has been interception-free. So while I’m not advocating for Stafford, who is having the best season of his career, to throw an interception, I’m saying it isn’t the end of the game if he does. Stafford has been accurate this season and has compiled a really strong year. There’s a pretty good chance he becomes Detroit’s all-time passing leader Sunday as well. So stick with him and don’t get fazed if he turns the ball over.

Keep Bell in check: Detroit has turned into one of the top rushing defenses in the league (ranked eighth at the moment allowing 100.67 yards a game) and have held their last three opponents under 100 yards rushing as a team. Le’Veon Bell is a local guy -- he played at Michigan State -- who has emerged as Pittsburgh’s top running option as a rookie.

Most of that responsibility falls on the defensive linemen and linebackers to make plays, particularly linebackers DeAndre Levy and Stephen Tulloch.

“We’re still a work in progress there,” Schwartz said. “But if we can get the run stopped it goes a long way to getting us to where we want to go.”

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