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Saturday, August 7, 2010
Camp Confidential: Detroit Lions

By Kevin Seifert

ESPN.com NFL Power Ranking (pre-camp): 29

ALLEN PARK, Mich. -- If the measure of a good team is roster stability, then, well, we know where the Detroit Lions stand. General manager Martin Mayhew and coach Jim Schwartz spent most of their first year together operating like an expansion franchise, using their roster to sift through dozens of nomadic no-names and aging veterans while effecting a near-weekly rotation at a half-dozen positions -- left guard, defensive end, cornerback and safety chief among them.

So as they reported to training camp this summer, the Lions were hoping to slow that train and accelerate the installation of permanent building blocks in their lineup. Schwartz remains realistic about the job ahead of him but is certain the Lions are pointing in the right direction.

"Hope isn't a strategy," Schwartz said. "You need good players. I think what we proved last year is that we weren't ready to accept sub-par performance. We were willing to make changes and things like that. I think that was an important statement to make. In a perfect world, all of our positions would be solidified and you would feel good about it every week. Probably 32 NFL teams are going to be dissatisfied with a couple positions ... but I think the sign of a good team is having less spots that you look at and say, wow, what are they going to do there?"

After a few days at Lions training camp, it was evident the Lions are not there yet. But they're closer than they were last year, having upgraded at receiver, running back, tight end, left guard and along the entire defensive line. Questions remain at linebacker and in the secondary, but the Lions are working methodically to narrow that gap.

"We have a big sense of urgency," Schwartz said. "I don't want to say we've been patient. We just haven't deviated from our plan and we haven't gone too much for immediate gratification."

THREE HOT ISSUES

Matthew Stafford
The Lions are counting on Matthew Stafford to make progress from his rookie season.
1. Can Matthew Stafford make the jump the Lions need? Stafford's rookie season wasn't unusual for a highly drafted quarterback. Playing on a bad team, he threw 20 interceptions in 10 games. Injuries cost him six starts. But after surrounding him with receiver Nate Burleson, tight end Tony Scheffler and running back Jahvid Best, the Lions are expecting a much more positive second-year experience.

Stafford spent the early part of the offseason studying the causes of each interception, concluding that the majority of them were "trying to make a play when it wasn't there," he said. He added: "A lot of them were on third-and-long. I've got to be better on third-and-long to trust our backs, to throw a checkdown and let him run and go get it. I have to know that the best teams in this league are 35 percent [conversion rate] on third-and-long. Not everybody's making it every time. The goal this year is to stay out of those as much as possible."

The potential is there. Stafford has spent the entire offseason working with receivers, putting a special emphasis on developing chemistry with Calvin Johnson. He has taken every first-team snap in practice and has a set of skill players that can rival other NFC North offenses.

"We have a lot of weapons this year," he said. "It's up to us to get some rhythm and get it going."

2. Can an overhauled defensive line compensate for uncertainty at linebacker and safety? I like to compare the Lions' defense to an episode of "Hoarders." When Mayhew and Schwartz opened the front door, they found a mass of junk. So they picked one corner, the defensive line, and starting digging their way out.

As training camp opened, the Lions had NFL-caliber starters at right end (Kyle Vanden Bosch) and nose tackle (Corey Williams), along with a potential superstar in defensive tackle Ndamukong Suh. But remember, the Lions are the only team since the 1970 merger to finish with the NFL's worst defense in three consecutive years. In order to move up significantly in those standings, they'll need their line to be so good that it overshadows inexperience at linebacker and another year of patchwork in the secondary.

"If this defense is going to be good, it's going to be on us up front, and we're just going to have to wreak havoc," Vanden Bosch said. "We're going to have to bring energy to every practice and we're just going to have to keep on pushing each other and make improvements."

As we discussed earlier this week, it's schematically possible for an elite pass rush and strong run-stoppers to reduce the strain placed on other positions. Based on how the rest of the Lions' defense is shaping up, they'll need nothing less.

Louis Delmas
Louis Delmas has noticed a change in attitude with this year's team.
3. Can the Lions expunge what safety Louis Delmas referred to as a "ho-hum attitude?" If you're keeping track, the Lions have lost 28 of their past 30 games and 37 of their past 40. You often hear about new attitudes in training camp, so take this for what it's worth. After jettisoning a number of veteran players this offseason, Delmas said that now "everyone wants to be here and they want to learn." He added: "That's something I don't think we had last year. Guys were just here. The coaches are motivating us to go out there and get better. We've got a great attitude."

As for low expectations among national observers, Stafford said: "I don't think anyone here believes that. They play the games for a reason. The season hasn't started yet. Everybody is 0-0. Come the first Sunday, it's go out there and prove it and see what we can do."

BIGGEST SURPRISE

Tight end Brandon Pettigrew tore an anterior cruciate ligament on Thanksgiving Day 2009. A little more than eight months later, Pettigrew was back on the field doing much more than at least I would have expected. He's practicing at least once per day and participating in some contact drills, even while wearing a brace on his knee.

If he has a hitch in his gait, it's barely noticeable. And on at least one play this week, Pettigrew displayed enough speed to get past linebacker Julian Peterson and catch a nice seam pass from Stafford. "He's had a really good rehab and we don't want to set him back by trying to do too much too soon," Schwartz said. At this rate, it seems quite reasonable to expect Pettigrew to be ready for a significant role in the season-opening game at Soldier Field. That has to be the best-case scenario the Lions could have imagined when the injury first occurred.

BIGGEST DISAPPOINTMENT

Two key parts of any defensive improvement the Lions will have this season weren't on the field for any part of the five practices I watched. Delmas hasn't practiced since the spring because of a groin injury that Schwartz said has healed but impacted his conditioning. But Delmas is an "established" player who probably could get away with missing a portion of training camp after starting 15 games last season. Linebacker DeAndre Levy, however, needs every practice rep he can get while making the permanent transition from the outside to the middle. Levy reported to training camp with tightness in his back, and he was pulled from practice this week. There is no long-term concern at this point, and the Lions must hope nothing develops. At this point, there are no viable internal options to turn to. Levy's backup is veteran Vinny Ciurciu, an undersized career special-teams player.

Calvin Johnson
Additional weapons on offense should open things up for Calvin Johnson.
OBSERVATION DECK