NFL Nation: Jeff Backus

Camp Confidential: Detroit Lions

August, 12, 2013
ALLEN PARK, Mich. -- The Detroit Lions opened training camp expressing unprecedented confidence in the direction of their program, and, if anything, their steam has picked up since then. A relatively injury-free camp, the obvious impact of multiple newcomers and a rousing victory in the first week of the preseason have the Lions and many of their fans convinced they will bounce back from last season's 4-12 record.

"We're every bit as optimistic now as we were then," coach Jim Schwartz said late last week, "and probably more so -- particularly with some of our rookies and younger players. Now, we're saying that two weeks into camp, before we've even played a preseason game. The tale of the tape is going to be consistency over the course of time. But certainly our stance hasn't changed."

Importantly, that optimism isn't based solely on anticipation of another year of development between quarterback Matthew Stafford and receiver Calvin Johnson. It's a nod toward the early returns on the fit with tailback Reggie Bush. There is relief that receivers Nate Burleson and Ryan Broyles, who both suffered significant leg injuries last season, have returned healthy.

There's more. Defensive tackles Ndamukong Suh and Nick Fairley were unblockable during the practices I watched last week. Rookie defensive end Ziggy Ansah returned an interception for a touchdown in the first quarter of his first NFL game action. New safety Glover Quin's leadership is notable, and rookie punter Sam Martin has been perhaps the most impressive newcomer of all.

The good vibes, and presumed results, come at a crucial time for the franchise. The Lions are entering their fifth season under Schwartz and general manager Martin Mayhew, and there might not be a sixth if this team misses the playoffs.

"I'm a vet," Burleson said. "I've been at this 11 years. I'm trying to get everyone to understand that if we don't do what we need to do, these name plates above these lockers, this furniture, [everything] is going to be shipped up out of here -- including myself. So I've got to be productive, and everybody has to have the mindset that the time is now, so in order for us to do something special and bring something special to this city, we're going to have to win."


[+] EnlargeRiley Reiff
AP Photo/Paul SancyaThe Lions are counting on Riley Reiff to protect Matt Stafford's blind side.
1. Offensive line transition: The Lions will have three new starters on the line, and here's the good news: The player in the most important position appears to be making a smooth transition. Riley Reiff, the Lions' first-round draft pick in 2012, has replaced retired left tackle Jeff Backus, and he held his own against the Lions' talented defensive line during my training camp visit last week.

Reiff bulked up this offseason after spending his rookie year in a quasi-tight end role. He might be the most soft-spoken player in the Lions' otherwise-boisterous locker room -- when I asked him about the job, he shrugged his shoulders and said, "They asked me to play left tackle so I'm playing left tackle" -- but he more than passed the eyeball test as a credible left tackle.

The same can't be said, at least not yet, about the wide-open jobs on the right side of the line. The Lions are rotating two players at right tackle and up to four at right guard, and no clear leaders had emerged by the weekend. (It was notable, however, that the Lions played rookie right guard Larry Warford for three-quarters of Friday night's game against the New York Jets.) In this case, time will tell.

2. Stafford's next step: He failed to build on his breakout 2011 season in 2012, but in the big picture, Stafford is an experienced starter who has thrown for 10,005 yards in two seasons and who, at 25, still has plenty of room to grow.

That status, however, has generated rare expectations for a Lions quarterback, leading to training camp reports of missed passes and microanalyses of mechanics in a space once reserved for delineating various levels of incompetence. The franchise endorsed his progress with a contract extension that in essence locks him in for another three years at the helm, but the football world is waiting anxiously to see whether Stafford can elevate his career to an elite level.

My time at Lions camp suggested he is aware of but unaffected by those expectations. I saw no worrisome incompletions, no signs of malaise and an important sense of context as voiced by Schwartz.

"You don't [want to] take him for granted," Schwartz said. "We have a couple of guys new to our organization that come out to practice, and that's one of the first things that they want to say is, 'Holy mackerel, did you see the throw he made here?' It's a little bit like Calvin. You watch him a lot, and you forget how big he is and the plays he made."

3. Special-teams overhaul: Lost in the Lions' busy offseason was a near-total reconstruction of their special teams. New coordinator John Bonamego has welcomed newcomers at place-kicker (likely David Akers), punter (likely Martin) and returner (a wide-open competition to replace Stefan Logan). The Lions also signed longtime special-teams ace Montell Owens to anchor their coverage units.

Akers is working on a limited regimen after an injury-plagued season with the San Francisco 49ers, but he appears healthy and will benefit from both indoor home games and Martin's strong kickoff skills. Martin has been booming punts throughout camp, and his three touchbacks (in as many attempts) in the preseason opener suggest the Lions might have found a long-term answer at the position.

The return game is unsettled and probably dependent on bottom-of-the-roster decisions at other positions. Undrafted rookie Steven Miller has demonstrated elite quickness while getting the majority of reps in training camp, but can the Lions squeeze a return specialist onto their roster? His minimal action as a returner in the preseason opener makes you wonder whether he is a candidate for the practice squad.


Of all the factors I rattled off earlier this post, the most significant might be the attention the Lions placed on their defense this offseason. You're doing pretty well if the worst thing you can say is that the strongside linebacker position is unsettled, especially when you realize that whoever wins the job will come off the field in nickel situations, anyway.

[+] EnlargeGlover Quin
AP Photo/Paul SancyaThe Lions believe Glover Quin can provide steady leadership as well as solidify the secondary.
The Lions invested heavily at defensive end (drafting Ansah and Devin Taylor, signing Jason Jones and Israel Idonije), cornerback (re-signing Chris Houston, drafting Darius Slay) and safety (re-signing Louis Delmas and acquiring Quin). After two weeks of camp, Stafford said, "This is probably the most talented secondary we've had since I've been here," and Schwartz was lauding the leadership Quin will provide.

"A lot was made a few years back when we signed Kyle Vanden Bosch and Nate Burleson," Schwartz said, "and the difference that they made on the team was a big part of us making it to the playoffs [the] next year. I think the same thing, when it's all said and done, will be said about Quin because he brings that same kind of leadership, that same sort of professionalism."

We all expect the Lions' offense to score this season. If their defense can keep pace, as it appears it is equipped to do, the Lions will be a playoff team.


Schwartz said "there is no doubt" that the Lions have enough good pieces to make up a competent offensive line. But on the list of potential problem spots that could derail their season, the Lions' offensive line sits most prominently. If you believe in the law of averages, you wonder whether any team could come up with three good starters in one offseason, as the Lions are hoping to accomplish.

Warford has his work cut out to win the right guard job, as many have assumed he would. (The Lions got him 53 snaps in the preseason opener to accelerate that process.) Many have considered Jason Fox the favorite to win the right tackle job, but competitor Corey Hilliard got the first start of the preseason.

It's too early to judge the outcome of this overhaul, but there is no doubting the challenge it entails and the ramifications if it falls short.


  • Excitement about the Bush acquisition has centered around his receiving skills and ability to break long runs. But you'll have to trust me on this: The Lions are just as intrigued by his ability to run between the tackles. There will be just as many opportunities for that kind of yardage in a Calvin Johnson offense as there will be anywhere else. "The things that Jahvid [Best] was able to do for us, when he got outside of the tackles, Reggie can do those things," Johnson said. "But Reggie can run inside the tackles as well. He's a good overall back."
  • Along those lines, the Lions also are trying to identify a change-of-pace back behind Bush, and my sense is that they're past the point of giving Mikel Leshoure an inherent advantage over Joique Bell because of his pedigree as a second-round draft pick. If Leshoure isn't any more explosive than he was last season -- and I didn't see any evidence of that at camp -- there is a real opportunity for Bell to win the job.
  • One of the more intriguing prospects in camp is rookie running back Theo Riddick, who has a relatively similar skill set as Bush. He is quick, a good receiver, smart in the open field and in contention for a kick return job. And like Bush, he isn't afraid to bust it inside the tackles, either.
  • Another interesting prospect who has gotten plenty of attention is 6-foot-7 tight end Joseph Fauria. He can get to balls no one else on the field can reach, with the exception of Johnson when he leaps, and he is a natural receiver. It will be really tough for him to be a good blocker with his lean build, but the Lions need him to be just good enough. I sensed real optimism that he can qualify for that modest expectation.
  • Players such as Riddick, Fauria, tight end Michael Williams and others will give the Lions some interesting roster decisions. You wonder whether they will find some room by deciding against having a No. 3 quarterback on their roster. Kellen Moore looks improved and Thaddeus Lewis is intriguing, but the only real reason to keep one of them is if he is projected to someday succeed No. 2 quarterback Shaun Hill. Otherwise, that roster spot might be more valuable elsewhere. "It's about talent and about having a plan for guys," Schwartz said. "We're flexible, and that's not just at quarterback. That's all positions."
  • Receiver Patrick Edwards has gotten plenty of work with the first team in camp and has the unwavering support of Burleson, who said: "In my eyes, he is going to be the surprise player that changes games this year." But Edwards didn't show much in 29 snaps Friday night, going without a catch amid two targets. He got a step on Jets rookie cornerback Dee Milliner in the end zone, but Milliner out-jumped him to knock away Stafford's pass. At some point, Edwards will need to demonstrate some game production if he is going to be in the Lions' receiver rotation.
  • Delmas (knees) has worked in a little less than half of the Lions' practices and did not suit up for the preseason opener, but the Lions remain confident his limited schedule will leave him ready to play in games when the regular season starts. Schwartz: "We're working hard to get there right now. ... He's feeling good right now, and we're trying to keep it that way. Lou has the advantage of having played in this defense the past few years, even though we have new wrinkles each year. The terminology is the same. He's a really hard worker. We need to balance being on the field and practicing with the point of diminishing returns. I think we've been very proactive in camp doing that. Time will tell how effective that plan has been."
  • Much like his week at the Senior Bowl, Ansah wasn't nearly as noticeable during practice as he was during the preseason opener. Nothing he did in three days of training camp jumped out to suggest he was on the cusp of being an elite playmaker, but he stood out immediately against the Jets. In addition to his 14-yard scoring return of an interception, he nailed running back Bilal Powell for a 2-yard loss among his 20 snaps.
  • Take this for what it's worth: Even the amateur observer could notice a big upswing in man coverage from the Lions' defense during 11-on-11 drills. Stafford concurred but suggested the shift was more about evaluating the Lions' newly fortified secondary than it was a scheme change. "They're trying to figure out who can cover and who can't," he said. "But they're doing pretty good out there."
If it wasn't apparent already, the Detroit Lions made it clear Friday evening: Riley Reiff will be their left tackle in 2013.

The Lions could have drafted a left tackle in either the second or third rounds of this draft, but instead they selected Mississippi State cornerback Darius Slay and Kentucky guard Larry Warford, respectively. Both players fill needs and were better value picks than a left tackle, a position that drops off significantly after the top of the first round, and the Lions weren't in desperate shape there to begin with.

As we discussed Thursday, we'll never know how interested the Lions were in drafting an elite left tackle and moving Reiff to right guard or right tackle. The draft's top three left tackles were all off the board when the Lions' turn arrived at No. 5. Conventional wisdom suggested they would have taken advantage of the opportunity to have a stronger line across the board, but they have no incentive to confirm that now.

Lions coach Jim Schwartz told Detroit-area reporters, in fact, that the Lions were prepared to use Reiff at left tackle as soon as they learned of Jeff Backus' retirement.

"That's why we drafted him," Schwartz said. "Again, when Backus got hurt last year, that's why we played [Reiff] there. You never say never. You never know who is going to become available, what's going to happen. But we drafted him as a left tackle. We thought he could play right tackle, we think he can play guard.

"You know, Riley, if you gave him time, could probably play center too. He played tight end for us. He's that kind of athlete. He's a guy that can move around and do those things, but we drafted him as a left tackle. Probably, with the way things ended up here, we'll probably start him off there. We have a lot of confidence in him. I mean, that's why we drafted him last year. Last year, Riley was the second offensive lineman picked."

Reiff will play next to veteran left guard Rob Sims, and it's assumed that veteran Dominic Raiola will hold on to his job for another year. Warford could compete at right guard with Bill Nagy and Rodney Austin. Meanwhile, Jason Fox and Corey Hilliard could compete at right tackle.

The Lions have five draft picks remaining Saturday, but it's difficult to expect a rookie starter coming after the third round. It happens, but not enough to count on it. Unless the Lions decide to jump back into free agency, chances are they'll roll this season with the offensive linemen now on their roster.

2013 #bloggermock: NFC North

April, 23, 2013
Our 2013 #bloggermock took an early twist and left me only partially satisfied as the protector of NFC North interests. Of note: Not a single quarterback was drafted in the first round, something that hasn't happened in the real draft since 1996. We also passed up the running back position in the first round, which that hasn't happened since the common draft began in 1967.

Below are the players I would up picking for the NFC North and my reasoning in each instance.

5. Detroit Lions
My pick: Oklahoma left tackle Lane Johnson
Final decision: Between Johnson, Alabama cornerback Dee Milliner and BYU defensive end Ezekiel Ansah
Process and reasoning: The Lions' true intentions are tough to read at left tackle. When they drafted Riley Reiff at No. 23 overall last year, we all assumed he was the heir apparent at the position. Since the retirement of incumbent Jeff Backus, however, the Lions have emphasized Reiff's versatility and suggested he could play right guard or right tackle. To me, versatility is irrelevant if you have a true long-term answer at left tackle.

It's possible the Lions are deliberately clouding Reiff's future to hide their draft intentions. In the end, I thought the No. 5 pick was a great place to find a blue-chip left tackle and further strengthen the Lions' line by allowing Reiff to start at right guard or right tackle.

Johnson might be the third-best left tackle in the draft, but draft analysts have suggested that's a matter of experience more than aptitude. I had a brief pre-draft trade discussion with AFC East blogger James Walker, who wanted to use the Miami Dolphins' No. 12 overall pick to move up and draft a left tackle. But there was no way Johnson would be available at No. 12, so I needed much more than what Walker was offering (a second-round pick) to pass up getting him.

I know I've pushed the Lions to draft a cornerback like Milliner for years, but finding a left tackle can be even more difficult. I was tempted by Ansah, but decided to gamble that some decent defensive ends would make it to the top of the second round. In this mock, three of Mel Kiper's top five defensive ends would be available after the first: UCLA's Datone Jones, Auburn's Corey Lemonier and Florida State's Tank Carradine.

20. Chicago Bears
My pick: Georgia linebacker Alec Ogletree
Final decision: There wasn't much debate.
Process and reasoning: I did not expect Ogletree to be available at No. 20 and knew it would be difficult for the Bears to move up. But once he made it past the New Orleans Saints at No. 15, I thought I had a chance. The New York Giants have been speculated as a possible landing spot, but the Giants haven't selected a linebacker in the first round since 1984 (Carl Banks).

I'm still not sure Ogletree will be available at No. 20 in the real draft Thursday night, but in this case -- with Notre Dame tight end Tyler Eifert already off the board -- I couldn't justify passing him up as a long-term replacement for Brian Urlacher.

23 and 25. Minnesota Vikings
My picks: North Carolina defensive tackle Sylvester Williams, Houston cornerback D.J. Hayden
Final decision: Between Williams, Hayden, Cal receiver Keenan Allen, Notre Dame linebacker Manti Te'o
Process and reasoning: I really do think that Vikings general manager Rick Spielman has genuine interest in Te'o and wants to draft him. In looking back on this mock, I just got too greedy and sneaky for my own good.

I had enough ammunition to move up, but for whom? Tennessee receiver Cordarrelle Patterson went way too high (No. 8 to the Buffalo Bills), and West Virginia's Tavon Austin was gone at No. 13. Is Austin worth even an extra second-round pick to the Vikings? I couldn't do it.

Ogletree plays a position of need, but I felt sketchy about giving up extra draft choices for a player with multiple off-field flags in the past year.

So my plan was to grab two really good non-middle linebackers and then cross my fingers that someone, perhaps even Te'o, would be available in the second round, where Spielman could work some trade magic and grab one. It almost worked. Te'o made it to No. 32, where the Baltimore Ravens drafted him just after learning that Rolando McClain had been arrested once again.

Media analysis is split on whether Te'o is significantly better than the next tier of middle linebackers, and most people think the Vikings are most interested in him. So if the Vikings passed, I thought there was a chance he would tumble. In the end, that's why I passed him over even though I'm not sure Spielman will.

As for receiver, I had my eyes on Tennessee's Justin Hunter, but he went one slot ahead at No. 22. So I went with Williams, who could be a long-term replacement for Kevin Williams, and Hayden. I had a small chance to trade down, but the best offer I got to move from No. 25 to the top of the second round at No. 35 was an additional fifth-round pick. Not good enough. The cornerback class drops off after the first round, and Washington's Desmond Trufant was already off the board. In this scenario, the Vikings would be in position to maneuver in the second round for a receiver. Among those who are left is Clemson's DeAndre Hopkins.

26. Green Bay Packers
My pick: Georgia defensive tackle John Jenkins
Final decision: Between Jenkins, Syracuse offensive lineman Justin Pugh, Florida State offensive tackle Menelik Watson
Process and reasoning: The honest truth of the matter is that I was just guessing here. Congratulations to the Packers. No one ever knows for sure who a team is going to draft, but this year, no one really has anything more than a guess on the Packers. They appear to be interested in improving their defensive line, at least based on their limited activity in free agency, and Jenkins seemed the best of what was still remaining on the board. I don't mind saying he was even more of a guess than usual.

NFL Power Rankings: NFC North

March, 19, 2013
PHOENIX -- Mostly on the strength of adding NFC North castoffs, the Seattle Seahawks sit atop's latest offseason Power Rankings. Let's take a look at how the regrouping NFC North fared in the voting:

6. Green Bay Packers
Comment: The Packers usually go unnoticed in March because of their limited forays into free agency. But at this point, they remain the voting committee's favorite to win the NFC North in 2013.

11. Chicago Bears
Comment: Voters are naturally impressed with the Bears' free-agency haul, one that gave them a legitimate left tackle in Jermon Bushrod and a multi-use tight end in Martellus Bennett. Questions remain at right tackle and linebacker, but generally speaking, voters see the Bears as a playoff team.

17. Minnesota Vikings
Comment: There was widespread disagreement on the Vikings, one of the surprise teams of 2012. Dan Graziano ranked them No. 10, while Jamison Hensley ranked them No. 22. That 12-place disparity was the largest in this power-ranking edition.

22. Detroit Lions
Comment: The Lions have moved up six spots from the postseason edition of the Power Rankings after signing at least two new starters and retaining three core defensive players. But left tackle Jeff Backus' retirement is one of a number of remaining holes.
We're Black and Blue All Over:

PHOENIX -- The Detroit Lions drafted a left tackle in the first round of the 2012 draft. In 2013, their longtime left tackle retired. But it's apparently not as simple as connecting the dots between the retirement of Jeff Backus and the presumed ascendance of Riley Reiff at the position.

Speaking to Detroit-area reporters at the NFL owners meeting, general manager Martin Mayhew said "I could see [Reiff] at left tackle" this season but left open the possibility he could play another position as well. Mayhew also touted inexperienced backups Jason Fox and Corey Hilliard as promising, and noted that Reiff can play several positions.

Your best left tackle on the roster should play the position, even if he can also play guard. It's much easier to find a guard than a left tackle, generally speaking. The Lions' indecision on Reiff's position could indicate mixed beliefs on his attitude as a long-term left tackle.

On the other hand, Mayhew might simply not want to telegraph his draft strategy at No. 5 overall. If he names Reiff the starter, it probably rules out the possibility that he would draft a left tackle in the first round.

Continuing around the NFC North:
We've known the possibility has existed for most of this offseason, but in the midst of the NFL's free-agent frenzy, the news still came as a surprise. Jeff Backus announced his retirement, meaning the Lions will enter the 2013 season with a different left tackle for the first time in 13 years.

I know Backus took some heat from Lions fans over the years, but the nature of his career speaks to how difficult it is to fill the left tackle position. Regardless of any mid-career struggles he might have had, he played in 192 of a possible 193 games -- including playoffs -- after the Lions made him their first-round draft pick in 2001. His departure will transition the Lions' offensive line makeover into an outright overhaul this offseason.

Already the Lions have bid farewell to right guard Stephen Peterman (via release) and right tackle Gosder Cherilus (via free agency). Center Dominic Raiola took a significant pay cut to remain with the team, and 2013 could be his final season with the team. Left guard Rob Sims is the only other established starter.

But before filling the right tackle and right guard positions, the Lions must prioritize Backus' replacement -- and decide whether it merits a push to the top of their draft strategy.

One option, of course, is 2012 first-round pick Riley Reiff, who played left tackle at Iowa and made one start there as a rookie last season. But the Lions have never committed to Reiff as their long-term plan at left tackle, at least not publicly. At the NFL scouting combine last month, general manager Martin Mayhew and coach Jim Schwartz the Lions have said they were considering their options for Reiff's final destination, one of which includes right guard.

That was before Backus' retirement, of course, but when you are a bona fide left tackle in the NFL, there is never much of a conversation about whether you should play there or right guard.

If Reiff isn't the answer, the Lions could take advantage of their draft position at No. 5 overall and pick the best left tackle available, whether it is Texas A&M's Luke Joeckel or Central Michigan's Eric Fisher. For what it's worth, ESPN's Mel Kiper Jr. Insider ranks Fisher as the best left tackle available, followed by Joeckel and Oklahoma's Lane Johnson.

In a way, the Lions are fortunate that Backus retired at a time when they had a high-enough draft position to ensure a blue-chip replacement if that's what they want. Consider it his final contribution to the team.
If the Detroit Lions have decided to move on from right tackle Gosder Cherilus, a believable scenario considering their recent moves and his injury history, then they have secured another competitor to replace him. Corey Hilliard, a swing backup at both tackle positions over the past four seasons, has signed a two-year contract extension, according to ESPN's Adam Schefter.

Hilliard did not appear in a game in 2012, but would probably get a chance to win the right tackle job if the Lions open the competition this offseason. Based on the way Lions officials spoke last month at the NFL scouting combine, Jason Fox -- a fourth-round draft pick in 2010 -- is the leading candidate to win the job.

If Fox or Hilliard man the right tackle position, Riley Reiff -- the Lions' first-round draft pick in 2012 -- could play right guard. That, of course, assumes left tackle Jeff Backus does not retire and returns for a 12th season. Cherilus, the Lions' right tackle since he was their first-round draft choice in 2008, recently sought treatment for his knee in Europe, according to Dave Birkett of the Detroit Free Press.

Yes, as we've discussed several times, the Lions' offensive line is in flux this offseason. Hilliard gives them another option as they put the puzzle together.
INDIANAPOLIS -- Watching offensive linemen work out Saturday brought to mind the Detroit Lions' efforts in that regard.

The Lions have spent a few drafts building to a moment when they would turn over their own line, and that time has arrived. All that's left to know is whether it will take place in one season or be a two-year transition.

Already, the Lions have released right guard Stephen Peterman. Right tackle Gosder Cherilus is a pending free agent and left tackle Jeff Backus could retire. Center Dominic Raiola appears to have bought himself another season by restructuring a contract that will expire at this time next year.

So who will take over? We know that 2012 first-round draft pick Riley Reiff will start somewhere, be it at guard or tackle. Here at the NFL scouting combine, I was a little surprised to hear general manager Martin Mayhew and coach Jim Schwartz repeatedly mention Jason Fox -- a little-used fourth-round draft pick in 2010 -- as a leading candidate to start as well.

Fox was limited by injuries in college as well as in his first two seasons with the Lions. He has played in five NFL games, only one over the past two seasons, and that was a six-snap outing on special teams in Week 12 last season. But he is 6-foot-6, 314 pounds and won't turn 25 until May.

"Jason Fox obviously had the injuries in his first couple seasons," Mayhew said. "He was able to stay healthy all last year, but we also stayed healthy at the tackle position. He didn’t play very much for us. We think he has starter-type talent level. He has the size. He's a strong enough guy. He's a good technician. He's a hard worker. We think he has the ability to start for us."

It would be rare, but not unheard of, for an injury-plagued player to emerge from three years of inactivity to become a starter. But if the Lions need or want to replace most of their starters in one offseason, that's the kind of elevation they'll need to make.

There are some other little-used players remaining from the Lions' 2012 roster who could compete for starting jobs as well, including: guard-center Billy Nagy to guard Rodney Austin to tackle Corey Hilliard, a pending free agent himself.

In either case, by 2014, four of the five positions will assuredly have new starters. Left guard Rob Sims is the only player who figures to still be in his current role. The Lions are about to get young in a hurry on their offensive line.

Final Word: Texans-Lions

November, 21, 2012
» Final Word: Texans-Lions | Redskins-Cowboys | Patriots-Jets

Three nuggets of knowledge about Thursday's game at Ford Field:

Thanksgiving doldrums: The Detroit Lions have lost eight consecutive Thanksgiving Day games and are matched up against the NFL's best team, at least according to's weekly Power Rankings. The Houston Texans are 9-1 this season, including 4-0 on the road, and the Lions will have to rally in a hurry after losing a late lead last Sunday to fall to 4-6. Their dismissal of disruptive receiver Titus Young, at least for one week, could be a wakeup call.

[+] EnlargeJeff Backus
Jeff Hanisch/US PresswireIf Lions left tackle Jeff Backus doesn't start Thursday due to injury, it will break his consecutive games streak at 186.
End of era: Nothing will be official until 90 minutes before the game, but indications are that left tackle Jeff Backus won't play because of a hamstring injury. If that's the case, we won't just see the end of Backus' run of 186 consecutive starts. We'll also a rare disruption in what has become the NFL's most consistent deployment of an offensive line. Since the start of the 2010 season, Backus has joined Rob Sims, Dominic Raiola, Stephen Peterman and Gosder Cherilus to play 2,382 of a possible 2,887 snaps. Over that stretch, no other offensive line has played more than 1,466 snaps together. In fact, before Backus left last Sunday's game, the Lions' five linemen had played every snap of the season together. Rookie Riley Reiff is expected to make his first NFL start in Backus' place.

Pressuring Stafford: If the Texans stay true to form, the Lions' offense line will face much more pressure than it typically does. Through 11 weeks, the Texans have the NFL's highest blitz percentage at 45.2 percent. Historically, though, opponents have blitzed Lions quarterback Matthew Stafford rarely and preferred to drop maximum defenders in coverage. This season, Stafford has been blitzed on 15.3 percent of his dropbacks, the league's lowest rate. You wonder if the Texans will back off as well.

(Programming note: Tweet me your Thanksgiving photos for use in a slideshow later this week. The NFC North blog handle is @espn_nfcnblog. It can be Lions-related or reflect any other NFC North team.)

Final Word: Texans at Lions

November, 21, 2012
» Final Word: Texans-Lions | Redskins-Cowboys | Patriots-Jets

Three things to watch Thursday in the Texans' game at Detroit:

Covering Megatron: Calvin Johnson averages 16.2 yards per catch and is as threatening as anyone in the NFL. Typically the Texans would feel good about matching up with a player like Johnson, because cornerback Johnathan Joseph tracks a team’s top receiver all over the field. But Joseph is a game-time decision with a hamstring injury. He played through a groin injury earlier in the season but had a couple of poor performances. If he plays with this injury, how will he fare? If he’s a scratch, Alan Ball will start in his place, but the Texans won’t put one defender on Johnson. A week after a terrible coverage game against Jacksonville, corners Kareem Jackson, Ball and Brice McCain and safeties Danieal Manning and Glover Quin will have to collectively hold down Johnson and the NFL’s No. 1 passing offense.

Riley Reiff: The Lions first-round draft pick is likely to start at left tackle in place of Lions stalwart Jeff Backus, who’s dealing with a hamstring injury. Texans defensive coordinator Wade Phillips will surely scheme and move people around to challenge and attack Reiff. The best way to do that in the base defense is to get end J.J. Watt going against Reiff. The defensive player of the year candidate’s effort hasn’t changed, but he has been limited to two sacks in his past four games. Weakside linebacker Connor Barwin can also be expected to get chances to rush against Reiff. Odds are the rookie blocker will also get help from tight ends and running backs chipping and trying to help slow pursuit of Matthew Stafford.

Special teams: Rookie returner Keshawn Martin made some big plays last week against the Jaguars, with a 71-yard punt return and a 54-yard kickoff return. The Texans have been better overall on special teams since their Oct. 28 bye, when they emphasized getting things cleaned up. Detroit’s had some miserable special-teams performances this season and the Lions are 28th in defending punt returns. Houston should be able to ensure the Lions have to drive a long field, as Detroit is the NFL’s worst team in the league on kickoff returns. And the Texans could get some good starting field position as the Lions have the worst punting average in the NFL.

Louis Delmas might be ready to play

November, 20, 2012
Tuesday was a day off for three NFC North teams. For the Detroit Lions, however, it was the equivalent of a Thursday and Friday practice as they prepare for their Thanksgiving Day matchup with the Houston Texans.

We will get injury designations on Wednesday, but it sure appears that the Lions won't have Jeff Backus at left tackle for the first time since the final week of the 2000 season. Backus didn't practice Tuesday because of a hamstring injury, and it appears that rookie Riley Reiff will take his place Thursday. Coach Jim Schwartz said that "nothing's been ruled yet," but it would appear that Backus would have to make significant progress over the next 48 hours to have a chance to play.

Meanwhile, safety Louis Delmas (knee) and defensive tackle Corey Williams (knee) both returned to practice. There appears to be a decent chance, at least, of Delmas returning. He has played only three games this season because of a knee injury first suffered in training camp, and Schwartz referred to him Tuesday as "literally the heart and soul of our defense."

We'll update you Wednesday when the final injury report is released.

It's clear that Titus Young's first unofficial suspension did not catch his attention. So what are we to expect from his second? I don't have my hopes up.

As you probably have heard by now, the Detroit Lions already have declared Young inactive for Thursday's game against the Houston Texans. He was sent home from the team facility for behavior reasons Monday, the second time that's happened in six months, and he probably won't even practice over the next few days.

Those close to the team say Young has been a brooding malcontent for much of this season, routinely lining up wrong and sulking when he's unhappy with ball distribution. His attitude and mental miscues have become "unacceptable," coach Jim Schwartz told reporters, and it sent receivers coach Shawn Jefferson into a sideline rage late in Sunday's 24-20 loss to the Green Bay Packers.

(Schwartz confirmed Jefferson's rage was not directed at offensive coordinator Scott Linehan, despite appearances on television, and said the two have no issues.)

Young is apparently unhappy with a role that has seen him play more snaps (620, via Pro Football Focus) than any Lions pass-catcher besides receiver Calvin Johnson. After 11 weeks of the season, it appears Schwartz is no longer having it.

"When you are a player," Schwartz said, "it's your job to make the team happy, not the team's job to make you happy."

[+] EnlargeTitus Young
Tim Fuller/US PresswireTitus Young has undeniable talent, but the Lions have apparently grown tired of his attitude.
According to Schwartz, Young was lined up wrong on a second-down play near the goal line late in the fourth quarter Sunday, and the ensuing confusion contributed to right tackle Gosder Cherilus jumping offside. The Lions benched Young for the final series of the game.

Young is still only 23 years old, but he has a history of behavior problems dating back to a 2008 suspension while a sophomore at Boise State. I've been covering the NFL for 13 years and I can't think of a player who was sent home twice from a practice facility as if he were a child. Young has excellent skills as a receiver and the Lions used a second-round draft choice on him, but I'm not sure he's a good enough player to continue putting up with. His issues are obviously deep-seated and the Lions shouldn't allow him back until he has thoroughly dealt with them.

It's hard to imagine that process taking place in a week's time. Young has now blown the second chance the Lions gave him this spring after he punched safety Louis Delmas during an offseason workout. Rare is an NFL player, especially a non-superstar, who gets three chances with one team. The Lions would have been totally justified in cutting him Monday and it's still possible he'll never play for them again. Sometimes, you have to cut your losses and I think the Lions are as close as they could possibly be without having already done it.

Related: Schwartz said that left tackle Jeff Backus is doubtful for Thursday's game because of a leg injury, spelling the likely end of Backus' 186-game streak of consecutive starts. Cornerback Drayton Florence probably also won't be available after being diagnosed with a concussion.
ALLEN PARK, Mich. -- In an unusual moment Wednesday morning, Detroit Lions coach Jim Schwartz called his team into a huddle near the far end of a practice field. The previous 75 minutes had produced one too many false starts and encroachment penalties, and it appeared Schwartz had had enough.

Officials called 146 penalties on the Lions last season, according to ESPN Stats & Information, and opponents accepted 128 -- the third-highest total in the NFL. By the looks of it, at least, Schwartz has made the issue a significant emphasis in training camp. Spectators and reporters couldn't hear what he said during that mid-practice huddle, but it was unlikely he was discussing the lunch menu in the Lions' cafeteria.

"It's definitely been an emphasis," cornerback Chris Houston said. "Coach has been more on guys if they jump offsides or make dumb penalties. He's much more aware of that. If you do have penalties, you're going to get it. He's going to yell at you."

There are no drills that can minimize the kind of penalties Houston is referring to. Coaches have to ensure players know the rules and then create accountability when they don't or can't follow them. Wednesday, it appeared the Lions removed right tackle Gosder Cherilus from team drills after he had a false start.

You could argue that pre-snap penalties can be a function of the physical drain of training camp, but as Schwartz noted, the Lions had just returned from a day off Tuesday.

"[W]e weren't at our best [Wednesday]," Schwartz said. "We need to be better, particularly after a day off. There are days off that are built into our schedule now with the new CBA and things like that. When we take advantage of a day off, we don't need it to bleed over into the next day. We've got to make sure that doesn’t happen."

The chart shows the Lions' most penalized individuals last season. Seven of tight end Brandon Pettigrew's 11 penalties were false starts. Defensive end Cliff Avril was called for five offside penalties/neutral zone infractions. Left tackle Jeff Backus had three false starts and seven of defensive tackle Corey Williams' eight penalties came before the snap.

Coaches generally consider those type of penalties preventable, as opposed to illegal blocks on special teams that seem more open to interpretation from officials. To borrow a cliché from professional sports, you can only control what you can control, and the Lions are focused on controlling that large section of mistakes that went unchecked last season.

As we discussed Wednesday, one apparently lackluster practice doesn't make a big impact on me in the context of a three-week training camp. What was more notable to me was the Lions' recognition and the steps they are taking to minimize the issue.

"The next step for us is being disciplined with the penalties," Houston said, "and not making bonehead mistakes. If we can do that, take some of those penalties down, those after-the-play penalties, and if we can do all of that and play within the lines, we'll be OK."
Detroit Lions left tackle Jeff Backus hasn't practiced since injuring his right thumb Saturday, and on Monday he was spotted in the locker room with a hard cast on the hand. Reasonable people could assume that Backus' thumb is broken, as did Chris McCosky of the Detroit News, but the Lions have not confirmed it.

Backus hasn't missed a regular-season game since entering the NFL in 2001, a span of 176 consecutive games, and it doesn't appear the Lions have any long-term concerns about this injury. Last summer, Backus missed most of training camp because of a partially torn pectoral muscle but returned in time to play the entire regular season.

For those interested, rookie Riley Reiff is not among those who are filling in for Backus on the left side. Corey Hilliard and Jason Fox are handling those duties, according to McCosky, while Reiff works at right tackle with the second and third teams.
SportsCenter's divisional analysis moves to the NFC North on Tuesday night (ESPN2, 7 p.m. ET). We've already discussed our most versatile players as well as potential breakout players, so let's give our television pals a pre-show primer on the biggest improvement (and regression) each division team made this offseason:

Chicago Bears: Enhanced comfort zone for quarterback Jay Cutler
In detail:
The Bears fully committed to Cutler three years after acquiring him from the Denver Broncos. They finally gave him a full complement of promising receivers, most notably his all-time favorite in Brandon Marshall. Cutler will have his choice of big downfield threats, be it Marshall or rookie Alshon Jeffery, and Devin Hester has drawn rave reviews for his work within the team's new concepts. Coach Lovie Smith hired one of Cutler's favorite former coaches, Jeremy Bates, as quarterbacks coach, and offensive coordinator Mike Tice has liberally assimilated thoughts from Bates and Cutler into his scheme. For the first time the Bears feel like Cutler's team.
Biggest regression:
The Bears' top four defensive players -- linebacker Brian Urlacher, defensive end Julius Peppers, linebacker Lance Briggs and cornerback Charles Tillman -- all got a year older without the team acquiring a potential heir at any of their positions. (Rookie defensive end Shea McClellin is projected to fill the Bears' spot opposite of Peppers.)

Detroit Lions: Insurance and a long-term plan at left tackle
In detail:
The Lions mostly stood pat this offseason, making it their top priority to keep together a nucleus that earned a playoff spot three years after the franchise bottomed out at 0-16. They accomplished that goal by reaching contract agreements with receiver Calvin Johnson and linebacker Stephen Tulloch while franchising defensive end Cliff Avril. Retaining young players with room for growth counts as an improvement, but most notably, the Lions hatched a legitimate plan for the end of left tackle Jeff Backus' career. First-round draft choice Riley Reiff could replace Backus this season if necessary but could also get a year to develop. Regardless, it's a rare luxury for a team to have a legitimate succession plan in place at left tackle.
Biggest regression: It might not qualify as a step back, but the Lions didn't do much to improve a secondary that struggled for large portions of the 2011 season. Nickel back Aaron Berry will compete with free agent acquisition Jacob Lacey to start opposite Chris Houston, and the Lions appear set to give safety Amari Spievey one more chance to lock down a long-term job.

Green Bay Packers: Adding juice to their defensive front
In detail:
As we discussed in May, the Packers devoted a large portion of their offseason to elevating the energy and competition along their defensive line. They hope to manage the playing time of nose tackle B.J. Raji more efficiently by calling on rookies Jerel Worthy and Mike Daniels, along with eventual contributions from Anthony Hargrove (eight-game suspension) and Mike Neal (four-game suspension). The Packers have also signed Phillip Merling, a former second-round draft pick of the Miami Dolphins, and veteran Daniel Muir.
Biggest regression:
The Packers had near-ideal insurance at quarterback when Matt Flynn was their backup quarterback. Presumptive replacement Graham Harrell has extensive experience in the Packers' system and has been widely praised by coaches this offseason, but no one has suggested he is the equivalent of Flynn just yet.

Minnesota Vikings: A better situation for a young quarterback
In detail:
Quarterback Christian Ponder will have a blue-chip left tackle in rookie Matt Kalil protecting his backside and two proven pass-catchers for mid-range passing in tight ends Kyle Rudolph and John Carlson. The Vikings have also added a receiver who can stretch the field in Jerome Simpson, who will be eligible to play in Week 4 after an NFL suspension, and might have unearthed a draft steal if Arkansas' Greg Childs is healthy. The offense is far from a finished product, but it is staffed much better at multiple positions than it was in 2011.
Biggest regression: The Vikings appear to have cast aside E.J. Henderson, their middle linebacker for most of the past decade. For now, that means they are hoping to make fourth-year player Jasper Brinkley their new starter. Brinkley played decently when he started four games as a rookie in 2009, but he missed all of 2011 because of a hamstring injury and coaches are waiting for him to turn it loose this spring.