NFL Nation: Jerome Harrison

Fines mounting for Richard Seymour

December, 9, 2011
12/09/11
5:15
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It’s been an expensive season for Richard Seymour.

Seymour

Seymour


The Oakland Raiders’ Pro Bowl defensive lineman was fined $30,000 by the NFL for punching Miami offensive lineman Richie Incognito in the Dolphins’ 34-14 win over Oakland on Sunday. Seymour was ejected for the offense. It is the third time in Seymour’s three seasons in Oakland -- he was acquired in a trade with New England in September 2009 -- in which he was ejected from a game.

Seymour has now been fined, at least, $60,000 for offenses this season.

Last season, Seymour was fined $25,000 after being ejected for slapping and knocking down Pittsburgh quarterback Ben Roethlisberger. In 2009, he was fined $10,000 after he was ejected for an offense against Cleveland running back Jerome Harrison.

Seymour needs to be careful or his fines will continue to grow; he could eventually face a short suspension if the infractions continue. Seymour is a great player who is as aggressive as they come. He sets the tone for the Oakland defense, but he needs keep his emotions in check better. He can’t help the Raiders if he keeps getting ejected from games.

Infractions piling up for Seymour

December, 4, 2011
12/04/11
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Richard Seymour’s actions Sunday were nowhere close to those of Detroit’s Ndamukong Suh's in Green Bay on Nov. 24 that resulted in a two-game suspension.

Seymour
However, because of the frequency of Seymour’s infractions, I wouldn’t be surprised the NFL may consider a short suspension for Seymour. At the very least, his history of fines will have a new, hefty chapter.

For the third time in three seasons with Oakland, the star defensive lineman was ejected from a game. In a runaway Miami rout, Seymour was tossed in the third quarter after he struck Miami offensive lineman Richie Incognito on the side of the helmet.

Last year Seymour was ejected and fined $25,000 for hitting Pittsburgh Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger in the helmet. In 2009, Seymour was ejected for hitting Browns running back Jerome Harrison after a play was over. Seymour was fined $10,000 for that infraction.

Seymour has been fined at least $30,000 this season for illegal plays.

I’m not saying I think Seymour should be suspended for Sunday’s actions, but the reality is the NFL is not big on repeat offenders of any kind.
Make that two veteran signings for the Detroit Lions. We noted the arrival of offensive lineman Leonard Davis Monday, and the team just confirmed that it also re-signed tailback Kevin Smith from a group of 24 players who worked out for the team during its bye week.

Smith played for the Lions from 2008-10, but the decision to pair starter Jahvid Best with rookie Mikel Leshoure squeezed him out of their 2011 plans. Leshoure's ruptured Achilles tendon was the beginning of a positional breakdown that has continued with Jerome Harrison's brain tumor and Best's latest concussion.

The Lions have been using a combination of Maurice Morris and Keiland Williams in recent weeks. Smith knows their offense well enough to step in right away, but it's not clear how quickly the Lions want to get him on the field or if they view him as insurance against Best's continued absence.

The Lions were off Monday and will return to the practice field Tuesday. Stay tuned.

Wrap-up: Falcons 23, Lions 16

October, 23, 2011
10/23/11
4:46
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A few thoughts on the Detroit Lions' second consecutive loss:

What it means: After a 4-0 start, the Lions were thrilled to have three consecutive home games. But they finished their "homestand" 1-2 and are now 5-2 on the year. A few players got in some pregame shoving during warm-ups, but for the most part the Falcons had the Lions on their heels all afternoon. You never know how playoff scenarios will develop, but the Lions have now lost to a pair of NFC teams -- the Atlanta Falcons and San Francisco 49ers -- who figure to be in the postseason hunt at the end of the season. Conference record is a critical tiebreaker in the wild-card race. The Lions are also just one game ahead of the Chicago Bears.

StaffordWatch: Quarterback Matthew Stafford, and most of the Lions offense, looked off to me. Stafford completed less than 50 percent of his passes, underthrew Calvin Johnson on what would have been a touchdown in the second quarter and was lucky not to have another second-quarter pass intercepted after a miscommunication with rookie receiver Titus Young. And the incomplete pass intended for Brandon Pettigrew on fourth down did nothing to dissuade from the fact that he can be an unreliable clutch receiver. But it starts with Stafford, and his worst two starts of the season have coincided with the Lions' first two losses.

MegatronWatch: Johnson's 57-yard touchdown in the third quarter gave him 10 through seven games this season. In the past two weeks, however, he's fallen off his NFL record pace. His current pace would leave him with an unimpressive 22 scores over 16 games.

Harrison update: In case you missed it, ESPN's Chris Mortensen reported positive news after running back Jerome Harrison's surgery Friday. Doctors believe they removed all of the tumor, which was diagnosed as an ependymoma in the fourth ventricle of Harrison's brain. He also was found to have a condition known as arteriovenous malformation, an abnormal connection between veins and arteries. It could have contributed to the tumor's growth.

What's next: The Lions will play at the Denver Broncos next Sunday.
The Detroit Lions have officially ended the season of running back Jerome Harrison, placing him on the reserve/non-football injury list. Harrison was diagnosed with a brain tumor during a physical following his since-voided trade to the Philadelphia Eagles, according to ESPN's Adam Schefter.

Taking Harrison's spot on the roster is third-year player Eldra Buckley, who spent the past two seasons with the Eagles and worked out with the Lions this week. He had 31 carries in 2009 and 2010 combined, but played in all 32 regular-season games over that stretch.

With Harrison now sidelined, and the immediate future of starter Jahvid Best in doubt because of a second concussion in three months, the Lions presumably will move forward with veteran Maurice Morris as their top running back. Keiland Williams, a waiver claim last month who has 19 carries this season, will also be part of the rotation.

Earlier: Should Best sit out the rest of the season?
Not two minutes after I published this post on the future of one Detroit Lions running back, ESPN's Adam Schefter broke a stunning story about another.

According to Schefter, veteran Jerome Harrison was diagnosed with a brain tumor earlier this week during a routine physical to approve his trade to the Philadelphia Eagles. The discovery prompted the Eagles to void the trade, and Harrison is now undergoing treatment.

We don't know any details of Harrison's condition or prognosis, but it's safe to say the tumor wouldn't have been discovered if he hadn't been included in the Eagles' compensation for running back Ronnie Brown. Harrison is on the Lions' active roster for the moment, but you would have to assume his treatment will take precedence over playing football at this point.

I'll bring you more details as they are reported, including how the Lions will deal with their current depth at the position. For now, however, we should all take a moment to accept the randomness of this world. Who would have thought that the NFL trade deadline could be responsible for saving a life?

Ronnie Brown, we hardly knew ye

October, 18, 2011
10/18/11
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Well, it wasn't the deal for which Philadelphia Eagles fans were hoping in advance of Tuesday's trade deadline, but the Eagles did make a trade -- sending running back Ronnie Brown to the Detroit Lions for running back Jerome Harrison and a seventh-round 2013 draft pick. Eagles fans will remember Harrison as last year's sound backup to LeSean McCoy -- a role he'll assume again now alongside impressive rookie Dion Lewis. And Eagles fans will forever remember Brown for his ridiculous, inexplicable fumble at the goal line against the 49ers a couple of weeks ago when he decided at the last second to lateral the ball as he was being tackled.

That play is likely to be the lasting legacy in Philadelphia of a player whose surprise early-August signing was a symbol of the Eagles' gleeful, free-wheeling 2011 free-agent spree. In truth, Brown was always a luxury, much the way receiver Steve Smith and maybe even cornerback Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie appear to be on a team that could have used some of the money it spent on those players to add help at a position like linebacker. Harrison makes more sense as a backup to McCoy than does Brown, who gives the Lions the power runner they need to offset Jahvid Best but didn't really have a role in Philadelphia, where McCoy can handle the between-the-tackles grunt work as well as the open-field razzle-dazzle.

There had been rumors in advance of the deadline about a deal (maybe even with Detroit) involving cornerback Asante Samuel for linebacker help. But it now appears the Eagles, as they've said they were all along, are intent on keeping Samuel, Rodgers-Cromartie and Nnamdi Asomugha at cornerback and finding a way to get them all on the field.

The San Francisco 49ers are 2-1 and leading the NFC West heading into Week 4. Does that suddenly make them division favorites with the St. Louis Rams sitting 0-3?

"I guess I'm leaning toward San Francisco, but I don't feel confident," Matt Williamson of Scouts Inc. said this week. "The Rams could finish strong. I can't see Seattle doing it. And I think Arizona is a six-win team, but they are all kind of six-win teams."

The 49ers won six of their final 11 games last season. That makes them 8-6 over their last 14 regular-season games. The Rams and Seahawks are 5-9 during the regular season over the same span. The Cardinals are 3-11.

With that, a closer look at the 49ers from Williamson's perspective:
  • [+] EnlargeFrank Gore
    Jamie Sabau/Getty ImagesRunning room has been harder to come by for Frank Gore this season.
    On the struggling ground game: "Frank Gore doesn’t look good. He is not attacking things. Gore looks like he is playing hurt. He has run so competitively in the past. He would not just go in the tank. I think Kendall Hunter is very interesting. He looks like he is playing at a different speed when he goes in there. I don't know if Gore has lost a step, but there is no running room for him. You can see where Gore is frustrated. Their line is abysmal. It is amazing."
  • On quarterback Alex Smith: "Smith has exceeded my expectations. He does not make a lot of mistakes. You can grind out some wins. I give Jim Harbaugh credit. He is manufacturing offense. It is a real test for Harbaugh because Smith is so limited. I just don’t think he throws the football very well. He is a good athlete, but he is not big and strong, doesn't make difficult throws, doesn't handle the rush real well, doesn't anticipate things real well. But he is smart and I do think he has some ability. I thought Harbaugh could turn him into a serviceable West Coast guy if he is all he is cracked up to be."
  • On the offense overall: "They finally got Vernon Davis involved. They use a lot of double tight end sets. Delanie Walker is a nice player, but too often those guys have had to help the offensive line, especially Davis. I would like to see what the offense can do with both Braylon Edwards and Michael Crabtree healthy for a game or two. Those guys have obvious inconsistencies, but they also have obvious talent. They might be able to open up room for one another, for Davis, for the run game, make life easier for Smith. Overall, if they turn the ball over, they are done."
  • On the defense: "Their front seven is fantastic. I don't know if everyone knows how good Justin Smith is, but he is one of the 10 best players in the league on defense. Patrick Willis is, to me, the best second-level defender in football. I'm not saying best linebacker because it's not fair to compare him to DeMarcus Ware, Clay Matthews, those guys. But Willis is the best second-level defender and it's not even close. They have two other guys, NaVorro Bowman and Ray McDonald, playing out of this world. Bowman is a big-time find. The 49ers are tough on all down-and-distances. Not only is the nose tackle (Isaac Sopoaga) playing well, but then he comes off the field and Smith and McDonald go inside, and then the outside guys are a handful, too. Aldon Smith has flashed, Parys Haralson, Ahmad Brooks. I don't love Donte Whitner, but he is an upgrade. They are a corner short even though Carlos Rogers has played very well."

That completes our four-team checkup with Williamson. You can reach him on Twitter as well.

Lions' backfield rotation clears up

September, 11, 2011
9/11/11
11:47
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TAMPA, Fla. -- The Detroit Lions' game-day deactivation list contained no surprises but did confirm their running back rotation for at least one weekend.

Newcomer Keiland Williams is inactive, meaning veterans Maurice Morris and Jerome Harrison will provide relief behind starter Jahvid Best. You had to figure it would take some time, maybe more than a week, for Williams to learn the offense well enough to surpass anyone on the depth chart.

To no one's surprise, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers are wearing their white jerseys, leaving the Lions to wear their home blues. As of 11:30 a.m. ET, it was 87 degrees here, but the humidity has dropped to 56 percent. So the heat index is "only" 92 degrees at this point.
The Detroit Lions' interest in adding a running back was one of the worst-kept secrets in the NFC North this weekend. Sunday, they claimed a power back who on paper has an appropriately different skill set than starter Jahvid Best.

Keiland Williams is a 230-pound power back who gained 261 yards and also caught 39 passes in 15 games last season with the Washington Redskins. He'll join a group that includes Best along with veterans Jerome Harrison and Maurice Morris. Aaron Brown was released Sunday to create Williams' roster spot.

I'm betting that Harrison will be the first runner off the bench early this season, but Williams is an intriguing prospect. Here's part of the Scouts Inc. player evaluation on him: "Williams is a big, strong back with power to move the pile on contact. He lacks great burst and speed but has good inline vision and cutting ability. He has reliable hands as a receiver out of the backfield and is able to pick up chunks of yards downfield."

As we've discussed, Best can be a big-time playmaker but isn't really a feature back. The Lions hoped to use rookie Mikel Leshoure in that role, but Leshoure's season-ending Achilles injury forced a change to those plans.

General manager Martin Mayhew is known for tweaking his roster throughout the season, so I wouldn't say he is finished dealing with the repercussions of Leshoure's injury. But for now, Harrison, Morris and Williams will provide offensive coordinator Scott Linehan some credible options.
Reviewing Saturday's action at Ford Field:

Detroit Lions 34, New England Patriots 10

Preseason record: 3-0

Of interest: I would suggest jumping on the Matthew Stafford bandwagon now -- if there is still room. Stafford was again accurate, composed and productive in what might have been the most impressive performance (preseason or otherwise) in his career. He completed 12 of 14 passes for 200 yards and two touchdowns, and one of his "misses" was an end zone pass to receiver Nate Burleson that could have been caught. He now has a 154.0 passer rating this preseason, having completed 24 of 31 passes for 356 yards and five touchdowns. And this bonus: He absorbed his first hits of the preseason Saturday night and emerged no worse for the wear. Look out. ... Stafford benefited from two really nice plays, a 52-yard catch-and-run on a screen by running back Jerome Harrison, and a great adjustment on an underthrown ball by receiver Calvin Johnson for a 30-yard gain. ... Did you see Burleson's downfield block on Harrison's screen? ... Tailback Aaron Brown started and rushed for 30 yards on nine carries, but it's clear that depth at the position remains in flux. ... The Lions defense swarmed Patriots quarterback Tom Brady, sacking him twice, forcing a fumble and unofficially hitting him five times as he managed to complete only 12 of his 22 passes. ... Defensive tackle Ndamukong Suh was lucky not to be penalized for a retaliation hit on Patriots offensive lineman Logan Mankins. ... The Lions led 17-3 when they began inserting second-team defensive players.

Local coverage: Stafford on his preseason, via Philip Zaroo of Mlive.com: "It's been positive. I felt comfortable for the most part tonight. Whoever's out there, we've done a great job and that's a testament to our coaches. They do a great job of preparing us.'' ... Michael Rosenberg of the Detroit Free Press: "I've seen enough. Stafford will be the Lions' first Pro Bowl quarterback in four decades -- if not this year, then soon. He is legit. I'm sold." ... Coach Jim Schwartz, via Tom Kowalski of Mlive.com: "It's preseason, you have to be careful about how you look it. I think that other than the final score we have to look at individual matchups. There were a couple of plays where we could've put more points on the board. But, again, you say a lot of times in preseason you want see players win you don't want to see schemes win. We saw a lot of good matchups today and not just our first group against their first group.'' ... John Niyo of the Detroit News: "You've got to be careful not to completely dismiss what you see on the field in August."

Up next: Thursday at Buffalo Bills

Previewing preseason Week 3

August, 26, 2011
8/26/11
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In which we look ahead to NFC North preseason football over the next two days.

Green Bay Packers
Opponent:
Indianapolis Colts
Location: Lucas Oil Stadium
Day/Time: Friday/8 p.m. ET
Personnel notes: Coach Mike McCarthy estimated that starters will play midway through the second quarter. Although they could see extra time, it's not expected that McCarthy will bring them out for the third quarter. ... Receiver/returner Randall Cobb (knees) and defensive end Mike Neal (knee) aren't expected to play. Receiver Greg Jennings (knee) could join them on the sideline. Running back James Starks (ankle) and linebacker Clay Matthews (hamstring) should return from a week off.
Focal point: I'm curious to track how the Packers' offense performs when it is not in the no-huddle. That alignment has given them most of their success in the preseason, but I'm assuming they won't be running it every play during the regular season. From a competition standpoint, it's worth keeping a close eye on how tailback Ryan Grant performs and if Starks picks up where he left off before the ankle injury. Could Starks lay claim to the starting job with a strong showing?

Chicago Bears
Opponent:
Tennessee Titans
Location: LP Field
Day/Time: Saturday/8 p.m. ET
Personnel notes: Most starters will play at least a half. ... Receiver Sam Hurd (ankle), linebacker Lance Briggs (knee) and defensive tackle Anthony Adams (calf) have been ruled out. Tight end Kellen Davis (back) could miss the game, while cornerback Zack Bowman (concussion) appears likely to resume playing.
Focal point: The Bears' current offensive line configuration could lock itself into a Week 1 assignment with a solid outing that builds off last week's performance against the New York Giants. On the other hand, receiver Roy Williams needs to make a few catches in order to assure the Bears he is worthy of the starting job they handed him in training camp. Like most NFL teams, the Bears would like to see their offense produce a few touchdown drives before the preseason is over. Finally, I would like to see the Bears' defensive line rotation start shaking itself out. It's not clear at this point if they have a legitimate backup defensive end or if any of their two reclamation projects, Vernon Gholston and Amobi Okoye, will provide any help.

Detroit Lions
Opponent:
New England Patriots
Location: Ford Field
Day/Time: Saturday/8 p.m. ET
Personnel notes: Starters will play around half of the game... Running back Jahvid Best (concussion) and Maurice Morris (hand) aren't expected to play, so the Lions are likely to start Jerome Harrison. Mike Bell, Aaron Brown and Stefan Logan will be available to rotate in. Defensive end Kyle Vanden Bosch (shoulder) is a strong candidate to sit out as well.
Focal point: The Lions' uncertain depth at running back will be on full display. By the end of the night, we should have an idea if they have someone capable of carrying a significant load while sharing the job with Best. On the other hand, fans might get their first look at rookie receiver Titus Young. Meanwhile, the countdown continues for the first preseason hit on quarterback Matthew Stafford. He told reporters this week: "You guys can ask all you want. I don't think about it. I just play football and whatever happens, happens."

Minnesota Vikings
Opponent:
Dallas Cowboys
Location:
Metrodome
Day/Time: Saturday/8 p.m. ET
Personnel notes: Some starters are expected to play into the third quarter. ... The Vikings have a long injury list. Tight end Visanthe Shiancoe (hamstring), linebacker Heath Farwell (hamstring), linebacker Jasper Brinkley (hip), tailback Toby Gerhart (ankle), defensive tackle Kevin Williams (foot) and cornerback Asher Allen (toe) are among those who won't play.
Focal point: The Vikings' first-team offense has produced three points this preseason and isn't likely to be on the field much in the preseason finale. So Saturday night is their best and last chance to build some momentum for the regular season. The offense hasn't appeared disorganized or confused. It just hasn't had much punch yet and its personality is far from defined. It would also be helpful if rookie Christian Ponder can establish himself as the No. 2 quarterback so the Vikings can free up Joe Webb to focus on the Wildcat and other unique packages.

Is Jahvid Best a feature back?

August, 25, 2011
8/25/11
4:25
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One of the first reactions I got to Wednesday's brawl on the future of tailback Ryan Grant was both informative and entertaining: Would he be a fit for the Detroit Lions?

We now know that Grant has a guaranteed contract for 2011, making it pretty unlikely (but not impossible) that he'll be changing teams anytime soon. Still, the Lions-centric reaction evoked an important question: Where are the Lions going with their running game and is it reasonable to trust Jahvid Best in the primary role?

[+] EnlargeJahvid Best
Eric P. Mull/US PresswireJahvid Best suffered a concussion against the Browns, raising fresh questions about his durability.
Best suffered a concussion in last week's preseason game against the Cleveland Browns and won't play Saturday night against the New England Patriots. All concussions are to be taken seriously, but with Best it's only fair to note the one that ended his college career in 2009.

When you combine the most recent concussion with his double turf toe injuries from a year ago, you realize there have been only a few windows in Best's pro career when he hasn't been limited by a significant injury. Obviously the Lions worked hard to fortify themselves by drafting Illinois running back Mikel LeShoure, but his ruptured Achilles tendon returned the Lions backfield to an unsettled state.

To me, the Lions have three questions they need to answer:
  1. Is Best going to be healthy enough to take, say, 250 carries this season?
  2. Does he have the kind of running style that makes sense for that kind of assignment?
  3. Are there any reasonable alternatives?

From the top, there really is no way to know if Best will get hurt in the future. Fortune tellers, we're not. The Lions studied his concussion case thoroughly before the draft, so presumably they're not encountering any surprises in that regard.

On the second point, all we can say at this point is that Best didn't produce last season the way you would hope a feature back would. The toe injuries limited him to some extent, and the fact that he appeared in all 16 games at least speaks to his toughness.

But let's look a little beyond the numbers of a rookie season that saw him average 3.2 yards on 171 carries, courtesy of KC Joyner's annual fantasy football draft guide. (Earlier: The Chicago Bears' short-range passing success.)

Joyner tracks two metrics that, through film study, determine the extent to which running backs capitalize on good blocking and whether they can make up for bad blocking. Obviously, blocking success is a subjective measure, but Joyner loosely defines it as plays when no blockers allow a defense to disrupt the play.

Last season, Best had 98 carries where he received good blocking under that measure. In them, he produced the seventh-lowest ranking (5.6 yards per good blocking attempt) among running backs with at least 100 or more carries.

And on the 73 plays in which Joyner judged him to have received poor blocking, Best averaged a net total of 0.0 yards. Most runners average 1-2 yards in similar situations.

Again, this is but one way to evaluate running backs. And I'm not discounting the role the turf toe injuries played. But generally speaking, you want to see a feature back maximize well-blocked plays and at least occasionally get some yards on his own when his blockers get beat.

On the third point: The Lions signed veteran running backs Jerome Harrison and Mike Bell immediately after LeShoure's injury. They've gotten veteran Maurice Morris (hand) back on the practice field as well. Obviously they're not intrigued with any of the bigger-name running backs still on the market, a list that includes Clinton Portis and Tiki Barber, but I think it's fair to say they'll have their eyes on the waiver wire early next month when teams make final cuts to their 53-man rosters.

The Lions figure to be a pass-first team no matter who is in the backfield. Still, Best remains a key figure here. At the very least we can agree that no one knows for sure what he can do -- and what he can't -- over a long period of time.
Reviewing Friday's action at Cleveland Browns Stadium:

Detroit Lions 30, Cleveland Browns 28

Preseason record: 2-0

Of interest: Quarterback Matthew Stafford had another sharp night, completing six of 10 passes for 85 yards in four series. He now has a 138.7 passer rating in two preseason games. He threw two beautiful downfield passes, a 30-yard go route to receiver Nate Burleson and a 27-yard pass down the seam to tight end Brandon Pettigrew. Under modest rush on back-to-back plays, Stafford scrambled to the left sideline and flipped the ball out of bounds twice. Unusual but effective, I guess. ... Burleson's 4-yard touchdown reception, on his 30th birthday, was an elite display of footwork at the back line. ... Tailback Jahvid Best took a hit on the first play that left him woozy, he said, and he didn't return after the first series, which ended with his fumble. The implication is that he suffered a concussion, but there was no confirmation Friday night. ... The first-team defense allowed two touchdowns but both were on short-field drives following a turnover and a long return. The drives started at the Lions' 34- and 21-yard lines, respectively. ... Receiver Calvin Johnson didn't play as a precaution against re-injuring his bruised left shoulder. ... I thought safety Amari Spievey again made a few nice tackles, including a 3-yard loss in the backfield against Brandon Jackson.

Local coverage: Lions coach Jim Schwartz was pleased with how backup running backs Mike Bell and Jerome Harrison played after Best's injury, according to Dave Birkett of the Detroit Free Press. In the end, the Lions rushed for 176 yards on 45 carries. The Lions committed "way too many" penalties, noted defensive end Kyle Vanden Bosch, via Chris McCosky of the Detroit News. Best on his injury, via Tom Kowalski of Mlive.com: "It was nothing bad, but I just wasn't feeling right so they told me to sit down. I'm not concerned at all."

Up next: Next Saturday vs. the New England Patriots

Camp Confidential: Detroit Lions

August, 15, 2011
8/15/11
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ALLEN PARK, Mich. -- The same question surfaced at every stop on my NFC North training camp tour. In some form or fashion, division rivals wanted to know: Have the Detroit Lions improved as much as advertised?

After all, Lions Fever long ago engulfed the blog/region/nation. A four-game winning streak to end 2010, the return of quarterback Matthew Stafford and an exciting draft class all suggested the Lions were ready to break free from a decade of disappointment.

But even after spending three days in the Detroit suburbs, I still don’t think I’ve seen the 2011 Lions. What I saw was Lions Lite.

By the time I arrived at Lions camp, the team’s top three draft choices -- defensive tackle Nick Fairley, receiver Titus Young and running back Mikel Leshoure -- had been sidelined by significant injuries. Left tackle Jeff Backus (pectoral) wasn’t practicing and neither was backup Jason Fox (foot). Tight end Brandon Pettigrew, meanwhile, was nowhere to be seen after suffering an ankle injury.

What’s important, however, is that the franchise had neither panicked nor fallen into a funk. Leshoure’s is the only season-ending injury, and it was obvious even to an amateur observer that the Lions still have a talented collection of players on the practice field, one that romped to a 34-3 victory over the Cincinnati Bengals in its preseason opener Friday night. Many in that collection are entering their third year in the same system, and all them are determined to give us something the NFC North has never seen: a four-team division.

"This team can be great," said receiver Rashied Davis, a part of two Chicago Bears teams that advanced to the NFC Championship Game. "I really think that. It is a great bunch of guys and there really is tons of talent."

THREE BIG ISSUES

1. Backus' status: The Lions are equipped to absorb injuries at many positions, but left tackle isn’t one of them. Fox’s injury has only exacerbated the issue and left the Lions using players who would otherwise be relegated to their third team at the most important position on the line.

Torn pectoral muscles usually require season-ending surgery. The Lions haven’t revealed the severity of the injury, but their insistence that Backus will be ready for the regular-season opener suggests the muscle isn’t completely torn. Backus hasn’t missed a game in his 10 previous seasons, and quite frankly the Lions are banking on his durability in this instance.

[+] EnlargeMatthew Stafford
Leon Halip/Getty ImagesMatthew Stafford has looked strong during training camp.
"You've just got to go on history there," coach Jim Schwartz said. "He has started 160 straight games. … Jeff is obviously experienced and is a hard worker and doesn’t need every single rep in training camp. We can afford to take it slow with him and get him back the right way rather than have to rush him back too soon."

In the end, the question isn’t likely to be whether Backus plays, but if the injury has (temporarily) diminished his effectiveness. After all, an offensive lineman needs full extension and strength in his arms to ward off pass-rushers.

2. Stafford's return: I know it might ring hollow for those of you concerned about his health, but Stafford was zinging the ball all over the field during my time in Lions camp. He is now completely at ease in coordinator Scott Linehan’s offense and clearly bulked up this offseason to better prepare for the rigors of a 16-game season.

I saw Stafford loft 25-yard touch passes into the back of the end zone just as easily as he rifled 30-yard ropes over the middle. I realize that practice throws don't always predict game performance, and I know that his biggest challenge is durability and not ability. But to the extent that he could over three days of camp, Stafford sure looked like a quarterback who is ready to break through to NFL stardom.

"It's hard because he’s missed a lot of time on field," Linehan said. "But you can see the ownership he’s taken in this offense. He spends a lot of time with the players, with the system and in the building. It’s not just me talking in the meeting rooms anymore. He’s spot-on. He’s going to have a great career. I really think that."

3. Secondary issues are now secondary: The Lions' systematic rebuild of their defense is now two-thirds complete. They’ve built one of the best defensive lines in the game. They have three credible starters at linebacker. All that remains is the secondary.

Right?

The Lions weren't as worried about their secondary during the early portion of training camp as some other people were. Safety Louis Delmas has been a constant presence, having regained his health following offseason surgery on his groin. Cornerback Chris Houston re-signed after a brief foray on the free-agent market, strong safety Amari Spievey reported to training camp in good physical condition and new cornerback Eric Wright has been a consistent playmaker during team workouts.

I saw Wright end a team drill with a strong anticipatory interception of Stafford. A few days later, defensive coordinator Gunther Cunningham had this hyperbolic but revealing assessment: "To me, there’s only one athlete like this in the NFL. And he’s old. That’s Champ Bailey. [Wright] is a pure, one of the most outstanding athletes to come out of the draft in a long time."

The Lions have some decent depth behind Wright and Houston. Aaron Berry has again impressed coaches when he has been healthy, and the Lions should get back Alphonso Smith (foot) before the start of the regular season.

The secondary might be a weak link on a relative scale, but it might not be as weak as some might have feared.

BEST RELATIONSHIP

A second consecutive offseason spent working together has left Stafford and Calvin Johnson in position to do some serious damage. It’s obvious to anyone watching Lions practice that the two have developed a level of chemistry that only time can bring.

"I feel like he trusts me that I'm going to put the ball in a good place to give him a chance," Stafford said, "and I definitely trust him when I put it up there that he's going to come down with it or nobody is."

Injuries have limited the two to 13 games over the past two seasons, but there is a feeling in Lions camp that the pair is ready to break out in 2011. The duo got off to a strong start Friday night on a back-shoulder touchdown pass to end the Lions’ first possession.

[+] EnlargeJahvid Best
Leon Halip/Getty ImagesFinding a backup option to running back Jahvid Best remains a priority for the Lions.
UNANSWERED QUESTION

What is the true impact of Leshoure’s injury? It’s hard to know because we’re not entirely sure how the Lions planned to use Leshoure and Jahvid Best. Was Leshoure going to be the change of pace? Or was Best?

If Leshoure continued his early-camp performance, it’s very possible it could have been the latter. Best himself said the team had given him no indication whether he would get 20 carries per game, 10 carries per game or fewer.

"I was figuring that about midway through the preseason it was really going to start to show," Best said.

So what now? For the short term, at least, Best is firmly entrenched as the No. 1 back. In Friday night’s preseason opener, Best was either the ball carrier or the intended target on seven of 11 plays run by the Lions’ first-team offense.

But if the Lions’ aggressive move to draft Leshoure told us anything, it's that they don’t want Best carrying the entire load. The first candidate to be his running mate is newcomer Jerome Harrison, who was the first back off the bench Friday night. It’s too early to know if Harrison is up to the job, but the Lions really want to get Best some help -- from somewhere.

OBSERVATION DECK
  • For the first time in a long time, place-kicker Jason Hanson isn’t guaranteed a spot on the roster. For that matter, the Lions also have a legitimate challenger to punter Nick Harris in Ryan Donahue. But Hanson’s roster battle with Dave Rayner has generated some attention. Schwartz said that "everyone on our 90-man camp roster has a chance to make the team." He noted that Hanson is kicking "very well," as is Rayner. "It’s a good situation for us," Schwartz said. Both kickers were booming kickoffs well into the end zone during my stay at camp. (Given the NFL’s shift of kickoffs to the 35-yarde line, that’s to be expected.)
  • Cunningham joked (I think) that he "took the over" on the pre-camp weight of Spievey and defensive tackle Sammie Lee Hill. He was pleasantly surprised. The Lions are especially pleased with the way Spievey has taken ownership of his position. He looked lean and active during the early part of camp and appeared healthy as well. "Amari's in great shape," Cunningham said. "His communication skill is much higher than it was, and he and Delmas really know each other."
  • Most linebacker groups have a run-stopping plodder who is an obvious candidate to leave the field in the nickel. But with DeAndre Levy, Stephen Tulloch and Justin Durant, the Lions really don’t have one. Tulloch was leaving in the nickel during the portion of camp I watched, but he is a quick linebacker in his own right, and Schwartz insisted the Lions will mix and match their nickel lineups this season. "Our group gives us the flexibility to do that," he said.
  • Coaches couldn’t stop raving about Rashied Davis’ impact on the locker room. "There’s a guy I can’t say enough about," Linehan said. "That’s the kind of pro you want to have. I’m able to show the young guys that this is a 32-year-old veteran that is a special-teamer. Been in this league X amount of years because he just does everything 100 percent and right. That’s just been a great example for those guys."
  • One of my favorite sights of Lions’ training camp the past two years: veteran defensive end Kyle Vanden Bosch’s insistence that he touch the ball on every play. Sometimes that means reaching one step over from his current position. Often, however, it means chasing a ball carrier as far as 30 yards downfield. By the way, it appears Vanden Bosch is fully recovered from neck surgery that ended his first season with the Lions.
  • Will Wright re-establish his career with the Lions? He has the raw skills to do so, and now he has a defensive line that will, without question, make his job easier. "The D-line plays hard and it’s relentless," Wright said. "It’s contagious. From a total defensive standpoint, those guys rub off on us, especially the defensive backs."

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