NFL Nation: Marvin White
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
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.
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."
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.
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.
- Burleson signed a five-year, $25 million contract in the offseason that included $11 in guaranteed money. Then, in one of the first meetings of the Lions' reconfigured receiver position, Burleson stood up to speak. "There's a lot of things that can get between players when new guys come along, especially when money's involved," he said. "So I made an announcement that I've been in the league long enough to know, as a guy who just got paid, I'm going play a lot. So my goal is to prove I'm worth more than what they paid me. I'm here for the team, not to pat myself on the back." In part because No. 1 receiver Calvin Johnson is so quiet, Burleson has taken on the leadership role of this group.
- Johnson is hopeful that coverages will loosen on him this season, but it will require players like Burleson, making big plays to do it. Burleson doesn't think it will be a problem. "My goal is to come in and make enough plays to where Calvin will get more single coverage and Bryant [Johnson] will make plays," he said. "You hear about [Terrell Owens] and Chad [Ochocinco] in Cincinnati. I'm going to say firsthand that we will be the most-respected receiving corps after it's all said and done." Wow.
- Suh is one serious man. During a news conference to announce his arrival to camp, a reporter asked a pretty standard first-day question for a top draft pick: "What are you going to treat yourself to after becoming a millionaire?" Most players bite and say they bought a new car, or a house for their mother or some such splurge. Suh? Here's what he said: "I'm treating myself to getting on this field and getting ready." OK then.
- Vanden Bosch makes it a point to touch the ball on every practice play from scrimmage. Sometimes that happens at the line of scrimmage. But whether the play comes directly toward him or goes 30 yards downfield, he chases without fail. If that means sprinting 40 yards, so be it. Although the Lions didn't necessarily sign Vanden Bosch for that reason, he sets an excellent example for a historically moribund defense. "You don't get any points for that," Schwartz said. "But if I was a professional football player, I would hope that I would practice and I would play the way Kyle Vanden Bosch does. I think it is contagious for sure and I think that it's tremendous leadership. I think it makes the running backs better. The running backs are now finishing their runs deeper down the field because they don't want him catching them."
- Right tackle Gosder Cherilus, the Lions' No. 1 draft pick in 2008, might be down to his final chance to lock down a permanent starting job. He's sharing repetitions with veteran Jon Jansen, and a decision might not come until the end of the preseason.
- Linebacker Zack Follett is on his way to locking down the weakside linebacker job a year after he nearly cost himself his career with a poor showing in training camp. "I was running around like a chicken with my head cut off," Follett said. "This year, it's 100 percent different."
- Poor Chris Houston. As the Lions' erstwhile No. 1 cornerback, Houston finds himself lined up against Johnson in 1-on-1 drills more often than not. That's not even fair. I saw Houston make some decent plays against other receivers, suggesting he deserves to be on the field as a starter. But few teams have a true No. 1 cornerback, and the Lions aren't one of them.
- With Delmas injured, the same four players made up the first-team secondary during my visit: Houston and Jonathan Wade at cornerback, with C.C. Brown and Marvin White at safety. One thing I'll say is that Wade is feisty, even if he is a bit undersized. Delmas noticed the same thing. "He gave up a big play on Calvin," Delmas said. "And then he came back to us as a group and said, 'We can't do that! I can't do that!' Then he went out and didn't give up another big play. In order to be one of the best secondaries in the NFL, we have to start with that."
- In an earlier post, I suggested that rookie receiver Tim Toone had looked sharp and ranked him no worse than No. 4 among the Lions' receivers. In the comments section, some of you suggested that second-year receiver Derrick Williams was having a better camp than I gave him credit for. All I can say is that every time I looked, Williams was dropping a pass while Toone was catching one. Regardless, there is a long way to go for both players.
- One beneficiary of Suh's holdout was second-year defensive tackle Sammie Hill. Schwartz said Hill "has taken the biggest step that I've seen him take." Assuming those weren't just kind words for a player destined to cede his first-team status to Suh, this development offers the Lions a level of depth they didn't have last season.
Or, as defensive end Kyle Vanden Bosch said: "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. 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."
That's going to be the key to unlocking the Lions' defensive mystery this season: Can a strong defensive line cover for shortcomings -- or at least significant uncertainty -- elsewhere? No matter what you say about the potential of the Lions' linebackers and secondary, you can't claim that many of them are established players.
I posed that topic to coach Jim Schwartz, who was gracious enough to give me some time Wednesday afternoon. Schwartz has said that he wants to reserve judgment about the line until he sees it perform under game conditions, not to mention with Suh in the mix. But Schwartz believes in the theory of some positions covering for others.
"We've always thought that you want to be strong upfront, particularly on defense," Schwartz said. "If you are, you can cover for a lot of other things. If you're strong up front, you might not need the extra man in the box. If you're strong up front, you don't need to blitz to get to the quarterback. You can have an effect on a lot of other positions."
The Lions didn't necessarily pursue this particular structure as much as they just accepted the opportunity. Suh was their highest-rated player in the draft, and so they picked him. Corey Williams was available from Cleveland for a song. Vanden Bosch was the rare commodity of an available pass rusher, one with who Schwartz had a long history.
But it will be up to that group to provide regular instances of what happened during Tuesday morning's live-contact running drill. Williams stuffed the run on one play and Vanden Bosch did the same on another, accounting for two-thirds of the plays the first team saw in the drill.
"Until you see it in a real game you never really know," Schwartz said. "But I think we have some seen some good signs. ... They had an outstanding period in a way that affected the rest of the group."
Players have noticed their energy, even if production is difficult to judge in practice.
"What stands out to me is the D-line," safety Louis Delmas said. "Those are dogs up there. There's nothing like having a bunch of guys that want to play football and want to get to the quarterback. It's like they think the quarterback has money pouches on him. The way I see it, the second is going to have three or four seconds at most to cover guys."
In truth, the secondary is going to need that type of support for this defense to improve. Delmas hasn't practiced yet while nursing a groin injury, and I would consider him the only established defensive back the Lions have. The first-team secondary has remained consistent during the time I've been here -- Chris Houston and Jonathan Wade at cornerback, with Marvin White and C.C. Brown at safety -- and I haven't seen anything to suggest there are any diamonds in the rough here. The Lions' offense has gotten the best of them more often than not.
OK, I'm headed out to Suh-a-palooza. Check back in a bit.
My official Lions "Camp Confidential" report isn't scheduled to post until Saturday, but the blog will feature heavy Lions emphasis through my Wednesday departure. If there's something you want me to check out, just let me know. Otherwise, you're left to my whims and personal biases.
Ok, enough chit-chat. Here are some first-day impressions from Allen Park:
- Tight end Brandon Pettigrew, activated from the physically-unable-to-perform (PUP) list Sunday, participated in the less-physical afternoon practice wearing a brace on his knee. Pettigrew looked, well, like a player trying to run with a brace on his knee: Not smooth, but not unexpected. I would be really surprised if he is on the field for Tuesday's full-pads practice.
- The Lions activated defensive end Jared DeVries from the PUP list, and DeVries mostly worked with the second team at left end. Cliff Avril continued getting most of the first-team work there, but I would imagine DeVries will be rotating with Avril before too long.
- I planned to take a look at middle linebacker DeAndre Levy, but he sat out both practices because of what coach Jim Schwartz said was continuing back tightness. Levy's absence emphasized the Lions' shaky depth at the position; special teams player Vinny Ciurciu was the first-team middle linebacker in both practices.
- The morning practice featured an entertaining red-zone session in which the defense more than held its own. But the offense triumphed on one play in particular: Fullback Jerome Felton's steamroll of safety Marquand Manuel at the goal line. Meanwhile, quarterback Matthew Stafford misfired on two red-zone passes. One appeared to be a miscommunication with receiver Calvin Johnson and another pass was a step behind receiver Nate Burleson.
- Running back Kevin Smith (knee) didn't do much in either practice, but I glimpsed at least four other runners getting work with the first team: Maurice Morris, Jahvid Best, Felton and DeDe Dorsey.
- As defensive tackle Ndamukong Suh continued his holdout, Sammie Hill was working alongside expected starter Corey Williams.
- Schwartz indicated he is being extra cautious with safety Louis Delmas, who is recovering from a groin strain. Delmas is a "known quantity," Schwartz said, and the Lions' only goal is to get him healthy -- not back out on the field. Delmas said: "Everybody that I'm playing with, we all got a good understanding of each other. When I get back, I think I'll be able to adjust to them really fast." Schwartz has been rotating safeties during camp, and Monday his first-teammers were Marvin White and C.C. Brown.
Posted by ESPN.com’s James Walker
Biggest surprise: Although I suggested this strategy as a possible solution earlier this week, I was still surprised to see the Bengals take my advice and cut two fullbacks in order to keep both DeDe Dorsey and Brian Leonard. Cincinnati now has four active tailbacks with Dorsey and Leonard to go along with starter Cedric Benson and Bernard Scott. All four have been solid in the preseason. Jeremi Johnson is the only fullback on the roster as the team cut both Chris Pressley and draft pick Fui Vakapuna. But Leonard is versatile and has the ability to be the backup at both fullback and tailback, which factored into the final decision.
No-brainers: Safety Marvin White had some potential, but coming off a major knee injury he got off to a slow start this year and fell behind a deep group of safeties in Cincinnati. Former 2008 draft pick Corey Lynch certainly wasn’t a no-brainer, but it was pretty clear that rookie free-agent safety Tom Nelson beat him out for one of the last roster spots. Receivers such as Freddie Brown and Maurice Purify never had a chance in Cincinnati, because the Bengals are just too deep at that position.
What’s next: With first-round pick Andre Smith recovering from a broken bone in his foot, the Bengals may scan the wires to see if an intriguing prospect or two surfaces on the offensive line, particularly at tackle. Cincinnati also wouldn't mind retaining some of its younger players on the practice squad, such as Vakapuna and Pressley. Otherwise, the Bengals are set at most positions and shouldn’t have a lot of turnover before the start of the regular season.
Posted by ESPN.com's James Walker
Now, it's a time to reflect.
In our first installment of The Seven-Step Drop, here are seven things that caught my eye during week one of the preseason in the AFC North.
- Browns starting quarterback Derek Anderson got a small monkey off his back with a solid performance last week against the New York Jets. Although it was unspoken leading into the game, it was important for Anderson to put his struggles at the end of the season behind him. He went 4 for 5 for 20 yards and a touchdown in his only series of the game. Anderson's connection with receiver Braylon Edwards was as pretty a touchdown pass as you're going to see in the preseason.
- The depth of the Cleveland Browns' secondary looks as bad as advertised early on. Sure, it was just one game, but giving up two passing touchdowns of 70 yards or more against the Jets were inexcusable. Both big plays involved poor coverage and bad angles taken to the football. Starting corners Brandon McDonald and Eric Wright did fine in limited action with the first team. But as soon as they left the field, the floodgates opened in the passing game.
- Pittsburgh Steelers rookie Rashard Mendenhall had a solid debut at tailback. He had a slow first week of training camp, then gradually improved during the second week. Mendenhall carried that momentum into his first NFL game with 34 yards on seven carries. He also returned a kickoff and will get a look there. Mendenhall still runs a little too upright for our liking. But with additional coaching and several more hits like the one he took on his first carry Friday, Mendenhall will learn to keep his pads lower.
- Charlie Batch's broken collarbone will be a significant loss for Pittsburgh. More than anything, Batch was the calming influence behind the scenes for starter Ben Roethlisberger and rookie Dennis Dixon. The Steelers signed Byron Leftwich on Sunday, but he will not be able to provide the type of leadership, or know the offense as well as Batch, who tutored the other two quarterbacks behind the scenes.
- Baltimore Ravens return specialist Yamon Figurs already looks in mid-season form. He had a punt return of 52 yards and a kickoff return of 48 yards against the New England Patriots last week. With the additions of head coach John Harbaugh, who was once a long-time special teams coach, and assistant Jerry Rosburg, Baltimore expects to be extremely good in the third phase of the game this season.
- After a two-turnover performance by Ravens quarterback Kyle Boller against New England, this is a golden opportunity for Troy Smith to take the lead. Smith will get the start Saturday against the Minnesota Vikings. If Smith proves he can move the offense and, most importantly, take care of the football, it should give Smith some separation in this three-way race with two preseason games remaining.
- The Bengals were a mixed bag. I liked what I saw from tight end Ben Utecht (four catches, 34 yards, one touchdown) and active rookie linebacker Keith Rivers (seven tackles) in their first game as Bengals. But I didn't like what I saw from the first-team defense, which really needs to work on its tackling. Cincinnati's starters had very poor technique, particularly safety Marvin White, and paid the price often by getting trucked several times by the Green Bay Packers in the first quarter. The good news is the Bengals have time to re-teach the fundamentals.
Posted by ESPN.com's James Walker
- According to Steve Doerschuk of the Canton Repository, Browns quarterback Brady Quinn has looked "erratic" in training camp.
Morning take: Perhaps last week's surprising chants of "D.A.! D.A.! D.A!" rattled Quinn early.
- Mike Prisuta of the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review writes Steelers offensive line coach Larry Zierlein plans to take charge this year.
Morning take: Can he pass protect?
- Cincinnati Bengals safety Marvin White tells ESPN.com he enjoys trash talking with teammate Chad Johnson.
Morning take: As a former Bengals beat writer, I've seen this happen in practice before, and Johnson always gets the last laugh. Fortunately for White, Johnson will be rehabbing his right ankle for a few more weeks.
- Following injuries to tackles Jared Gaither and Adam Terry, the Baltimore Ravens signed tackle Chad Slaughter to a one-year contract.
Morning take: I've heard of Webster, Enos and Sergeant, but never a Chad Slaughter. We will find out soon if he can play.
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