Since 2009 Detroit Lions fans have been clamoring for Matthew Stafford to complete an entire season. The number one pick could only show glimpses of greatness between the mounting injuries that threatened to relegate him to bust status.
In 2011 Stafford was healthy…and the results were outstanding. Teaming up with superstar Calvin Johnson, Stafford led the Lions to the 5th best offense in football and a wildcard spot. Despite coming undone against the Saints in New Orleans, and having the seemingly unstoppable Packers in their division, 2011 was beacon of hope to all Lions fans who now know what Stafford can do.
In 2012, weirdly, it’s not Stafford the fans will have to worry about avoiding injury. It may be hocus pocus, it may be nothing, but there is a reason they talk about it. Johnson is the next challenger hoping to avoid the Madden curse and Stafford and the fans alike will all hope beyond hope he can, because despite being targeted by double teams and triple teams, the one they call Megatron is special. If he and Stafford stay healthy once more, 2012 is looking like another big year in Detroit.
Head Coach Jim Schwartz has lit a fire under the Lions roster. He instils enthusiasm and a passion that will be hard for opponents to silence. His fire will keep Detroit on their toes and ready to fight. No longer can the Lions be counted on for an easy win, this is a dangerous team, one that will be in contention for the playoffs come January.
2011 Record: 10-6
Head Coach: Jim Schwartz
Off. Cord: Scott Linehan
Def. Cord: Gunther Cunningham
As said before, Matthew Stafford has shown the league his true colors, and they are glorious. 2011 showcased the quarterback to the world with 3 signal callers passing for more than 5000 yards. Stafford in his first full healthy season was one of them, sharing history with names like Brady and Brees.
Completing 63.5% of his passes, Stafford threw for 5038 yards averaging 314.9 yards per game. His 41 TDs and 16 INTs led to a 2011 rating of 97.2. Under Stafford, the Lions flourished offensively, a feat I believe should continue in 2012, granted he and Megatron stay healthy.
Boise State’s Kellen Moore, passed over by every team in the draft was signed by the Lions to inject youth into the quarterback depth chart. Battling critics who say he is too short and doesn’t possess enough arm strength, Moore will hope to learn from Stafford and gain valuable experience in the preseason so that if Stafford does miss time he will be ready to fill in.
In the Backfield
One of the main reasons Matthew Stafford threw for over 5000 yards, other than his talent and Megatron, was that Detroit’s running game was decimated by injuries. The Lions passed a lot in 2011 with backs Jahvid Best and Kevin Smith scoring only 2 TDs each in their limited play, and 2011 rookie Mikel Leshoure not even getting on the field last year because of injury.
Best does not currently appear ready to play the opening few games of this year due to injury and his time in Detroit may perhaps be running out.
The Lions do not have much in way of depth at the position. If Smith and Leshoure (who has the most upside of all the backs) can recover through preseason and play at a consistent level in 2012, the offense will be better served for it. Neither are gamebreakers, but Leshoure has the chance to become a playmaker in the running and passing attacks.
Like the Packers, Detroit has excellent strength in depth at the wideout position. Young tight ends Brandon Pettigrew (777 yards and 5 TDs) and Tony Scheffler (347 yards and 6 TDs) gave Stafford consistent options over the middle and have evolved to take on a greater role in this passing game.
Nate Burleson had an impressive campaign with 757 yards and 3 TDs, as did rookie Titus Young with 607 yards and 6 touchdowns. On a roster with a true superstar at the position, these players have benefited from the added attention Megatron (Calvin Johnson) received from defenses, and will prove to be once again a key part of this offense. Young especially is expected to develop into an extremely dangerous threat. The Lions also drafted Ryan Broyles from Arkansas in the second round. If he impresses in his rookie season, Detroit’s offense will be scary good.
But the play of one Calvin Johnson has no parallel. No equal. Megatron was already one of the best in the league, but with a full season of Matthew Stafford throwing him the ball, Johnson evolved into a monster. With 1681 yards and 16 touchdowns, Johnson has become the most feared receiver in the league, and unless Stafford gets injured, or the Madden curse strikes, Johnson will not be slowing down in 2012.
The Big Uglies
Probably the least impressive unit of an impressive offense, the Lions’ o-line ended up in the middle of the pack in terms of sacks allowed. With a quarterback with the injury problems that Stafford has had, allowing 36 sacks is not at all desirable.
Thirty-six sacks didn’t make a whole lot of difference in 2011 as Detroit made the playoffs, but in a division with both Julius Peppers and Jared Allen, the oline has to play better. Tackle Jeff Backus is getting on in years and the Lions have drafted his replacement in 2012, hoping Riley Reiff becomes their franchise left tackle.
Ndamukong Suh. He may be raw, he may be undisciplined on the field, but there is no doubting his explosive power, and the threat he poses to offenses. With 36 tackles and 4 sacks, Suh did his job in disrupting the middle, taking up blockers and eating up space. Expect more of the same in 2012.
Newly signed franchise tagged Cliff Avril had a brilliant season with 11 sacks, the most on the Detroit defense. He is an emerging star, one that the Lions will do well to keep in the offseason next year. Fellow end Kyle Vanden Bosch continues to play at a high level providing essential veteran leadership on a line full of young guns. Vanden Bosch also gets it done with 8 sacks in 2011.
The depth that Detroit have at the position is incredible with Corey Williams (2 sacks), Lawrence Jackson (4.5 sacks), Willie Young (3 sacks) and 2011 top pick Nick Fairley (1 sack) all contributing. These players are all back in 2012 and will be used to create a constant stream of pressure.
While the line has great depth, the linebackers do not. Anchored by veteran Stephen Tulloch, who registered 111 tackles, 3 sacks and 2 INTs in 2011, this small group of players will be counted on to play at a high level to capitalize on the great play from Suh and co.
Other linebacker starters for the Lions include DeAndre Levy and Jason Durant, each of whom had good season themselves with Levy notching 109 tackles, a sack and an interception, while Durant made 68 tackles and one sack.
Eric Wright took his 4 INTs from 2011 and signed with Tampa Bay in the offseason, leaving a cornerback slot open. With Wright, the Lions had the 5th highest amount of takeaways in the league, with Chris Houston (5 INTs), Amari Spievey (3 INTs) and Alphonso Smith (3) all returning in 2012.
Louis Delmas, despite not snagging an interception last year, is still the leader of the unit, and will continue to play a huge role in 2012, hoping to improve on his numbers. Schwartz also drafted secondary players in this year’s draft adding Dwight Bentley and Chris Greenwood in the third and fifth rounds respectively.
The eternal Jason Hanson will be back for Detroit once more after kicking 24/29 field goals in 2011 and all of his point after attempts. The punting situation is more difficult to predict with Ryan Donahue and Ben Graham battling it out to become the starter.
The return duties should once again be handled by receiver Stefan Logan. In 2011 he averaged 25.2 yards per kick return while not performing as well returning punts with an 8.1 yards punt return average. Logan and the Lions did not score a touchdown through special teams in 2011, but their coverage unit gave up a touchdown on both kick-offs and punts. The entire unit will look to improve this year, and score on special teams.
Detroit was a free scoring team in 2011, and with a Stafford led offense which could count on Megatron coming down with any pass thrown to him, the Lions transformed from a winless team in 2008, to a playoff contender in 2011.
Stafford has finally given the league and the fans a full season, and the results were tremendous. With Green Bay in the same division, Stafford has Aaron Rodgers to compete with which will only improve his play. The Detroit offense will get better in 2012, with the only problem being the offensive line.
The defense has still to improve under Jim Schwartz, but with players such as Suh, Fairley and Delmas getting more experienced every year, the defense will take care of itself. And remember, on statistics alone, Detroit had the best defense in the division, and while it may not stop Aaron Rodgers, Detroit’s defense will be able to slow down Chicago and Minnesota.
The NFC North is widely believed to be Green Bay’s once more. While Detroit may have something to say about that, the Lions will fight hard for the title, an effort that if unsuccessful, will see them clinch another wildcard spot.
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