Originally posted on Fox Sports Detroit  |  Last updated 5/30/12
ALLEN PARK, Mich. -- Detroit Lions veteran receiver Nate Burleson looks around the locker room and sees the type of talent to make a serious run at a Super Bowl. "It's rare that you're on a team that actually can win the championship," Burleson said. "That is our goal." And it is a realistic goal except for one thing: How is the defense that allowed 90 points in its final two games seriously going to get that much better? The secondary, the most glaring weakness, has added depth and hope for the future with the three cornerbacks taken in the NFL Draft, but there are no apparent immediate difference-makers in the group. No, if the defense is going to show enough improvement to be playing deep into January, much less February, it's going to have to come from a front four that dominates enough to hide the secondary's weaknesses. And the two players who need to make the biggest impact for that to happen are the controversial duo in the middle of the line - defensive tackles Ndamukong Suh and Nick Fairley. That's the problem. While Suh and Fairley are enormously talented, they have not been reliable. Are they going to get their acts together to make the major contributions that this team needs from there? If so, the Lions can contend for a championship behind a high-powered offense. If not, the defense will again be too much to overcome against the elite offensive teams. Putting so much of the burden on Suh and Fairley isn't farfetched. A fearsome foursome can make a good secondary seemingly great. It might even make the Lions' secondary respectable. That evidently is the plan, assuming the club doesn't make a major move to acquire a lockdown cornerback between now and the season. The Lions have been unable to add a top free agent, presumably because of salary-cap issues, and they also weren't able to trade up in the Draft to get one of the top corners. Therefore, they have to bank on their potentially dominant defensive line to harass quarterbacks so much that the suspect secondary doesn't get readily exposed. For that to happen, the Lions will need Fairley to emerge ... and Suh to re-emerge. The dilemma is that Fairley has more arrests (two) than sacks (one) since joining the team while Suh's second year in the league was more drama than substance. Fairley was considered a high-value draft pick when he fell to the Lions at No. 13 overall last year coming out of Auburn. Perhaps we're finding out now why he dropped - character issues. There were high expectations for what he could add to the Lions' already talented defensive line as a rookie. However, Fairley sustained an injury to his left foot early in training camp that required surgery. He ended up with 15 combined tackles and one sack while playing in 10 games. "I don't know if he was ever 100 percent healthy at any point last season," said teammate Kyle Vanden Bosch, a defensive end. "You don't really have a chance to heal, especially from an injury like that, during the season. I think he's healed. "He can run, he can move. He's a dynamic athlete. Everybody in this building is expecting big things from him." Vanden Bosch's assessment came before Fairley's arrest Sunday for driving under the influence and evading police while being clocked at 100 mph on a highway in his hometown of Mobile, Ala. A couple months earlier, Fairley was arrested in Mobile for marijuana possession. Teammates and coaches had been giving Fairley rave reviews for his off-season work ethic before this latest incident. At 6-foot-4, 298 pounds, Fairley can help provide that crucial push up the middle to disrupt opposing offenses. "That's what Nick does," Vanden Bosch said last week. "He's really athletic for a 300-plus man. We have a stable of guys inside that can get to the quarterback. A healthy Nick Fairley is definitely going to help our sack numbers." The Lions not only need a healthy Fairley, they need a smarter Fairley, particularly off the field. He is likely to be suspended by the league for a few games to start the season because he's a repeat offender, but it's not too late for him to get his behavior under control and still be a standout player. A year ago, the Lions finished tied for 10th in sacks with 41, even though Fairley wasn't full strength and Suh wasn't as dominant. It was a definite step back for Suh, who became known as one of the league's dirtiest players while serving a two-game suspension for a highly-publicized foot stomp on a Green Bay player. Suh (6-4, 307 pounds) ended up with four sacks, tied for 90th in the NFL, in 14 games. In his rookie year, Suh tied for 17th with 10 sacks in 16 games. His combined-tackle totals also fell from 66 in his first year to 36. So, which Suh is it going to be in 2012? The one we saw two years ago as a rookie Pro Bowler, or the contentious underachiever from last season? It would be a total waste of talent if he doesn't return to prominence. "This year will be important for the simple fact that I think we have a great group of guys that can help this organization get back on its feet to a whole different level," said Suh, the No. 2 pick overall in the 2010 Draft coming out of Nebraska. "It's a very important year for myself personally. I think every single year I want to outdo the previous year. "My rookie season, I had a good year. Last year, indifferent year. This year, opportunity to have an outstanding year. "Then again, it really doesn't matter. It's a team game. I want to win. That's all I want to do." Even with such a prolific offense, the Lions need Suh at his best if they're going to live up to their ultimate goals. Between Suh and Fairley, if both are healthy and can get control of their actions, the Lions just might have so much firepower up front defensively that they can hide their weaknesses for the most part on the back end. Based on recent behavior, though, who knows if either one is reliable enough for that to happen?
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