The Lions didn’t go out and make a huge splash in free agency this offseason, choosing instead to keep their core group of players together and bringing back 21 of 22 starters from last year’s 10-6 playoff team.
Lions general manager Martin Mayhew was recently asked how he’s noticed the 2012 version of his football team improve from a year ago.
“I’ll start with something that’s probably not what you’re really looking for, but the continuity that we have going for us is one of the special things that a lot of the good teams and franchises have,” Mayhew answered.
“You look around the league, the model franchises really have improved themselves by maintaining that continuity and keeping their coaching staff in place and just building upon what they did the previous year.”
The Lions are entering their fourth season under head coach Jim Schwartz, offensive coordinator Scott Linehan and defensive coordinator Gunther Cunningham.
A number of players have commented this offseason on how much farther ahead of schedule they are than in previous seasons because of their ability to hit the ground running this season with the returning coaching staff and starters.
“We don’t really have an install right now,” quarterback
The stability within the coaching staff and the roster will certainly help, but here are five more ways the Lions can better in 2012 than their 10-win output of last season:
1. Stay healthy in the secondary
One of the reasons for the Lions’ lack of success on defense late last year (besides playing the Packers and Saints twice) was the loss of starting safety
The Lions entered that Week 11 Thanksgiving Day game ranked in the top 10 in pass defense, but without a healthy Delmas or Houston the rest of the way, well, let’s just say the Lions weren’t a top-10 pass defense. Far from it, actually. In losses to the Packers and Saints to end the season, the Lions allowed over 900 yards passing and nine touchdowns.
The secondary is better equipped to handle those types of losses this season with better depth in the form of
The secondary needs to stay on the field this season, especially Delmas.
2. Run game pulls its weight
The Lions are a passing team. With all the weapons at quarterback Matthew Stafford’s disposal, there’s no way this offense could be categorized any differently. It’s simple, really, the Lions have the best chance of winning with the ball in Stafford’s hands.
That being said, the passing game could be enhanced with the threat of a versatile rushing attack. The Lions employ the single greatest play-action passing threat in the NFL in receiver
The Lions aren’t ever going to run it as much as they throw it, but they want to be able to attack opponents on the ground when they scheme to the stop the pass.
“We want to do both and be effective at both,” Linehan said. “We certainly threw the ball more than we ran it last year, and we had lots of success with that. But if the defense is set up to stop the pass, obviously the run is where you go. We want to be able to be a two-dimensional offense.”
The Lions have high hopes that running back
Suh took the NFL by storm as a rookie earning All Pro and Pro Bowl honors after a 10-sack, 66-tackle performance.
It was unrealistic for anyone to think Suh was going to match the production of his rookie season, statistically at least, but no one figured he’s drop off as significantly as he did. He had four sacks and 36 tackles last season in 14 games.
The 30 fewer tackles jump out more than the lower sack total. Suh definitely got more attention from blockers following that rookie season and was visibly frustrated at times with the constant double teams.
Suh still makes an impact every time he steps on the field, but what the Lions really need are the impact plays we saw from him as a rookie -- the sacks, the tackles for loss, the fumble recoveries and the defensive touchdowns. They get those, they're back in business.
Fairley has looked great this offseason and Lions general manager Martin Mayhew singled him out as one of three players who really caught his eye.
We got a glimpse of Fairley’s potential in the first quarter against the Saints (sack, two tackle for loss), and if he can get past that lingering foot injury and remain 100 percent healthy, the Lions’ defensive line has the potential to be even better in 2012.
4. Stafford continues to progress
Stafford became only the fourth quarterback in NFL history to throw for 5,000 yards in a season last year and set team records for attempts (663), completions (421), yards (5,038) and touchdowns (41).
But as good as Stafford was last season, there were times when he struggled a bit or was neutralized. In a 23-16 loss to the Falcons, Stafford was 15-of-32 passing for 183 yards, led two three-and-out drives in the fourth quarter and on the final offensive series at the end of the game failed to reach past the Falcons’ 41-yard line.
The Lions will go only as far as Stafford can take them. He’s entering his fourth season in Linehan’s offense, which is a huge advantage for a young quarterback. The Lions have hit the ground running offensively this offseason and Stafford has taken more ownership of the offense.
If he can continue to develop within the system and clean up a few inconsistencies, he could be even better in 2012.
5. Rookies find their place and contribute early
The Lions selected offensive tackle Riley Reiff No. 23 overall in April’s NFL Draft, making him the first offensive lineman taken in the first round since
Reiff could prove to be an upgrade at either tackle spot as early as this season and the Lions still haven’t ruled out the possibility of him playing some guard, too. If Reiff earns a starting spot anywhere along the line, it means the coaches think he’s an upgrade and the offensive line is immediately better.
Rookie defensive end