O’HARA’S FRIDAY FOCUS: Identity change most important task for Lions

Posted Aug 8, 2014

The Lions are eager to line up against another team to measure how far they’ve progressed in the new schemes brought in by Jim Caldwell and his staff.

It isn’t the Manziel Mania show surrounding Browns rookie Johnny Manziel that concerns the Lions as they launch the preseason under new head coach Jim Caldwell.

What they show on the field is what matters to the Lions at Ford Field on Saturday night.

After an offseason program that began in late April and two weeks of training camp, the Lions are eager to line up against another team to measure how far they’ve progressed in the new schemes brought in by Caldwell and his staff.

“We’ve been working on going against each other every day,” Reggie Bush said after Thursday’s practice. “It’s going to be good to get into our stadium and play against another football team – compete, and maybe talk a little trash.

Reggie BushRB Reggie Bush (Photo: Detroit Lions)

“It’s going to be good to kind of start to find our identity as a football team.”

Whether it’s training camp, the preseason or games that count in the regular season, changing their identity is the most important task confronting the Lions.

Until they prove otherwise, last year’s collapse that saw them lose six of their last seven games and miss the playoffs with a 7-9 record will hang over them until they prove they no longer have a turnover-prone offense and a defense that can’t make game-clinching stops.

This week’s Friday Focus for the Browns-Lions centers on what Caldwell is looking for overall, key factors for the offense and defense, and the status of some positions battles. And there’s also a look at what to expect from Manziel.

Lions-Browns 2014: The Lions were 7-9 and third in the NFC North. The Browns were 4-12 and fourth in the AFC North. The teams met twice – a 24-6 victory for the Browns in the preseason, and a 31-17 win for the Lions in the regular season. Both games were played in Cleveland.

Caldwell’s comments: It’s no surprise that Caldwell is looking to execute the fundamentals.

“First and foremost, I think it’s important that we have a good rhythm on both sides of the ball – really the basics, the fundamentals,” he said. “We’re looking at alignment, assignment. Obviously, the techniques of the fundamentals are the things that are extremely important to us in the rhythm of the game. 

“We don’t want a lot of penalties and those kinds of things.  Ultimately, we want to win, and that’s the key.  A lot of people look at the preseason and treat things differently.  As long as they keep the score, we’re concerned about winning.”

Offense: The Lions have a new look in design and philosophy, but don’t expect quarterback Matthew Stafford and the other starters to display it for very long.

In last year’s opener under the previous staff, Stafford played the first two series. That’s typical for starters in an opener.

On the second possession, he completed passes to Calvin Johnson for gains of 28 and 22 yards on consecutive plays in a drive that ended in a field goal.

Bush says the difference between the offense this year and last is noticeable.

“We’re not going to be spread out as much as people will think,” he said. “Last year we were in three wides (receivers), four wides a lot. You won’t see as much of that. I think you’ll see a little bit more fullback used – two tight ends, three tight-end sets.”

Turnover margin: The Lions’ turnover ratio of minus-12 last year ranked near the bottom of the NFL. They’ve worked on both sides of the ball to improve that.

“Protecting the ball on the offensive side of the ball, and on the defensive side taking it away and giving the (offense) an extra opportunity to go down and score points and win games has been the biggest emphasis so far this offseason,” Bush said. “That’s something we’re focused on.”

Defense: Under new coordinator Teryl Austin, the Lions will be more of an attacking, blitzing unit than in previous seasons, when their blitz percentage against drop-back situations was one of the league’s lowest.

Whoever wins the starting job at strong-side linebacker – incumbent starter Ashlee Palmer or rookie Kyle Van Noy – will play up on the line of scrimmage more and be used to rush the passer.

Veteran safety James Ihedigbo, signed as a free agent in the offseason, has brought stability to the secondary. He’s familiar with the defense from having played under Austin in Baltimore, where he coached the secondary.

“You want to get off on a good foot and play good, team defense,” Ihedigbo said.

Position battles: There is competition for starters and backups at several positions. Two to watch this week are between Corey Hilliard and LaAdrian Waddle at right tackle on the offensive line and kickers Nate Freese and Giorgio Tavecchio.

Waddle played 12 games with eight starts last year as an undrafted rookie. Hilliard, going into his eighth NFL season, started seven games.

In Wednesday night’s public workout at Ford Field, Freese made all five of his field-goal attempts from 30-47 yards. Tavecchio made his first four. His fifth attempt hit the upright.

Manziel: Brian Hoyer will start with Manziel entering the game in relief at some point.

Coach Mike Pettine has said that he wants to name a starter after the second preseason game -- at Washington on Aug. 18, on Monday Night TV. It’s an ideal showcase for Manziel.

One Cleveland report termed Hoyer’s position in the completion as being “outclassed athletically vs. Manziel and cast in the role of a speed bump to the onrushing train of Manziel Mania."