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O'HARA'S MONDAY COUNTDOWN: 2021 season preview

Dan Campbell is a man in charge as head coach of the Detroit Lions. Campbell's imprint is on every phase of the team as the Lions launch the 2021 NFL regular season against the San Francisco 49ers at Ford Field Sunday.

Along with first-year GM Brad Holmes, Campbell was brought in to overhaul a team that had a broken roster and a shattered spirit.

They have a mission from ownership to plan and build what will be their infrastructure for the future while making the best they can of the present.

Campbell is operating in an environment far removed from his first go-around as a head coach. That was six years ago in Miami, when he took over for Joe Philbin as interim head coach with 12 games left.

The Dolphins were 1-3 under Philbin and 5-7 under Campbell, who was let go after the season. Campbell was basically a high-level football handyman. He fixed what he could.

There is no mandate for a quick fix with the Lions.

"That's the key to this," Campbell said in a mini-break in his busy schedule.

"You have a chance to develop something."

This week's Monday Countdown looks at how Campbell is attacking his job with a team that has finished last in the NFC North the last three years and has undergone one of the most dramatic roster overhauls in franchise history.

There are also takeaways of where the Lions stand on offense, defense and special teams, and two areas where the Lions have to get it right if they're going to compete.

As in recent years, this is not a prediction column, but there's a look at how the NFC North will wind up – and a mandate, not a prediction for what will make the 2021 season a success on some level for the Lions.

We start with Dan Campbell:

1. Man in charge:

No one should be fooled by the Texas twang and some of the things Campbell says. He's smart, with an understanding of the work that has just begun on the job at hand and the challenges facing him.

Campbell has one precious commodity on his side: Time. Holmes and Campbell both got six-year contracts when they were hired.

The situation could not be more different than what he stepped into in Miami

"There, you were just trying to get back on track and find a way to win a few games, not knowing what's going to happen," Campbell said. "This is a chance for Brad and me from the get go to build it the way we want to, to have success.

"That's the big difference."

2. Youth movement:

The makeup of the roster is substantially younger than in any recent season. One example: At 25, cornerback Amani Oruwariye is the oldest of the four projected starters in the defensive backfield.

Holmes said it was not something they did by design, but rather a product of the players they wanted being younger.

"Yeah, we have an injection of youth on the football team," Holmes said. "That wasn't just, 'We want to go young.' These are the best guys for us.

"You can't ignore the future. You always have to look long term. You want to have succession plans, but that's not to overlook the now. Dan and I have said we're going to have the most competitive team on the field when we kick off Week 1 vs. the 49ers."

3. Takeaways, offense:

  • The offensive line was the Lions' strongest unit at the start of training camp and still is. The Lions developed some depth at running back, with Jermar Jefferson and Godwin Igwebuike behind the two veterans – D’Andre Swift and Jamaal Williams.
  • With the turnover at wide receiver, I'd be surprised if it doesn't take time for quarterback Jared Goff to develop any rhythm in the passing game.
  • Making the Pro Bowl last year in his second season was just the start for tight end T.J. Hockenson. He jumped from 32 catches for 367 yards and two TDs as a rookie to 67 catches, 723 yards and six TDs. With another jump, Hockenson could do something spectacular.

4. Takeaways, defense:

  • In the cut to 53 players, the Lions kept 17 players in the front seven – 10 linebackers and seven linemen. That's almost one third of the roster. (Defensive end Da'Shawn Hand was put on injured reserve.)
  • Look for the Lions to use those linemen to put heat on quarterbacks. Pressure causes sacks and turnovers. They need to ramp up both. In 2020, the Lions had 24 sacks and seven interceptions. Only five teams had fewer sacks. Only Houston had fewer picks.
  • Just being better on defense than last year isn't good enough because the Lions were so bad. They were last in total yards (419.8) and points (32.9), 30th in passing (284.5) and 28th in rushing (134.9). Cracking the top 20 would be a realistic goal.

5. Takeaways, special teams.

  • The Lions are perennially strong on special teams, but they'll be tested in some areas this year because of turnover. It started in the offseason with two players departing as free agents – kicker Matt Prater to Arizona and return specialist Jamal Agnew to Jacksonville. Long snapper Don Muhlbach was released midway through the preseason after 17 seasons with the Lions.
  • The Lions had three kickers in camp. None made the 53-player roster, but Zane Gonzalez was signed to the practice squad. Austin Seibert was claimed on waivers. Seibert made 83.5 percent of his field goal attempts in 21 games over two seasons with Cleveland and Cincinnati.
  • Punter Jack Fox, who made the Pro Bowl in 2020 as a rookie, looked as good as ever in camp and the preseason games. Regardless of who kicks and returns, the Lions should be good on coverage. It has been a strength.

6. Home field advantage:

I've harped about this before, and here's another shot. The Lions need to turn Ford Field into a house of horrors for visiting teams.

They've had one winning record at home in the last six seasons – 6-2 in 2016, when they made the playoffs as a wild card with a 9-7 record.

Ford Field is known as a difficult venue for visiting teams because of the noise generated by fans, but the Lions haven't taken advantage of it. Only way to do that: Win.

7. Division downer:

The Lions need to do better against NFC North teams. They've had one winning record against NFC North teams in the last six years. They were 5-1 in 2017 but missed the playoffs at 9-7 – their last winning season.

The last three seasons have been especially gruesome against NFC North teams – 2-4 in 2018, 0-6 in 2019 and 1-5 in 2020.

That's a 3-15 won-loss record against division opponents.

8. Mandate:

It should be determined by the eye test this season, not the Lions' won-loss record.

For the Lions, the measuring stick for any success this season is whether they improve throughout the season.

They haven't done that in recent seasons. This is a year for change.

9. NFC North projection:

  • Packers: They won't have another 13-3 season and make it to the NFC Championship, but they're the class of the NFC North – for another season.
  • Bears: Their defense makes them competitive while they sort out their quarterback issues.
  • Lions: They avoid finishing last in the division for the fourth straight year. Credit that to coaching.
  • Vikings: Too much going on to keep them from missing the playoffs two straight years for the first time under head coach Mike Zimmer.

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