In the final segment of this series, I’m gonna preview the last two games on the schedule, but first I’m going to review the main theme of this series: is ten wins really a possibility for the Detroit Lions? I wanted to wait this long to post the last part of the series, so that I could get a look at the team on the field and figure out how some of these new additions are working out for the Lions, and—most of us would agree—most of the additions are working out great.
For this segment, I did some research and tried to find teams that had pulled off a similar turnaround, and I didn’t have to look far. Everyone that has followed football remembers the 2006 New Orleans Saints, a team that went 10-6 and made it to the NFC Championship Game. What a lot of people might be forgetting is the fact that the Saint’s went 3-13 the season before, and would have been 2-14 like the Lions had Jason Hanson not made that field goal with a second left on the clock. The Saints, just like the Lions, had multitude of issues, both on the offensive and defensive sides.
On the offensive end, the Saints had a new quarterback by the name of Drew Brees, who couldn’t even lift his throwing arm four months ago, their starting wideouts were a 33-year old Joe Horn and some rookie seventh rounder named Marques Colston. The line had given up 41 the season before (Lions gave up 43 last season), and names like Jammaal Brown and Jahri Evans were far from household names. Pretty much, all their offensive hopes laid on an electrifying USC product by the name of Reggie Bush.
Now, let’s look at the Lions roster: we have a set quarterback, who looks more than capable enough out on the field, we have two starting caliber running backs, two starting caliber tight ends, the most talented wideout in the game, a solid number two, and a much improved offensive line. In short, the Lions offense is in a far better situation than the 2006 Saints offense. A lot of you will argue that the Saints had marquee NFL players like Brees and Evans, but we have to remember that in 2006 these guys were next to nobody’s, just like the Lions players are right now.
On the defensive end, the team’s top three tacklers weren’t even on the roster in 2005, gave up close 25 points a game in the season past (Lions gave up 31), and managed only 26 sacks the whole season (same amount as 2009 Lions). By no means were the Saints set as a defensive unit. Fast forward to 2006, and the Saints added players like Scott Shanle and Scott Fujita, and guys like Will Smith and Charles Grant both record 10+ sack seasons and the defense only allows 20 points a game.
The Lions? Sure, our corners are bad, and there is work to be done at linebacker, but we have one of most talented defensive lines in the league that has been causing havoc against offensive lines in the preseason. Just like the Saints, we have two defensive ends that are capable of having double digit sack seasons. The fact is that the Lions defense doesn’t need to do much in order for this team to win. They don’t need to shut down opposing offenses. If our defense can hold teams to scoring around 22 point a game, I like the Lions chances in every game.
Now, one of the biggest arguments people like to make is that the Lions can’t win ten games (or even nine, eight or seven) because they have a tough schedule. Well, the 2006 Saints opponents had amassed a 0.539 win percentage, and they only faced 5 opponents that had a below .500 record. On the other hand, the 2009 Lions opponents have a combined 0.507 win percentage, while seven of our sixteen opponents have under .500 records.
The fact is that win percentage really doesn’t tell the whole story. The Lions face a 12-4 team in the Vikings twice a season. All that means to the coaches is that they have two really tough games, but the mathematical impact on the win percentage is huge. In the same manner, having a 2-14 team in the schedule twice (for the rest of the NFC North) means that there are going to be two games where the opponent is below average, but the win percentage will look far different.
The way I see it: if a team like the Saints end up having the type of season given the facts above, then why not the Lions? The biggest thing that changed for the Saints is that they added a Pro Bowl quarterback that became the focal point of their offense, and as my analysis of second year quarterbacks shows, Matthew Stafford is more than capable of making the jump to one of the league’s best.
The biggest thing that impressed me about Stafford is the fact that he is spreading the ball around. In the game against Cleveland, Stafford completed thirteen passes to ten different receivers. In the Denver game, he completed twelve passes to seven different receivers and in the Pittsburgh game he complete eight passes to six receivers. Overall, in three preseason games, his 33 completions have been caught by an astounding even receivers (the Lions only had sixteen players catch passes all of last season).
To me, spreading the ball around is what separates a good quarterback from a great one. Look at the elite tier of quarterbacks in the NFL: Peyton Manning, Drew Brees, Tom Brady. All three always spread the ball around (not as much for Brady after getting Welker and Moss) and a lot of has to do with the fact that they understand their offense and NFL defenses far better than the average quarterback. Now, I’m not saying that Stafford is a Manning or a Brady, he’s obviously not there yet, but it’s very impressive to see a young quarterback do what he is doing as early as he is doing it in his career.
Now, to finish off the key matchups….
Opponent: Miami Dolphins
The Dolphins defense, even with the upgrades, really doesn’t have a key pass rusher that a 3-4 defense needs to have. Really, their best pass rusher is former CFL standout Cameron Wake, so in order for the Dolphins to be successful, they will need to rely on the secondary not making many mistakes and covering receivers pretty well. That is why I think if Calvin Johnson can have his way with former first rounder Vontae Davis, then the Lions should have a great chance of winning this game.
I think the Dolphin’s offense has everything needed to be a top five offense this year. Really, they kind of resemble the Lions offense as they have a true number one wideout, a gun slinging quarterback and a deep core of runningbacks. Of course, they have a far superior offensive line, and we have more potential is guys like Jahvid Best and Matthew Stafford. To be honest, I think this will be toughest matchup for Chris Houston all season. Marshall is a physical wide receiver and Houston isn’t the best of tacklers. Also, the Dolphins love running to the sidelines from their wildcat formations and getting good blocking from the receiver makes those plays far more effective.
Overall: I think the Lions have a very good chance at winning this game. Chad Henne will make mistakes, and our offense can put up points.
Opponent: Minnestoa Vikings
Key Offensive Matchup: Jahvid Best vs. Vikings Defense
This is really more of a theme for the season as a whole. If Jahvid Best can be successful in running the ball and breaking big gains, then the Lions offense goes from good to scary. Think of it this way, when teams play the Tennessee Titans, they always put eight or nine men in the box to prevent Chris Johnson from breaking big gains. They can afford to do that to the Titans because Vince Young can’t throw, and the Titans really don’t have an elite receiver. If Jahvid Best can start breaking off big gains against NFL defenses, then how do you adjust to the Lions? You can’t bring up both safeties …you need to double cover Calvin Johnson at all times, maybe even triple cover. You can try to play cover one, with one safety deep, but then you have account for Megatron, Tony Scheffler, Brandon Pettigrew, and Nate Burleson with just one safety back. Really, if Best can be successful, and by success I mean rush for about 1200 yards or so, then the Lions offense will easily be a top five offense in the league…if not the best.
I think it will be really interesting to see what Suh can do against the Queens in the last game of the season. He has already proven in the regular season that he can raise hell for opposing teams. By the time this game rolls around, Suh will pretty much have one whole season under his belt and will get to put all that experience to test against one of the best guards in the game.
Overall: I think the Lions win this game pretty easily. Either the Vikings are getting tuned up for the playoffs and don’t play their starters all that much or the Favre experiment fails on them and they are a subpar team.