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A back injury slowed WR Calvin Johnson as a rookie, but he appears primed for a breakout season.


NFC North preview:

Bears: QB holds key | Lions: Tampa north | Packers: Rodgers' neighborhood | Vikings: Ready to take charge

One small step last year, another this year? Perhaps. Their streak of six straight years with double-digit defeats now ended, the Lions are trying to remake themselves in the image of coach Rod Marinelli's former team in Tampa Bay.

Marinelli is going into his third season with the Lions and it has taken him this long to adjust the roster. The road has been painful; last year, Detroit allowed more points and more yards than any other team, and allowed opponents to complete a league-high 70.1 percent of their passes. However, the Lions not only look different but much sharper, particularly on defense, where they are quicker, this summer.

2008 forecast
Vic Carucci : Calvin Johnson looks like he'll rebound from a disappointing rookie year, there is a greater commitment to the run, and the defense shows good speed. Does it add up to a playoff appearance? Probably not. Prediction: 8-8

Thomas George : A surprise team in '08. Returning to a beat-'em-up running game will do wonders for this club. Prediction: 10-6

Pat Kirwan : Commitment to the run is easier said than done when the two best players are receivers and the team might be playing from behind a lot more than with the lead. The Lions will not fade like they did last year when they went 1-7 in the second half. But will they start fast with Atlanta, San Francisco, Chicago and Houston in the first six weeks? Prediction: 6-10

Gil Brandt : They wanted to be a passing team last year and failed. This season will be more about the running game and defense. They need a big performance from rookie RB Kevin Smith. Prediction: 8-8

» Lions' 2008 schedule
Fantasy file
Riser: Kevin Smith
Smith has much more talent and upside than veterans Tatum Bell and Brian Calhoun. It shouldn't be long before the rookie runner tops the depth chart in Detroit's backfield.

Faller: Jon Kitna
The Lions will run a more balanced offense under coordinator Jim Colletto, so Kitna is no longer a candidate to post huge numbers. He's also been far too prone to turnovers.

» Fantasy draft kit | More fantasy

With the departure of Shaun Rogers, the defensive line is shrinking. It appears 300 pounds is now the maximum as Marinelli demands leaner, quicker players like he had as the defensive line coach of the Buccaneers. For the secondary, he imported three players with experience in the Tampa 2 defense: Strong safety Dwight Smith, cornerback Brian Kelly and free safety Kalvin Pearson. The team also acquired cornerback Leigh Bodden in the Rogers trade to Cleveland.

The offense also is changing, and the goal is as much to assist the defense as it is to be more productive on offense. Marinelli wants to run the ball more than the Lions did the last two years with Mike Martz as offensive coordinator. The Marinelli and Martz philosophies were quite different and never meshed.

Detroit plans to balance an offense that last year called passes on two-thirds of its plays. Third-round draft choice Kevin Smith looks like the feature back behind a zone blocking line; the offense is so similar to what Smith was used to in college that he came to camp already knowing the names of the plays.

Smith is more of a plodder than a burner. Big plays on offense still will have to come in the passing game, and second-year wide receiver Calvin Johnson looks like a player on the verge of a breakout year. Johnson was hobbled most of his rookie year with a back problem but has looked terrific this summer.

On the hot seat

Defensive right end Dewayne White, a former Tampa Bay player brought in last year in the early stages of the defensive makeover. The Lions need White to become an elite pass rusher in order to improve significantly on last year's career high 6½ sacks.

Difference-maker

Wide receiver Calvin Johnson looks like he could be poised for a monster year. Johnson's rookie numbers (48 catches, 756 yards, 4 TDs) were nothing special, but now that he's fully healthy again he seems poised for an explosion.

Hard road to hoe

Last year, Detroit started 6-2 and went 1-7 the second half of the season. The Lions must try to avoid a repeat even though the schedule starts easy and then gets tougher. December looks difficult, with home games against Minnesota and New Orleans and road games against Indianapolis and Green Bay, where the Lions have not won in 17 tries since 1991, the year before Brett Favre arrived. Maybe his departure will change their fortune there.

Lions will be better than you think if ...

They can run the ball and the defensive makeover results in the expected improvement.

Lions will be worse than you think if ...

The defensive changes do not pay off.

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