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