Lions have right mixture of youth, vets to be competitive

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Paul Sancya / Associated Press
First-round pick Jahvid Best is the latest addition to an offense full of young talent in Detroit.


ALLEN PARK, Mich. -- Restore the Roar.

That simple statement outlines the mission that motivates general manager Martin Mayhew and coach Jim Schwartz as the leaders of the Detroit Lions. The duo is attempting to turn around a franchise that has been synonymous with losing for the past decade.

The Lions haven't had a winning season since 2000 and last made the playoffs in 1999 with a team that finished 8-8. They have lost 37 of their past 40 games, which included becoming the first team in NFL history to finish 0-16 in the regular season, a losing streak that extended to 19 games in 2009.

The challenge of engineering a turnaround amid those numbers appears daunting to say the least. Yet there is an optimism brewing in Detroit that suggests the Lions are on the right path.

Mayhew, who was promoted to GM following the 2008 season, has worked with Schwartz to overhaul the roster. The Lions have been willing to explore all possible avenues to bring in talent, and their aggressive tactics have resulted in a vastly improved roster over one they inherited.

The draft, in particular, has brought hope to the franchise, as the Lions have added a number of players in the early rounds who will serve as the team's foundation for years to come. Matthew Stafford looks like a franchise quarterback with receiver Calvin Johnson, tight end Brandon Pettigrew and running back Jahvid Best among an explosive supporting cast. Rookie defensive tackle Ndamukong Suh and safety Louis Delmas were drafted to be the defensive cornerstones.

Although the youngsters will serve as the core of the roster, Mayhew has done a great job of supplementing that talent by acquiring players through free agency or trades. Wide receiver Nate Burleson and defensive end Kyle Vanden Bosch were signed to add leadership and versatility. Defensive tackle Corey Williams, tight end Tony Scheffler and guard Rob Sims were acquired in trades to fill vital roles on both sides of the ball. Consequently, the Lions finally have enough talent to be competitive against every opponent on their schedule.

With upgrades across the board, Schwartz has spent the opening days of training camp focusing on the details that lead to wins. He and his energetic coaching staff have introduced a level of accountability that reflects the sense of urgency common in winning organizations. Players are taken to task for failing to stay sound with their assignments. The overlooked details, like running to the football or properly finishing a block, elicits strong responses from a staff that refuses to take a patient approach to rebuilding. Each player, regardless of their experience, is expected to perform at a high level, and that standard will lead the Lions out of the doldrums in the near future.

Schwartz and Mayhew realize no slogan will bring about the change that they desire.

However, the Lions are back on the road to respectability behind a coaching staff with outstanding teachers working with an improved roster.

CAMP OBSERVATIONS

» Stafford appears to be the real deal as he enters his second season. The former No. 1 overall pick has all of the physical tools that you look for in a quarterback, but he is starting to develop a better feel for the game.

Stafford has impressed team officials with his patience and decision-making by working through his progressions to connect with the third or fourth option in the route tree. Last season, he relied on his superior arm strength to force balls into tight windows, reflected in his 20 interceptions. It will be interesting to see if Stafford can stick with the new approach in live action. But at this point he appears ready to take a major step in his development.

» If you're looking for a frontrunner for Offensive Rookie of the Year, then your list should start with Best. The running back is a big part of the plans and his all-around skills should help him have an immediate impact. The team has experimented with moving Best around in various formations to take advantage of potential mismatches his speed and athleticism pose. Although Best will share some of the load with Kevin Smith, he could be in line for 1,300-1,500 yards from scrimmage.

» Offensive tackle Gosder Cherilus is entering a make-or-break year. The third-year pro is in a tightly-contested battle with veteran Jon Jansen for the right tackle job, and the Lions are hoping this is when he finally gets over the hump. He has been maddeningly inconsistent, and his inability to create a push in the running game has been surprising considering his massive frame (6-foot-7, 325 pounds). If he can finally play up to the potential that made him a first-round pick in 2008, the Lions will have a solid line to set the table for what should be an explosive offense.

» The Lions are flirting with the "Pistol" formation during training camp. The spread formation, which mixes the shotgun with a variety of I-formations, gives the team the ability to use some of its downhill running game out of open alignments.

In addition, it puts Stafford in a comfort zone due to his extensive experience in the spread from high school and college. The Lions want to be a multi-dimensional offense, and the occasional use of this exotic formation is another step in that direction.

» The front four will go a long way toward determining the success of the defense. Schwartz believes that a strong foundation on the line will allow other deficiencies that might exist on defense to be masked. The key, in his estimation, will be finding someone on the line that is capable of consistently commanding a double team. If the Lions are able to find that player, it will allow them to defend the run without having to commit an eighth defender (often a safety) to the box. That would allow the secondary to focus on eliminating some of the big pass plays that plagued the unit a year ago.

» Defensive backs Jonathan Wade and Chris Houston have enjoyed good training camps according to team officials. Although both came to Detroit after being cast off by their original teams (Wade was dismissed by the St. Louis Rams and Houston acquired in a trade with the Atlanta Falcons), they have taken major steps in their development with a fresh start.

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Wade, a fourth-year pro, has impressed with his competitive spirit and physical play. He has challenged receivers by being more aggressive at the line of scrimmage in press coverage. His willingness to battle for the ball on every down has earned him praise.

Houston, who logged 37 career starts in three seasons with the Falcons, has added speed and quickness to the defense. Though he still has some issues playing the ball, his ability to stay with receivers down the field has been a vast improvement over his predecessors (Phillip Buchanon and Anthony Henry).

SURPRISE, SURPRISE

Pettigrew and Smith looked good in team drills despite being less than a year removed from their respective knee injuries. Neither player showed a noticeable limp, which bodes well for a team counting on major contributions from each player.

LASTING IMAGE

Vanden Bosch relentlessly pursuing ball carriers in team drills. The veteran chases runners as far as 40 yards down the field to make an attempt to punch the ball out from behind. Although he often fails to catch up to the ball carriers in his pursuit, the effort is symbolic of the professionalism he brings to the game and is the kind of example that Schwartz needs to change the losing culture that has engulfed the franchise.

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