Lions ready to take step, but best will still have to wait

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  • By Pat Kirwan NFL.com
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ALLEN PARK, Mich. -- It's hard to imagine that a franchise that has lost 37 of its last 40 games has reason to hope, but are some positive signs for the Detroit Lions.

They have a franchise quarterback in Matthew Stafford -- if they can keep him upright. He suffered two injuries, a separated shoulder and a partially dislocated kneecap, as a rookie.

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They drafted defensive tackle Ndamukong Suh, who should be the foundation of a decent defense. The unit couldn't be much worse than the 2009 version, which ranked last in multiple categories.

General manager Martin Mayhew worked overtime this offseason to acquire talent in trades (DT Corey Williams, TE Tony Scheffler and G Rob Sims), free agency (WR Nate Burleson and DE Kyle Vanden Bosch) and being aggressive during the draft (moving up to take RB Jahvid Best). There's a very good chance there will be 11 new starters who were not on the team last season.

While the new faces offer reason to be optimistic, with so many changes, it could be difficult to get off to a good start. Things get even tougher when you consider the Lions open with three of their first four games against division foes, all on the road. A year ago, the Lions gave up 33.1 per game en route to going 0-6 in the NFC North and were the only team in the league to be winless on the road.

Coach Jim Schwartz has his work cut out for him to get this team ready as quickly as possible, or else the Lions will be out of the playoff race before October rolls around.

OBSERVATION DECK

» On the third drive of the preseason-opener against the Steelers, we got a glimpse of what could be for the Lions. Stafford hit on 7 of 9 passes for 54 yards and a touchdown. He connected with five different receivers, while Best carried twice for 19 yards and caught a pass for 9 yards.

» The starting cornerbacks against the Steelers, Chris Houston and Jonathan Wade, only had 14 combined starts last season and were headed to the bench for their former clubs (Falcons and Rams, respectively).

The three quarterbacks they will face in division, Brett Favre (assuming he returns), Aaron Rodgers and Jay Cutler threw 90 touchdowns last season. That total was better than any three quarterbacks in a division. No team gave up more passing yards than Detroit (265.6 yards per game), and its best player in the secondary, safety Louis Delmas, is injured.

» The Lions committed 11 penalties to just two by the Steelers. That was a point of emphasis when I attended practice.

» Just watching practice reminds me Detroit is thin across the board and has to very careful with the amount of hitting done. It is understandable the Lions worked in shorts Monday.

ROOKIE REPORT

» Suh played the first 11 snaps vs. the Steelers, and felt he did well with the calls and execution. He really appreciates what he is learning from Vanden Bosch and Williams.

» Best already looks like a do-it-all player who could wind up touching the ball 20-plus times a game as a runner, receiver and returner.

» Third-round CB Amari Spievey is working his way up the depth chart and could compete to start by midseason. Right now, his zone coverage skills are getting him noticed in practice.

» Fourth-round pick Jason Fox, an offensive tackle and former tight end, has the ability to pass block but needs more time in the weight room before he's a legit starter.

SURPRISE, SURPRISE

Zack Follett, a seventh-round pick in 2009, has established himself a solid special teams player, but is working as the starting weak side linebacker. With Jordon Dizon now done for the season, there might not be enough competition to get Follett off the field. As Schwartz said, "Zack is a football player and faster than people think. He can play."

SAY WHAT?

"He had a rough time early and missed time with injuries, which has set him back, but he is very tough and is working his way back into the picture."
-- Schwartz on Spievey

EXTRA POINTS

» Stafford, similar to a number of quarterbacks, likes five-man blocking schemes -- where he gets five receivers out -- over more conservative protections. The numbers bare out that his instincts are right on target. He only got sacked one in every 25 attempts last season in five-man schemes.

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» Two players who have to pick up the pace and be part of the turnaround are OT Gosder Cherilus and returner Derrick Williams. Cherilus was benched late last year, and Williams fair-catching a punt on the 3-yard line the other night means there is still work to do.

FINAL THOUGHTS

» Burleson told me that he totally understands the role he will play opposite Calvin Johnson. Burleson recognizes that he will see a lot of rolled coverage away from him and towards Johnson. He mentioned twice that the opportunities are outstanding and believes Stafford will take full advantage of them.

» Someone said it wasn't too much to ask for the Lions to go 6-10. As I leave the camp, I can see Detroit is significantly better, but to think there are six wins with a schedule that includes the NFC and AFC East, as well as their own division, might be too much to expect. While the team is headed in the right direction, four wins seem much more realistic, and five would be great. Rome wasn't built in a day, and neither will the Lions under Schwartz.

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