It was Sunday morning Aug. 12th, at 8 a.m. when I arrived at the Lions facility. The team had just won a preseason game against the Bengals, coming from behind in the fourth quarter to erase a 16-point deficit. That kind of thing doesn't happen very often to the Detroit franchise and it would be easy to understand why the team might be feeling good about itself.
Coach Rod Marinelli is trying to teach a winning attitude and a big part of that is recognizing how to build on a little successes until you really accomplish something.
The practice was chock full of contact and enthusiasm. It consisted of a full-scaled blitz pick up period, an intense 9-on-7 run period, and a very impressive 7-on-7 passing drill with defensive coordinator Joe Barry ripping the Lion defense for the slightest mental errors. CB Fernando Bryant told me, "We need Joe pushing us and no one takes it personal."
1. CAN ROD CHANGE THE MINDSET OF THE LIONS?
Coach Marinelli has a big challenge ahead of him as he enters the second year at the helm of the Lions. He needs to turn the culture around in the Lion locker room, the rest of the organization, and the community. He is beginning to see signs of real progress. Gone are most of the players who couldn't buy into his passion for the game. This year the attitude around Lions camp is positive, and with the exception of DT Shaun Rogers who is struggling with his weight and still isn't practicing, this team is a real team. As one player said to me, "We haven't had one stupid brawl at practice, no one is complaining about their contract in the locker room and guys believe Rod has their backs." The bad news is it will still take time and talent to fully turn this franchise around.
2. WILL JON KITNA THROW FOR 5,000 YARDS?
After watching two hours of practice I sat down with Kitna to talk about his offense and how much has changed in a year. Back in the spring it was reported that Kitna said the Lions would win 10 or more games. What he said, according to him, was "This team is capable of winning ten games." After watching their three and four wide receiver packages with Roy Williams, Calvin Johnson, Mike Furrey, and Shaun McDonald the one thing that looked clear to me was Kitna is on his way to a 5,000 yards passing season.
Keep in mind the team will be playing from behind many times this season, he already surpassed 4,000 yards without Calvin Johnson on the field, and when Johnson and Williams are working the sideline routes on opposite sides of the field Kitna is really working on a field that is 60 yards wide. Jon told me he is very comfortable placing passes three yards outside the boundary and let Calvin and Roy extend out where defenders can't get the ball.
3. ARE THE LIONS THIS YEAR'S NEW ORLEANS SAINTS?
From last to first in one year is the dream of every Lions fan. This Detroit team will be better than the 3-13 team of 2006 but a quantum leap like the Saints made may be too much to ask. The Lions defense gave up 118 yards a game on the ground last year in division games. The pass rush only generated four sacks in six division games, while surrendering 232 yards per game. The Lions offensive line is better and will protect Kitna but the Mike Martz offense usually gives up sacks. In six division games last year Kitna went down 26 times and the offense turned the ball over 18 times. I believe the team will do a lot better but a Saints turn around may be too much to ask.
Live preseason games on NFL Network
- Washington at Tennessee, Sat. Aug. 11 (8 p.m.)
- Houston at Arizona, Sat. Aug. 18 (4 p.m.)
- Detroit at Indianapolis, Sat. Aug. 25 (7 p.m.)
- San Diego at Arizona, Sat. Aug. 25 (10 p.m.)
- Buffalo at Detroit, Thur. Aug. 30 (7 p.m.)
- San Fran. at San Diego, Thur. Aug. 30 (10 p.m.)
- Indianapolis at Cincinnati, Fri. Aug. 31 (7:30 p.m.)
1. CALVIN JOHNSON - Calvin is the talk of the camp and for good reason. He is a very special athlete and even a better person. I sat down with the emerging star and it felt like I was talking to Tiger Woods. He's humble, very aware of his responsibilities as a star and very much interested in turning this franchise around.
2. TATUM BELL - Bell was looking for a fresh start after his time in Denver and is very excited about the opportunities in Detroit. Martz sees him as the guy who will play the "Marshall Faulk' roll in this offense. There are expectations that the presence of Johnson, Williams and Furrey on the field will force every opponent into seven-in-the-box defenses and there will be lots of opportunities for Bell in the running game. The draw play should be a devastating weapon. Bell is working hard to refine his receiving skills and it was interesting watching Coach Martz personally work with Tatum on his route running. Bell has the speed to run the wheel route (out and up) and caught the ball better than advertised.
3. EDWIN MULITALO- The former Raven guard comes from a power running offense and is adjusting to the passing offense in Detroit. He played for Lions offensive line coach, Jim Coletto, in Baltimore and is progressing in the transition. Both Mulitolo and Kitna told me the Lions are working on a new running attack from the four wide receiver sets and that makes Edwin a key component to the package.
Offense - As soon as stretching was over at the beginning of practice the offense started running through their plays. The first personnel grouping they were in was three wide receivers, one tight end, and one running back. There isn't a defensive coordinator in the NFL that wants to see a steady diet of that package but they are going to get a heavy dose of it every week. Matching up a nickel defense to the Lions three-wide package will be a problem. The two concepts the Lions will have to battle is the blitz vs. the three-wide set and a man under-two deep scheme which will dare Kitna to run with the ball.
The Lions are also trying to get a running game ready by substituting out a wide receiver for FB/TE Sean McHugh (6'5, 265). Look for McHugh to lead probably on Mulitolos' side of the formation. It will be critical to occasionally get some rest for the Lions defense, which is something a better running game than the 2006 offense -that averaged 48 yards per division game - can accomplish.
Defense - Marinelli is looking for three critical components to make the Lions defense work. He needs to find his version of Warren Sapp, Derrick Brooks, and John Lynch. Those three made the Tampa defense the famous unit that every team aspires to have. I asked Coach Marinelli if he has three such players on the Lion roster. He said Cory Redding is his Sapp, Ernie Sims is his Brooks and Daniel Bullocks is his Lynch. If coach is right, the Lions defense is on its way to a special place.
Redding is taller than Sapp and that may work against him as a one gap penetrator. Sims already demonstrated the sideline-to-sideline tackling that Brooks had from early on in his career. Can he make those big interceptions for touchdowns like Brooks? As for Bullocks, who's in his second year, he really looks the part of John Lynch-type safety and will deliver Lynch-type performances.
The backup quarterback situation is cloudy at best. Kevin Jones is a solid running back but neither Matt Millen nor Rod Marinelli knew when he would be ready to go after his Lis-Franc foot injury.
But when I think about the biggest weakness on this team it's not the history of losing but it's the talent on the defense that comes to mind. Shaun Rogers has to play great and he's not even practicing. The defensive ends have to do a better job against the run and the departure of CB Dre Bly leaves a starting four-man secondary with that combined for only 29 out of a possible 64 starts last year.
THE BEST INTERVIEWS
1. ROD MARINELLI - Rod speaks my language when it comes to football philosophy. He wants guys who love the game, work hard without prompting and can be trusted. If anyone in the NFL deserves to win, it's Coach Marinelli.
2. JON KITNA - I never met Jon before this past weekend but it is easy to understand why his teammates call him the real leader of this team. Roy Williams made it clear on a few occasions that this is Kitna's team. After talking football with him for a half hour I now know why Mike Martz believes in the guy.
3. ROY WILLIAMS - Not every premiere receiver in the NFL could handle the arrival of a player like Calvin Johnson with the class of Roy Williams. Some veterans of Roy's stature would demand a new contract right away. Roy spent his time with me talking about how excited he is to play with Johnson. Roy is already a tremendous influence on Calvin and isn't worried one bit about there being enough footballs to go around.
4. CORY REDDING - Redding got paid this offseason and he really feels he owes Marinelli for supporting him. Cory knows he is the key to the defense and he knows at 6'4 he has to play with great leverage to penetrate the offensive line. He must have said it a half a dozen times that Marinelli's coaching is what has made him a success.
5. ERNIE SIMS - Last year he was a rookie under the microscope, this year he is a leader of the defense. Ernie made the point that he isn't a big talker but rather a guy who leads by example.
This is a tough one for me. If I sat down and wrote this prediction as my camp stop in Detroit ended, my heart might have been in the way. Football is important to every person in the organization, they are headed in the right direction but they still aren't there yet.
The fans and the media seem to lack the patience required to see this project through. One bystander at practice said, "Outside of Calvin, the rookies don't look good, some of the key players aren't very good and nothing much will change." No one can blame Marinelli for what went on in Detroit before his arrival but the truth may be just that if they don't get off to a fast start; the frustration will rear its ugly head quickly.
At the end of the year this team will have a better record than the 3-13 finish last year. Can they win on the road? Can they function if Kitna gets hurt? Can the defense gel in time to support the offense? Time will tell but for now I think this team wins anywhere from six and eight games.