Hope and hype put pressure on young Lions to produce

Detroit Lions players aren't just caught up in what the lofty expectations that many national observers have for their team means to them.

They're equally aware of what it means to a city that doesn't often find itself drawing much in the way of praise from outsiders.

"It's exactly what the city needs, exactly what we wanted," offensive tackle Corey Hilliard told me during a recent interview on SiriusXM NFL Radio. "Guys on the team want to succeed, not just for themselves but for the city -- a city that's just been under a cloud of bad luck. And we all know that.

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"You have guys (on the team) fighting for jobs, fighting for their livelihoods, and they start to fight for the city, too. As players, we talk about that stuff. We talk about the fans and what it would mean to the city to win."

There are multiple reasons the Lions are a popular pick as one of the NFL's up-and-coming teams.

First, they managed to grab plenty of positive feedback for their 4-0 finish in 2010. Second, they boasted one of the game's most dominant defensive players in tackle Ndamukong Suh, the league's Defensive Rookie of the Year.

Third, they expect to have the talented quarterback they selected with the top overall pick in 2009, Matthew Stafford, back and fully recovered from a shoulder injury that shortened his 2010 season. Fourth, they had a strong draft, highlighted by first-round pick Nick Fairley, the behemoth defensive tackle from Auburn who when lined up next to Suh should help form one of the most imposing tandems in the league.

"I'm surprised about how much pub we've been getting, honestly, but we'll enjoy it," Hilliard said. "Now it's putting pressure on that we've got to go out there and live up to it, which is the hard part."

Hilliard said that he and his teammates knew that last year's strong finish would give them "some momentum" going into the 2011 season, especially given that those victories came with the help of fill-in cornerbacks they acquired after they had been cut by other teams earlier in the year.

As an offensive lineman, Hilliard is well aware of what the addition of Fairley could mean to the Lions' ability to get off to a fast start this year.

"If Fairley can do even half of what Ndamukong did this past season, you're talking about matchup problems," Hilliard said. "You can't double-team both of them. If you do, you're leaving the ends out there by themselves, and we've got pretty good D-ends as well. Hopefully, (Suh and Fairley create) a bunch of matchup problems for every line that they play."

Follow Vic Carucci on Twitter @viccarucci.

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