ALLEN PARK, Mich. -- The Detroit Lions got off to a fast start last year, winning six of their first eight games, but faded with just one win in the second half of the season.
With Detroit's struggles down the stretch in mind, the offense has been totally revamped. After watching the most physical workout so far on my camp tour, there is no doubt the commitment to the run game is a big part of the 2008 offense.
Jon Kitna may be the best quarterback in the NFC North, if Brett Favre isn't part of the equation. He explained that the plan in Detroit is to run the ball, but will look to pass when defenses bring the safety down for run support and leave Roy Williams and Calvin Johnson singled up.
While at camp, I sat down with 10 starters for a discussion about the team, the direction Rod Marinelli has them going and what might lie ahead this season.
The Lions open at Atlanta, host Green Bay (presumably without Favre), go to San Francisco and return home for a game against Chicago, a team they beat twice last year. Marinelli is pushing this team very hard right now and everyone seems to be on board with the grueling camp schedule.
As DT Cory Redding said, "It took three years but Coach Marinelli has the locker room filled with his guys."
Marinelli emphasized the hard work the defense is putting in to build a package to stop the run with seven players in the box. From what I saw, it looks like the unit has a chance to stop the run with seven in the box, especially with the addition of nose tackle Chartric Darby. Marinelli needs to stunt the front four and penetrate the offensive line to be effective. Darby and Cory Redding can provide the inside pressure to be disruptive.
After watching three hours of practice, video tapes and sitting down with Matt Millen, here are the five most compelling questions for the Detroit Lions:
1. Can the zone running scheme work?
Offensive coordinator Jim Colletto is a hard-nosed line coach. At this point, he's put in just two basic running plays in camp and the defense knows what is coming all the time. The philosophy is to make the base running game work no matter what the circumstances. With the defense constantly coming downhill at the two plays, it makes it tough to move the ball. In turn, as center Dominic Raiola pointed out, it makes the offense very tough as a group.
The run game has wide receiver Roy Williams talking. "We need to stick with the run, even if we don't gain yardage early in a game, we can't get away from the run and it will open up the passing game." Look for the Detroit running game to resemble the kind the Raiders had last year when they averaged 130 yards per game by sticking with the ground game even when they were behind.
2. Can the Lions stop the pass?
The Lions were the 31st ranked pass defense in the NFL last year and there have been great efforts made to improve the situation. But is it enough? I sat down with three of the new starting defensive backs -- Leigh Bodden, Brian Kelly, and Dwight Smith -- and there is no doubt the back end of the defense will be better in 2008. Kelly and Smith have been in the system before and know how to cheat the coverage's against certain routes. Bodden is good enough to take a solid receiver out of a game. Safety Daniel Bullocks is back from injury and learning the finer points of the Tampa 2 coverages from the newly added veterans.
The problems arise in the pass rush. No matter how good the secondary is a pass rush in front of them is needed to be effective. It's a work in progress. There is no elite pass rusher on the roster and to maintain a four-man rush and avoid the blitzing that will get them in trouble, Marinelli is pushing some of the inexperienced pass rushers very hard. Detroit needs second year defensive end Ikaika Alama-Francis or rookie Cliff Avril to step up right away and be a solid third down rusher. Marinelli never seems to let up on either one of them, but he is optimistic about both players. Marinelli says Francis has the raw talent to be special and Avril is a real smart player with quickness. Until one of these guys delivers, the pass defense is a question mark.
3. Can four rookies be ready in time to help?
Detroit needs immediate help from four rookies. Here is an assessment of where they stand right now:
A. Kevin Smith: Smith reminds me of Corey Dillon and Jon Kitna feels the same way about him. Smith is a powerful zone runner who can break a tackle. His most impressive attribute is his ability to be patient and read the scheme in front of him. I think a 1,000-yard season is a realistic goal after watching him practice and spending some time with him.
B. Gosder Cherilus: Cherilus is already the starting right tackle on offense and he is perfect for the power running game. He's a mauler who likes to finish blocks, but he needs work on his pass blocking. He tends to be too high out of his stance and over aggressive with pass rushers. As Cherilus said to me after practice, "I have to learn not to try and destroy everyone. Patience is a key to pass blocking." He will be better in the second half of the year than the first half.
C. Cliff Avril: Avril is an undersized pass rusher but his power and quickness make up for his lack of size. He should be a situational pass rusher who may struggle to record sacks but will disrupt the pocket.
D. Jordon Dizon: Dizon was originally slated to play middle linebacker but that appears to be Paris Lenon's job at this time. While Dizon will be brought along a little slower, his instincts and playing speed will get him on the field before season's end.
4. Is there a capable backup QB on the roster?
5. Can Lions turn long history of losing around?
Lions fans are tired of losing and so are the players and coaches. This team is a lot tougher than the 2006 team and improved from the 2007 squad. I could see the Lions getting out to a 4-4 start, but the second half of the schedule is tough. Depending on health and how quickly the rookies develop, a realistic record is anywhere from 7-9 to 9-7.