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Lions will start Culpepper at QB in preseason opener; Stafford to follow

ALLEN PARK, Mich. -- Jeff Daniels, an actor and a passionate fan of Michigan sports, was at a Detroit Lions practice this week and asked a question heard a lot lately in the Motor City.

"Stafford or Culpepper?" Daniels asked a couple reporters.

Lions coach Jim Schwartz finally ended the suspense Friday, saying Daunte Culpepper will start Saturday's preseason opener against the Atlanta Falcons and No. 1 overall draft pick Matthew Stafford would follow at some point in the second quarter.

"Don't read anything into it," insisted Schwartz, who said he doesn't have a timetable for naming a starting quarterback for the regular season. "It's not like somebody is ahead of somebody else on the depth chart."

Schwartz plans to start Stafford next week at Cleveland, but he said who the No. 1 quarterback is in the third preseason game will not necessarily take the first snap in Week 1.

"Don't try to play that game," Schwartz said.

Even though Stafford hasn't thrown a pass against another team as a pro, the former University of Georgia star has talked about the Lions' preseason opener as if he was discussing the weather.

"I'm not really interested in calling anything my debut," Stafford said.

The game also will be Schwartz's debut as a head coach at any level.

"Maybe I can tell you after the game if it felt different," said Schwartz, who was the Tennessee Titans' defensive coordinator the past eight seasons.

The Falcons did surprisingly well last season, becoming the first NFL team since 1945 to have a rookie head coach and a rookie quarterback compete in the postseason. The Baltimore Ravens also pulled off the feat last year.

Mike Smith, the coach, and Matt Ryan, the quarterback, hope to avoid a sophomore slump, taking advantage of additions such as 10-time Pro Bowl tight end Tony Gonzalez, talented linebacker Mike Peterson and first-round defensive tackle Peria Jerry.

The Falcons plan to play their four quarterback one quarter each, starting with Ryan. Smith wouldn't say when to expect Chris Redman, D.J. Shockley or rookie John Parker Wilson to be on the field.

"Whatever their plan is, I'm going to go with it," Ryan said. "They haven't steered me wrong yet."

Stafford said the Lions' three quarterbacks, including Drew Stanton, are expecting to have about the same number of snaps.

"It's going to be fairly evaluated," he said.

Stafford said he's not worried about the challenges he might face. Even if he excels, though, Stafford might not beat out Culpepper for the coveted job initially.

Culpepper has lost 30-plus pounds and looks more like the three-time Pro Bowl quarterback he was with the Minnesota Vikings and less like someone whose career was stunted by a knee injury, leading to lackluster play the past four seasons.

"We played against him when he was at Miami, with the Raiders and last year here on Thanksgiving, and he's definitely more mobile than those three times," Schwartz said. "I don't think the knee is an issue anymore."

Detroit, coming off the NFL's first 0-16 season, desperately needs Stafford to develop into a star at some point. Previous first-round draft picks Joey Harrington, Andre Ware and Chuck Long failed to deliver for a franchise that has one Pro Bowl quarterback and one playoff victory since winning the 1957 NFL title.

Lions offensive tackle Jeff Backus isn't ready to anoint Stafford as the team's savior, but he likes how the rookie carries himself on and off the field.

"He doesn't seem like he feels the pressure of being the No. 1 pick," Backus said. "Being in the spotlight comes real natural to him. It's easy to see that he's a special player, watching some of throws he makes."

Schwartz says he's not close to deciding who will take start at quarterback in Detroit's season opener Sept. 13 at New Orleans, where the Lions hope to win their first game since Dec. 23, 2007.

Culpepper said in June that he wants to be the one who leads the Lions to an NFC North title, but he has tried to stay quiet during training camp as the competition is dissected and debated daily.

"I'll talk to you guys after the game," Culpepper said.

That's when Stafford might have a chance to receive some tips from Ryan about how he defied convention to win as a rookie quarterback.

"The biggest thing is, you've got to go in and figure it out for yourself," Ryan said.

Copyright 2009 by The Associated Press

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