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Lions must see if defense Ngata problem

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ALLEN PARK, Mich. — After months of speculation, the Detroit Lions will finally show what their defense looks like without Ndamukong Suh, the standout starting defensive tackle since 2010, when the team visits San Diego in the season opener Sunday.

Although the Chargers ranked just 18th overall offensively in 2014, rookie running back Melvin Gordon could provide a boost to that unit and give an early test to a Lions defense that was the best in the NFL at stopping the run last season.

The Lions went 3-1 in the preseason. Quarterback Matthew Stafford was stellar with a 156.3 passer rating, receiver Golden Tate was a supreme target with seven catches for 169 yards and two touchdowns and the offense looked great even with all-everything pass-catcher Calvin Johnson sitting all the exhibitions.

On defense, the Lions’ starters looked solid the first two games, but struggled against quarterback Blake Bortles and the Jaguars in the third. After the fourth scrimmage, coach Jim Caldwell acknowledged that the Lions weren’t ready for the start of the season just yet.

“We’re not ready to play today,” he said. “We’ve got another week yet. We use every minute of every hour of every day getting ready, but when it comes time to tee it up against San Diego, I think you’ll find our guys will be ready to go. And they’re close right now.”

While Gordon and quarterback Philip Rivers will test the Lions’ defense, the Chargers must execute without one of their top playmakers in suspended tight end Antonio Gates. Meanwhile, the Lions hope Haloti Ngata and Tyrunn Walker can be adequate replacements for Suh and Nick Fairley, but that remains to be seen.

Offensively, the Lions’ hopes are high after running back Ameer Abdullah impressed throughout the offseason. Joique Bell didn’t play in any of the preseason games, but he and Abdullah could form a classic thunder and lightning duo. Tight end Eric Ebron also hopes to provide more return this year after struggling as a rookie when the Lions selected him 10th overall.

The Lions won’t use the west coast trip as an excuse, especially with a coach like Caldwell who varies practice times and pays attention to the importance of sleep for players. And the players are looking forward to bouncing back in a real game after falling in a heartbreaking playoff loss to the Cowboys last year.

“I believe we’re on the verge of being great,” linebacker Tahir Whitehead said. “The offense has been clicking, second year in the scheme. Defense, we did pretty well last year, but this year is a whole new year and we’re looking to build off that. Special teams, we’re just looking to get better this year on teams.

“I believe we can be a contender. We have a good group of guys, talented guys, that can get the job done. (We) just have to wait and see how the season goes.”

Between now and the playoffs, plenty of things will happen to both the Lions and their opponents that lead to changes in the roster. Some of the free agents teams add could have a huge impact on what happens this season, but for now, Caldwell is just hoping his team can remain healthy after avoiding major injury scares this summer.

“After it’s all done with, I think we’re going to have a pretty good football team if we can stay healthy,” he said.

–By waiving quarterback Kellen Moore Saturday, the Lions’ initial 53-man roster will have just two quarterbacks for the first time since general manager Martin Mayhew took over in 2009. Dan Orlovsky will be the lone backup for Matthew Stafford, so clearly, the Lions will hope Stafford can remain healthy, which he has for the past four seasons.

“Every year is different,” head coach Jim Caldwell said a couple weeks ago. “We went for 10 years at Indy and we only kept two, and so that was kind of the way in which we felt we could best utilize our roster at that time. So this is the same thing here.”

–The Lions waived tight end Joseph Fauria, who had seven touchdown catches as an undrafted rookie in 2013. However, Caldwell said Thursday any roster decisions would come down to what the current coaching staff has seen, and his group didn’t arrive until 2014 when Fauria missed nine games due to an ankle injury he suffered off the field.

“We’re going to look at his entire body of work,” Caldwell said after the exhibition finale when Fauria had just one catch. “It’s not just one time. Since we’ve been here, that’s what I’m looking at.”

The Lions traded for Tim Wright from the Buccaneers last week, and he’ll be the red-zone threat and No. 3 tight end behind Eric Ebron and Brandon Pettigrew.

Notes: Cornerback Alex Carter will start the season on injured reserve with a designation for return with a lingering ankle injury. … Defensive tackle Jermelle Cudjo was one of the final cuts, but was re-signed Sunday. … Offensive lineman Taylor Boggs made the team as insurance at guard and center. … Running back Zach Zenner was the only undrafted rookie to make the 53-man roster. … Linebacker Brandon Copeland made the roster after being signed following the veteran’s combine.


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