NFL

Super Bowl Boom or Bust: Detroit Lions

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There are 32 teams in the NFL and 13 of them have never won a Super Bowl, which includes the Detroit Lions. To take it a step further, the Lions have never even played in the big game.

Nonetheless, Detroit was a playoff team last year, however abbreviated their postseason trip was as the Dallas Cowboys defeated the Lions, 24-20 in the wildcard round.

Losing in the playoffs is something Lions fans have grown accustom to. Detroit has lost their last seven playoff games. Their last victory in postseason play was 25 years ago, against the Cowboys.

In order for Detroit to finally break through, there are certain things that must happen in 2015 and one thing that’s right at the top of the list is protecting quarterback Matthew Stafford.

Stafford was sacked a career-high 45 times last season, which is why the Lions have completely overhauled their offensive line.

Just three years ago, Detroit’s starting line consisted of Jeff Backus, Rob Sims, Dominic Raiola, Stephen Peterman and Gosder Cherilus. Now, none of those guys are in Detroit.

Offensive line coach Jeremiah Washburn is looking forward to the change.

“It’s an exciting time for these guys,” Washburn said. “It is a dramatic turnover, but we’ve gone through it before when we lost Jeff, Gosder and Peterman. So it’s a similar process for these guys right now.”

Detroit has sort of followed Dallas’ blueprint by investing early and often on guys up front.

Over the past three years, they selected Riley Reiff in the first round, LaAdrian Waddle in the third round, Travis Swanson in the third round and then Laken Tomlinson with the 28th overall pick in this year’s draft.

Head coach Jim Caldwell realizes the line won’t become great overnight.

“I certainly feel good about our depth,” the Lions head coach said. “We have improved there, but we are also encouraged of what they bring physically. We will have to see. We don’t win any games at this time of year. You put yourself in better position, but this is the process. We will see how quickly they can adjust and how quickly they can adapt.”

When you add a couple of new faces up front to go along with new offensive coordinator, Joe Lombardi, it’s natural to assume it’ll take Stafford a while to figure things out.

“He’s really remarkably bright,” Lombardi said. “I’ve heard that he was a smart player, but the speed and ease with which he picks things up has even surprised me, and I had pretty high expectations coming in.”

At the same time, it doesn’t hurt having Calvin Johnson and Golden Tate to throw the ball to.

Johnson missed three games, but he was still able to put up impressive numbers. The five-time Pro Bowler caught 71 passes for 1,077 yards, to go along with eight touchdowns in 2014.

Johnson’s counterpart, Golden Tate, was worth the price of his contract.

The former Golden Domer totaled career highs in catches (99) and receiving yards (1,331) in 2014.

Despite those gaudy numbers, Tate believes the best is yet to come.

“I had a career-high year, but for me that’s not good enough. I want to see how many career highs I can stack on consecutive years. Never show that he’s losing a step; that’s what’s going to be said in the next few years I’m sure,” Tate stated.

Winning is the ultimate goal.

“Just want to keep improving and I think it’s going to start with just winning more games — winning a few more games, going deeper in the playoffs,” the former Seattle Seahawk said.

Along with offensive line play, Detroit’s running game must see drastic improvement in 2015.

From an individual standpoint, Joique Bell had a decent season in 2014, as he rushed for 860 yards on 3.9 yards per carry with seven touchdowns. As a team, the Lions finished 28th in rushing, which is a major reason why they selected Ameer Abdullah in the second round.

“I think as a runner he has great balance,” Stafford said. “He’s obviously a low-to-the-ground guy. He seems to hide pretty well behind there and he’s got good vision. “Out of the backfield, catching the ball, he’s great. He’s got great hands. He has a good feel for route running.”

On the other side of the ball, Detroit is returning nine of 11 starters from a defense that ranked only behind Seattle a year ago. Unfortunately, the Lions are missing Ndamukong Suh.

Suh led the team in sacks with 8.5 and he made teams think twice before running up in the middle. Replacing his production is nearly impossible, but Detroit made a valiant effort in doing so.

Detroit traded for former Baltimore Ravens defensive tackle Haoli Ngata.  Defensive coordinator Teryl Austin is confident in Ngata’s abilities.

“We tell our guys all the time, you go in, the No. 1 thing you want to do is stop the run, and Haloti’s a premier run-stuffer,” Austin said. “I don’t know if there’s any better in the league.  He’s that good.  And from the people that aren’t familiar with him, I had an opportunity to be in there with him for three years and just know the difference he makes up front.”

Veteran defensive end Darryl Tapp believes this unit has the will power to be just fine.

“This year, we’re living an unknown,” Tapp said of playing without longtime fixture Ndamukong Suh. “I think everyone is taking it as a chip on their shoulder and they continue to work and get better because we have a lot of stuff to prove this year.”

What about the secondary?

Detroit was one of five teams to total 20 or more interceptions last year, with Glover Quin leading the way with seven.

The core guys of Rashean Mathis, Glover Quin, James Ihedigbo and Darius Slay are all back in the fold. 

“It’s been great, keeping the guys together. It’s all about building chemistry and family,” Slay said. “We’re brothers so we can talk about whatever; being there with our brothers is so much fun.”

This secondary unit isn’t the most talented in the world, but with their selflessness and togetherness, it could become a special group.

“The sky is the limit for us. We approach practice the right way and meetings the right way. We respect each other and care about each other so we’re going to give our all for each other during the game,” Mathis said. “If pride is there, we check it at the door; there’s no one man before a group. That’s what helps, knowing that the group is bigger than yourself.”

The talent is there and we know that, but will this be the year Detroit finally breaks through?

 

 

 

 

 


About Mark Gunnels

Mark Gunnels

Mark Gunnels is an NFL columnist for Football Insiders. He has several years of experience covering the NFL and NCAA football. He's the radio color commentator for Lincoln University football. Mark's work has been featured on Sports Illustrated, Fox Sports and Yard Barker.