Hey everybody! With the 2012 regular season almost upon us, I give to you a preview of what one of the Packers' division foes will look like this coming year. Ladies and gentlemen, please welcome Jeremy Reisman of DetroitOnLion!
Andy Tisdel: First question: Calvin Johnson. Last time I think we established there was no earthly way to stop him. Can he--is this possible--better his 2011 numbers this year? As a follow-up, what does Johnson mean in terms of opportunities for Titus Young, Nate Burleson et al.?
Jeremy Reisman: It still amazes me how Calvin Johnson came into the 2011 season not being labeled as an elite receiver (paging: Cris Carter). Obviously, things are a bit different a year later. Calvin's talent is no secret, but that doesn't mean there is any reason to expect a decline in production. The guy is still incredibly young, incredibly talented and has a great quarterback throwing him the ball. The key is for both him and Matthew Stafford to stay healthy. If they do, the sky is the limit.
As for Titus Young, many are expecting a breakout season for him this year, and there's a lot of reasons why that may be true. Calvin will no doubt be getting even more attention this season, and Young now has a season of experience under his belt. Apparently, he has really been impressing in training camp and is starting to build a good rapport with Stafford.
AT: Speaking of star No.2 overall picks, Ndamukong Suh had a heck of a 2010 and, on the field, a mediocre 2011. What's the key to getting him back to his beastly 2010 form? (Side question--how's Nick Fairley looking after essentially redshirting his freshman year?)
JR: Suh has been victimized for his decrease in production in 2011, specifically his drop in sack numbers. But looking a little bit closer at his game, you realize his production saw little or no drop in 2011. Ty Schalter over at The Lions in Winter did some wonderful work using Pro Football Focus' data to show that in 2011, Suh pressured the opposing quarterback at a rate HIGHER than he did in his rookie year. The lack of production was actually a result of Suh playing less snaps in 2011.
Detroit's front four continues to get deeper and deeper, so just because Suh isn't putting up double-digit sacks, doesn't mean the production isn't coming.
As for Fairley, early returns on training camp reports were all positive. Fairley had come in with a new sense of determination and was blowing people up at camp. However, recent reports have surfaced claiming that Fairley came into camp overweight and a bit unmotivated. But most see his most recent troubles with the law as a wake up call that Fairley has noticeably responded to. If he lives up to the potential, he could be just as dangerous as Suh.
AT: Last year, Matthew Stafford had his first injury-free year and responded with a 5,000-yard season. The question that has to be asked, given his injury history, is can he do it again and stay consistently healthy?
JR: At this point, I think Stafford is as likely to be injured in 2012 as any other quarterback in the league. We've seen the best of the best (Peyton Manning, Jay Cutler, Tom Brady, etc.) go down at one point in their careers and no quarterback is immune (except maybe Aaron Rodgers). [NOTE: This was written before Stafford injured his hand at Oakland]
It'll be hard to ask of Stafford to throw for 5,000 yards again, but if he's healthy, he'll be just as productive. The yardage numbers may go down as the Lions may try to be a slightly more-balanced offense. But make no mistake, this is a pass-first team with him at the helm.
AT: From the outside, the Lions' defensive issues appear about the same this year as they did last year. Beastly defensive line, improving linebackers, unimpressive secondary outside of Louis Delmas. How do you feel about the secondary, keeping in mind that they have to contend with Aaron Rodgers and Jay Cutler four times a year?
JR: Secondary issues were overblown at the end of last year because of the way the Lions finished. They were actually one of the best pass defenses in the league in the first half of the season, but injuries and tough opponents (Green Bay twice, New Orleans twice) caused a big slide in production toward the end of the season.
That being said, the Lions lost Eric Wright to free agency and had to cut Aaron Berry because of off-field issues. So now, there are legitimate reasons to be worried. Rookie Bill Bentley has emerged as a potential star, but even Jim Schwartz can't feel comfortable at the prospect of starting a rookie cornerback in week one.
At safety, things are similarly gloomy. Louis Delmas continues to struggle to shake his injuries and can't seem to get himself back on the field. Behind him, Amari Spievey looks like he may never crack the starting lineup, Erik Coleman is a serviceable player and John Wendling is edging closer to mediocrity. Nothing to get too excited about. The Lions' biggest hope is the front four continues to wreak havoc and cause turnovers.
AT: Is Jahvid Best ever going to get on the field? Even for the "new NFL" concussion protocols, it's been quite awhile since we've seen him play. Will he be back this season, and can the collection of RBs behind him pick up the slack?
JR: At this point, I think most Lions fans have succumbed to the fact that Jahvid Best may have played his last snap as a professional football player. That may not be the case in reality, but most fans have moved on to look for a replacement. That's why many fans (myself not included) think the Lions should make a move to trade for Maurice Jones-Drew. It's hard to give up on such a promising talent like Best, but the Lions do have Mikel Leshoure to rely on and Kevin Smith has shown he is a more-than-capable back in the NFL.
AT: I don't think it's all that meaningful, but I'd be remiss if I didn't ask about it. Discipline issues. Aaron Berry, Nick Fairley, Mikel Leshoure, etc. The national narrative has been "same old Lions", since people are still remembering Suh's stomp and the Jim Schwartz handshake thing and all the personal fouls from last year. Is the summer's legal trouble a) a problem for the team in 2012, and/or b) indicative of the general character of the team?
JR: Well, it's impossible to say the Lions will be completely unaffected by the off-field issues. It has already caused them to cut a starting cornerback. Their starting running back is suspended two games. And it'll likely cost Nick Fairley at least two, as well. But once all of these players see the field again, I don't expect there to be much carryover from the incidents.
However, I wouldn't be surprised to see the Lions continue to get personal foul penalties at a higher rate than most teams. This is a very physical, punishing defense that teeters on the boarder of "legal" very often. That's not to say that they are dirty, but rather unforgivably aggressive. A lot of the hits the Lions have made in the past have looked brutal, and therefore drawn a flag. With referees becoming more and more strict, the Lions defense will be hurt the most.
I don't see the off-field issues as indicitive of the entire team's mentality, but rather their youth. The Lions have completely rebuilt since the year that I care not to mention directly [Note for clarity's sake: he means 2008]. It's a very young, fresh team now. With youth comes mental mistakes. The Lions do have a few veterans around (Kyle Vanden Bosch, Dominic Raiola, etc.) to act as role models, so I wouldn't expect these problems to linger too long.
AT: Of course, nobody will care if the team returns to the playoffs and wins a game or two. In a loaded NFC, and in the toughest division in football (apologies to the NFC South), can the Lions do that? Can they fix what went wrong in the Saints game?
JR: The entire NFC is loaded, with the NFC North likely being the cream of the crop. It won't be easy for any team to stroll into the postseason. But this Lions team is almost identical to last years'. With a lot of young players (hopefully) progressing, there is plenty of optimism in Detroit for building on last years' success. However, secondary issues continue to plague this team and, in my opinion, will prevent them from any significant postseason success. I think a reasonable goal for Detroit is to win their first playoff game since 1991.