Every team is evaluating their talent and working on things that became evident in the first two preseason games, but some teams are really hard at work, with big decisions looming.
One of those teams is the Detroit Lions.
The Lions will be a team that all opponents will circle on their schedule, but not in the typical sense of wanting to focus on them.
They will be chalking them up as an easy win.
The Lions' players and staff are aware of this stigma, created over the past decade of futility and capped by last season's 0-for-16 effort. It is their job collectively to make improvements on last season, setting themselves up for a possible playoff run next season.
Don't get me wrong, every team wants to make the playoffs every year, but that cannot be a realistic goal coming off of an 0-16 season. Everyone associated with the franchise (although they might not admit it) would be absolutely excited if they were able to get seven or eight wins this season.
While many fans are pessimistic and expecting the same old Lions, there does appear to be at least a glimmer of hope created by the staff.
General Manager Martin Mayhew made numerous changes to shake up a terrible roster. And at least on the surface, he appears to have improved both the offensive and defensive units.
Gone from last year's team are at least 11 starters.
On offense, they project to go into the season with the following two-deep depth chart: (New players in bold)
QB: D. Culpepper, M. Stafford
RB: K. Smith, M. Morris
FB: T. Smith, J. Felton
WR: C. Johnson, D. Northcutt
WR: B. Johnson, D. Williams
TE: B. Pettigrew, W. Heller
LT: J. Backus, E. Salaam
LG: D. Loper, T. Metcalf
C: D. Raiola, D. Gandy
RG: S. Peterman, M. Ramirez
RT: G. Cherilus, J. Jansen
On defense, they project to go into the season with the following two-deep depth chart: (New players in bold, rotation players in parentheses)
DE: D. White, J. Hunter
DT: G. Jackson, S. Lee Hill (Landon Cohen)
DT: S. Smith, C. Darby (Andre Fluellen)
DE: C. Avril, I. Alama-Francis
OLB: J. Peterson, J. Dizon
MLB: L. Foote, D. Levy
OLB: E. Sims, Z. Follett
CB: P. Buchanon, E. King
CB: A. Henry, K. Smith
FS: L. Delmas, M. Manuel
SS: K. Pearson, S. Schwiegert
Preseason Games 1 and 2
For the Lions, the first preseason game wasn't a disappointment aside from a good number of their starters missing the game due to injury. They played adequately on defense against the first team offense of the Falcons.
But they struggled with tackling and allowed some big plays.
On offense, all three quarterbacks looked pretty good. Stafford threw a bad INT but made up for it with a beautiful TD pass later on. Culpepper and Stanton were solid.
Rookie running back Aaron Brown, wowed the crowd with two long touchdowns—one rushing and one off of a screen pass. He put his game-changing speed on display for all to see and was certainly a bright spot.
The team was able to win the game on a field goal as time expired and a celebration ensued.
Now, this was just preseason and therefore they were clowned by the Falcons for celebrating "like they just won the Super Bowl," but it had to feel good for those guys to win something.
Momentum seemed pretty good going into the second preseason game, but they came out and laid an egg, losing 27-10 to the Cleveland Browns.
Stafford struggled mightily and threw another bad INT, indicative of his inability to read defenses and make plays at this stage of his development. It's clear he needs more time and seasoning.
Culpepper didn't dazzle either, but was markedly better than Stafford and moved the offense well. Stanton played solid again late in the game.
The offense as a whole didn't do much and the defense failed to make an impact, sending the team into the third preseason game with more questions than answers.
The Rest of Preseason
The Lions have an interesting game on Saturday against the Indianapolis Colts that will be televised live on NFL Network.
Peyton Manning will likely see extended time (possibly two quarters) which doesn't bode well for the Lions defense, but will also be a good measuring stick for them.
They then travel to Buffalo for a Thursday night game against the Bills in what should be a showcase game for whoever the Lions intend to start at QB.
Coach Schwartz has already intimated that he may keep the starter a mystery until right up until opening day.
The Lions shouldn't care whether or not they win either of these games. But they should care if they are able to execute the offense and move the ball and defend against the big play. This is particularly important for the first team units.
Also of importance will be getting some playing time to the offensive playmakers who have been sidelined for much of training camp and preseason like Calvin Johnson, Bryant Johnson, Dennis Northcutt, and Brandon Pettigrew.
The Regular Season
Aside from the normal expectation of being ready for the season, there are several burning questions that will need to be answered.
Will the Lions be able to get an adequate pass rush this season?
During the first preseason game, the Lions weren't able to sustain a consistent pass rush or amass a sack and were only able to get three sacks in week two.
They also lost Jared DeVries, who was expected to contribute, for the season.
The Lions had one of the worst pass rushes in the NFL last season and will need to improve if they want to be able to get off of the field. Newcomers Grady Jackson, Shaun Smith, Jason Hunter, and rookie Sammie Lee Hill figure to boltster that attack along with improvement from the returning players.
Will Daunte Culpepper or Matt Stafford start at quarterback in week one?
Stafford comes with much fanfare and heavy expectations after being selected No. 1 overall and coming from the same high school as Lions legend Bobby Layne.
He has impressed in practice and shown the flashes of talent that prompted the Lions to take him in the draft, but also has shown his inexperience in game situations.
Incumbent Daunte Culpepper looks like a new man and has been very impressive throughout training camp. He is slimmed down and seems reenergized to be working with Scott Linehan, with whom he had so much past success.
Culpepper has outperformed Stafford in the preseason thus far and will need to continue to impress to hold off the rookie.
If Stafford continues to struggle in the final two preseason games, the decision will be easy. If he impresses, it will be a bit tougher but in the end, I think they go with Culpepper this year.
Can the Lions stop the run?
The Lions were absolutely atrocious against the run last season and couldn't tackle to save their lives, which amounted to several huge runs and long drives allowed.
There has been much turnover on the front seven of the defense and a concerted effort by the coaching staff to get bigger and stronger, which should help out immensely.
If they can improve in this area, the entire defense will benefit.
Can their O-Line hold up and keep the quarterback off his back?
The Lions went through five QB's last season and experienced success with none of them. The offensive line was average in talent and worse in production.
Unfortunately, not a whole lot has changed with this group except for a scheme change, coaching change, new strength and conditioning program, and a few new additions.
The line returns four of five starters and figures to have two or three veterans in the rotation. The gem may be Jon Jansen, who could supplant a starter at guard or tackle before it's all said and done.
Can Gunther Cunningham and Scott Linehan rekindle their past success as coordinators?
Both of these men have had immense success as coordinators at the NFL level and have captained top units.
Unfortunately, both bombed as head coaches and haven't experienced that same success in recent years. Some of that can be blamed on things outside of their control, and for the Lions' sake, they hope that is the case.
What isn't under dispute is their knowledge, passion, or ability so if the players listen and perform, this could end up being the best staff the Lions have had in recent memory.
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