For many years, the Detroit Lions have been viewed as one of the weak sisters of the NFL. In recent years that has shown signs of turning around, yet for some reason, the Lions have never been able to find their way into the elite corps of teams in the league. As we will soon see, the roster is loaded with talented players, but this is still a team that could go either way. In that way they remind me of a team that wears a different shade of blue, and whom also hosts an annual Thanksgiving Day game. Perhaps this will be the year that one of these teams finally catapults itself into that top flight group of franchises.
Matthew Stafford returns to lead the Lions aerial attack. He has a cannon for a right arm, but unfortunately for him, that has not been enough. Things like that tend to happen when a quarterback is not given a full array of weapons. Sure he can lob the ball up deep for Megatron at any given moment, but when that is far and away the biggest option in the arsenal, opponents really don't have to worry about other threats and can focus on containing the potentially lethal duo. The Detroit front office has realized this fact, and they have taken the steps to start surrounding Stafford with a supporting cast that should give the quarterback a workable plan B and C.
Up front, the Detroit offensive line took a couple hits during the offseason. Left tackle Jeff Backus retired from the game after the 2012 season, and right tackle Gosder Cherilus departed through free agency. In their places the Lions have turned to Riley Reiff and Corey Hilliard to fill the roles vacated by the losses, but both are fighting injury. Reiff acquitted himself decently at right tackle last season, but faced some issues when he played on Stafford's blind side. One issue that hampers him is a case of "Phil Costa arms". Hilliard saw no action in 2012, but he has been a periodic starter over his career. Reiff and Hilliard both sat out practice Wednesday and their status for the game on Sunday is unknown. In their place for practice were Jason Fox and LaAdrian Waddle.
Moving inside, we find the strength of the Detroit offensive line. Left guard Rob Sims is coming off of a 2012 season in which he did not allow a single sack. He is paired with high-performing rookie Larry Warford out of Kentucky. The center is Dominic Raiola, a 35-year-old player who seems to have saved his best football for the tail end of his career. He has came into his own over the past couple of seasons.
As stated before, Megatron, sometimes referred to by his alias Calvin Johnson, is the "nuclear option" in the Detroit offense. Widely regarded as the best wide receiver in the game today, he broke Jerry Rice's single season receiving record last season. Other targets for Stafford include Kris Durham, Ryan Broyles, Brandon Pettigrew (the tight end), and a face familiar to Cowboys fans; Kevin Ogletree. Moving into the backfield, Detroit acquired the services of Reggie Bush to add a running game to their offensive repertoire. Not only does he give them the option of running the ball, Bush also gives Stafford a reliable check down option on swing passes out of the backfield. The "power" back for the Lions is Joique Bell but he can also catch the ball out of the backfield.
Like the offensive line, the Detroit defense lost its bookends up front, gone are Kyle Vanden Bosch and Cliff Avril. In their place the Lions have added Ziggy Ansah, the number five overall selection out of BYU this spring, and Willie Young. Fourth-round selection Devin Taylor and veteran Israel Idonije will also be in the rotation. At the tackles we find Ndamukong Suh and Nick Fairley. They teamed up to add a total of 13.5 sacks last season, an impressive numbers for a duo of DT's. The one thing that seems to counterbalance their sack production is the ridiculous number of penalties the two generate. The were flagged a combined total of 15 times in 2012.
Behind a line that is stacked with some serious talent the Lion's linebacker trio is rather run of the mill. In the middle they have Stephen Tulloch, who is solid but not spectacular,; he'll call the signals for the defense. He is flanked by DeAndre Levy on the weakside. Both men tend to struggle in run support. The two-down strongside backer is Ashlee Palmer. He was pretty pedestrian in limited snaps last season.
The best corner the Lions have is Chris Houston. Outside of a game against the Atlanta Falcons where he got lit up like a Christmas tree, Houston was a solid defender last season. He only gave up one touchdown during the other 15 games last season, and he was rewarded with a nice five-year deal by the Detroit front office. He is joined by veteran Rashean Mathis. Second-round draft pick Darius Slay out of Mississippi State and second year man Dwight Bentley will also see some situational action. To patrol the deep middle, Detroit has former Houston Texans safety Glover Quin who is solid in both run support and pass coverage. He is paired with Louis Delmas. Delmas will remind you of Bob Sanders; a great player when healthy, but he always seems to be fighting the effects of one injury or another.
With the retirement of Jason Hanson, the Lions went out and signed David Akers, who suffered an uncharacteristic down season last year due to injury. They also spent a fifth-round draft pick on punter Sam Martin out of Appalachian State. In kick coverage last season, Detroit surrendered a total of four touchdowns. They were also out-gained in return yardage.
The Cowboys and Lions seem to be equally matched, both have identical records and they are both attempting to establish themselves as "power teams" within the NFL pecking order. The odds-makers seem to feel the same way. If I recall correctly, Detroit opened as a three point favorite, the standard differential given to the home team being the advantage they were given. There are some interesting match ups to watch this weekend, such as how will the Leary-Frederick-Waters interior offensive line of the Cowboys counterbalance the Suh-Fairley pass rush. Then, of course, we have the battle of the star wide receivers, Dez Bryant and Calvin Johnson. This could turn out to be an interesting game. In the end, if I were pressed to choose, I would say the difference is going to come down to which quarterback is able to get his other weapons involved in the contest. My homeristic opinion is that the Williams-Beasley-Harris, and perhaps Austin, factor will be the difference in the game.