Detroit Lions: 5 NFC North Players the Lions Must Take Seriously
The NFC North has arguably become the toughest division in the NFL.
Since 2002, the Green Bay Packers have won the division title five times, with the Chicago Bears winning it three times and twice for the Minnesota Vikings. The Detroit Lions are yet to clinch a division title since the 2002 switch from the Central to the North.
After years of struggling in the division race, the Lions finished second this past season with a 10-6 record, including a series sweep of the Vikings and a Monday Night Football victory against the Bears.
With signs of the Lions turning the corner, their division foes are paying attention and are now viewing the Lions as a target instead of a doormat.
There's never an easy victory for the Lions when facing their division rivals. Despite the decline in success for the Vikings, they still pushed Detroit in both games last season. The Packers are still an elite team in the NFL, and the Bears have become a serious threat after their successful offseason acquisitions.
The Lions must take their NFC North competition seriously, especially these five players.
1. Brandon Marshall
Marc Serota/Getty Images
The Bears made a ton of noise this offseason.
It was clear Marshall didn't enjoy playing with inferior quarterbacks in Miami like Chad Henne and Matt Moore, but he made the most of his time as a Dolphin.
Cutler and the Chicago Bears offense desperately needed a No. 1 receiver, and what better option than Cutler's old partner in crime back in Denver?
Marshall and Cutler formed one of the most dangerous tandems in the NFL back with the Broncos. From 2006 to 2008, the two connected on 220 receptions for over 2,800 yards and 14 touchdowns.
Despite the struggles in Miami, Marshall is still a top-five wide receiver in the NFL. He owns the NFL record for most catches in a game (21), has five straight 1,000-plus-yard seasons and three straight years (2007-2009) with 100 or more catches.
A focused and angry Marshall plus a healthy Cutler spells trouble for the Detroit Lions defense.
Look for Martin Mayhew to upgrade the Detroit secondary at some point in the 2012 NFL draft. It's imperative with Marshall coming to the NFC North.
2. Jared Allen
Hannah Foslien/Getty Images
Jared Allen has been, without question, the most disruptive defensive force in the NFC North for the past few years.
Allen is coming off of a 22.5-sack season in 2011, including six against the Lions in two games.
Whether he's ripped through Detroit's offensive line or verbally ripped the city of Detroit, Allen has made his presence felt. He's talked a big game, but he has the numbers to back it up.
Allen made a mockery of the Lions' Jeff Backus all last season. Look back at either of his three-sack performances or the fourth quarter at Minnesota when Backus jumped offsides twice and surrendered a sack on a pivotal Lions possession.
Detroit recently re-signed Backus to a two-year deal this offseason. Looking for an upgrade along the offensive line is an option in this year's draft with plenty of first-round-caliber prospects.
With Backus turning 35 this year, and his continuous struggles against Minnesota, that could equal more trouble created by Allen.
3. Jermichael Finley
Leon Halip/Getty Images
Aaron Rodgers is the kind of quarterback that can take any receiver and turn him into a legit offensive target. Unfortunately for the NFC North, he's surrounded by a long depth chart of quality talent, including the matchup nightmare Jermichael Finley.
Finley plays as a 6'5", 247-pound tight end, but he has the hands and mobility of a wide receiver. He's one of the most athletically gifted players in the NFL and has formed a dangerous connection with Rodgers.
Finley caught 55 passes for 767 yards and eight touchdowns in his first full season with the Packers. The Green Bay tight end injured his right knee in Week 5 of the 2010-11 season vs. Washington and spent the rest of the season on the sidelines during the Packers' Super Bowl run.
After signing a two-year deal this offseason, Finley will be motivated to help get the Packers back to the Super Bowl and earn himself a long-term contract.
The Lions secondary struggled against the pass, especially after Louis Delmas injured his knee on Thanksgiving against the Packers. Delmas must stay healthy, and the Detroit secondary must focus its attention on Finley when facing Green Bay.
4. Adrian Peterson
Hannah Foslien/Getty Images
This is a bit obvious, considering that Adrian Peterson is one of the best running backs in the NFL.
Since his rookie year in 2007, Peterson has been a headache for the Lions defense, and it still hasn't found an answer to stop him.
Minnesota cost itself a chance to beat the Lions last season in Week 3. Peterson had 17 carries for 78 yards and a touchdown. However, Peterson was underused in the second half, only carrying the ball six times, even though the Lions struggled to contain him all game.
The Vikings even called on Toby Gerhart over Adrian Peterson on a crucial fourth-down attempt in the fourth quarter. If Peterson had gotten about 20-25 touches against the Lions, there might have been a different result on the scoreboard in that game.
Peterson's main problem in his first few seasons in the NFL was fumbling. Now, that issue is durability.
The four-time Pro Bowl running back is recovering from a torn ACL in 2012, but the Lions shouldn't take the injury lightly. Peterson is one of the toughest runners in the league and still has the breakaway home run speed.
The Vikings will continue to groom their young quarterback Christian Ponder and will use Peterson as a security blanket for him. Expect another heavy workload for Peterson, and hope for Detroit improvement in containing the star Viking running back.
5. Charles Woodson
Domenic Centofanti/Getty Images
If "getting better over time" is a true philosophy, Charles Woodson is living proof.
The Green Bay veteran cornerback continues his stellar play as one of the most complete, well-rounded players in the league.
Woodson has taken his career to new heights since signing with the Packers in 2006, and a good portion of those impact moments have been at the Detroit Lions' expense.
Woodson's savvy, instinctive style of play helps create offensive issues for his opposition. He has the ability to cover wide receivers on the outside, but he also lines up close to the defensive line like a blitzing safety on run support.
Woodson is also a sure tackler after initial contact.
The Lions are a pass-first offense with tall and physical targets like Calvin Johnson and Brandon Pettigrew. Given the size of the two men, the Lions believe they have an advantage over smaller defenders, including Woodson.
The 2009 Defensive Player of the Year isn't the player to test too much due to his intelligent and physical play. Woodson is due for a game-changing interception at any given moment.
Woodson shows no signs of slowing down at 35 and continues to be a problem for the Lions.
Matthew Stafford and the Lions offense must always keep an eye on Woodson. He's arguably the most important player on the Green Bay defense and will make you pay if you don't take his presence into account.