The Detroit Lions have officially established themselves as a legitimate threat in the NFL, and their NFC North rivals have certainly taken notice. After the Lions exploded onto the scene last season, the Green Bay Packers, Chicago Bears and Minnesota Vikings all made moves with players who can attack the strengths and weaknesses of Detroit.
The Bears, Packers and Vikings always post a problem for Detroit no matter the record. Now with the emergence of the Lions, it's important for them to stay on top of the NFC North.
It will take top-notch team play to beat their inter-division rivals, but it will take a consistent effort from five specific players to keep them on top. Here are the four Detroit Lions who must always be on their A-game against NFC North competition.
The Lions made the wise choice of retaining their new anchor on defense Stephen Tulloch for five more years. Tulloch made a great splash for Detroit in his first season, and will need to continue to keep the Lions' defense in line.
Tulloch posted 111 tackles last season, and adjusted to the role of the Lions' leader on defense. That role will continue to increase as the Bears, Packers and Vikings get better. Tulloch must continue his production as a run stuffer, and stay active against the pass especially against a pass-heavy team like Green Bay.
Last year was a trial run season for Tulloch. After re-signing this summer for five years, Tulloch will become a new face and building block of this Lions' defense.
The Lions did address their issue at cornerback in the NFL draft this summer when they selected three small-name prospects in Dwight Bentley, Chris Greenwood and Jonte Green. However, it's not safe to assume they'll make an immediate impact in the NFL, so a great deal of responsibility will be placed on Chris Houston.
As the Lions' No. 1 cornerback, Houston will have to accept the challenge of shadowing the better receivers in the North like Greg Jennings, Brandon Marshall and Percy Harvin. Houston was tested a great deal last season, and that will continue to happen until the Lions prove they can consistently stop the pass.
Houston had five interceptions last season, with four of them coming in the first half of the season. Playing in a contract year and with hopes to establish himself as one of the better cornerbacks in the game, Houston has plenty to prove in 2012-13.
After one year of passing for 5,038 yards, 41 touchdowns and leading the Lions' to their first playoff berth since 1999, the responsibility for Matthew Stafford won't shorten up this coming season.
Statistically, the Lions don't need another 5,000-yard season from their 23-year-old quarterback, but Detroit will continue to win games through him offensively. With a running game in constant disarray, and all the offensive weapons in the world at Stafford's disposal, it's only right to expect maximum production from the Lions' franchise quarterback.
The NFC North rivals of Detroit don't have strong secondaries, but Stafford was a bit hot and cold throughout last season against the division. Stafford threw 10 of his 16 interceptions against the NFC North including four against Chicago in a Week 10 blowout on the road. The turnovers must come down as Stafford and the Lions work to win the North.
Once you hit 30 years old in the NFL, there's always the chance of not being around for the long-term run. That's the current case for Kyle Vanden Bosch.
Vanden Bosch turns 34 in November, and has two seasons left on his contract with the Lions. Whether he returns after those two years is still uncertain. But what is sure is the importance of Vanden Bosch this season.
The Bears, Packers and Vikings have all placed heavy emphasis on their passing game. With premiere quarterbacks like Aaron Rodgers and Jay Cutler, it's vital for the defense to throw off their rhythm and timing with the offense.
Vanden Bosch must hit these quarterbacks as much as possible to make his presence felt. Christian Ponder will also get a much bigger workload next season, and the Lions should work to slow his development with plenty of pressure next season.
Playing on his last stretch, Vanden Bosch has plenty to prove to himself as well as the team in 2012-13. Vanden Bosch posted 8 sacks last season, and should try to aim around that same range this year. There aren't any dominant offensive tackles in the NFC North, so expect Vanden Bosch and the Lions' defensive ends to make a name for themselves this year.