Detroit Lions: Key Difference Makers on Offense and Defense in 2012
The Detroit Lions have finally established themselves as a legitimate NFL threat. Jim Schwartz and his young team brought a hopeful glimpse of success after last year's playoff appearance. With a pivotal 2012-13 season ahead, the Lions will be heavily tested.
Plenty of last year's success and highlights came from the star power of Calvin Johnson and Matthew Stafford. Key role players like Brandon Pettigrew, Cliff Avril and Stephen Tulloch also had positive seasons for the Lions. With depth at many vital positions, plenty other players are capable of similar accomplishments.
Detroit has the talent to make another postseason run in 2012. With a few standout performances this year, the Lions could repeat their successful history from last year. Here are four difference-makers everybody should pay close attention to next season.
1. Willie Young
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The Cliff Avril contract disputes have been well documented all offseason. The failure of coming to an agreement opens a bright window of opportunity for defensive end Willie Young.
Young was a seventh-round steal in the 2010 draft, and now has a chance to show his value in Detroit's wide nine defense. With the addition of Kyle Vanden Bosch and the emergence of Avril, Young has picked up the scraps with limited playing time. Even with his low number of reps, Young has shown plenty of flashes and promise for the future.
Martin Mayhew gave Young high praise this offseason, expecting a breakout year from the third-year defensive end. Young has a relentless motor and a 6'5" 250-pound frame that can terrorize offensive tackles. Expect plenty of action and production from Willie Young next season.
2. Justin Durant
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Justin Durant is one of the key unsung heroes on the Detroit Lion's roster. By adding Durant and Stephen Tulloch alongside DeAndre Levy, the Lions turned one of their biggest weaknesses into an immediate strength.
Durant completes a solid core as the starting strong-side linebacker for the Lions. He was one of the better tacklers on defense, especially against the run. Durant also improved in coverage against the pass, most notably in the screen game. With a strong motor to the ball carrier, Durant has been a pleasant surprise since signing in 2011.
Durant finished out last year with 68 total tackles including 53 solo. Along with the rest of the linebacking corps, Durant must continue to improve against the pass especially against division foes like the Bears and the Packers.
Entering a contract season, Durant will be looking to make a bigger impact on defense. With another year of progression and continuity with Tulloch and Levy, improvements should be seen between the three linebackers. NFL.com's Brian McIntyre suggests Durant could become a salary cap casualty this offseason. Durant could make that a tough decision for the Lions come September.
3. Titus Young
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Titus Young received plenty of attention for his sucker punch to Louis Delmas during practice in May. With that issue patched up, all signs seem positive for Young in 2012.
Young caught 48 passes last season for 607 yards and six touchdowns. He helped erase heavy coverage off Calvin Johnson, and took advantage of his targets from Matthew Stafford. Young can stretch the field vertically, and continued to improve his intermediate route running.
Young didn't show many flaws in his game, but displayed too many acts of immaturity last season. Emotions ran high for Young, and he was spotted for many post-whistle penalties against the Chiefs, Saints and many other opponents. As a rookie, Young was bound to go through some growing pains. Next year, Young must show some growth and responsibility on the field.
Young also spoke out saying he's ready to take compete for a spot as a return specialist. He had plenty of success as a return man at Boise State. If the Lions speedster can add a spark on special teams, it creates one more dangerous dimension of his game.
4. Rob Sims
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The Detroit Lions have had a long-lasting game of musical chairs with left guards. After trading away a fifth-round pick to the Seattle Seahawks in 2010, the Lions have found their answer in Rob Sims. Sims went from a system he never fit in Seattle, to a perfect situation in Detroit.
Sims has added stability to the left side of the offensive line. Jeff Backus has had his struggles over several years of his career because of the instability at left guard. It's no surprise that Backus is having his best years in Detroit since Sims was added to the line.
The Lions really missed the element of a run game last year, and it was quite evident to Sims. He's currently listed at around 315 pounds, and should add quite a push for Detroit's run game.
With a healthy backfield and a clean jersey for Matthew Stafford, Sims could punch his first ticket to the Pro Bowl this year. Mikel Leshoure, Jahvid Best and Kevin Smith can become a dangerous triple threat for Detroit if healthy. If Sims and the Lions offensive line establish a run game, Detroit could make another strong postseason push.