Last season, the Detroit Lions offense made watching football fun again for fans of the team. Matthew Stafford joined the hallowed ranks of the 5,000-yard passing club and Calvin Johnson ran away and hid with the title of "NFL's Best Receiver."
With all due respect to the Barry Sanders-, Scott Mitchell- and Herman Moore-led offenses of the '90s, the 2011 squad was the best in team history.
Yet, for all the talk about the Lions high-powered offense, the team's defense is the key to 2012.
That's not to say it isn't important for Stafford, Johnson and Co. to continue to do what they do best. The offense needs to play at a high level for them to compete with the likes of the Green Bay Packers and Chicago Bears. However, they can continue to be a dominant force even if Stafford doesn't throw for 5,000 yards again.
In fact, the offense might be better if he doesn't. That's because Lions offensive coordinator Scott Linehan was forced to throw the football more than he ever intended to. The Lions' lack of a running game and defensive inadequacies made that necessary.
The offense might not look as gaudy statistically, but they will be better overall if they are more balanced.
They've proved they can compete offensively with the best in the NFL, and their 10-6 record last season is a testament to that. However, the offense does not play the entire game. As much as Megatron appears to be Superman, he isn't covering Jordy Nelson. Stafford isn't chasing down Jay Cutler either.
That's the defense's job and they must do better at it if the Lions have their eyes set on bigger and better things.
Most people point to the Lions secondary as the weak link. On the surface that might be true. They collapsed down the stretch and were directly responsible for at least two losses at the end of the year (New Orleans and Green Bay).
However, the problem wasn't necessarily talent. After all, no one was complaining during the first half of the year. In fact, the Lions secondary amassed 21 interceptions in 2011, which ranked them fifth in the NFL according to ESPN.
The secondary was absolutely decimated by injuries. That's not a performance issue but a systems issue. Why wasn't better depth added to the secondary? This is the question people should ask.
The reason why is because the secondary is not a focal point of Jim Schwartz's and Gunther Cunningham's offense. It is a secondary piece of the overall defensive scheme. For that reason they can't receive the bulk of the blame.
The Lions defense was built on the idea of pressuring the quarterback and disrupting the passing game. If the front four are able to do that consistently, the secondary won't have to carry the team.
In 2011 the defensive backfield was asked to do just that—way too often. That's because the horses up front weren't pulling their weight.
Those numbers sound good but only tell half the tale. The fact is that it wasn't good enough. Avril and Vanden Bosch did great, but they need pressure from others as well. The Lions desperately missed the 2010 version of Ndamukong Suh.
Opposing teams seemingly figured him out and were able to game-plan to minimize his ability to disrupt plays.
Rest assured, the Lions realize they need to get better up front and it all starts with Suh. They're moving him around, playing him at end and they might pair him with Fairley more often. Obviously the goal is to give opposing offenses multiple looks so they can't take Suh and Co. out of the game.
Pressuring the quarterback is not the only area where the Lions defense struggled, though. They were ranked 23rd in the NFL in stopping the run. That's outrageous for a group that is supposed to be, and has the talent to be, one of the best in the NFL.
This was particularly evident with the defensive ends. They had good sack numbers as I already said, but there's times when rushing the passer has to be secondary.
Too often the ends ran full speed at the quarterback during a run play which gave the rusher an easy path around the edge, to the open field, where the Lions are at a disadvantage.
The ends have to improve at maintaining the edge during these types of plays.
Ultimately, no one should worry about the Lions offense. Barring an injury to Stafford or Johnson, they'll put up big numbers again. The defense needs to hold up their end of the bargain.
The time for talk about the potential of this group is long gone. It's time to put up or shut up. They have to get it done this year and show that they deserve to be mentioned with the best defenses in the NFL.
If they do, then the Lions will find themselves in a much better position to achieve all the lofty goals they've set for themselves.
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