Detroit Lions: Most Important Pieces to a Postseason Run Not-Named Stafford
The NFL Draft, free agency and likely the rest of the Detroit Lions' overhaul is finished. With the major acquisitions out the way, it's safe to finally project and predict what happens next season.
The Lions fell far behind the eight ball last year. After a playoff cameo in 2011, Detroit followed up with a 4-12 record. The season was plagued with injuries, lack of depth, the inability to close games as well as just win.
Plenty players underachieved last year also resulting in the team's struggles, including quarterback Matthew Stafford. Whether it was the lack of healthy weapons, or just a mental step backwards, Stafford clearly wasn't the player fans expected to see. Broke down mechanics along with side-arm and rushed throws filled the majority of Stafford's season.
Being the franchise quarterback in a pass-heavy offense, it's imperative Stafford rebounds after struggling. But outside of Stafford, where else do the Lions need to look for answers next season?
Here are the other important pieces to the Lions making it back into the postseason equation.
1. RB Reggie Bush
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The Lions have made it apparent to load up their offense with as many weapons as possible. Stafford got a record-setting season of contribution from wide receiver Calvin Johnson, but the offense needs more balance and it could start next year with their new running back.
With the continued absence of scat-back Jahvid Best, new acquisition Reggie Bush has been inserted to fill that void. The Lions signed Bush to a four-year deal in March creating a diverse tandem with back Mikel Leshoure.
Detroit was lucky to have a change-of-pace back like Best at their disposal, but his concussion and injury history has kept him on the sideline since midseason 2011. The Lions have big-play ability, and his contribution to the screen game. Best's presence was a big piece of Detroit's 5-0 start in 2011.
With Bush in the lineup, the Lions' offense should pick up right where they left off with Best. Bush has his own injury history, but splitting reps with Leshoure should keep his health preserved. Head coach Jim Schwartz hinted at Bush playing special teams, but the Lions need to look at other options to keep Bush healthy on offense.
Bush has done a great job improving at running between the tackles as he posted career high rushing totals in Miami. He's still explosive in open space and the screen game. Look for offensive coordinator Scott Linehan to heavily involve Bush in Detroit's pass attack.
2. DE Ziggy Ansah
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Hope the rookie can handle high expectations because they should certainly be placed his way.
Mlive.com's Anwar Richardson made a reasonable case why first-round pick Ziggy Ansah should have modest expectations placed on his rookie season. Numerous first-round defensive ends since 2007 like Chris Long, Robert Quinn, J.J. Watt and Jason Pierre-Paul had slow rookie years but came back strong the next season.
The problem however is Ansah doesn't have what Pierre-Paul and Watt had their rookie season: help.
In Watt's rookie season, he racked up 5.5 sacks but had veterans ahead of him helping him. Watt was fourth on the Texans in sacks, while veterans like Connor Barwin (11.5), Antonio Smith (6.5), and Brooks Reed (6) ranked ahead of him. Houston also had Mario Williams until he tore his pectoral muscle against Oakland putting him on the shelf for the season.
Pierre-Paul had the same amount of help in front of him. Veterans Justin Tuck and Osi Umenyiora each had 11.5 sacks in 2010 while Pierre-Paul came along slowly with 4.5.
Ansah doesn't have that luxury of help and depth in front of him. The Lions want the defensive line as their focal point of the defense, and Ansah will have to be the man off the edge. Between nine and 11 sacks should be the bar for Ansah.
General manager Martin Mayhew expects big things immediately out of Ansah, and rightfully so. Given his athletic prowess, and playing next to stud tackles Ndamukong Suh and Nick Fairley, Ansah must deliver.
3. TE Brandon Pettigrew
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The Lions are still yet to see the full potential of tight end Brandon Pettigrew. Even through his best performances, the 2009 first-rounder is still capable of producing more and being better.
Pettigrew had a rough season last year with a number of costly mistakes. He took a big step backwards catching only 59 balls for 567 yards and only three touchdowns. Pettigrew made most of his noise last year coughing up four fumbles last season, including two momentum shifting plays against the Tennessee Titans and Indianapolis Colts. Pettigrew has also had continuous issues with dropped passes as the Lions ranked No. 1 last year in that department.
Detroit will need Pettigrew more than ever in 2013. The Lions get their top secondary receivers Nate Burleson and Ryan Broyles back from injury. With Burleson getting older and Broyles dealing with another knee injury, there's no telling how effective they'll be to start the season. Pettigrew needs to pick up their slack and provide more consistent help next to Calvin Johnson.
Megatron had a historic 2012 with 1964 receiving yards. Repeating those numbers won't propel the Lions to the postseason. Detroit could use more balance from their healthy viable weapons like Pettigrew.
No. 2 tight end Tony Scheffler belongs in this discussion as well, after only catching one touchdown last season. Both tight ends combining for only four touchdowns is not acceptable, and need to be more reliable red zone targets for Stafford.
4. S Louis Delmas
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The health concerns of safety Louis Delmas has been an everlasting saga that almost equaled his departure from Detroit.
The Lions' safety visited the San Francisco 49ers and the St. Louis Rams during the free agency period. No deal struck and the Lions remained in play to retain Delmas. Luckily after restructuring tackle Ndamukong Suh's contract, both sides agreed to a two-year deal.
Delmas carries elite level talent with his quick burst and hard-hitting style. Unfortunately since his rookie season, Delmas hasn't had much help to work with. A good number of his plays have come from him cleaning up blown coverages or missed tackles from his past teammates. Luckily for Delmas, he'll have a new and improved partner in crime next season.
Before re-signing Delmas, the Lions were able to strike a five-year deal with former Houston Texan Glover Quin. Quin is a durable cover safety with experience at cornerback as well. This tandem works perfect for Detroit because Delmas is at his best when he's blitzing and gambling with no worries of covering for his partner.
If Quin can protect the back-seven, he'll be able to help the inexperienced cornerbacks like Bill Bentley, Chris Greenwood, Jonte Green and rookie Darius Slay. With a healthy Delmas flying from sideline to sideline, the Lions could create havoc all over the field.
5. OL Riley Reiff
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Head coach Jim Schwartz couldn't make up his mind on what to do with his 2012 first-round pick. After fielding plenty of questions on his offensive line, and the aftermath of the NFL Draft, lineman Riley Reiff will anchor the Lions at left tackle.
Detroit was unable to land one of the top tackle prospects in this year's draft. Central Michigan's Eric Fisher went first overall to the Chiefs, Texas A&M's Luke Joeckel went right after to the Jaguars and the Philadelphia Eagles landed Oklahoma's Lane Johnson at No. 4. With those three immediately off the board, the Lions decided to keep Reiff at left tackle.
Reiff didn't see a lot of experience with Detroit at either tackle. He was mainly used in special packages as an extra blocker to help the run game. Reiff did see one game of starting action against the Houston Texans with long-time Lion Jeff Backus injured. With the former ironman retired and gone, Reiff will take over where Backus left off.
The Lions will debut new starters at right guard, and each tackle. Left guard Rob Sims and center Dominic Raiola are returning starters who will have new cohorts next to them. Rookie Larry Warford, former Cowboy Bill Nagy and undrafted rookie Rodney Austin will compete for the right guard position. The right tackle competition will be fought between Jason Fox and Corey Hilliard.
There is uncertainty all over the offensive line, but Reiff has the most responsibility of them all. The Lions' pass-heavy offense can't succeed with Stafford repeatedly sacked on his back. If Stafford is set to rebound next season, Reiff has to keep his blindside strong.