Much of the focus on the Detroit Lions has been centered on their personnel. Whether the players came from free agency or the draft, fans have been talking about Larry Foote and Matthew Stafford, among others.
But it wasn’t just the roster that received an overhaul. From the firing of Matt Millen, to the promotions of Tom Lewand and Martin Mayhew and eventual hiring of James “Shack” Harris, major changes to the front office were made.
Those moves and other changes paved the way for Jim Schwartz and his coaching staff. Among the additions to Schwartz’s staff are assistant head coach/defensive coordinator Gunther Cunningham, offensive coordinator Scott Linehan, quarterbacks coach Jeff Horton, offensive Line coach George Yarno and defensive line coach Bob Karmelowicz.
While there are certainly some improvements on the roster, it will be up to the aforementioned group to get the most out of their players and put a winning strategy together every Sunday.
Bob Karmelowicz has a large responsibility with Detroit this season. With 17 years of NFL experience, he could very well be the man who turns this defensive line into a bull-rushing sack machine. His most recent job was with the Houston Texans.
This is the man who welcomed Mario Williams into the NFL in 2006. In his rookie season, Williams tallied 4.5 sacks; in 2007, he notched 14 and had 12 in 2008. While Karmelowicz was in Houston, the team improved defensively and overall. While he was not the D-line coach in either of the last two seasons, he was special assistant to the head coach.
Before working for the Texans, Karmelowicz was with the Kansas City Chiefs for eight years as a D-line coach. Before K.C., he worked for the Washington Redskins and the Cincinnati Bengals. It was in 1975 Karmelowicz took his first collegiate job as offensive line coach at Arizona State.
With the exception of his last job in as a special assistant, Karmelowicz has more than 34 years of experience as a line coach. His job in Detroit will be molding Ikaika Alama-Francis and Cliff Avril into the pass-rushing ends who get sacks and create turnover opportunities for the secondary.
Karmelowicz has the collegiate experience to know how to handle young players. That said, with nearly 20 years in the NFL, he also knows how to handle egos and get production. The Lions would like to see one of their young players notch a few more sacks than last year’s leader, DeWayne White (6.5).
With the defensive line seemingly in good hands, the ultimate success of the defense lies in the hands of Gunther Cunningham. Logic would dictate that when you bring in a guy with nearly 40 years experience, you would be confident in his ability. However, I don’t have that confidence in Cunningham.
In 1995, when Cunningham began his first stint with the Chiefs, he had one of the top defenses in the league. The Chiefs were among the top five in points allowed, passing, rushing and total yards, as well as interceptions. I think the key point among those stats actually lie in the players on the roster. Among the best K.C. had to offer, Derrick Thomas, Dan Saleaumua and James Hasty.
Following the success in 1995, though, the Chiefs were never the same. They were, for the most part, in the middle of the league record-wise and their statistics reflected the same. Don’t get me wrong, middle-of-the-pack would be a huge improvement for the Lions, but for most Lions fans, the middle-of-the-pack is about the best they’ve seen.
Before picking a quarterback and before addressing the defense, I would have addressed the offensive line in the draft. Baylor’s Jason Smith would have been my number one pick were I the Lions general manager. Alas, Detroit will make due with Dominic Raiola, Jeff Backus and Ephraim Salaam.
That said, it’s the job of George Yarno to bring the line together in the wake of comments made this week by former Lions OT Jonathon Scott. Scott called the linemen “chickens with their heads cut off” in an interview with Tyler Dunne of Buffalo Football Report.
Among the coaches I have and will address, Yarno has the least NFL experience. This will be his second season. Yarno was the assistant offensive line coach in Tampa Bay last season. The Buccaneers allowed 32 sacks last season. In comparison, Detroit allowed 52 sacks.
But while this is only Yarno’s second season in the NFL, he has 18 years of offensive line-coaching experience. He served 17 years in the college ranks for a variety of teams including LSU, Arizona State and two stints with Washington State.
Of the Lions 15 O-linemen on the depth chart, nine have five or fewer years of experience in the NFL. I think that bodes well for Yarno as he has plenty of experience with young players.
While the Bucs didn’t have a 1,000-yard rusher last year, both Warrick Dunn and Earnest Graham rushed for 500-plus yards and Jeff Garcia threw for over 2,700 yards. Detroit didn’t have a thousand-yard rusher either, but rookie Kevin Smith came close with 976 yards. The passing game was weak. Dan Orlovsky threw for just over 1,600 yards in 10 games.
Much of Yarno’s success, however, also lies in the hands of two other men who I will also discuss: quarterbacks coach Jeff Horton and offensive coordinator Scott Linehan. Much of the success of the offense will depend on the success of Kevin Smith. Smith thrived with zone blocking last season, but there are some who believe he will struggle with a more straightforward offense. I am not among those individuals.
Whether the fans know his name or not, all eyes will be on Jeff Horton during the Schwartz Era. He will be the man responsible for developing Matt Stafford and monitoring the progress of Daunte Culpepper. It’s also likely he will decide whether Drew Stanton will remain with the Lions or if he will be replaced by another veteran arm.
Entering his 25th year, Horton has been all over the offensive side of the ball. He was a graduate assistant at Minnesota, he’s been an assistant head coach, a receivers coach, head coach and a quarterbacks coach in the college ranks. I am most impressed with his stint in Wisconsin.
From 1999-2005, Horton was the quarterbacks coach at UW. He coached Brooks Bollinger, Jim Sorgi and John Stocco. All three were successful as Badgers. I realize they are not NFL studs. In fact, Stocco isn’t in the league, Sorgi never plays and Bollinger is bouncing around the league. Two of the three were drafted and even Stocco played pro-ball in Italy.
His biggest project to date is Matt Stafford, but the young QB might be the best prospect Horton has put his hands on. He is also the biggest name and most expensive prospect to date. Stafford and his $72 million contract are now in Horton’s hands.
The Lions and Horton are hoping Detroit can make it through the season without having to throw Stafford into the fire too soon. Despite what Peyton Manning says (that Stafford should play this year), Stafford needs a year to learn the offense, the league and the Lions.
The man with the offensive plan is Scott Linehan. He made stars of Steven Jackson, Chris Chambers, Culpepper and Randy Moss. While not necessarily ensuring the success of the team, Linehan has all but assured offensive success.
Linehan has had success through the air and on the ground. While he started in Minnesota by using Culpepper and Moss, his last stop saw him send Jackson to the Pro Bowl. Other players who have seen big numbers under Linehan include Ronnie Brown, Ricky Williams, Tory Holt and Isaac Bruce.
Between 2002 and 2004, Linehan orchestrated the Culpepper-Moss connection. Moss became the featured receiver in 2002 and over that season and the next, Moss caught more than 200 passes for nearly 3,000 yards while catching 24 touchdowns. In 2004, Culpepper posted career highs for passer rating of 110.9, a 69.2 completion percentage, 4,717 passing yards, 8.6 yards per play average and 39 touchdowns. Even Michael Bennett made a Pro Bowl under Linehan.
When Linehan moved on, he took a job in Miami for the 2005 season. During that year, Chambers made the Pro Bowl and finished with 82 catches for 1,118 yards and 11 touchdowns. Brown and Williams combined for 1,650 rushing yards and 10 rushing touchdowns.
St. Louis was the destination where Linehan again made his mark, but this time with a quarterback and running back. People already knew about Bruce and Holt, so no one was surprised their success continued. The paired combined for more than 2,300 yards.
That same year, Marc Bulger passed for a career-best 4,301 yards. He also tossed 24 touchdowns.
But it was with Jackson that Linehan made his mark. Jackson ran 346 times in 2006 for 1,528 rushing yards, 105 first downs and 2,334 all-purpose yards. Jackson also had 13 touchdowns.
I think this bodes well for Culpepper, Calvin Johnson and Smith. Johnson has big play ability like Moss and Smith has proven to be reliable. The big question will be Culpepper. It’s not 2004, 2002 or even 2000. But, Culpepper did connect on three of his four touchdowns with Johnson last season.
The biggest piece of the puzzle is coach Jim Schwartz. He is entering his 14th year in the league. The bulk of his coaching experience is in the NFL and, with the exception of his first job in Cleveland, Schwartz has always worked on the defensive side of the ball.
From 1996-98 Schwartz was a defensive assistant with the Baltimore Ravens before holding the same position with the Tennessee Titans in 1999. Schwartz worked his was up as a linebackers coach before taking over the defense in 2001.
To compare the Lions and Titans defenses is unfair to Detroit. The Titans were anchored the past few years by Albert Haynesworth, among others while the Lions appeared as though they were playing with an anchor attached.
Last season the Titans finished 13-3. The defense finished the season ranked in the top 10 in several defensive categories. They were third in defensive points allowed, seventh in total yards allowed, sixth in rushing yards allowed, passing yards allowed and third down percentage allowed and fifth in sacks.
The Lions, on the other hand, finished last in points allowed, last in yards allowed, last in rushing yards allowed, 27th in passing yards allowed and 29th in third down percentage. After looking at the stats, it’s no surprise Detroit finished 0-16.
Schwartz is going to use a 4-3 defense, which is similar to the Tampa Two, but one that is not based, in large part, on speed. Schwartz’s 4-3 will be more basic. He will expect pressure off the ends, linebackers hitting the gaps and corners jamming the receivers. And while the safeties will be based in a zone scheme, it’s likely the amount of field they have to cover will be smaller.
Don’t expect to see Detroit in the top ten in many, if any, defensive categories, but also do not expect them to be in the bottom five.