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Linehan Will Be Key to Piling Points in '09

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Linehan Will Be Key to Piling Points in '09
(Photo by Otto Greule Jr/Getty Images)

It’s time to get down to the X’s and O’s of the Detroit Lions. I covered some of the major coaching changes in Detroit earlier this week in The Schwartz Factor in Detroit, and now I’ll explain what those changes mean for the Lions on the offensive and defensive sides of the ball.

Because the main scheming will come from the head coach and offensive and defensive coordinators, I’ll stick to Gunther Cunningham and Scott Linehan. Since Jim Schwartz hired these guys, it should explain how he factors into each man’s individual success. For more on other coaching contributions, reference The Schwartz Factor.

Defense

Interestingly, this is not the first time Cunningham and Schwartz have worked for the same team. In fact, from 2001-03, Cunningham was the assistant head coach and linebackers coach in Tennessee while Schwartz was the Titans defensive coordinator. The year prior to Cunningham’s arrival, Schwartz was the linebackers coach.

Cunningham has made his career in the NFL as a defensive coordinator, but the first time he held the position was 1979 at California-Berkeley. It wasn’t again until 1992, Cunningham became the coordinator for the then L.A. Raiders. Since, he held the position twice in Kansas City before this stop in Detroit.

In K.C., Cunningham coached a 3-4, but in Tennessee he coached the 4-3. In Detroit, he will also coach the 4-3. Detroit is undersized at the end positions and at tackle to even consider a 3-4.

The draft has not been good to Detroit and things were much the same for the Lions when they selected Ikaika Alama-Francis with the 58th overall pick in 2007. Even second-year player Cliff Avril has a lot to prove. In a total of 19 games, Alama-Francis has one sack and 20 solo tackles. In just 13 games, during his rookie campaign, Avril was much more active notching 18 solo tackles, five sacks and four forced fumbles.

The Avril/Alama-Francis combo will have to provide plenty of pressure this season to alleviate the secondary, which is young and not overly athletic. Detroit will hope anything that goes long will be broken up by, what could be, a hard-hitting pair of safeties in Daniel Bullocks and Louis Delmas.

The big key on the Lions defense is the linebacking corps. The veterans Larry Foote (28) and Julian Peterson (30) are not necessarily pushing the limits of their careers and they could be a huge help to linebackers coach Matt Burke as the try to reel in players like Zack Follet and DeAndre Levy.

In a recent interview with WDFN Detroit’s Matt Sheppard, Ernie Sims said in Cunningham’s defense, “You're not playing like a robot, like I was the last couple of years.” He says the style allows him to play his game and make plays.

Sims also alluded to the fact that Detroit’s defense may also utilize the 3-3-5 and blitz from any position on the field.

Last year Detroit only ran the Tampa 2. The Lions didn’t have enough team speed to put pressure on the quarterback and allow their safeties time to set up. This year should be different. With different blitz packages and formations, the Lions will be much more difficult to figure out and pick apart. If you don’t remember, it was the rookie Matt Ryan, of the Atlanta Falcons, who exploited what the Lions lacked defensively, all the way back in week one.

Cunningham has a strong history of statistically strong defenses, especially when it comes to third down percentage and yardage. Sure, he doesn’t have Dan Saleaumua or Derrick Thomas, but he does have Larry Foote and Sims. I fully expect Cunningham to use creativity and surprise to level the playing field for Detroit’s defense.

Offense

Believe it or not, the Lions season will be made based on the offense. Detroit has speed at receiver, a pair of tough running backs and a veteran quarterback. Most importantly, Scott Linehan is reunited with Daunte Culpepper.

That’s great news for Daunte who made his name in Minnesota connecting on bombs to Randy Moss. Even though Culpepper is not the same as he was nine years ago, he still has a cannon and a tall, fast playmaker in Calvin Johnson.

Culpepper’s best seasons were in 2000, ’03 and ’04. In 2000, Linehan was not on the Vikings staff, but Culpepper threw 33 touchdowns, nearly 4,000 yards and had a passer rating of 98.0. Culpepper also ran for seven TDs and nearly 500 yards. 2002, a down year for Culpepper, could be attributed to a transition period with Linehan.

But in ’03, Culpepper was back on track throwing 25 TDs and 3,479 yards with a passer rating of 96.4 and returning to the Pro Bowl; his second appearance. It was fortunate at the time, but unfortunately for Culpepper’s young career, his performance peaked in 2004, which coincidentally was Linehan’s last year in Minnesota. In what would be Culpepper’s third Pro Bowl season, he threw for 39 TDs, 4,717 yards, only 11 interceptions and finished with a passer rating of 110.9.

I would imagine Linehan would utilize a similar approach this year in Detroit. And it’s important to recognize Linehan isn’t just a passing coordinator. 2003 wasn’t just a good year for Culpepper; the backs in Minnesota were great. Linehan used Moe Williams, Onterio Smith and Bennett to accumulate 2,343 yards, good for fourth in the league, and 4.8 yards-per-carry, good for sixth in the league.

While Detroit won’t be using a trio of backs, I would expect the Lions to post a thousand yard rusher in Kevin Smith. The rookie came up just short of the millennium mark finishing with 976 yards on 238 attempts for an average of 4.1 yards-per-carry. I would also expect to see the young man find the end zone more than eight times this year.

I should also point out, without going into all the stats, Linehan isn’t a one-hit wonder. He also turned Steven Jackson into a star and helped Marc Bulger become a star, even if just for one season.

Linehan has a long list of players who accumulated career stats under his tutelage. He has proven time and again, with a strong passing game and balanced running attack, he can put points on the board. That is something Detroit needs desperately after scoring only 36 total first half points in its first seven games last season. Expect a straight-forward running game and a field-stretching pass attack to keep defenses on their heels.

The Schwartz is with us in Detroit, hopefully for a long time. It appears as though he assembled a proven, experienced staff to build the careers of young players and provide quick success in the short term. But don’t expect the Lions to finish 8-8 this season or finish 0-16 again. Four wins should keep them away from the top of next year’s draft board and that’s something to be proud of in Detroit.

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