Detroit Lions: 10 Bold Predictions for the 2011 NFL Season
Each NFL Preseason, hope springs occasionally for fans of the Detroit Lions, and 2011 looks to be one of those occasions. The NFL is a land of opportunity, and it seems that opportunity has finally landed on the shores of the Detroit River.
The overall consensus is that the Lions will be better, but exactly how much better will they be?
Let's look at ten bold predictions for the Lions' leap forward this NFL season.
Matthew Stafford Will Start All 16 Games
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At some point in his career, Stafford’s luck has to turn.
The Lions didn’t upgrade their offensive line this offseason, which has led to an epidemic of fingernail chomping across Southeastern Michigan, but Stafford’s problems aren’t really related to the volume of hits he’s taking.
His shoulder injuries are concerning, but they really aren’t evidence of any chronic issue. It’s likely that any other quarterback would have suffered the same injury if he’d taken the same hits that knocked Stafford out of the past two seasons.
The added muscle that Stafford has added to his upper body should help to protect him against further should problems. but it’s really just a matter of chance.
There’s never been any question about Stafford’s toughness, he answered that when he deked the training staff to toss the winning touchdown against Cleveland back in his rookie year.
Stafford will absolutely play through all of the normal bumps and bruises, and there’s really nothing in his history that would indicate that he’s any more vulnerable to an injury than the average NFL quarterback.
So let’s all embrace the gambler’s fallacy and just say that Stafford is due to stay out there the full year.
Brandon Pettigrew Will Catch Ten Touchdowns
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Another young and talented Detroit Lion, another barrage of injuries.
Pettigrew has done a better job of staying on the field than his quarterback, and he’s steadily developing into a reliable safety blanket. In 2010, he more than doubled his total receptions and yards from his rookie year.
As Lions offense continues to mature, Pettigrew will continue to develop. As Scott Linehan learns more about the weapons as his disposal, Pettigrew’s role will continue to grow.
This season, I expect to see Pettigrew used more in the downfield passing game, as well as around the goal line.
While I believe that the Lions should throw a jump ball for Calvin Johnson at least once every time they get inside the red zone, I think Stafford will toss enough TDs for Pettigrew to snag at least ten.
Cliff Avril Will Be Selected to the Pro Bowl
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I could predict that Ndamukong Suh would be selected to the Pro Bowl, but where’s the fun in that?
Suh’s arrival last season spiked Cliff Avril’s sack total up to a career-high 8.5. Bringing in Nick Fairley to flank Suh will only bring more focus to the middle of the Lions defensive line. With Kyle Vanden Bosch attracting attention at left end, Avril will be the forgotten man.
Consistently working one-on-one against opposing right tackles, Avril will always have an edge in quickness. As the rest of the line collapses the pocket, he’ll have plenty of opportunities to swoop in for sacks.
The entire Lions defensive line will be dominant in 2011, but advantageous match-ups will help Avril rack up more sacks than any of the stars.
Jahvid Best Will Rush for 1,000 Yards
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Jahvid Best was slowed by a toe injury for nearly all of 2010 and still racked up 555 yards on 171 carries. On top of his injuries, he was forced to play behind a backup quarterback for most of the season.
In short, the odds were stacked against him.
Coming in to 2011, it looks like the tables have turned.
Best is again healthy coming in to 2011, and is the lead back in a possibly prolific offense. His quarterback has returned from injury and appears ready to lead an excellent passing attack that will make defenses think twice about stacking up against the run.
Even with Mikel Leshoure’s devastating injury, the Lions have shown their commitment to spelling Best by bringing in Jerome Harrison and Mike Bell to compete for the backup job.
I have no doubt that Best will receive the majority of the carries in 2011, and given his explosive tendencies in college, it’s not a stretch to assume that he can greatly improve on his per-carry average from last year.
All in all, things are looking up for Jahvid Best, and he’s primed to have the breakout year that should have happened in 2010.
The Lions Will Sweep the Chicago Bears
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Although the Lions lost twice to the Bears in 2010, they controlled the flow of play in both games. In the first meeting, the Lions were directly screwed by a questionable interpretation of the NFL rulebook. The second time, Chicago got the victory fair-and-square, but the Lions entered the fourth quarter in position to win.
This season, the Lions have the upgrades needed to be a better football team than the Bears, as well as a couple of scheduling advantages.
October 10 will mark the first Monday Night Football game in the Motor City since 2001. It signals the Lions official return to relevance on a national scale.
More than anything, this game is an opportunity for the Lions to announce their presence with authority. Knowing how much this team has been kicked around over the past few years, as well as the personality of Jim Schwartz, there’s no doubt in my mind that the Lions (and their fans) will be fired up for this contest.
On the flip side, this is just another division game for the Bears. Sure, they’d like to win it, but there’s really nothing more than that in it for them.
Jay Cutler has been rattled by crowds before, and I predict that it will happen again in Detroit.
The Lions’ second match-up against the Bears sets up as a favorable situation as well.
Chicago will be on a short week after facing the Eagles on Monday night in Week 9. Given the juggernaut that seems to be rising in Philly, that will undoubtedly be a battle for the Bears.
The Lions, on the other hand, will have two weeks to prepare. They face their weakest opponent of the season, Carolina, in Week 11, so there’s no reason for the players or coaches to be looking ahead.
Soldier Field will host two evenly-matched teams on November 13, but I predict that the well-rested Lions will prevail, sweeping Chicago for the first time since 2007.
The Lions Will Lead the NFL in Interceptions
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This prediction isn’t so much praise for the Lions’ defensive backs as it is confidence in the Lions’ ability to rush the passer.
Last year, the secondary was occasionally saved by the defensive line’s pressure, but whenever the opposing quarterback did have time, he picked apart the Lions’ secondary.
Alphonso Smith and Chris Houston struggled at times last season, but they showed flashes of the talent that got them drafted in the first and second rounds, respectively.
With Eric Wright joining the team at corner and the emerging Amari Spievey flanking Louis Delmas at safety, the Lions finally have some talent in their back four.
But again, this prediction really isn’t about them.
Even when pressure doesn’t make it all the way to the quarterback, it forces the passer into mistakes. When a quarterback’s throwing motion is interrupted by a hit or passes are tipped at the line of scrimmage, it throws off the timing of the offense, and throws the advantage to the defensive backs.
The Lions defense produced 44 sacks last season, but only 14 interceptions. With an even more fearsome pass rush and more ball hawks in the secondary, I expect both numbers to greatly increase in 2011.
The Lions Will Have a Top Five Rushing Defense
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I am more confident about this prediction than I am about anything else on this list.
Two words: professional linebackers.
Martin Mayhew and Jim Schwartz have done a fantastic job of rebuilding the defensive line over the last couple of years, but it wasn’t until this off-season that the Lions really addressed their issues at linebacker.
While the fact that Ndamukong Suh played a few snaps at linebacker certainly speaks to Suh’s incredible versatility and athleticism, it is also an indictment of the Lions linebacking corps.
Stephen Tulloch and Justin Durant aren’t All-Pros, but they are a huge upgrade over the stiffs that Gunther Cunnningham had to work with last year.
The defensive line was disruptive last season, but disruption isn’t always enough. In many cases, the player that blows up a play doesn’t end up in position to eventually make the tackle.
With a crew of excellent tacklers behind the defensive line (Tulloch led the league in tackles in 2010), the Lions defense will be able to convert disruption into dominance.
The Lions Will Finish with a Positive Scoring Differential
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Scoring differential has been my favorite stat over the past two years. It’s calculated by subtracting the points a team scores from the points that team allows. It’s a simple way to look beyond wins and losses to see whether a team is really living up to its record.
Recently, this stat has been encouraging for Detroiters. Although a winning record still eludes them, the Lions have been competitive over the last couple of seasons, posting a scoring differential of minus seven in both 2009 and 2010. Unfortunately, it’s a bit less encouraging over the long haul.
The Lions haven’t posted a positive scoring differential since 1997.
2011 is the year to reverse that trend. The offense and defense are both improved. Both will hopefully experience fewer catastrophic injuries this season.
Even if the wins don’t come, the points certainly will.
The Lions Will Finish Second in the NFC North
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The Lions certainly don’t have a cupcake schedule this season, with the Saints, Cowboys, Chargers, and Falcons dotting the non-division slate. However, those scheduling difficulties run across the entire NFC North.
With all of the teams in the division facing tough non-division opponents, the standings will undoubtedly depend on how each team fares against its divisional opponents. This is a great development for the Lions.
As I detailed before, the stars are aligned for the Lions to sweep the Bears.
The Vikings will be solid offensively with Donovan McNabb at quarterback, but Minnesota’s defense continues to age and the front office continues to ignore it. With no notable defensive reinforcements coming from the draft or free agency, the Lions’ passing attack should flourish against the Vikings.
At the very least, I expect the Lions to split with Minnesota.
The Packers are the world champs, but even during their run last season, the Lions proved that they could hang in with Green Bay. Detroit lost barely (28-26) on the road in early October, but rose up for an unexpected 7-3 win. Granted, Aaron Rodgers missed the majority of the game, but so did Matthew Stafford. Looking at least year’s results, there’s no doubt that the Lions can play with Green Bay.
In 2011, I expect the Lions to get one win against the Pack.
That will leave Detroit with a 4-2 divisional record, which should be good for second place.
"Gridiron Heroes" Will Still Be the Best Fight Song in Professional Sports
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When Theo Spight tunes up the band at Ford Field, there’s nothing better.
Consult YouTube if you don’t believe me, but believe this, the fans will be hearing a lot more of “Gridiron Heroes” this season.