Detroit Lions: 10 Changes We Need to See Before the Lions Can Take the Next Step
The Detroit Lions have been in the national spotlight throughout the 2011 NFL season for an assortment of reasons. Their smoking start gave way to a semi-disastrous stretch convincing everyone that there are multiple events that need to occur before the Lions can be considered legitimate contenders.
Detroit is miles ahead of the position they inhabited for the last decade. The play of quarterback Matthew Stafford has signaled the realization of his potential, but there is still room for improvement.
Ndamukong Suh and his teammates have had difficulty reining in their emotions which has resulted in costly outbursts of stupidity.
Additionally, the media has begun to question Jim Schwartz's coaching style.
There is a sense that the Lions have the requisite talent, but there are a few upgrades left. Some steady contributors will not be able to sustain the proper level of play to justify retaining them.
The following changes aren't drastic but rather minor adjustments to enable the Lions to continue their course towards consistency.
It's Cold but It's Fair
Dominic Raiola was a passionate presence in the locker room long before the Detroit Lions' current revival. His leadership during the tough times remains one of the few bright spots in an otherwise bleak era.
Raiola has also made his mark in Detroit with his fan interactions. The frustration of losing and subsequent harassment from the public caused the captain to engage in hostilities with paying customers.
He has earned a nice living while anchoring the offensive line for the last 10 seasons. The Lions must find the next center to call out the protections necessary to ensure the health of franchise quarterback Matthew Stafford.
The Detroit Lions Must Find the Next Tackle to Start 172 Consecutive Games
The Detroit Lions longtime left tackle has been a target for fan criticism despite his accountability. Including his time with the Michigan Wolverines, Jeff Backus has started 220 straight games.
Backus was a solid contributor who peaked much later in his career than most tackles. The media and coaches have heaped praise on the stalwart trench warrior over the last two years.
However, his level of play has declined somewhat sharply this year. It doesn't help that the NFC North pass rushers (Clay Matthews, Jared Allen and Julius Peppers) require top-notch tackle play.
At 34 years old, Backus' belated prime has reached its conclusion.
The Lions must select their next left tackle in the draft this coming April. Detroit can bring Backus back for one more year and allow the youngster to get some experience on the right side before becoming responsible for Matthew Stafford's blind side.
There Are Few Safe Positions Along the Offensive Line
The Detroit Lions' biggest hole this season has been the complete lack of a running game. The onus for this failure correctly lands on the big fellas up front.
Right tackle Gosder Cherilus and guard Stephen Peterman have now been with the Lions for a combined 10 years. There should be no hesitation to upgrade these two positions as soon as possible.
The Lions need to welcome back running backs Jahvid Best and Mikel LeShoure with linemen who can open holes for them. When Detroit becomes capable of producing a balanced offense, the jobs of other players on the roster will become much easier.
Calvin Johnson Needs Some Consistent Support
Calvin Johnson's historic start to the season has been slowed considerably. As opposing defenses take drastic measures to stop him, wide receivers Titus Young and Nate Burleson must fill the void with consistent production.
The supporting cast has not been terrible but they have made multiple mistakes. Young has had some brash indiscretions, yet has seemed to improve throughout the year.
Burleson was flagged for three offensive interference penalties against the New Orleans Saints. While the flags are not encouraging, the important point is that the offense is opening up beyond Johnson.
Brandon Pettigrew and Tony Scheffler have made great contributions from the tight end position. Yet, in order for the offense to reach its potential, the Lions must require opponents to devote attention to other receivers to give Calvin Johnson opportunities to make plays.
The Linebacking Unit Has to Be Addressed
The Detroit Lions linebackers have been solid but inconsistent most of the season. Newcomer Stephen Tulloch has succesfully taken on the challenge of turning his one-year contract into a lucrative long-term deal.
The Lions need to find a way to keep Tulloch or draft his replacement. He has proved invaluable considering the Lions' tackling woes over the last few years.
DeAndre Levy has not had the breakthrough year that many envisioned. Levy will be a restricted free agent after the season meaning he could be jettisoned (along with his $6 million annual salary) to make room for Tulloch.
Either way, the Lions require consistent tackling from the their backers to be successful in their particular scheme. The defensive line attacks leaving the linebackers to clean up the mess.
Sloppy tackling will continue to lead to high opposing rushing totals keeping the Lions explosive offense off the field.
It's Time to Get Creative with the Secondary
Eric Wright was another stop-gap measure (much like Stephen Tulloch) necessitated by not landing a long-term cornerback in free agency or the NFL draft. The one-year deals were smart because general manager Martin Mayhew was able to get quality players for cheap, "prove yourself" prices.
Now, Detroit is in a similar position to where it was last offseason except that the price tag has undoubtedly risen for Wright and Tulloch. Young Aaron Berry has been a favorite of defensive coordinator Gunther Cunningham so the time has come to step into Wright's starting role.
The Lions are set at one safety spot with Louis Delmas, but it appears that Amari Speivey is only a role player. Finding a running mate for Delmas would help to ease any growing pains Berry could have as he transitions to starter.
Time to Let Kyle Vanden Bosch Go?
By most accounts, Kyle Vanden Bosch has been a positive factor in the Detroit Lions' turnaround. Yet, his contributions are beginning to be outweighed by the negatives that he brings to the table.
His intense practice style is well-documented. The effect that a hard-working veteran's presence has on young teammates is immeasurable.
However, his unbridled passion is also having another effect on his fellow defensive lineman. The lack of discipline that has led to multiple drive-extending penalties seems to start with KVB.
Chaos and intensity are staples of good defenses but they must be controlled. Otherwise, these "strengths" will be exploited as they were against the Green Bay Packers and New Orleans Saints.
The Evolution of Jim Schwartz Must Continue
Jim Schwartz has become the main fodder for Detroit sports radio since the Thanksgiving Ndamukong Suh stomp.
The criticism is fair because he has received the bulk of the praise for the Detroit Lions' rise from obscurity. Now, he must embrace the issues that plague his young team.
The first step in tackling any problem is to admit that there is a problem. Though Schwartz had been defiant at first regarding the Lions' style of play, he is starting to say the right things to the press and, hopefully, to the players as well.
The Enabling Must Stop by Hitting the Players in the Wallet
The bad penalties that were difficult to overcome have turned into suspensions. The Detroit Lions are an improving team but they cannot continue to progress without their best players on the field.
It is time for Jim Schwartz to quit enabling his team, starting with Ndamukong Suh.
Players love a coach who has their back, but the situation is similar to that of a parent. A parent should be supportive of the child but also stern enough to ensure the kid learns the valuable lessons needed to succeed.
Benching the players for making errors is one solution, but the best tactic is to start fining the players.
The contracts may have some built-in protections in this area. However, considering players can be fined for inappropriate socks, it isn't a stretch to fine a player for stupidity on the field.
At the very minimum, there should easily be a way to fine a player for excessive violence as conduct detrimental to the team.
Keep Playing Games
The Detroit Lions are akin to a young man in his early 20s. Full of potential but often cannot get out of their own way.
Unfortunately, the only way to grow is to make mistakes and learn from them so as not to repeat the same miscues. That is where the Lions currently find themselves.
Matthew Stafford is only 23 years old. He looks to be on track to become an elite quarterback in the NFL.
The Lions mirror their young signal-caller in their collective youth and possibilities. As they both continue to play games and gain experience, they will shed their immaturity and develop the habits required for a successful franchise.