After a decade of futility during the 2000s, the Detroit Lions finally made the playoffs in 2011. By compiling a 10-6 record and earning a spot as the 6th seed in the NFC, Detroit earned its first berth in the postseason since Barry Sanders’ final season in 1999. Despite a 45-28 wild-card loss to the New Orleans Saints in the Superdome, Detroit comes into the 2012 season riding the overall success resulting from their improvements during last season.
Head coach Jim Schwartz looks to begin his fourth season in Detroit with a win over the St. Louis Rams. After taking a over the first team in NFL history to lose all of their 16 regular season games, Schwartz has helped steadily improve the team from the Motor City; The Lions won just 2 games in 2009, but tripled their total to 6 in 2010 before finishing with their first playoff berth of the new century.
Matthew Stafford and Calvin Johnson look to continue one of the most prolific quarterback to wide receiver combos in the NFL. Last season, Stafford became just the fourth different quarterback to break the 5000 passing yard barrier, while Johnson hauled in 96 catches for 1681 yards and 16 touchdowns.
Despite the importance of this combination, the Lions went only 5-4 (including the playoffs) in 2011 in games where Johnson topped 100 yards and surprisingly, 0-3 in times that Johnson hit the 200 yard marker.
What does this tell me? The Lions need to activate the running game against the Rams.
In 2011, the Lions had a revolving door coming in at running back. Rookie Mikel Leshure suffered a torn achilles during training camp and ended up on injured reserve. Jahvid Best only made it through 6 games before multiple concussions forced him to sit for the season. Kevin Smith, singed in the middle of the season, had some moments, including a 140 yard, 3 touchdown game against the Carolina Panthers on November 20th. Veteran Maurice Morris and former Redskin Keiland Williams did not make much of an impact.
With Best and Leshure out still to begin the season, Smith becomes a key focal point against the Rams for several reasons: The Lions will look to bring some sort of balance to their offensive attack to keep the Rams defense honest. Despite a 2-14 season, the Rams actually ranked 7th in the NFL in passing defense with just over 206 yards a game allowed. On the ground, however, they ranked 31st with 152 rushing yards per game. Getting Kevin Smith going against a weak Rams front 7 will help propel the Lions to an opening week victory.
Defensively, the Lions need to constantly put pressure in the face of third-year quarterback Sam Bradford. In its last two games including the playoffs, Detroit allowed 45 points each to both the Green Bay Packers and the New Orleans Saints. The Lions secondary got torched through the air against two of the league’s more prominent passing attacks, despite squaring off against Packers’ then backup quarterback, Matt Flynn (Aaron Rodgers sat out the game for injury prevention reasons before the playoffs).
With two members of the Detroit secondary possibly out for week 1 in safety Louis Delmas and cornerback Chris Houston, defensive coordinator Gunther Cunningham will look for his front four to make Bradford uncomfortable in the pocket. Led by controversial tackle Ndamukong Suh, Detroit should have a field day against a Rams offensive line that surrendered 55 sacks during the 2011 season. Hiding the weakness of their secondary is a must for the Lions for not only week 1, but for the rest of the 2012 season.
Prediction: Lions 34, Rams 17
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Written by Matt Austin