A PREDICTION FOR2008? Jon Kitna's not even touching that one. The Lions quarterback defers tooutspoken cornerback Leigh Bodden, who came to Detroit from Cleveland in a Feb.29 swap. "What did Jon say last year?" Bodden asks. "Ten wins? I'llgo with that."
It's appropriatethat Bodden, not Kitna, is making the predictions this year. Following thedeparture of pass-happy offensive coordinator Mike Martz, the Lions' success in'08 depends largely on the play of a completely reconfigured defensivebackfield. (Also: Kitna's credibility is suspect; he overshot the 2007 wintotal by three.)
Last year, whileplaying mostly in coach Rod Marinelli's favored Tampa Two scheme, which relieson a hard-hitting but quick secondary, the Lions' defense allowed 258.2 passingyards a game, a mark exceeded only by the Vikings. They also gave up aleague-worst 32 passing touchdowns. The secondary's deficiencies set off adomino effect, with Martz's offense throwing more often as the Lions fellbehind. In Week 10, for example, when the Cardinals went up 10--7 on Detroitmidway through the second quarter, the Lions threw the ball almost exclusivelyafter that—36 passes and five runs en route to a 31--20 loss. For the season,Detroit had 324 rushing attempts. The only team to have fewer in a season since2000? The '06 Lions.
Detroit isresolved to run more in '08, but for that to happen, the Lions had to revamptheir defense, particularly the secondary. ("If we're running the ball,we're probably defending well," says Marinelli.) In January they hiredBuccaneers assistant secondary coach Jimmy Lake, who helped run a unit that ledthe league in passing defense in 2007. Then they signed three former Tampa Baydefensive backs: safeties Kalvin Pearson and Dwight Smith and cornerback BrianKelly. (All three played earlier under Marinelli, who was a Bucs assistant from1996 to 2005.) As icing, Detroit traded mammoth defensive tackle Shaun Rogersto Cleveland for Bodden, an up-and-comer, and added former Buccaneer ChuckDarby to fill Rogers's voluminous void on the line. Hence the popularoff-season moniker for Detroit: Tampa Bay North.
Marinelli needssome of that Bucs know-how to rub off quickly. The coach is entering hiscrucial third season, and the majority of his acquisitions (average age: 30)already have their best years behind them. The youngest, Bodden, 26, has neverplayed Tampa Two, but he does fit the system's mold for a cornerback: He's ahard hitter who's comfortable jamming at the line and playing the run. "NowI think what may have been the weakest aspect of this team is possibly ourstrongest," says defensive coordinator Joe Barry, another Tampa Baycoaching alum.
Some of the Lions'offensive stars have taken notice of the overhauled defensive backfield."Guys like Kitna and [receiver Mike] Furrey have come up and said, 'I likewhat you guys bring to that secondary,'" says Smith. "They know we'rehere to make their lives easier."
Come Week 1,Bodden should be starting at one cornerback, alongside second-year safetyGerald Alexander, who struggled with a weak supporting cast in '07 but showedpromise with a 15-tackle game against San Diego late in the year. Smith andKelly should complete the backfield, with Pearson as a nickelback. Moreimportant, the new guys will bring confidence and experience from having playedthe Cover Two successfully before.
"In Tampa, Ihad leaders in John Lynch, Warren Sapp and Derrick Brooks," says Kelly."Now, I'm expected to come here and be that kind of mentor and teach thissystem. The smartest thing I could do is to pull out my Super Bowl ring and letthem know what it's all about."
Failing that, theLions could get a more straightforward lesson come Nov. 23. That's when TampaBay South comes to town.
COACH ROD MARINELLI (10--22 in NFL), third season with Lions
Kevin SMITH (R)
SACKS 6 1/2
SACKS 6 1/2
(R) Rookie (college statistics)
2007 RECORD 7--9NFL RANK (Rush/Pass/Total): OFFENSE 31/9/19 DEFENSE 23/31/32
7 at Atlanta
14 GREEN BAY
21 at San Francisco
12 at Minnesota
19 at Houston
2 at Chicago
16 at Carolina
23 TAMPA BAY
27 TENNESSEE (T)
14 at Indianapolis
21 NEW ORLEANS
28 at Green Bay
NFL Rank: 9
Opponents' 2007 winning
Games against playoff teams: 7
SI.com's NFL personnel expert Michael Lombardievaluates the Lions' units.
Kitna functions well with good cast, but backup is thin.
Smith must prove he's a No. I. Tatum Bell is change-of-pace back.
Full complement: size, speed and possession guys. All can RAC.
Area of concern, but Lions want to run so need a blocker here.
Even if first-rounder Cherilus plays well, many holes remain.
Redding is good, but trade of Shaun Rogers left huge void.
Sims is an all-over-the-field playmaker; others not athletic enough.
Searching for safety fix to no avail. New corners fit the scheme.
Reliable kickers who can handle elements when necessary.
Brian Urlacher says it takes three years for a middlelinebacker to grasp the Tampa Two defense. Sims, who led the Lions in tackleslast season, is entering his third year. He acknowledges he was overchasing in'07: "This year [the defensive backs] will make their plays, and I'll makemine." Sims's tackle total may drop, but Detroit will be better for it.
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EXCERPTED FROM SI
September 10, 1990
WHEN THE Lions, leading 31--24, took possession withbarely one minute remaining, Barry Sanders, their blockish, Scripture-spoutingrookie running back, had 158 yards. Ten more and he would clinch the NFLrushing title. "Do you want to go in?" Fontes asked. Sanders respondedby parroting one of Fontes's favorite maxims: "Coach," he said,"let's just win it and go home." --Austin Murphy
Free access to all LIONS stories and photographs from the SI archives, plusvideo clips.
GAVIN SMITH/DETROIT LIONS
JAM SESSION Physical against wideouts and backs, Bodden fits the Tampa Two.
GAVIN SMITH/DETROIT LIONS
RONALD C. MODRA (COVER)