SEVEN MONTHS after the defensive horror show that wiped away all the goodwill generated by the Lions' first playoff appearance in 12 years, defensive coordinator Gunther Cunningham is still wounded. Cunningham's an emotional guy to start, but the recollection of the last eight quarters of the season—Green Bay and New Orleans ran up 90 points and 1,176 yards on the pathetic Detroit D—gets Cunningham choked up. "I still feel responsible," he says quietly. "My wife just said to me recently, 'Get over it!' I can't."
"How long will it bug you?" Cunningham is asked.
"Forever," he says. "Forever."
The 2012 Lions are not unlike this year's Saints. They'll both be explosive offensively as long as their respective firestarters (Matthew Stafford, Drew Brees) stay on the field. New Orleans may have far more premium offensive weapons than Detroit does, but Lions wideout Calvin Johnson is the most dangerous receiver in football, and Stafford's fearlessness and ability to throw darts into tight holes make the other receivers (Nate Burleson, Titus Young and rookie slot man Ryan Broyles) look better than they are. So let's assume Detroit, with a healthy Stafford, will put up enough points to win. Now it's on the defense.
The early signs are not good. The secondary is very weak, and Aaron Berry, one of the Lions' two best cornerbacks, in Cunningham's opinion, was cut after his second arrest of the off-season. Defensive tackle Nick Fairley, the Lions' first-round pick in the 2011 draft, was also arrested twice in the off-season, for alcohol and marijuana transgressions, and reported to training camp out of shape. Detroit didn't use either of its top two draft picks on the secondary, deciding instead to take three projects at corner in the middle rounds to challenge the shaky incumbents, Chris Houston and Alphonso Smith. And the de facto leader of the defense, Louis Delmas, the safety Cunningham compares in spirit and intensity with Ronnie Lott, had his left knee scoped on Aug. 7. He's not practicing yet, and it's a toss-up, at best, whether he'll be ready to play the opener against St. Louis.
The defense that coach Jim Schwartz and G.M. Martin Mayhew have blueprinted relies heavily upon pressure from a four-man front, much of it coming from left end Cliff Avril, who has become a complete rush end. And each of the eight men Cunningham rotates on the line, all of whom played at least 250 snaps last year, are vital to the plan. Backup Willie Young, a cat-quick 251-pounder, had 27 pressures or sacks in 274 plays last year, and the Lions think he can be a double-digit sack man with more chances. "We can all get to the quarterback," says defensive end Kyle Vanden Bosch.
But by now, Fairley should have wrestled the starting tackle job alongside Ndamukong Suh away from Corey Williams. Fairley is too strong and too quick through the gap to be playing fewer than 60% or 70% of the plays. The Lions drafted him to be a three-down player, forming, alongside Suh, the most dangerous tackle duo in football. He's been a good teammate, and Williams, an eight-year veteran, has been a good mentor to him. But Cunningham spent much of the summer at odds with the youngster over Fairley's work ethic. "It's a learning process for him," says Vanden Bosch, sounding charitable. "You've got six weeks free before training camp, and young players have to learn to manage their time well. Take a week off, maybe two. But you've got to take care of yourself. He'll learn. He knows how vital he is to what we do."
It's clear that Cunningham and Schwartz are counting on those eight men up front, Fairley included, to cover for the secondary while Delmas works to get back to health and the three rookie corners mature. Look for Houston and rookie Bill Bentley from Louisiana-Lafayette to start on the island. Behind them, who knows? You don't need great corners to play in the Cover Two scheme because the pass defense relies on pressure up front and safety help. But when you're counting on Smith and Jacob Lacey and three rookies to shore up a major area of need, let's just echo what most Detroit fans must be saying entering a season of otherwise great promise: Score, Calvin, score.
WITH 2011 STATS
OFFENSE 2011 RANK: 5
*2010 college stats
(N) New acquisition
(R) Rookie—College stats
TTD Total touchdowns
SACKS Sacks allowed
HOLD Holding penalties
FALSE False starts
2011 Record: 10--6
9 St. Louis
16 at San Francisco
23 at Tennessee
14 at Philadelphia
22 at Chicago (Mon)
4 at Jacksonville
11 at Minnesota
18 Green Bay
22 Houston (Thu)
9 at Green Bay
16 at Arizona
22 Atlanta (Sat)
St. Louis comes to Detroit to open the season, and the top picks in consecutive drafts—Matthew Stafford (2009) and Sam Bradford ('10)—will face off. But that's hardly the game's biggest oddity. Two rookie cornerbacks, neither drafted in the first round, could start in the game too—and they're best friends from Pahokee, Fla. Janoris Jenkins, a second-rounder from North Alabama, is a lock to go for the Rams. Bentley, a third-rounder from Louisiana-Lafayette, enters the last week of the preseason favored to beat out Jacob Lacey for the spot opposite Chris Houston.
Bentley has had an up-and-down camp. Against Cleveland, he got beat on a long sideline completion by wideout Travis Benjamin, then had a nifty interception. Afterward, coach Jim Schwartz said, "Too inconsistent.... 50-50 isn't going to get it done." The rook doesn't lack for confidence, though. Recently the cornerbacks raced each other after practice, and veteran Alphonso Smith went up against Bentley, who took an early lead in a 40-yard sprint and spent the last 15 yards staring back, Usain Bolt style, at Smith. Bentley's going to need that confidence, and some great cover skills, for the Detroit secondary to improve.
Passes thrown by Matthew Stafford in 2011 that were dropped, including 18 on third down attempts. Both figures were most in the league.
Yards allowed by inside linebacker Stephen Tulloch for every play on which he was in coverage, the best in the league for his position.
Yards per carry allowed by the Lions' run defense at Ford Field, a league worst at home. The NFL average was 4.0 yards per carry.
JOHN BIEVER (SUH)
Suh is part of a front that goes eight deep and will get to the quarterback quickly. It better.
TIM FULLER/US PRESSWIRE (BENTLEY)