Behind Enemy Lines – A Look at the Detroit Lions


On October 13, 2008, Derek Anderson played the best football game of his professional career. He dominated the defending Super Bowl Champion New York Giants to the tune of 310 yards passing and 2 TDs, in front of a national TV audience. The Browns won 35-14 in the surprising blowout on Monday Night.

Anderson then went on to have an awful season. He lost the starting QB job a month later and finished the season on injured reserve. The Browns finished with a 4-12 record.

So October 13 should serve as a whispering reminder for fans: Everyone at the NFL level has the talent to play a good game, but you aren’t a good player until you do it consistently. Last week’s performance against the Rams showed the Browns have some work to do.

On paper, the Lions look about as bad as the Rams, but they defeated the Browns last time they played too. So as the Browns prepare to measure themselves against another struggling franchise, consistency should be the first thing on everyone’s mind.

Here is what’s on Detroit’s mind heading into this game:

So far the Lions are 1-1 in the preseason. They lost to the Steelers 20-7, and defeated the Broncos 25-20.


The Franchise

The Lions’ world still revolves around the success of last year’s number one overall draft pick Matthew Stafford.

The Lions have a big swing and miss on their draft record with QB Joey Harrington (taken 3rd overall in 2002), so they know the song and dance. Throwing a young QB into the fire on a bad team = Tim Couch. Hopes are Stafford will be different, but he’s on a career arc that really can’t be compared to anyone else right now.

No team has ever named the #1 overall pick in the draft their starting QB coming off an 0-16 season – the Lions being the only team to go 0-16. It was a risk to Stafford’s development, and he did miss six games last year due to injury. But so far he appears to be an improved player heading into his second full season.

He’s not a rookie anymore. In the Lions’ two games thus far, against decent opponents (Pittsburgh and Denver), he’s gone 21-29 for 191 yards, with 2 TDs and 1 INT. That’s good for a QB rating of 94.5; nothing to sneeze at. The Lions also held a lead in both games before Stafford was replaced by the second team. He’s completed 72% of his passes so far and that’s the good news.

The bad news is the Lions overall have been settling for field goals in the red zone, and they know they aren’t good enough yet to leave points on the board.

  • What this means to the Browns: The Lions might be thinking the Browns are the softest teams they’ve faced thus far, and Stafford’s best game as a pro was last year against them, when he threw for over 400 yards and five scores! Jake Delhomme has more experience, but given the talent surrounding Stafford, who is actually the better QB play right now?


Red zone inefficiency

This was an issue last year, and it came up again after the Lions 25-20 victory of the Broncos last week. Dave Birkett of the Detroit Free Press points out, the Lions gained 15 yards on 14 offensive plays inside the red zone and settled for field goals on three of their first four Stafford drives. The Lions overall offense also rated near the bottom of the league last year, as did their red zone efficiency.

But they’ve given Stafford some new toys to play with. They’ve added size to combat their red zone challenges, and at this point may have more talent at the skill positions than the Browns do. Calvin Johnson is an intimating target as the number one receiver, and he has some help now with the arrival of former Mike Holmgren player Nate Burelson – Both receivers can outwork the Browns young and undersized defensive backs. Johnson has both of Stafford’s TDs in two games, and Burelson appears to be healthy and has pleased coaches with his toughness.

The Lions also added 6’5” Tennessee tight end Tony Scheffler to compliment 6’5” Brandon Pettigrew (you might remember him as the player who caught the wining touchdown against the Browns last year in a non-timed play). Beyond tall receivers, the Lions have a nice young running back committee. They moved back into the first round  of the draft to select Javhid Best 30th overall, and mix him in with 3rd year back Kevin Smith, who will not be 100% healthy after tearing his ACL late last year. 

  • What this means for the Browns: It looks like the Lions can move the ball now, but they’ll be looking for more encouraging signs against the Browns, who had to be disappointed to let Sam Bradford throw a red zone TD on them on 3rd and 9 to go. Can the Browns new defensive backfield stand up to the big and tall receivers Detroit will throw at them?


Defensive line

Much like the Browns completely overhauled secondary, the Lions have totally retooled their defensive line in the hopes of improving a rushing defense that ranked 25 out of 32 teams last year. They did this through the draft, through free agency, and through trades…

Draft – Look for #88 when the Browns play the Lions this week. That would be the House of Spears, #2 overall draft pick Ndamukong Suh trading blows with the Browns’ marquee picks on the offensive line. Suh has recorded one tackle in the preseason, but his worth is not measured in sacks and tackles (as it will be with Gerald McCoy, the Oklahoma defensive lineman picked directly after him in the draft). Suh’s job is to jam lanes, occupy blockers, and make the lives of his fellow defenders easier.

Free Agency – The Lions signed former Tennessee Titans defensive end Kyle Vanden Bosch to a four-year $26 million deal to give them some pop off the edge in their 4-3 pass rush. Vanden Bosch is on the downside of his career at 31, but is also just two years removed from a 10 sack, pro-bowl season.

Trade – The familiar face on the Lions’ sideline will be Corey Williams, who was acquired for a 5th round draft pick from the Browns this offseason. When the Browns got Williams from Green Bay they relinquished a second round pick, so this is a clear buy-low opportunity for the Lions. Williams was never comfortable in the Browns 3-4 defensive alignment, and that caused his stock to fall. Now he is back in the 4-3 defensive that made him such a promising player three years ago. 

  • What this means for the Browns: For fun, when you see Williams out there think of this….
  • Cleveland sent the 5th round pick they got from Detroit to the Eagles, with line backer Alex Hall, for cornerback Sheldon Brown and linebacker Chris Gocong.
  • The Browns also sent a 7th round pick to Detroit with Williams in the deal. Detroit traded it to Minnesota, which they used to select Penn State tight end Mickey Shuler, so think of Corey Williams if you ever happen to see Shuler too – I’m joking, Shuler is going to be harder to spot than Where’s Waldo. Detroit got a future pick out of the deal.
  • Also, back in 2008, the Browns originally traded a 2nd round pick to Green Bay for Corey Williams. The Packers used that pick to select Louisville QB Brian Brohm, 56th overall. That deal makes me smile a little because it’s not like the Packers used the pick to draft Ray Rice, and every time we see them we get a stomach ache wondering what could have been. Totally the opposite. The Packers had no idea what they had in Aaron Rogers at the time so they took Brohm as an insurance policy. Rogers turned out to be the bomb, so the Packers waived Brohm (cause he’s not the bomb, he’s the Brohm). He signed with the Buffalo Bills shortly thereafter, and is currently listed as the backup to Trent Edwards.

Other notes

  • Lions fan is even more skeptical than Browns fan. They finished the 2008 preseason 4-0, then prompty went 0-16 in the regular season.
  • Dennis Northcutt is another familiar face on the Lions’ sideline. He was drafted in second round of the 2000 draft, and is entering his 11th season. That ties him with Shaun O’Hara as the longest tenured Browns players of the expansion era. O’Hara was an undrafted free agent that year.
  • Best name on the Lions? By far, #63, undrafted offensive lineman Manny Ramirez.

Here is the video recap of the absurd Browns v Lions shootout from last season. When you watch it try to remember the Lions were 26 and the Browns 32 out of were 32 NFL teams in total offense. Beware, it hurts.