Not long ago, it was the Detroit Lions, not the St. Louis Rams, that were viewed as the doormat in the NFC.
A year before the Rams’ 1-15 season, the Lions became the first team to ever go 0-16 in the regular season. With the first pick in the 2009 NFL Draft, the Lions selected University of Georgia quarterback Matthew Stafford. While the foundation was in place, Stafford and receiver Calvin Johnson were still only able to propel the team to two wins the following season.
This year’s Lions team bears very little resemblance to those cellar dweller teams of years past. Fresh off a 10-6 season and their first postseason appearance since 1999, the Lions boast one of the league’s best passing attacks and a tenacious defensive line buoyed by another high draft pick, defensive tackle Ndamukong Suh.
The offense starts with Stafford. One of just three quarterbacks to throw for over 5,000 yards last season, Stafford is on the doorstep of becoming one of the league’s elite quarterbacks. In total, Stafford threw for 5,038 yards and 41 touchdowns to go along with 16 interceptions.
Stafford’s unquestioned favorite target also doubles as the best receiver in the league. Johnson, who is affectionately known as Megatron for his Transformer-like abilities when the ball is in the air, led all receivers with 1,681 yards and 16 touchdowns last season. If the Rams hope to hang with the Lions, cornerback Cortland Finnegan will have to be the Optimus Prime to Johnson’s Megatron on Sunday.
On Wednesday, Lions coach Jim Schwartz warned against keying strictly on Johnson.
“Every time we play somebody, they know what number Calvin (Johnson) wears,” Schwartz said. “We can’t sneak him out there. So, just about everybody’s defensive plan starts with trying to take Calvin out. When people try to do that, Calvin’s still been able to make plays, but what’s very important is a surrounding cast that can also make plays. Our tight ends, our other wide receivers, our running backs, we have a quarterback that can get them the ball and that’s been a very big part of our offensive development.”
The Lions running game has left something to be desired in recent years, but they hope veteran Kevin Smith and sophomore Mikel Leshoure, who missed his entire rookie year with a torn Achilles, will help bolster the rushing attack this year.
On defense, the Lions’ strongest unit is up front. Suh, the second-overall pick behind Sam Bradford in 2009, is looking for a bounceback year after totaling just four sacks last season. Defensive ends Kyle Vanden Bosch and Cliff Avril both got to the quarterback for at least eight sacks last season, with Avril’s 11 leading the team. The line will be a handful for a Rams offensive line still trying to gel.
Beyond that, the Lions offer very little defensive resistance. Safety Louis Delmas and cornerback Chris Houston are somewhat household names, but both were held out of practice Thursday and are considered questionable for Sunday’s game. The Rams will be a run-first team, but with the Lions’ thin secondary they may experience the most success through the air on Sunday.