1. The Lions will create more turnovers
Now that the bend-and-always-break Tampa 2 defensive scheme has been dissolved in Detroit, we can expect to see a more aggressive defensive unit courtesy of DC Gunther Cunningham. If you found yourself wondering why the Lions rarely blitzed in the past few season, prepare to be somewhat sated. Cunningham will disguise packages and bring the blitz from all angles of the field, regardless of the in-game situation, score or field position. The Lions want to attack rather than play on their heels and while the strategy will allow for big plays from the opposing offense, the hope is that there will be some sort of payback in terms of creating turnovers. Remember when the 2007 Lions started out 6-2? They were among the league leaders in takeaways the first half of the season and that was reflected in their record. Expect a step-up from the paltry interception and sack output from a year ago under the guidance of Cunningham, with the occasional turnover becoming a game-changing play for the Lions.
2. Better in-game headiness
Rod Marinelli was a complete oaf when it came to making in-game adjustments and decisions. He repeatedly blew opportunities to challenge crucial calls because he waited too long to pull the red flag out while staring dumbfounded at the Jumbotron. In addition to the slow reaction on debatable calls, Marinelli seemed to waste time-outs at the most inopportune times. I distinctly remember the Lions calling a time-out on their first possession of the second half after they received the kick. Twelve seconds into the half and a time-out is called. Unbelievable! New head coach Jim Schwartz is already light years ahead of his predecessors in the gamesmanship arena. He learned from one of the best in-game decision makers under Jeff Fisher in Tennessee and Schwartz has been noted as the ‘Billy Beane’ of football. A situational stat junkie with a masters in economics from Georgetown, Schwartz will be prepared for any and all scenarios come gameday and will keep a close eye on all his surroundings, not just the defensive line as Marinelli was prone to do. Expect far fewer wasted time-outs and missed chances for reversing calls in 2009.
3. The Lions will score a special teams TD
Even though the Detroit defense was an absolute abomination last year, the special teams unit was far and away the most pitiful of the three units. Why special teams coach Stan Kwan still has a job is beyond me. At one point last season, the Lions were so unsure of their punt returning situation that Marinelli instructed Mike Furrey to fair catch EVERY punt. The lack of burst in the return game repeatedly put the Lions in lackluster field position. Determined to make the returner position much improved in 2009, Detroit went out and drafted WR Derrick Williams from Penn St. with the intent that Williams would be their return ace. So far after the preseason, that plan looks like a major failure. Williams has botched several punts and seems to have lost any breakaway speed he had at PSU. The situation looked dire heading into the regular season until the Lions snatched return specialist Yamon Figurs off the waiver wire. The former Raven has taken several kicks to the house in his short career and should be a definite upgrade over the potential punt returners. Returning kicks will be rookie Aaron Brown, a 6th-rd pick from TCU who has shown flashes of explosiveness and will figure into Detroit’s offensive plans as a third-down back or “change of pace” runner. Brown is the fastest player on the Lions roster and will get plenty of opportunities to go the distance while returning kicks. Based on pure athleticism and skill, Figurs and Brown should combine to take back at least one return for a score in the 2009 campaign.
4. The offensive line will be markedly improved
The most surprising unit in the preseason was the offensive line. They pushed people off the ball, they created holes, they held their blocks. It was like I was watching a REAL offensive line. Yes, center Dominic Raiola will get bowled over a couple times by the Williams Wall in Minnesota and yes, left tackle Jeff Backus will get blown by several times a game by speedy ends, but there seems to be a continuity on the line that has been lacking since Kevin Glover and Lomas Brown ripped open holes for Barry Sanders. Guards Daniel Loper and Stephen Peterman are approaching solid status and Gosder Cherilus has the potential to be a road grader for years, he just needs to tighten his focus and not make costly errors like unsportsmanlike conduct penalties, which he seems to have a penchant for.
5. The Lions will win a game!
With St. Louis, Cincinnati, Cleveland and San Francisco on the schedule, the Lions should be able to muster a few wins. I have them going 4-12 but in the NFL, you just never know what team is going to rise above expectations. Perhaps this is the year the Lions will turn it around, but I highly doubt it. Still, a few wins here and there would certainly get the monkeys off the collective back of players AND fans, potentially instilling a renewed hope that this franchise can indeed turn this thing around.