September… The bright blue skies of summer slowly transform into a kaleidoscope of scenery, as the days grow shorter, and the skies greyer. The saving grace, as we march toward the bitterness of another Michigan winter, is that the gaping void felt every Sunday afternoon will soon be satisfied once again.
The Detroit Lions enter the 2012 season in unfamiliar territory, having exceeded many experts’ expectations with their playoff berth in 2011. Success leads to higher standards, and higher standards breed pressure. The type of pressure the franchise hasn’t felt since 2000, when they followed up their 1999 playoff run with an improved 9-7 record, which was only good enough to finish 4th in the NFC Central.
Steven Jackson vs. Lions interior 3
The Lions open the season as hosts to the St. Louis Rams, featuring new head coach (and Jim Schwartz mentor) Jeff Fisher. The Rams are devoid of weapons on the outside, and will rely heavily on the oft-injured Steven Jackson. A dedication to the run game will be magnified by Fisher, as he ushers in his old-school approach of playing great defense and controlling the ball, much like he did with Eddie George in Tennessee.
This will be a great test to open the season for a Jekyll and Hyde Detroit run defense. Detroit’s weak secondary will not allow Gunther Cunningham the advantage of putting eight men in the box, so the Lions will largely rely on the front seven to be stout in run defense. The Rams lack the explosiveness to exploit the Lion secondary, which means they will most likely rely on their inside power running game.
The keys for Detroit will be in the center of the defense, most notably Corey Williams, Ndamukong Suh, and Stephen Tulloch. Williams is a very consistent role player, constantly absorbing blocks so that Tulloch is free to fill running lanes. The question this Sunday will be whether Suh is finally ready to take on a support role, and play within the defensive scheme.
Calvin Johnson vs. Cortland Finnegan
The St. Louis rams owned one of the league’s worst run defenses in 2011, and did little in the off season to improve the front seven. In fact, they focused on the secondary in the draft by taking the much maligned Janoris Jenkins to play opposite Cortland Finnegan at cornerback. Even with the porous run defense, it is unlikely that Detroit will have much success pounding the ball, as it simply isn’t in their nature or design. The Detroit game plan will revolve around Stafford and the passing game, and it will fall on the feisty Finnegan to slow down this year’s Madden cover boy.
Finnegan has a very aggressive style of play, often getting in the face of receivers at the line of scrimmage and using his physical strength to disrupt routes and timing. While most corners would modify their strategy against Johnson given his physical attributes, Finnegan’s confidence will most likely lead to him challenging Calvin at the line of scrimmage. St. Louis will have a safety bracketing Johnson on every play, so Finnegan can afford to gamble in press coverage as long as the Lions aren’t successful running the football. Calvin Johnson is as physically gifted as they come, and has been successful against every type of coverage that he has seen. Finnegan has a reputation as a dirty player, whose strategy is to get under the skin of opposing receivers and break their focus. Fortunately for Lions fans, Calvin Johnson isn’t just physically gifted, but also mentally composed. Cortland Finnegan simply isn’t strong enough to disrupt Johnson, and isn’t talented enough to stay with him. Expect Finnegan to be the one who loses his composure in this matchup.
Chris Long vs. Gosder Cherilus
If the Rams hope to leave Detroit with a victory, they will have to do one of two things. Either engage in a shootout and keep pace offensively with the Lions, or put Matthew Stafford on his back. The best chance that the Rams have for a consistent pass rush is newly extended defensive end Chris Long, who will be looking to build on his 13 sack season in 2011. Playing the left defensive end position, Long will be matched up with right tackle Gosder Cherilus. The arrival of rookie Riley Reiff was thought by some to be the end of Cherilus as a starter, but the incumbent fought hard and impressed coaches enough during the off-season to remain in the starting lineup to begin 2012.
Cherilus did not commit as many penalties in 2011 as in previous seasons, but did surrender 9 sacks in 16 games as a starter. He will have to show improvement throughout the season to keep Reiff on the sideline, and Chris Long will provide a solid litmus test right out of the gate. The best case scenario for Detroit would be for Cherilus to show enough improvement to gain the confidence of the coaching staff, allowing Reiff take time to develop into a true left tackle in order to eventually replace the aging Jeff Backus.
Other matchups to watch
The Rams will surely try to exploit the decimated Lion secondary, which is a below average unit when healthy. With injuries to starters Chris Houston and Louis Delmas, the Lions will feature four new starters in the defensive backfield to begin 2012. Rookie Bill Bentley and off-season acquisition Jacob Lacey will man the corners, while Erik Coleman and John Wendling will get the nod at safety.
Fortunately for Detroit, the Rams receiving corps is hardly one to fear, and will be a reasonable challenge to break in the new unit, and allow Houston and Delmas to get healthy. St. Louis will start Danny Amendola and Brandon Gibson at wide-out, which should allow Gunther Cunningham to truly assess what he has in his secondary, including newly acquired Drayton Florence. If Sam Bradford is able to expose the Lion defensive backfield on Sunday with Amendola and Gibson, Stafford and company better get used to scoring on every possession this season.