NFL Preview - Detroit (0-0) at New Orleans (0-0)
By Tony Moss, NFL Editor
(Sports Network) - By the conclusion of their road test against the New Orleans Saints on Sunday afternoon, the NFL-viewing public should have a good indication of how far the Detroit Lions have come...and how far they have left to go.
In their first game under new head coach Jim Schwartz, the Lions will face a Saints club that humiliated them by a 42-7 count in Week 16 of the 2008 season, just one week before Detroit finished off the first 0-16 season in NFL history with a loss to the Green Bay Packers.
In that game, New Orleans quarterback Drew Brees led a 532-yard offensive assault, and it's hard to dismiss the notion that the hiring of Schwartz - previously the ultra-successful defensive coordinator of the Tennessee Titans - was a reaction to that humbling. Not that the Saints' torching of the Lions defense was an isolated incident. The Lions allowed 517 points during the 2008 season, the second-most in NFL history.
But on Sunday, fewer eyes will be on the Lions' revamped defense, now guided by former Chiefs defensive guru (and one-time head coach) Gunther Cunningham, and more will be on the team's brand-new offensive triggerman.
Detroit used the No. 1 pick in April's draft on Georgia quarterback Matthew Stafford, paying him more than $41 million in guaranteed money to help put a stop to what has been a veritable revolving door at the quarterback position.
The strong-armed Stafford - with an assist from a household foot injury suffered late in the preseason by Daunte Culpepper - won the starting quarterback job during the warm-up period, and will be trying to fare better than the team's last highly-touted rookie starter, Joey Harrington. Harrington went 3-9 as a rookie in 2002, and after being released by New Orleans last week, is currently out of football.
The Saints don't have nearly as far to travel as the Lions on the road to respectability, but have made their own offseason changes in the interests of improvement.
Most of those alterations have come on defense, where new coordinator Gregg Williams and a new-look secondary led by cornerbacks Jabari Greer, Malcolm Jenkins, and safety Darren Sharper will try to reverse the course of a unit that finished 26th in NFL scoring defense a year ago.
Better play from that group will only make things easier for Brees and an attack that led the league in both points (28.9 per game) and passing yards (316.8 per game) last season, and saw the quarterback become just the second 5,000-yard passer in NFL history, joining Dan Marino.
The series between the Saints and Lions is deadlocked, 9-9-1, with New Orleans evening the series by virtue of last year's 42-7 rout at Ford Field in Week 16. Detroit won the previous meeting between the clubs, a 13-12 nail-biter in San Antonio during the 2005 campaign. The Lions were 14-10 winners when they last visited New Orleans, in 2000, and the Saints' most recent home win in the series came in 1997.
Saints head coach Sean Payton is 1-0 in his career against the Lions. Schwartz, as mentioned, will be making his initial foray into head coaching.
WHEN THE LIONS HAVE THE BALL
Stafford didn't have a breathtaking preseason, throwing for 389 yards with a touchdown, four interceptions, and a QB rating of just 52.8, but the Lions are allowing him to sink or swim. He'll have some good targets, most notably emerging wideout Calvin Johnson (78 receptions, 12 TD), as well as veteran Bryant Johnson (45 receptions, 3 TD with the 49ers) and a pair of rookies, tight end Brandon Pettigrew (1st Round, Oklahoma State) and wideout Derrick Williams (3rd Round, Penn State). Another vet, former Jaguar Dennis Northcutt (44 receptions, 2 TD with the Jaguars), is questionable for Sunday due to a head injury. In the backfield, Kevin Smith (976 rushing yards, 8 TD) is attempting to build on a promising rookie season, and his ability to find yards behind a work-in-progress offensive line will be critical to the team's ability to stay in games. The Lions were 30th in the league in NFL rushing a year ago, and their quarterbacks were sacked 52 times.
A New Orleans defense seeking vast improvement in 2009 received some good news earlier this week, when starting defensive ends Will Smith (77 tackles, 3 sacks) and Charles Grant (41 tackles, 3 sacks) were cleared to play in Week 1 despite ongoing litigation, and a pending four-game suspension, stemming from the Starcaps case. Grant, who missed the final three games of the preseason with a hamstring injury, is expected to be healthy for the Lions contest. While those players seek to tee off on Stafford, new starters Greer (43 tackles, 2 INT with the Bills), Sharper (78 tackles, 1 INT with the Vikings), and reserve corner Jenkins (1st Round, Ohio State) will be among those looking to make big plays on the back end. Sharper is the NFL's active interceptions leader with 54, and will move into the Top-10 all-time if he picks off four passes this season. Key components of a run-stopping unit looking to improve on its rank of 17th in the NFL a year ago include middle linebacker Jonathan Vilma (151 tackles, 1 INT, 1 sack), the club's leading tackler last season, and second-year defensive tackle Sedrick Ellis (42 tackles, 4 sacks).
WHEN THE SAINTS HAVE THE BALL
The New Orleans attack, led by the reigning NFL offensive player of the year Brees (5069 passing yards, 34 TD, 17 INT), showed no signs of slowing down during the preseason. Brees will again look to spread the ball around to his bevy of receivers, most notably Marques Colston (47 receptions, 5 TD), Lance Moore (79 receptions, 10 TD), and Devery Henderson (32 receptions, 3 TD), as well as tight end Jeremy Shockey (50 receptions). There is a bit of concern on the o-line, since Jammal Brown is out indefinitely while recovering from sports hernia surgery, but Brees was sacked just 13 times during a season in which he got 635 passes off, so his quick release should help mitigate any extra pressure. Elsewhere on the injury front, Pierre Thomas (knee) is listed as doubtful, meaning Reggie Bush (404 rushing yards, 52 receptions, 9 TD), who has also dealt with knee issues throughout the preseason, could see a wealth of the backfield touches. Ex-Bronco Mike Bell (42 rushing yards, 1 TD), who raised eyebrows with a strong preseason, will give Bush a breather if Thomas is unavailable.
The Lions have improved the defense in the offseason, bringing in proven playmakers like linebackers Julian Peterson (86 tackles, 5 sacks with the Seahawks) and Larry Foote (63 tackles with the Steelers), cornerbacks Anthony Henry (51 tackles, 1 INT with the Cowboys) and Phillip Buchanon (52 tackles, 2 INT with the Buccaneers), and using a second-round draft choice on hard-hitting safety Louis Delmas (Western Michigan). Stunningly, the Lions secondary managed just one interception all of last season, that by departed corner Leigh Bodden, so making plays on the back end is going to be a particular directive for this year's unit. Much of that success will be predicated on the work of a pass rush that struggled to apply pressure for much of last season. The team is high on end Cliff Avril (22 tackles, 5 sacks), who came on late during his rookie season, and veteran end Dewayne White (38 tackles, 6.5 sacks) is back as well. Detroit is already dealing with some injuries on defense, with tackle Grady Jackson (knee), end Jason Hunter (neck), and cornerback Phillip Buchanon (neck) all listed as questionable on the injury report.
Even with a couple of injuries on the offensive side of the ball, there should be little debate about starting the principles of the Saints attack this week. Brees was a first-round pick in many leagues, and you can start his main targets - Colston, Moore, and Shockey - without hesitation. Bush would be a riskier play if Thomas was healthy, but should get the touches necessary to contribute to your fantasy score. Remember that, before he got hurt last year, Bush was leading many fantasy leagues in points due in large part to his reception total. John Carney has been a reliable fantasy player since the era when league managers were tallying weekly scores by hand, and the New Orleans defense is also worth thinking about this week due to the presence of a rookie QB on the other side of the ball.
On the Detroit side, Calvin Johnson, who didn't have trouble putting up numbers while working with a revolving door at quarterback a year ago, is a must-play. Kevin Smith and players like Pettigrew are worth considering, but are riskier. Steer clear of Stafford for now. Lions kicker Jason Hanson is listed on the injury report coming off of right knee surgery, but it would be a surprise if he didn't play. Hanson was 21-of-22 on field goals last year, including a perfect 8-of-8 from 50 yards and beyond.
Are the Lions better equipped to handle the Saints offense than they were in that embarrassing display last December? Maybe just a little, thanks to the addition of players like Peterson, Foote and Delmas, and the improved health of the unit all-around. That said, there aren't many teams that will keep the Saints attack from scoring points in 2009, and the Lions can't hope to shut down Brees and company for four quarters. That means it will be up to the Detroit offense to outscore the Saints, and with a rookie quarterback and some still-lingering questions along the offensive line, that simply isn't happening. The Lions will acquit themselves well, but they won't win.
Sports Network Predicted Outcome: Saints 28, Lions 16
09/10 11:56:34 ET