Coming off of their first playoff appearance in 12 years in 2011, the Detroit Lions decided to bring back as much of the same cast as possible last year, a decision that ultimately backfired as the team stumbled to a 4-12 mark and a last place finish in the NFC North.
This year, they’re trying something different. As if they had a choice.
Like the rest of residents and businesses around Detroit, key players fled the city in droves during the offseason, some to retirement (long-time left tackle Jeff Backus and kicker Jason Hanson), and others to free agency (starting defensive ends Cliff Avril and Kyle Vanden Bosch, right tackle Gosder Cherilus, and cornerback Jacob Lacey).
But it’s the newest addition that has Lions fans excited about the start of the 2013 season: running back Reggie Bush.
Everyone knows about the talent that the Lions have in the passing game with Matthew Stafford and Calvin Johnson, but the Detroit ground attack was among the worst in the league last year, as the triumvirate of Kevin Smith, Mikel Leshoure, and Joicque Bell managed just 4.02 yards per carry. And though Leshoure distinguished himself as a solid goal-line option, there was no one among them who was able to take advantage of opposing teams taking defenders out of the box to guard against the Lions aerial assault.
Bush should be able to change all that. Though he has a spotty track record as an every-down back, the former No. 2 overall draft pick proved that he can handle a steady workload over the last two years in Miami, and this time around he’ll have something that he’s never had before: a dynamic downfield threat to spread the defense in Calvin Johnson.
Megatron’s presence on the outside means that Bush should never see an 8-man front, and his speed, quickness, and ability to catch the ball out of the backfield will add a new dimension to the Lions’ offense.
Whether or not he’ll have anyone to create holes for him, however, is another matter. With Backus and Cherilus gone, the Lions will move 2011 first round pick Riley ‘Alligator Arms’ Reiff to left tackle and rarely-used Corey Hilliard to the right side. Reiff was fine at right tackle last year, but his one game protecting Stafford’s blind side against the Texans was a disaster.
That could prove to be downfall for both the running and passing games, as the backs might have no room to run, and Stafford might have no time to allow Megatron and Nate Burleson to get downfield. And for a quarterback who’s had as much injury problems as Stafford, protection is of the utmost importance.
And while the Lions struggle to protect their own quarterback, opposing offenses likely won’t have the same problem against Detroit's defense. Avril led the team in sacks for three of the past four seasons, but he’s now in Seattle. Vanden Bosch struggled last year, but was still a reliable veteran presence on the end.
Taking their places? Ex-Seahawk and Titan Jason Jones, who is a natural defensive tackle, and talented but extremely raw rookie Ziggy Ansah, whom the team drafted with the 5th overall pick out of BYU. He should eventually be a force to be reckoned with, but it probably won’t happen this year.
That will leave it to interior linemen Ndamukong Suh and Nick Fairley to pick up the slack. But while they have the talent to dominate, they’ve also come to embody the reckless and undisciplined reputation that the entire Lions team has garnered over the past two years under Jim Schwartz (at least now that Titus Young has finally skipped town). Suh and Fairley combined for 15 penalties just by themselves last year, giving away far too many first downs that the Lions could not afford to give.
Meanwhile, the secondary and linebacking corps, after not making any significant additions, figure to be the same pedestrian units that they were a year ago. Not terrible, but certainly nothing to write home about.
Then again, given the lack of correlation between talent and on-field results that plagues the rest of the Lions roster, maybe that’s not such a bad thing.