| Physical against wideouts and backs, Bodden fits the Tampa Two.
|Domenic Centofanti/Getty Images|
7 at Atlanta
14 GREEN BAY
21 at San Francisco
12 at Minnesota
19 at Houston
2 at Chicago
16 at Carolina
23 TAMPA BAY
27 TENNESSEE (T)
14 at Indianapolis
21 NEW ORLEANS
28 at Green Bay
Ernie Sims, Linebacker: Brian Urlacher says it takes three years for a middle linebacker to grasp the Tampa Two defense. Sims, who led the Lions in tackles last season, is entering his third year. He acknowledges he was overchasing in '07: "This year [the defensive backs] will make their plays, and I'll make mine." Sims's tackle total may drop, but Detroit will be better for it.
One of the league's worst secondaries has been rebuilt in the image of one of the best. Welcome to Tampa Bay North.
A prediction for 2008? Jon Kitna's not even touching that one. The Lions
quarterback defers to outspoken cornerback Leigh Bodden, who came to Detroit
from Cleveland in a Feb. 29 swap. "What did Jon say last year?" Bodden
asks. "Ten wins? I'll go with that."
It's appropriate that Bodden, not Kitna, is making the predictions this year.
Following the departure of pass-happy offensive coordinator Mike Martz, the
Lions' success in '08 depends largely on the play of a completely reconfigured
defensive backfield. (Also: Kitna's credibility is suspect; he overshot the 2007
win total by three.)
Last year, while playing mostly in coach Rod Marinelli's favored Tampa Two
scheme, which relies on a hard-hitting but quick secondary, the Lions' defense
allowed 258.2 passing yards a game, a mark exceeded only by the Vikings.
They also gave up a league-worst 32 passing touchdowns. The secondary's
deficiencies set off a domino effect, with Martz's offense throwing more often
as the Lions fell behind. In Week 10, for example, when the Cardinals went
up 10-7 on Detroit midway through the second quarter, the Lions threw the ball
almost exclusively after that -- 36 passes and five runs en route to a 31-20
loss. For the season, Detroit had 324 rushing attempts. The only team to have
fewer in a season since 2000? The '06 Lions.
Detroit is resolved to run more in '08, but for that to happen, the Lions had
to revamp their defense, particularly the secondary. ("If we're running the
ball, we're probably defending well," says Marinelli.) In January they hired
Buccaneers assistant secondary coach Jimmy Lake, who helped run a unit that led
the league in passing defense in 2007. Then they signed three former Tampa Bay
defensive backs: safeties Kalvin Pearson and Dwight Smith and cornerback Brian
Kelly. (All three played earlier under Marinelli, who was a Bucs assistant from
1996 to 2005.) As icing, Detroit traded mammoth defensive tackle Shaun Rogers to
Cleveland for Bodden, an up-and-comer, and added former Buccaneer Chuck Darby to
fill Rogers's voluminous void on the line. Hence the popular off-season moniker
for Detroit: Tampa Bay North.
Marinelli needs some of that Bucs know-how to rub off quickly. The coach is
entering his crucial third season, and the majority of his acquisitions (average
age: 30) already have their best years behind them. The youngest, Bodden, 26,
has never played Tampa Two, but he does fit the system's mold for a
cornerback: He's a hard hitter who's comfortable jamming at the line and playing
the run. "Now I think what may have been the weakest aspect of this team is
possibly our strongest," says defensive coordinator Joe Barry, another Tampa Bay
Some of the Lions' offensive stars have taken notice of the overhauled
defensive backfield. "Guys like Kitna and [receiver Mike] Furrey have come up
and said, 'I like what you guys bring to that secondary,' " says Smith.
"They know we're here to make their lives easier."
Come Week 1, Bodden should be starting at one cornerback, alongside
second-year safety Gerald Alexander, who struggled with a weak supporting cast
in '07 but showed promise with a 15-tackle game against San Diego late in the
year. Smith and Kelly should complete the backfield, with Pearson as a
nickelback. More important, the new guys will bring confidence and experience
from having played the Cover Two successfully before.
"In Tampa, I had leaders in John Lynch, Warren Sapp and Derrick Brooks," says
Kelly. "Now, I'm expected to come here and be that kind of mentor and teach this
system. The smartest thing I could do is to pull out my Super Bowl ring and let
them know what it's all about."
Failing that, the Lions could get a more straightforward lesson come Nov. 23.
That's when Tampa Bay South comes to town. -- Adam Duerson