NFC North preview (cont.)
What the Lions do best: Throw the football.
Even with Matthew Stafford playing just three games last season, Detroit attempted the third-most passes in the NFL and topped 4,000 yards through the air. Part of that can be attributed to a subpar rushing attack, but the number of weapons the Lions have stockpiled at wide receiver and tight end make it easy to see why they often go the aerial assault route.
If he stays healthy, Stafford could be on the verge of a huge breakthrough season. Calvin Johnson provides him one of the league's elite targets, while Nate Burleson, rookie Titus Young, and tight ends Brandon Pettigrew and Tony Scheffler round out a terrific pass-catching group. Oh, and the offensive line is better than people think -- Detroit's QBs were sacked just 27 times last season, the sixth-lowest mark in the league.
What the Lions must improve: Stopping the run.
Detroit's pass rush has rightfully been hyped all offseason. With Ndamukong Suh, Corey Williams, Cliff Avril, Kyle Vanden Bosch and first-round pick Nick Fairley, the Lions boast one of the best -- if not the best -- pass-rushing front four in the league. But that stockpile of talent, sans Fairley, didn't help much on the ground last season. Detroit allowed 1,999 yards rushing, easily the worst mark in the division.
An upgraded linebacking corps could help those numbers improve. The Lions went out and signed free agents Justin Durant and Stephen Tulloch, who will join underrated DeAndre Levy in the starting lineup. With the defensive line creating as much havoc as it does against the pass, the LB trio should be able to focus much of its effort on keeping the opposition from running wild.
Which Lion needs to step up: Jahvid Best
The easy answer here is Stafford -- there's no doubt that Detroit must keep its starting QB healthy. That said, the Lions often had no semblance of a run game last season and Best is the main man responsible for changing that in 2011.
He did lead Detroit in rushing last year, with a measly 555 yards, despite never topping the 100-yard plateau in any game. In fact, as a team, the Lions only climbed over the century mark twice during the first 10 games of the season -- Detroit went 2-8 in that stretch and started the season 2-10 before winning four straight.
Predicted record: 8-8
The Lions feel like they're on the verge of some really big things, which is why 8-8 may be way underselling what this team is capable of. On the other hand, Detroit hasn't finished at .500 or better since a 9-7 showing in 2000. In the parity-filled NFL, that's an almost inconceivable stretch of mediocrity. The margin for error on a Detroit record prediction is high -- this team is a couple of key injuries from another 6-10 year, but they also might have an 11-5 playoff run in them if all goes well.
What the Vikings do best: Hand off to Adrian Peterson.
There's been a lot of turnover in Minnesota, at quarterback and elsewhere, since the start of 2007. Peterson has been the one constant. Peterson had his worst season as a pro in 2010 and still ran for 12 touchdowns and nearly 1,300 yards. The Vikings' offense -- no matter if it's Donovan McNabb, Brett Favre, Gus Frerotte, Tarvaris Jackson or anyone else calling the shots -- is only as successful as Peterson allows.
He could be in line for a monster season, too, mainly because an aging McNabb is an upgrade over Favre, Jackson and Joe Webb, the trio Minnesota tried out last season. The key will be the Vikings' offensive line, a group that often isn't nearly as good as Peterson makes it look.
What the Vikings must improve: Quarterback play.
Not to beat a dead horse -- even if that's what Favre played like at times last season -- but the production Minnesota got from its quarterbacks last season was unacceptable. Favre threw just 11 touchdowns in 13 starts, while Webb and Jackson combined for three TD tosses and seven interceptions. The Vikings finished 26th in the league in passing yards (3,097 total) and last in INTs (26).
So, in the offseason, they traded for Donovan McNabb and drafted Christian Ponder. The former is expected to improve Minnesota's fortunes in the present; the latter to carry the franchise into the future. For the Vikings to stay competitive in this division, McNabb has to be better than he was in Washington.
Which Viking needs to step up: Remi Ayodele
Minnesota let long-time DT Pat Williams walk after the 2010 season, then plucked Ayodele from the Saints. He'll have his work cut out for him filling Williams' role up front. Williams often took up double teams, allowing his counterpart on the "Williams Wall," Kevin, to plug the middle while Jared Allen and Ray Edwards worked outside.
Edwards is gone too, now in Atlanta, and Kevin Williams faces a suspension to start the season. That puts a ton of pressure on Ayodele to deliver. Minnesota starts at San Diego, then hosts Tampa Bay and Detroit -- three teams with potentially potent offenses, so Ayodele and the Vikings' D-line has to be ready from Day One.
Predicted record: 6-10
Any team with a player like Peterson has a chance to steal some games. Minnesota looks like it'll have to do just that to stay in playoff contention. Even if McNabb rediscovers his superstar self -- an unlikely prospect at this point in his career -- there were just too many losses. Edwards, Pat Williams, leading wide receiver Sidney Rice, Bryant McKinnie, Ben Leber ... the list is a lengthy one. On the surface, it's just difficult to say Minnesota is substantially better than last year.
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