Postcard from camp: Lions
Lions are struggling to find someone who can play opposite Chris Houston at CB
Titus Young will be used often in three-WR sets, and seems poised for a breakout
Willie Young is the least-known member of the D-line, but is set to play a big role
SI.com has dispatched writers to report on NFL training camps across the country. Here's what Chris Burke had to say about Lions camp in Allen Park, Mich., which he visited on Aug. 13. Read all of our postcards here.
In Allen Park, Mich., about 20 minutes west of downtown Detroit and Ford Field, the regular season home of the Lions. Keeping with that synergy, the Lions' practice facility, which opened for business in 2000, is just a stone's throw away from the Ford Motor Company's corporate headquarters. For this particular practice the Lions welcomed a busload of police officers from Detroit -- a nice, if somewhat ironic, gesture following an offseason that saw several Detroit players run afoul of the law. More than a few Lions, including veterans Jeff Backus and Nate Burleson, took time out after practice to sign autographs for and take pictures with some of Detroit's finest.
1. At cornerback, it's Chris Houston ... and then everybody else. Lions coach Jim Schwartz said that Houston, his team's leader in interceptions last year, is a "guy that you can count on to get the job done." One of the biggest clouds hanging over this team's head right now, though, comes from a lack of reliable options elsewhere in the secondary.
Rookie third-round pick Bill Bentley drew the start opposite Chris Houston in Detroit's preseason opener. He picked off one pass and nearly had a pick-6 on another play, but all in all, Schwartz was harsh in his criticism after that game -- "It's too inconsistent play for a cornerback ... I don't think that's a good day at all for what he can do."
Bentley was still with the first team at practice, until he allowed Stefan Logan to turn the corner for a big run, prompting Jacob Lacey to take his spot on the field and one coach to scream "Wake the f--k up!" in Bentley's direction. Lacey and Alphonso Smith are Detroit's other current options for the starting CB job, with another rookie, Jonte Green, working to learn his role. This is an issue that could linger throughout the regular season (again) for Detroit.
2. Much more than just Calvin Johnson at receiver. Maybe it's not entirely fair to judge Detroit's young secondary on its work in camp. Why? Well, the main reason is that the Lions have a group of pass-catching weapons that would be the envy of a huge chunk of the league. That all starts, of course, with Megatron, but both tight end Brandon Pettigrew and Nate Burleson topped 70 catches last year (83 and 73, respectively). And second-year man Titus Young continues to look like he's on the verge of a huge season.
"He's an important part of our plans," Schwartz said of Young. It was not hard to see why on this day, as Young turned Bentley inside-out on more than one occasion. The Lions have no shortage of three-receiver sets, so Young, Burleson and Johnson will all see the field together frequently. Detroit would also like to better utilize athletic tight end Tony Scheffler, who tied Young for the second-most TDs on the team last season (6).
3. Roster decisions are going to be difficult. Just a few short years ago, the Lions were more or less picking guys up off the street to start on Sundays -- hello, Daunte Culpepper. The 2012 version of the roster has exponentially more talent. Which is both a blessing and a curse.
While the Lions will have no problem filling out their two-deep depth chart, including at running back despite the continued absences of Jahvid Best and Mikel Leshoure, there is a fierce fight on to make the 53-man roster cut. Possible casualties of that ongoing battle include rookie QB Kellen Moore, defensive end Everette Brown (who performed well in Detroit's preseason opener), rookie linebacker Travis Lewis, fan-favorite WR Lance Long and several others.
Making things even more trying are the Lions' injuries, which could force them to carry extra bodies at running back and safety, specifically. Leshoure's two-game suspension to start the year and a potential Nick Fairley suspension could delay a couple of tough calls -- suspended players do not count against a team's 53-man limit. Still, some talented players are going to wind up with walking papers.
Willie Young, defensive end. Young is relatively anonymous on Detroit's defensive line, stuck behind Cliff Avril and Kyle Vanden Bosch at defensive end, and carrying far less of a ballyhooed presence than Ndamukong Suh or Nick Fairley. He might wind up being every bit as important to the Lions' 2012 success. Vanden Bosch is dealing with a knee injury that has severely limited his availability this offseason, leaving Young and Lawrence Jackson dueling for a starting DE spot.
Both Young and Jackson saw extended minutes vs. Cleveland with Vanden Bosch and Avril sitting out, and Young may have been Detroit's best player in the game. He consistently provided pressure in the backfield and forced a fumble by Browns QB Brandon Weeden in the first quarter. Vanden Bosch's rising age and injury concerns, plus the real possibility that Avril will walk as a free agent after this season, means that Young might be the future for Detroit at defensive end ... and maybe the present, too.
Riley Reiff, offensive tackle. You have to keep an eye on Reiff during practice, because the Lions have not hesitated to move him around -- something Schwartz said will continue to happen. Reiff, Detroit's first-round pick in 2012, appears to be the heir apparent to either RT Gosder Cherulis or Backus at LT. He may wind up playing meaningful minutes at guard this season, though, as he was rotating in with Detroit's third-string O-line as an interior blocker.
Things start off gently enough with a visit from the rebuilding Rams. After that, however, the real fun begins as Detroit makes a Week 2 trip to San Francisco for a Sunday night affair. The NFC North plays the NFC West and AFC South as its cross-divisional foes this year -- manageable, both. The kicker: Detroit closes with two at home, including a Week 17 game against Chicago that could be for a playoff spot.