Cornerback Todd Lyght says things have already changed for the better in the Lions' secondary. He could see the difference in the first preseason game, after he bit on a head fake by Ravens wide receiver Travis Taylor. A year ago Lyght wouldn't have played that aggressively, because he wasn't sure the safety backing him up could cover those mistakes. But then Brian Walker, a free-agent pickup from the Dolphins, glided over and intercepted Chris Redman's pass. For most teams preseason moments are nothing to get excited about, but an instantly hopeful Lyght latched on to that one because there were so few positives last year, when Detroit went 2-14. The secondary figured prominently in that woeful effort, and if the busted coverages and breakdowns in key situations persist, it will be hard for the Lions to make significant improvement.
Detroit's best chance to win is with defense, because the offense is suspect. Second-year quarterback Mike McMahon (three starts as a rookie) will start ahead of first-round draft pick Joey Harrington, the Lions don't have a true No. 1 receiver (free-agent pickup Az Hakim, the Rams' fourth wideout in recent years, being the closest thing), and the line got banged up in the preseason.
By contrast Detroit has a talented defensive line led by Pro Bowl end Robert Porcher, a playmaking middle linebacker in Chris Claiborne and that overhauled defensive backfield. In addition to Walker, the Lions signed two other free agents—safety Corey Harris and 13-year cornerback Eric Davis—and drafted cornerbacks Andr� Goodman (third round) and Chris Cash (sixth). Only Lyght, a 12-year veteran, and fellow corner Terry Fair are holdovers from last season. "We've improved the secondary," says new defensive coordinator Kurt Schottenheimer. "We brought in two good, athletic safeties, and we've got depth at cornerback. We just need one guy who can consistently win battles with receivers."
Davis, playing for his third team in three seasons, and Lyght are savvy but have lost a step. Fair, recovering from a broken right foot when camp began, wasn't a shutdown corner before his injury. That's why, when planning for the draft, Lions president Matt Millen considered using his top pick on a cornerback instead of Harrington. More than anything, this group has to stay healthy. Last season Fair, cornerback Bryant Westbrook and safeties Ron Rice and Kurt Schulz were sidelined early by injuries, and their backups didn't have the experience to handle the complicated system of then defensive coordinator Vince Tobin. As a result Detroit yielded a 60.7% completion rate, eighth in the league.
This season Schottenheimer simplified not only the coverages but also most of the rest of the defensive scheme. After giving up 26.5 points per game in 2001, the Lions should be more aggressive because they have fewer keys to recognize before they begin chasing the ball. "We didn't get a grasp of the defense last year, and when you don't know what you're doing, you're going to play slow," says Claiborne. "This year everybody knows where he's supposed to be."
The Lions have also taken quickly to Schottenheimer, who they say is more approachable than Tobin was. Porcher was impressed with how the new coordinator handled a rookie free agent who was struggling to understand a scheme that Schottenheimer was diagramming in a meeting. Schottenheimer patiently scribbled the play on the blackboard again, reiterating the responsibilities of each defender—"and this was for a guy who might not even make the team," Porcher says. "That definitely showed me something."
Now the members of the secondary have to start showing their coaches a few things. "With the guys we have, we can talk about different ways we want to play our coverages," Lyght says. "Corey will say how he did things in Baltimore, Brian will talk about Miami, and I'll bring up different combinations that worked when I was in St. Louis. We've got a lot of knowledge to draw upon, and that's only going to help us later."
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