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."
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.
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.
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.