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SEVEN MONTHS after the defensive horror show that wiped away all the goodwill generated by the Lions' first playoff appearance in 12 years, defensive coordinator Gunther Cunningham is still wounded. Cunningham's an emotional guy to start, but the recollection of the last eight quarters of the season—Green Bay and New Orleans ran up 90 points and 1,176 yards on the pathetic Detroit D—gets Cunningham choked up. "I still feel responsible," he says quietly. "My wife just said to me recently, 'Get over it!' I can't."
"How long will it bug you?" Cunningham is asked.
"Forever," he says. "Forever."
The 2012 Lions are not unlike this year's Saints. They'll both be explosive offensively as long as their respective firestarters (Matthew Stafford, Drew Brees) stay on the field. New Orleans may have far more premium offensive weapons than Detroit does, but Lions wideout Calvin Johnson is the most dangerous receiver in football, and Stafford's fearlessness and ability to throw darts into tight holes make the other receivers (Nate Burleson, Titus Young and rookie slot man Ryan Broyles) look better than they are. So let's assume Detroit, with a healthy Stafford, will put up enough points to win. Now it's on the defense.
The early signs are not good. The secondary is very weak, and Aaron Berry, one of the Lions' two best cornerbacks, in Cunningham's opinion, was cut after his second arrest of the off-season. Defensive tackle Nick Fairley, the Lions' first-round pick in the 2011 draft, was also arrested twice in the off-season, for alcohol and marijuana transgressions, and reported to training camp out of shape. Detroit didn't use either of its top two draft picks on the secondary, deciding instead to take three projects at corner in the middle rounds to challenge the shaky incumbents, Chris Houston and Alphonso Smith. And the de facto leader of the defense, Louis Delmas, the safety Cunningham compares in spirit and intensity with Ronnie Lott, had his left knee scoped on Aug. 7. He's not practicing yet, and it's a toss-up, at best, whether he'll be ready to play the opener against St. Louis.
The defense that coach Jim Schwartz and G.M. Martin Mayhew have blueprinted relies heavily upon pressure from a four-man front, much of it coming from left end Cliff Avril, who has become a complete rush end. And each of the eight men Cunningham rotates on the line, all of whom played at least 250 snaps last year, are vital to the plan. Backup Willie Young, a cat-quick 251-pounder, had 27 pressures or sacks in 274 plays last year, and the Lions think he can be a double-digit sack man with more chances. "We can all get to the quarterback," says defensive end Kyle Vanden Bosch.
But by now, Fairley should have wrestled the starting tackle job alongside Ndamukong Suh away from Corey Williams. Fairley is too strong and too quick through the gap to be playing fewer than 60% or 70% of the plays. The Lions drafted him to be a three-down player, forming, alongside Suh, the most dangerous tackle duo in football. He's been a good teammate, and Williams, an eight-year veteran, has been a good mentor to him. But Cunningham spent much of the summer at odds with the youngster over Fairley's work ethic. "It's a learning process for him," says Vanden Bosch, sounding charitable. "You've got six weeks free before training camp, and young players have to learn to manage their time well. Take a week off, maybe two. But you've got to take care of yourself. He'll learn. He knows how vital he is to what we do."
It's clear that Cunningham and Schwartz are counting on those eight men up front, Fairley included, to cover for the secondary while Delmas works to get back to health and the three rookie corners mature. Look for Houston and rookie Bill Bentley from Louisiana-Lafayette to start on the island. Behind them, who knows? You don't need great corners to play in the Cover Two scheme because the pass defense relies on pressure up front and safety help. But when you're counting on Smith and Jacob Lacey and three rookies to shore up a major area of need, let's just echo what most Detroit fans must be saying entering a season of otherwise great promise: Score, Calvin, score.
WITH 2011 STATS