Lions ‘steeling’ for success


Lions: Analysis

Tim Twentyman/ The Detroit News

Allen Park— Could the Lions be on the cusp of something special?

Every great team in NFL history had to start somewhere.

Take the dominant Steelers teams of the 1970s. Before they won four Super Bowls in six years, they were plagued by decades of ineptitude. It wasn’t before all the right pieces came together that the Steelers became the franchise we know today.

The Steelers got a young, defensive-minded coach. They drafted a franchise quarterback No. 1 overall. They built one of the most dominant defensive lines in football, and pieced together four terrific draft classes that produced five Hall of Famers.

Are the Lions following the same blueprint?

Now, this doesn’t guarantee the Lions the same success as those vaunted Steelers teams, but it’s not a bad start.

The Steelers set the foundation, so here’s how that compares to what the Lions are doing.

Starts with coaching

  Chuck Noll: The eventual Hall of Fame coach took over the Steelers in 1969 after being a career defensive coach, including coordinator under Don Shula in Baltimore. The first thing he did in Pittsburgh was install a defensive system that would become the “Steel Curtain.”

  Jim Schwartz: Also a career defensive coach who was coordinator under Jeff Fisher in Tennessee, the first thing he did was implement an attacking defensive scheme.

Get the quarterback

  Terry Bradshaw: The Steelers drafted Bradshaw No. 1 overall in 1970 after they finished 1-13 in 1969. Bradshaw was highly criticized early in his career for throwing too many interceptions and for an apparent lack of aptitude for the position. It took Bradshaw a few seasons to become a premier quarterback.

  Matthew Stafford: Any of that sound familiar? The Lions drafted Stafford No. 1 overall in 2009 following an 0-16 season. Stafford seems to have all the talent in the world — like Bradshaw — but has missed more games because of injuries than he’s started. If he remains healthy, there’s no denying his talent.

Defensive line prowess

  Steel Curtain: In 1969, the Steelers drafted “Mean Joe” Greene in the first round and L.C. Greenwood in the 10th. They became the foundation for one of the best defensive lines in history — and one of the best defenses period, the “Steel Curtain.”

   Schwartz is searching for a name to call his defensive line. The Lions drafted their own version of Greene in 2010 in the form of Ndamukong Suh. Suh was an all-Pro as a rookie, and there’s no reason to think he won’t be a dominant player his entire career. Add players such as Kyle Vanden Bosch, Corey Williams, Cliff Avril and Nick Fairley to the mix and the Lions are well on their way to having one of the best defensive lines in football.

Draft good players

  Steelers: Between 1969-72, the Steelers laid the foundation for a decades’ worth of success. Starting with Greene in 1969, the Steelers went on to draft Bradshaw, running back Franco Harris, receivers Frank Lewis and Ron Shanklin, tight end Larry Brown, linebacker Jack Ham, cornerback Mel Blount and defensive back Mike Wagner during those years. All those players played in at least one Pro Bowl and five — Greene, Bradshaw, Ham, Blount and Harris — are in the Hall of Fame.

  Lions: The jury is still out on some of the young Lions, but by most accounts, the franchise has had three straight terrific drafts, 2009-11, since Martin Mayhew took over as general manager and Schwartz as coach in 2009. The last three seasons, the Lions have gotten a franchise quarterback in Stafford, a dynamic runner in Jahvid Best, a top-10 tight end in Brandon Pettigrew, a dominant defensive lineman in Suh, a versatile linebacker in DeAndre Levy, and a Pro-Bowl-caliber safety in Louis Delmas. And defensive tackle Nick Fairley looks to be a first-round steal this year.

All about numbers

  Steelers 1969-72: The 1969 Steelers were one of the worst teams in football at 1-13. Their lone victory? Over the Lions. But the Steelers got progressively better the next three seasons — 5-9 in 1970, 6-8 in 1971 and 11-3 in 1972. In fact, they reached the AFC championship in 1972, losing to the soon-to-be perfect Dolphins.

  Lions 2008-11: Since the 0-16 season in 2008, the Lions also have gotten progressively better — 2-14 in 2009 and 6-10 in 2010. The Lions are a hot pick by some national pundits to reach the playoffs this season.

Ownership royalty?

  Rooneys: Ask Steelers fans in the 1950s, ’60s and early ’70s what they thought of the Rooney family? The Steelers played second fiddle to the Pirates, and were known as the “lovable losers” until the 1970s. They made questionable personnel calls — they cut quarterback Johnny Unitasin training camp! It wasn’t until the Steelers started winning that the city truly embraced the Rooney family.

  Fords: Sounds familiar, doesn’t it? The Fords have been under fire for years. From the hiring of GM Matt Millen in 2001 to the draft debacles that followed, the Fords have made their fair share of mistakes. The family isn’t exactly beloved by Lions fans, and won’t be until the team is a consistent winner.

Now, all this doesn’t mean that Schwartz is the next Knoll or Stafford and Suh are the reincarnation of Bradshaw and Greene.

It doesn’t mean the playoffs are in the cards for the Lions in 2011, or that four Super Bowls are on the horizon.

It just means there’s hope for Lions fans. And history behind that hope.

tim.twentyman@detnews.com

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