Bob Wojnowski: Lions say there’s no way they will take Chiefs lightly


Bob Wojnowski

Allen Park — Of all the steps the Lions have taken, this might be the most telling: Good enough isn’t necessarily good enough, not when better is possible.

That’s what they’re saying and that’s what we’re seeing, so far. The Lions are 1-0 after their 27-20 victory at Tampa Bay, but still moderately annoyed they let the Buccaneers hang around. Now they’re getting ready for a sold-out home opener against the 0-1 Chiefs, who were thoroughly awful in a 41-7 loss to the Bills.

The Lions’ evolution continues, and this week’s shocking revelation is, we actually have to ask if they might take an opponent lightly. Of course, they can’t. This is still the NFL, and the Chiefs still are close to the 10-6 team that made the playoffs last year. The Lions adamantly confirmed Wednesday it’d be ridiculous to overlook the Chiefs.

Slowly, it’s getting safer to trust the Lions. I mean, since starting 2-10 last season, the Lions have won five consecutive real games (nine straight if you count the exhibitions!). Frankly, they should be annoyed they didn’t beat the Buccaneers worse. But it’s encouraging to know the heart of the team, that menacing defensive line, could shut down Tampa Bay’s run game and harass quarterback Josh Freeman and not be overly pleased.

“I think we only got one sack, and that’s unacceptable,” defensive tackle Corey Williams said. “We didn’t get him on the ground nearly as many times as we’d planned. That ain’t like us. This week, we got another challenge to stop the run, but hopefully, we get the quarterback down.”

I consider this progress, because listening to the Lions defensive linemen, they aren’t kidding about their intentions. The Lions actually sacked Freeman twice, but Kyle Vanden Bosch was the only lineman to get one. The other was by new linebacker Stephen Tulloch, an excellent addition.

Ndamukong Suh just missed. Cliff Avril just missed. Coach Jim Schwartz had no major complaints about the line because Freeman often was on the run and the Buccaneers rushed for only 56 yards. That’s a good sign, with the Chiefs bringing what was the NFL’s No. 1 rushing attack last season, led by Jamaal Charles.

Quarterback Matt Cassel doesn’t mind letting Charles and Thomas Jones do the work. But if you think the Lions are content with tidy low-sack success, you don’t fully understand their mentality.

“Is it enough? Not enough, but we’ll definitely take the win,” Suh said. “I think we affected the quarterback, we hit him, we were in his face. But ultimately, we want to get the quarterback down. Are we happy we still were effective? Yes. Are we satisfied? No.”

Line strives for more

Opponents will try all sorts of ways to slow the pass rush. One tactic seems simple to me: If you run the ball, you don’t have to throw it as much. The Chiefs can run the ball, and stopping that will be the main concern for the Lions.

The Lions deep defensive-line rotation — eight guys filling four spots — spawns great competition. Avril admits there’s a fierce debate to see who leads the team in sacks, and that’s fine with Schwartz, as long as everyone recognizes there are other ways to dominate.

“In the world of fantasy football, it’s no longer, did you win?” Schwartz said. “It’s, are your stats good enough? We played very well up front. As long as we’re effective, numbers really don’t matter. We can play better, but let’s not judge it strictly by sack numbers.”

Told that Suh wasn’t ecstatic with his one-tackle, no-sack performance, the coach shrugged.

“Like the rest of us, he has very high standards for himself,” Schwartz said. “He knows how hard sacks are to get. In this league, they don’t just give them to you for free.”

Maintaining success

In this league, if you hit the quarterback, you get paid. Suh was the NFL defensive rookie of the year last season and led the Lions with 10 sacks. Avril had 8.5 and Lawrence Jackson six.

The Lions are intent on creating havoc, even without their top pick, injured tackle Nick Fairley. Still, sustaining success isn’t easy, especially with this winning thing all new to the Lions. They’re 8-point favorites Sunday, and near as anyone can tell, it’s their biggest spread since they were nine-point favorites in the 2000 finale against the Bears, a crushing 23-20 loss.

“To me, it’s not new,” said Suh, who won at Nebraska. “I expect every year to play in big games and play for big prizes, like the Super Bowl. I feel the mind-set is very reciprocal around this locker room. (The Chiefs) are gonna come in hungry.

“I don’t think you need to tell somebody not to take a team lightly. Anybody can win in this league.”

The Lions defied that notion for a long time. On the rare occasions they were just good enough to win, hey, it was good enough. Not now, not when they’re rising from sad sack to sack-happy, not when being really good actually is realistic.

bob.wojnowski@detnews.com

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Chris McCosky: Injuries leave Lions still searching for power run game


Chris McCosky

Allen Park— It’s too early to label the Lions’ running game as anything other than a work in progress.

Lead back Jahvid Best has exactly five carries in two games. So how are you going to pass judgment on anything?

The two veteran backs the Lions brought in to essentially replace injured rookie Mikel Leshoure — Jerome Harrison and Mike Bell — have been in camp for two weeks and are just now getting some idea of the nuances of the Lions’ blocking schemes and tendencies.

By all accounts, there was a slight improvement in the run game in Cleveland on Friday — but the Lions would have been hard-pressed to do worse than the 2.1 yards per carry they mustered against the Bengals.

The Lions rushed for 176 yards (3.9 average), most of that against the Browns’ second and third defenses, in the 30-28 exhibition victory.

“I felt like we made some progress,” left guard Rob Sims said. “The first week, we were too high (pad level). I feel like we were lower and we were being more physical and getting some push. But we still have a lot of work to do; we still have to get it tight.

“It’s going to come. Jahvid’s going to remember how we do it and we will start remembering how he likes to run. It’ll come together.”

The ground game is as much about synchronicity and continuity as it is about toughness and talent. Clearly missing the offseason workouts, as well as the injuries to Leshoure and Maurice Morris, to say nothing of the fact that left tackle Jeff Backus has yet to practice, has set the ground game back.

There is plenty of time to regain that rhythm. Assuming that Best’s issues Friday were only wooziness, as he said, and not symptoms of a concussion, the offensive coaches are right to downplay any major concerns.

But here’s my concern: Even if the timing comes together, even if Best stays healthy, the ground game still hasn’t progressed from where it was at any point last season. It still lacks any semblance of a power run threat.

That’s why the loss of Leshoure was so devastating. Of course we don’t know for sure, but he looked like he was going to be able to add that dimension. He looked like he could be the guy to get five or six yards consistently on first down and he absolutely looked like the guy who would pick up that hard yard on third down or at the goal line.

I don’t see that guy on the roster right now and as a consequence, offensive coordinator Scott Linehan again is having to reach deep into his bag of tricks to compensate.

Running on empty

Break down the runs from Friday. In the first half, with the first offense playing most of the first quarter, the Lions ran the ball 14 times on first down and not once on third down. One of the first-down runs was a reverse to Nate Burleson that went for 26 yards.

Take that out and the Lions managed just 34 yards on 13 first-down carries (2.6 average). Not good. Aaron Brown got the majority of the work, carrying the ball six times for 11 yards on first down.

In the second half, the Lions ran the ball 10 times on first down for 32 yards (3.2). Still not good. Bell carried it five times on first down for 20 yards.

The Lions ran the ball twice on third down — both by second-year back Ian Johnson. He gained one yard on a third-and-2 and picked up the first on a third-and-1 to help the Lions kill the clock.

Linehan will tell you that it doesn’t matter how the yardage was accrued — run, pass, gadget plays, what’s the difference. The point is to move the ball and score.

Absolutely true. And with the efficiency and potency of the passing game, the Lions have some cushion to absorb a lackluster run game.

The goal, though, is to be as complete offensively as possible. And in a tough NFC North, with the margin of error so small, the Lions can’t afford too many blanks in their arsenal.

Having the ability to carve out four or five yards on the ground on first down, making defenses respect the run in the red zone, would go a long way toward easing some of the burden on quarterback Matthew Stafford and the passing game.

How successful can the Lions be, ultimately, if teams know they have to pass 80 percent of the time on first down and 95 percent of the time in the red zone?

Again, to repeat the original point, it’s too early to declare the ground game a liability. Best is a dynamic talent and Harrison showed some signs of the regaining the bounce he displayed in 2009 when he gained more than 1,000 yards rushing and passing for the Browns.

And, slowly but surely, the run blocking will get back in sync. That was the last part of the offensive puzzle to click last season, and that’s with all five linemen relatively healthy.

But there was a reason general manager Martin Mayhew traded up to get Leshoure and why he and the coaching staff were so excited they were able to pull it off. Leshoure offered a power dimension the Lions haven’t had for years.

Time will tell, but looking at it right now, it’s hard to see where that dimension will come from.

chris.mccosky@detnews.com

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