After crushing the resurgent Chargers this week, the Lions clinched their first playoff birth since 1999. This was not a total shock to the league, as Detroit has put together a solid young roster, and with Matt Stafford staying healthy for the whole year, a playoff spot was well within their grasp.
But what many don’t notice is that no matter how far they go this year, the team is only getting better.
While the passing game has been amongst the most dangerous in the league this year, the rushing attack has been quite the opposite. Jahvid Best was their homerun threat early in the season, but after suffering another concussion on top of the ones that he has at the University of California, he was shut down for the year.
So some mixture of Maurice Morris and Kevin Smith stepped in to take the carries, and neither fared well. Now they move on to the postseason, and without a major play-maker on the defensive side of the ball and with no semblance of a running game, they are unlikely to make a drive deep into the playoffs.
But next year, things will be much, much better. Second round pick Mikel Leshoure tore his Achilles in the preseason, and he was expected to the thunder to the lightning that is Jahvid Best. The bruising back out of Illinois is a great all around back, and barring that there are no setbacks in his recovery, the Lions will be able to offer that balance to the game that they have sorely lacked this year.
The defense. Everyone assumed that the Lions would be drafting corners or linebackers last year, but they did neither. Instead they brought in Stephen Tulloch and Justin Durant on one-year deals and the veteran duo has solidified the once porous group standing behind the line.
The Lions defensive line has been their strong suit in the past few years, with Ndamukong Suh eating up blockers in the middle, Vanden Bosch coming around the edge and now rookie Nick Fairley showing why he was long thought of as a top-five pick last year. Now that they are healthy, the line will continue to wreak havoc on opposing teams for years to come. No concern here.
The secondary has been banged up this year, but again they went the way of low-cost veterans in free agency, rather than make a splash or waste a pick. Eric Wright was picked up from Cleveland, and he has stepped in and made an immediate impact on the corner.
While the offensive weapons are abundant, the guys protecting Stafford are not considered at the top of their class. There are few household names along the offensive line, so that too will likely be a part of the teams focus as they develop over the next few years. A franchise left tackle to protect the blind side is on the wish list, so expect a move to be made in the offseason.
Instead of panicking and drafting based solely on need, the Lions have gone about building their team in a different fashion. They have been patient and taken the best players available at their pick. Nick Fairley fell to them, and they quite simply could not pass on the prospect of creating one of the best young defensive tackles duos in the league. Leshoure was available for them, and despite having taken Best in the first round just a few years ago, they went out and drafted the bruising back. They had Calvin Johnson already, but Titus Young was in their lap in the second round as well, so the burner out of Boise St. was taken. Best. Players. Available.
There were many questions surrounding Matt Stafford coming into this year. It was a make or break time for him, as he would either be that extremely talented pivot who could never stay healthy, or he would emerge into the franchise player that made him the first overall pick. The later has been the case. He has developed an excellent rapport with Megatron, and the development of Titus on the opposite side has allowed Stafford to pick and choose what side of the field he wants to attack.
It is impossible to know how far the Lions will go this year. When their offence is clicking, they are nearly unstoppable. But without a solid running game and real play-makers in the secondary, they will be hard pressed to get past the Packers and Saints in the NFC. But they are just getting started. Another draft in coming this year and Leshoure will be healthy next year, so the core is quickly developing into one of the best in the league.
Stafford. Megatron. Suh. Fairley. Pettigrew. Titus. Leshoure.
Watch out league, the Lions are for real.