Despite fielding the youngest team in the NFL, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers went 10-6 in 2010 and just missed the playoffs on a tiebreaker against the eventual-champion Green Bay Packers. With rising young stars like Josh Freeman and Gerald McCoy dotting the roster, the Bucs believe they are poised for a long run of postseason contention.
The road won't be easy in 2011, however. The always competitive NFC South and a handful of playoff teams like the Chicago Bears and Indianapolis Colts will be looking to keep Tampa Bay from invading the playoff field. The Buccaneers' home schedule is particularly intriguing featuring foes with high-powered offenses (a la Houston) and upcoming stars of their own (a la Detroit).
With that in mind, Buccaneers.com is running a series of articles focusing on each of the team's 2011 home opponents. We'll look at how each of those teams has fared in recent years, which of their players will be the Buccaneers' main concerns, where the matchups will favor each side, and more.
The Detroit Lions finished 6-10 in 2010, spent much of the season without their young franchise quarterback on the field and tied for last in the NFC North…and could very reasonably be encouraged by it all.
That's true not only because those six wins were triple the number of victories Detroit had enjoyed in 2008 and 2009 combined, or because the Lions ended the season with a four-game winning streak. Detroit tied for the third-best increase in victories in the NFL from 2009 to 2010 with their jump of four wins (the Bucs were first, with an improvement of seven wins), but it very easily could have been more. Five of their losses were by five points or less, and that included games against such playoff teams as Green Bay, Chicago and Philadelphia. In fact, the Lions only gave up seven more points than they scored; among all the teams in the NFL with losing records, only the Tennessee Titans (6-10 and 17 in points) had a better scoring differential.
Detroit's fortunes against the two teams in its division that ended up battling in the NFC Championship game were particularly telling. The Lions lost both of their games against the Chicago Bears, but the season-opening 19-14 decision memorably turned on the much-debated overturning of Calvin Johnson's game-winning touchdown catch. In the rematch, Detroit took a 20-17 lead into the fourth quarter despite starting third-string quarterback Drew Stanton.
The Lions split with the eventual-champion Packers and outscored them overall, 33-31. Green Bay held on to a 28-26 victory in the first game, but Detroit took the second game in December, 7-3.
The Buccaneers don't have to be convinced of Detroit's competitiveness in 2010, as they were on of the victim's in the Lions' season-ending four-game streak. That was the only game, as it turned out, that Tampa Bay would lose in the final four weeks. Maybe it was delayed justice for the Lions following the Week One Calvin Johnson call, but a disallowed Kellen Winslow touchdown allowed the game to go into overtime, where the Lions prevailed, 23-20, on a 34-yard Dave Rayner field goal.
Johnson was a beast in that game, catching 10 passes for 152 yards, but many of the Lions' other top contributors were somewhat unexpected. Stanton got another start and completed 23 of 37 passes for 252 yards, one touchdown and no interceptions. Maurice Morris stepped in to handle the rushing load and got 109 yards and a score on 15 carries. Three different Lions sacked Bucs quarterback Josh Freeman, none of them Ndamukong Suh.
That sort of outing was another reason the Lions were likely quite encouraged by season's end, despite the losing record. Like the Buccaneers, they were able to succeed despite a rash of injuries to key players. Most significantly, second-year quarterback Matthew Stafford – drafted first overall in 2009, 16 picks before Freeman – played in only three games due to a second major shoulder injury in as many NFL seasons. He was quite good in those three starts, throwing six TD passes versus just one interception, and the Lions believe he is simply unfortunate, rather than being injury prone.
Stanton and Shaun Hill had some very good outings in Stafford's place, too, and the Lions finished 17th in the NFL in overall offense, 12th through the air. The running game wasn't as effective; mainly, it wasn't consistent. Rookie Jahvid Best opened the season with two monster outings, scoring a total of five touchdowns, but he finished the year with just 555 rushing yards and didn't post a single 100-yard game. Morris came on late but the Lions were more one-dimensional than they would have liked for a good portion of the season.
On defense, Detroit finished 21st in the league, ranking 24th against the run and 21st against the pass. Opposing teams were able to run for 125 yards per game and 4.5 yards per carry against the Lions; strong up the middle with defensive tackle Ndamukong Suh and middle linebacker DeAndre Levy, Detroit was softer on the ends and at outside linebacker.
And Suh, of course, might be the greatest reason for optimism in Motown. The second overall pick in the 2010 draft, Suh was everything the Lions could have hoped for and more as a rookie. He played with uncommon ferocity throughout the year, setting the tone for his team, and finished with 10 sacks and the first of what is sure to be many Pro Bowl berths. The Lions envisioned Suh and free agent acquisition Kyle Vanden Bosch giving them an inside-outside pass-rushing presence last fall, but Vanden Bosh missed more than a third of the season due to injury and had just four sacks.
After the season, during a guest appearance on the NFL Network's "Total Access" show, Suh predicted great things for the Lions in 2011. "I don't see there's a reason we can't be 16-0," he said. That would be a stunning accomplishment for any team, let alone one that was a record-breaking 0-16 just three seasons ago. That particular goal is likely to be out of reach, but there are many who share Suh's overall optimism about the Lions in 2011 following a very promising 2010 campaign.
- *Determine if the offensive line can be improved. *The prevailing opinion at the end of the 2010 season is that the team's front line on offense was a major weakness, perhaps in need of a total overhaul. General Manager Martin Mayhew begs to differ, pointing out that the Lions ranked fifth in the league in fewest sacks allowed per pass play. And they passed a lot. Still, with a prized quarterback suffering a string of shoulder injuries, this is going to be a focal point whether or not the issue is bad protection or simply bad luck. Most of the criticism seems aimed at the tackles, where Jeff Backus has started every game for a decade on the left side and Gosder Cherilus has had injury issues on the right side. Detroit picks 13th in the first round of next month's draft, and there appears to be several intriguing tackle prospects who will come off the board somewhere in the middle of that stanza.
- Shore up the linebacking corps. DeAndre Levy is considered capable of playing either inside or outside linebacker, but he was so good in the middle in 2010 that the Lions would likely prefer to keep him in that spot. It's less certain whether they want to keep him flanked with Julian Peterson, who had a career-low one sack in 2010, and Landon Johnson, who has been only a part-time starter in the NFL over the past three seasons. Detroit signed former Cowboy Bobby Carpenter, a first-round pick in 2006, in midseason last year and he will likely compete for a starting spot on the outside, as will Ashlee Palmer. Still, Levy could move outside if the eventual free agent market proves promising at linebacker, where the draft is not particularly top-heavy. If the Lions find a very good middle linebacker on the market, Levy's versatility would allow the team to make that fit. Either way, there is likely to be some shuffling of the linebacking threesome in 2011.
- Find the right combination for the running game. There is certainly reason to be excited about Best, the small but speedy back the Lions took with the 30th overall pick a year ago. The former Cal star might have been slowed a bit by foot injuries as a rookie, but he added 58 catches for 487 yards to his rushing total to give him a debut season of over 1,000 combined yards. The question remains whether he is an every-down back (he averaged just 3.2 yards per carry in 2010) but he is no doubt a dangerous weapon in some sort of backfield combination. With time to rest his troubling turf-toe issue, Best could be back to the quick-cutting player he appeared to be in the first two weeks of last season. Morris' late-season work may convince the Lions that the 10th-year veteran is a good complement to Best, although he has never rushed for more than 628 yards in a single NFL season. Kevin Smith, recently plagued by injuries, may not be back. Aaron Brown is unproven but could provide some depth. The Lions will need to determine if they have the pieces in place for a productive backfield in 2011, in the hopes of taking some of the pressure off of Stafford.
- Get better play at the cornerback positions. The Lions got sometimes adequate play from starters Chris Houston and Alphonso Smith at cornerback in 2010. However, Houston could possibly leave via free agency and Smith struggled at times and had season-ending shoulder surgery. Former Chicago Bears standout Nathan Vashar is also on the depth chart, but the rest of the current options – Aaron Berry, Jack Williams and Prince Miller – are young and unproven. Jim Schwartz and his staff had a lot to fix when they inherited that former 0-16 team after the 2008 season, and they have made some serious headway at several spots, including the defensive line and quarterback. Most analysts see cornerback as the position that has yet to make a big leap forward, and the Lions may be motivated to make that a priority either in the draft or via free agency.
Detroit will be looking to capture a second straight win in Tampa when they visit Raymond James Stadium next fall. Here are five players who may cause the home team the most trouble during that trip:
WR Calvin Johnson. "Megatron" was the second overall pick in the 2007 draft, and unlike some of the other receivers the Lions spent top-10 choices on in that era he has never caused his team to regret that decision. At 6-5 and 236 pounds, Johnson brings unmatched size and athleticism to the position. He is outstanding against the press, in traffic and over the middle, but he can also get deep, as evidenced by his career mark of 15.5 yards per catch. After a small dip in production in 2009, last year was a near duplicate of his breakout 2008 campaign (78-1,331-12) as he caught 77 passes for 1,120 yards and 12 scores. Johnson can exploit a mismatch against smaller defensive backs, as he did against the Buccaneers last December, and he is doubly dangerous in the red zone because of his body control and strength. Acrobatic catches are the norm for him in the end zone.
DT Ndamukong Suh. Suh became a household name in NFL circles even before he was in the league, as his dominant performances for Nebraska in 2009 made him the darling of the pre-draft highlight reels. Fortunately for the Lions, he had absolutely no problem maintaining his level of play and frenetic style on the NFL level. It took virtually no time for Lions opponents to key on the rookie as the player most in need of a double-team in their blocking schemes, and yet Suh still got free for 10 sacks, an enormous number for a defensive tackle. Suh is capable of beating those double teams and is absolutely relentless once he get a bead on the quarterback. He stands 6-4 and weighs over 300 pounds, has impressive upper-body strength to take on blockers and is almost ridiculously quick on his feet for a man his size. Suh is poised to be one of the NFL's most dominant defensive linemen for years to come.
S Louis Delmas. A second-round pick out of nearby Western Michigan in 2009, Delmas quickly made a name for himself as a rookie. In fact, he became the first NFL rookie ever to score on an interception return (it was 101 yards long), a fumble return and a safety in the same season. Delmas didn't have any picks or touchdowns in 2010, but that doesn't mean he took a step backward. More confident in the Lions' defensive scheme in his second year, Delmas was a hard-hitting presence in the secondary who was selected as an alternate to the Pro Bowl. He is a solid but agile 5-11 and 202 pounds and he possesses very good instincts, which helped him make so many plays as a rookie even before he completely had the Lions' defense down.
TE Brandon Pettigrew. Yet another rising star the Lions drafted in the first round in recent years, Pettigrew has already developed into one of the most productive tight ends in the NFL. After a rookie season that was cut short by a knee injury, Pettigrew exploded for 71 catches in 2010, ranking third among NFC tight ends and 12th among all pass-catchers in the conference. The former Oklahoma State star is likely to be a fixture in Detroit for many years because he is that all-too-difficult-to-find commodity: a tight end who excels at both blocking and pass-catching. At 6-5 and 265 pounds and with quick feet, he is a very good blocker on the edge, but he also has the speed and hands to make plays downfield. Pettigrew is still developing as a route-runner, but he is such a mismatch in terms of size for many defenders that he is a threat every time he ventures off the line.
LB DeAndre Levy. The top of the Lions' 2009 draft produced Stafford, Pettigrew and Delmas…and Detroit was just getting started. In the third round, the Lions snapped up Wisconsin linebacker DeAndre Levy, who has been nothing short of outstanding in his two pro seasons so far. As mentioned above, Levy has the ability to play inside or outside (he started out on the outside as a rookie before moving to the middle for the stretch run after injuries elsewhere on the roster), and he'll rack up the tackles from either position due to his great range. Levy's greatest asset may be his natural instincts, which have helped him pick off three passes and rack up 157 tackles through his first 21 pro starts. He is both a solid and explosive tackler, and scouts believe he has room to improve in terms of pass rush, which could make him an even more dangerous player.
The Lions have a long and rich history, but it is unfortunately marked by the second-longest championship drought in the NFL.
Originally the Portsmouth Spartans, the franchise began play in 1929 and eventually moved to Detroit and became the Lions in 1934. Things started off well, as the Lions brought the NFL championship to their new home in 1935, then repeated as champs in 1952, 1953 and 1957. Detroit may have been the NFL's most dominant team in the '50s, winning four division titles behind the likes of such stars as Bobby Layne, Doak Walker and Lou Creekmur. Layne, Walker and Creekmur are three of the 16 Lions who have already been enshrined in the Pro Football Hall of Fame.
However, the Lions have spent more than 50 years striving for their next championship. Only the Chicago-St. Louis-Arizona Cardinals have waited longer, last taking the NFL title in 1947. Detroit is also the only team in the NFC that has never made it to the Super Bowl, and they have just nine playoff appearances since 1957. In 2008, Detroit became the first team in the NFL to finish a season 0-16 and was the league's first winless squad since the 1976 expansion Buccaneers. Detroit is the only team in the NFL not to make the playoffs at least once since the expansion to 32 clubs in 2002.
The current era of optimism isn't the first the Lions have had in the intervening years. Most notably, the arrival of electric running back Barry Sanders in 1989 gave Detroit one of the most exciting players in the game, and Sanders nearly won the league's rushing title as a rookie. By 1991, Sanders' prolific efforts had translated into success for the Lions, who won a franchise-record 12 games and advanced to the NFC Championship Game. The went back to the playoffs five more times in the '90s, but their win over Dallas in the '91 divisional round remains the franchise's only postseason victory since 1957.
Sanders retired unexpectedly after the 1998 season and, after one more trip to the playoffs the next fall, the Lions slid to 2-14 in 2001 and haven't had a winning record since. Overall, Detroit has played 81 seasons in the NFL (the Spartans were an independent team in 1929) and has compiled a record of 496-593-32.
Head to Head
The Buccaneers have faced the Lions 53 times over 35 seasons, tying Detroit with the Chicago Bears as Tampa Bay's most common opponent. The Bucs' 25 wins in the all-time series with the Lions are their most against any team, but Detroit holds the overall head-to-head edge, 28-25.
The Bucs and Lions have also met once in the postseason, with Tampa Bay taking a 20-10 decision in a 1997 Wild Card game in Tampa. That marked the final game ever played at Tampa/Houlihan's Stadium before the Buccaneers moved into their current home, Raymond James Stadium.
In the regular season, the Buccaneers and Lions are dead even in games played in Tampa, splitting 26 contests, 13-13. Before Detroit's 23-20 overtime victory at Raymond James Stadium last December, the most recent meeting between the two teams in Florida occurred in 2005. The Buccaneers prevailed in that matchup, 17-13, en route to the NFC South division title. Tampa Bay had won five of the last six games between the two teams before last year, and seven of the last nine dating back to 1999.