- Gary Horton, Scouts Inc.
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Three Burning Questions
How will the Lions respond to Rod Marinelli's "tough love" approach?
Marinelli's former players swear by him, and that is one of the reasons he got this job. He is a taskmaster, but he is fair and will weed out the guys who don't want to work. He has been quoted as saying that he wants a lot of "gym rats," guys who love to be around the game, and that's what he will get. This will not be a country club atmosphere. The coaches will preach technique and hustle, and it will be a brutal training camp with a lot of hitting. There will be some grumbling, but it won't matter. Right now the only voice that counts is Marinelli's.
How quickly will the players absorb offensive coordinator Mike Martz's sophisticated schemes?
Martz is very demanding, and his scheme requires players who are intelligent and who concentrate, qualities that this offense has not shown in recent years. It is a pinpoint passing game requiring tight routes and good footwork; timing is everything. There will be a lot of sets and motion, but the routes are very structured and quarterbacks throw to spots. Martz has no patience for mental mistakes and bad routes, and he will play a wide receiver with lesser talent to run the offense the way he wants it. If Detroit's offensive skill players are smart, they will realize that his offense can make stars out of them.
Do the Lions have the right personnel to play the Cover 2 defense?
Yes, they do. First, the Cover 2 requires quick defensive linemen who can penetrate and attack gaps, and the Lions have those guys. Second, it requires linebackers who can run and get sideline to sideline, and they potentially have those guys. The question becomes the secondary. Players such as corner Dre' Bly will have to adjust, and rookie free safety Daniel Bullocks will have to come along quickly. The Lions have the speed at linebacker to blitz, if necessary, and their corners can play man-to-man as well as the Cover 2. It will be interesting to watch the dynamic between defensive coordinator Donnie Henderson and Marinelli. Both are strong-willed guys with aggressive personalities. Will Marinelli let Henderson run the defense?
The player under the microscope
Wide receiver Charles Rogers. He is starting to look like one of the biggest underachievers in recent memory, but this is an offense in which he can flourish if he works. He has been plagued by durability problems and has had two collarbone injuries, and he has also endured a four-game suspension. He drops too many balls, runs sloppy routes, doesn't recognize defensive schemes and gets pushed around by defensive backs who play press coverages. This guy has it all size, speed and athletic ability. He should be a dominating playmaker with great production after the catch. If his work ethic is poor, Martz will forget about him; but if the light goes on, Rogers could revive his career in this offense.
Running back Kevin Jones. Martz will stress offensive balance with Detroit, even though we know how much he loves to throw the ball. Jones will get at least 25 carries per game, and Martz wants him to stay on the field on third down and really develop as a receiver in the outlet passing game. As a runner, Martz will utilize a lot of draws and isolation plays designed to let the blocks form and let Jones create his own running lanes. Jones will also have a chance to run more plays to the edge, which can take advantage of his speed and open-field skills. Martz will move him around a lot to get good matchups, especially on third down, and he will run against a lot of nickel and dime defenses.
Comeback player of the year
Right defensive end James Hall. He is not your classic right defensive end, as he lacks optimum size and speed, and he is almost an overachiever. He was hurt in 2005; his sack total dropped from 11½ sacks in 2004 to only five last year. He has more power than speed but is smart and won't make mistakes. He is now in a system that wants to rush four and drop seven, without a lot of blitzing, and that puts pressure on the right defensive end to produce double-digit sacks. Hall is not elite, but he is tenacious -- and with all the twists the Lions will use up front in their one-gap, attacking style, he should be capable of 10-plus sacks.
This offense will dramatically change in 2006 with the presence of new offensive coordinator Martz. Last year, Detroit had no commitment to the running game and was not fundamentally sound. Under Martz, this will be a very structured and intelligent offense with a lot of formations and sets. Even though the Lions want offensive balance, they will emphasize more downfield passing plays to open up defenses and give the offense a fast-break approach. The key to the Martz offense is deep crossing routes by the wide receivers with a lot of underneath routes by the tight ends and backs. Wide receiver Roy Williams and tight end Marcus Pollard will be excellent fits in this offense, but wide receivers Rogers and Mike Williams need to pick it up a notch or they will be left behind. Running back Jones will run versus a lot of nickel and dime defenses and will run a lot of draw plays and attack the edge. The coaches also want to keep Jones on the field on third down as a receiver, but he needs work in that area and also as a pass blocker. This offense requires a lot of deep drops so receivers have time to get open and quarterbacks can make their reads, so pass protection by the offensive line is critical. This offense will practice well, and there will be no tolerance for lack of concentration or sloppy techniques. It's a proven scheme that is very receiver-friendly, with clear responsibilities ... if the players will carry out the plan.
Head coach Rod Marinelli will bring his patented Cover 2 defense from Tampa Bay to Detroit, and he is a master at implementing this scheme. The Lions will utilize the Bucs' style of the Cover 2 by rushing four and dropping seven into coverage, with a lot of twists and stunts up front. The defensive line will be an aggressive, one-gap penetrating group that can play a straight four-man front but also some over-and-under techniques with the defensive tackles. Defensive coordinator Donnie Henderson is an aggressive play-caller and may try to talk Marinelli into more blitzes. The key to the success of this defense in 2006 is the development of two rookies, free safety Bullocks and weak outside linebacker Ernie Sims. Marinelli wants Sims to play the role of Tampa Bay's Derrick Brooks, and Bullocks will be asked to patrol the middle of the field and help the corners over the top, while also allowing strong safety Kenoy Kennedy to play up closer to the box in run support, which is his strength. It will also be interesting to see if the Lions' best cover corner, Bly, will have the discipline to play the Cover 2. He likes to freelance, but that's not what the Cover 2 wants from the corners. Detroit has a chance to play three linebackers who can all run, which is critical in this scheme, and that should allow the Lions to force offenses to run wide and let the pursuit get there. If the Lions decide to blitz more, they do have the corners to play man-to-man behind it. This will be a very aggressive, in-your-face defense, but under Marinelli and Henderson it will also be more disciplined than you might think.
Gary Horton has been a football talent evaluator for more than 30 years. He spent 10 years in the NFL and 10 years at the college level before launching a private scouting firm called "The War Room."