(Sports Network) - The Detroit Lions begin year No. 2 under head coach Jim Schwartz with high expectations and will waste no time renewing a storied rivalry with the NFC North-rival Chicago Bears this Sunday from Soldier Field.
The Lions, two years removed from an unprecedented 0-16 campaign, will play four of their first six games on the road. That's asking a lot from a young squad that has lost 20 straight as the visitor and hasn't tasted victory outside the Motor City since a 16-7 win at Chicago back on October 28, 2007.
But the vibe in Detroit has been positive the entire offseason, and a sense of hope and purpose has overshadowed the gloom and doom of years past. Detroit already has a franchise quarterback in Matt Stafford and plenty of targets around him to make a difference in 2010. The Lions finished 2-14 in Schwartz's first season a year ago and were able to pluck stud defensive tackle Ndamukong Suh early in April's draft. Suh wasn't impressed with his preseason play, but will learn to be more patient under defensive coordinator Gunther Cunningham.
Patience has been a virtue in Detroit over the past several seasons. Having missed the playoffs each year since 2000, the Lions will take it one week at a time since they're not expected to win many games in 2010. Many pundits have them pegged to win four to five games, and that can only motivate the perennial NFC doormats to play the role of overachievers.
The Lions beefed up the defensive front with veteran defensive end Kyle Vanden Bosch this offseason, while the offense has star wide receiver Calvin Johnson and rookie running back Jahvid Best to battle with Kevin Smith. It appears Best has turned many heads in preseason, and he'll try to keep it that way now that the real tests begin Sunday afternoon.
There's a different kind of pressure emanating from the Windy City, as Bears head coach Lovie Smith enters the new campaign looking over his shoulder. It could very well be do-or-die for Smith, who has won more than seven games just once in the previous three years (23-25).
Chicago went 7-9 a year ago and hasn't been to the playoffs since losing to Indianapolis in Super Bowl XLI on a rainy night in Miami to conclude the 2006 season. It seems that a black cloud has followed the Bears ever since, giving general manager Jerry Angelo more incentive to bulk up the roster.
Angelo landed the prize of the free agent class in ex-Panthers defensive end Julius Peppers and even added a bonus to the offense in former Vikings running back Chester Taylor. Peppers' consistency on the field has come into question over the past few years, and that could be related to a faltered relationship with his former employers in Carolina. He'll have a myriad of talent around him in players such as Brian Urlacher, Lance Briggs and Tommie Harris to keep him motivated.
Motivation has been in quarterback Jay Cutler's vocabulary ever since he was dealt to the Bears after a dysfunctional relationship with his former head coach Josh McDaniels in Denver. He was picked off an NFL-high 26 times last season to go along with 27 touchdown passes in his first year in the Windy City. Cutler, who finished last season on a promising note by throwing eight touchdown strikes and only one interception in the final two games, will have new offensive coordinator Mike Martz calling the shots.
Martz, known for his offensive prowess in his days as head coach of a pass- happy St. Louis Rams team led by future Hall of Fame signal-caller Kurt Warner, could be next in line to take over the reigns if the powers that be decide it's time to end the Lovie Smith regime.
Chicago leads the all-time series with Detroit, which dates back to the 1930 season, 91-64-5, including home-and-home sweeps of the Lions in each of the last two years. The Bears were 48-24 home winners when the teams met in Week 4 of 2009, and completed the sweep with a 37-23 victory at Ford Field in Week 17. The Lions swept the 2007 home-and-home, including a 16-7 win at Soldier Field.
Lovie Smith is 8-4 against the Lions as a head coach, while Schwartz is 0-2 against both Smith and Chicago as a head man.
WHEN THE LIONS HAVE THE BALL
Stafford (2,267 passing yards, 13 TD, 20 INT) enters year No. 2 in the NFL with high expectations. Usually a quarterback needs three years to prove his worth in the NFL, but Stafford will try to prove he belongs in only his second. Gifted with a strong arm and high I.Q. for the sport, one of Detroit's team captains hopes to connect right away with his top target in Johnson (67 receptions, 5 TD), who recently mentioned on his blog that he's looking forward to a lot of one-on-one action against the Bears and their Cover 2 defense. Ex-Seahawk Nate Burleson (63 receptions, 3 TD) was acquired as an unrestricted free agent in the offseason to free up Johnson on the other side. With a healthy mix of experience and speed, Stafford will be hard-pressed not to look at Burleson more often if Johnson is double-teamed. Second-year tight end Brandon Pettigrew is hoping to bounce back in his second year after having his rookie campaign cut short by a knee injury on Thanksgiving. Stafford will owe many thanks to the blocking specialist, who led all NFL rookie tight ends with 30 catches and 346 yards in 2009. Best will push Kevin Smith (747 rushing yards, 4 TD) behind an o-line anchored by left tackle Jeff Backus and center Dominic Raiola. The line gave up 24 sacks a year ago.
Peppers (42 tackles, 10.5 sacks, 2 INT) was brought in to wreak havoc on the offense, and the Bears hope there's enough left in the tank after shelling out plenty of cash for the former North Carolina product. Peppers brings a more dangerous presence to the line and will make the pass rush more effective. While Mark Anderson and Israel Idonije battle for playing time opposite Peppers, defensive tackles Harris and Anthony Adams are set at their positions and will be aiming to collapse the pocket on Stafford. The Lions will find it hard to run against the Bears, even though Chicago was 23rd against the rush last year. Defensive coordinator and one-time Lions head coach Rod Marinelli is in his first season and knows that stopping the run is vital to helping the defensive backfield. The Bears' pass defense, which finished 13th overall in 2009, will welcome back middle linebacker Urlacher from a wrist injury that sidelined him for all but one game in 2009. Urlacher's presence alone will strike fear into the Lions offense. His counterpart, Briggs, has been voted to four straight Pro Bowls and will try to make it five after he posted 118 stops, 2 1/2 sacks and an interception last season. Corners Charles Tillman (78 tackles, 2 INT) and Zackary Bowman (66 tackles, 6 INT) are back together, while safeties Daniel Manning (92 tackles, sack, INT) and Chris Harris (60 tackles, 3 INT with Carolina) will make sure Johnson and Burleson stay contained.
WHEN THE BEARS HAVE THE BALL
There's a lot of hype around Cutler (3,666 passing yards, 26 TD, 27 INT) this year now that he's under the tutelage of Martz. Whether that makes a difference will be determined against a new-look Detroit defense. Cutler led the league in interceptions and was sacked 35 times in 2009, making his first season with the Monsters of Midway a less enjoyable one. He could have a better experienced this time around, provided an offensive line that will return many familiar faces performs better this season. Defenders around the league are familiar with center Olin Kreutz, guard Roberto Garza and left tackle Chris Williams, who was moved to the left side to protect Cuter and give him more time in the pocket to find his receivers. Unfortunately the plan didn't work out and Cutler never established a go-to receiver last year. Johnny Knox (45 receptions, 5 TD) is trying to be that guy, but will likely share catches with Devin Aromashodu (24 receptions, 4 TD), Devin Hester (57 receptions, 3 TD) and tight end Greg Olsen (60 receptions, 8 TD). Any one of those pass-catchers should have success against Detroit's withered secondary. Running back Matt Forte (929 yards, 4 TD) had a down year from his rookie season and gets to run through Suh and Company, while Taylor gets to showcase his multi-threat talents for the first time in a Bears uniform.
Detroit will try to spoil the regular-season debut of Martz's new offense with Vanden Bosch and Suh applying pressure up front. Last year's lack of push sparked the addition of Vanden Bosch (45 tackles, 3 sacks) and the idea to draft Suh No. 2 overall out of Nebraska. Lions general manager Martin Mayhew is confident Vanden Bosch will be productive even in the twilight of his career, and is very optimistic Suh can make his impression felt immediately. Mayhew also traded for tackle Corey Williams (31 tackles, 4 sacks with the Browns) to possibly play alongside end Cliff Avril (41 tackles, 5.5 sacks), and the added beef up front should improve coordinator Cunningham's 25th rated run defense from a season ago. Detroit's defense was a complete disaster in 2009 and finished last against the pass, total yards allowed and points permitted. The Lions only have one proven linebacker in veteran Julian Peterson, who finished second behind Avril in sacks with 4 1/2. The Lions cut ties with veteran cornerback Dre' Bly and feel confident with Chris Houston and Jonathan Wade starting at the position. Houston was acquired via trade with Atlanta in March, while the team further bolstered its secondary by recently landing cornerback Alphonso Smith via a trade with Denver. Strong safety and ex-Giant C.C. Brown also landed in Detroit this offseason and is expected to start with returning free safety Louis Delmas (94 tackles, 1 sack, 1 INT). Defensive backs Eric King, Ko Simpson and Dante Wesley were cut in favor of rookies Amari Spievey and Randy Phillips.
The fantasy football world will be in full gear Sunday, and there will be plenty of points to go around at Soldier Field. Starting with the visiting Lions, Stafford proved last year that he is a reliable pick for the 2010 campaign with several targets in Johnson, Burleson and Pettigrew. Best and Kevin Smith aren't projected to have good numbers playing against the homestanding Bears, but it's still wise to insert the two into the lineup. The Lions have veteran kicker Jason Hanson, but he's not a good choice until the team can prove it can score and get into field goal range. Cutler is a starter the entire season in fantasy leagues, despite his history of interceptions. He is in a new system with Martz and that could make a big difference. As far as a top-notch wideout, Knox, Hester, Aromashodu and Olsen will battle it out for receptions, leaving may of their owners in limbo. Knox and Olsen, however, are the best picks for Week 1, as is placekicker Robbie Gould. The veteran Bear is one of the most accurate kickers in league history and made 24-of-28 attempts in 2009. Picking Chicago's defense for this week's matchup is a safe choice.
The Lions are confident heading into this rivalry after a productive offseason and preseason, and most of the attention will be on Stafford, who is out to prove he is making significant strides from his rookie campaign. With a few new faces and players more accustomed to what Schwartz is selling, it's clear Detroit is ready to rise from the NFC North ashes. Unfortunately the Bears are in the same boat and have more talent on both sides of the ball, making this season opener at home even more important for Cutler and Lovie Smith. Cutler's new offense under Martz will sputter at times, but a defense led by Peppers and a healthy Urlacher will keep Detroit's road woes unbroken and their head coach's job safe.
Sports Network Predicted Outcome: Bears 23, Lions 16