GLS Preview: Detroit Lions

It’s safe to say they’re no longer the league’s lovable losers and they probably removed the laughingstock label with a half-decent 2010, but the Detroit Lions still haven’t experienced a winning season this century.

Is this the year they finally bust out of the slump?

They’ve been making progress. Last year, they finished out of last place for only the second time since 2005. They also fell just a touchdown short of scoring as many points as they allowed. They’re very young but also very talented at some very important positions.

That and the fact that they won their final four games of 2010 has some wondering if the league’s most infamously bad franchise is finally ready to be good for a change.

But it won’t be easy. Circumstances are seemingly working against them this summer. The lockout disrupted the offseason, which might have affected inexperienced teams more than others. There’s a lot of work to be done before they can compete with the big boys in the deep NFC.

To boot, the Lions have had particularly bad luck with injuries this month. They were hailed for selecting three potential impact players in the first two rounds of April’s draft, but all three of those guys have suffered injuries of varying degrees of seriousness. Titus Young and Nick Fairley will be forced to play catchup while Mikel Leshoure will miss the entire season.

So while the Lions continue to take steps in the right direction, they might continue to be baby steps. Be patient, Michigan folk.

2010 in a nutshell: Only three of their losses come by more than a score and only one comes after November as they finish 6-10, good enough for third place in the NFC North.

Three predictions for 2011:

1. The secondary will do them in: It’s ugly. The current group of defensive backs in Detroit is a mix of unproven youngsters and castoffs from bad teams. The broad numbers don’t necessarily indicate that the secondary was horrible in 2010, but look a little closer and you realize that there’s a problem. You can’t surrender 7.3 yards per attempt and have an 89.2 opponent passer rating and be a success (unless you’re really good elsewhere). I’m not sure why they neglected to address the defensive backfield in the draft or free agency, but they’ll have trouble against Aaron Rodgers (twice), Tony Romo, Jay Cutler (twice), Drew Brees, Philip Rivers, Matt Ryan and Josh Freeman with the secondary that is currently in place.

2. The front seven will be better: We already know the pass rush is tremendous. They were sixth in the league with 44 sacks in 2010 and added Fairley to a group of rushers that will only get better as Ndamukong Suh becomes a superstar. But they also made an effort to improve the run defense this summer by adding two new starting linebackers in Justin Durant and Stephen Tulloch. If Fairley can get healthy and Cliff Avril can also keep progressing, they’ll be very strong up front.

3. Matthew Stafford will perform like a Pro Bowler: That doesn’t mean he’ll beat out the likes of Michael Vick, Aaron Rodgers, Drew Brees, Tony Romo and Josh Freeman to land a trip to Hawaii, but I expect Stafford to break out and perform at a Pro Bowl level in 2011. I know he doesn’t have much support, but Scott Linehan will find a way to get the running game going and Jahvid Best could be poised to take a step forward. The offensive line takes a lot of heat, but the undersized unit actually surrendered the sixth-fewest sacks in the league last year. One of the 27 sacks they gave up derailed Stafford’s season, but I’m chalking that up to bad fortune, not the indication of a trend.

The final word(s): This isn’t a double-digit-win team yet, but they will push teams like Chicago, Dallas, Atlanta and Tampa for a wild-card spot. In the end, I think they fall short but win eight games.