Last year, Detroit wide receiver Calvin Johnson joined Jerry Rice and Randy Moss as the only players in NFL history with at least 95 receptions, 1,600 yards, and 15 touchdowns in a season.
DETROIT -- NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell couldn't help but notice a great deal of optimism and confidence that the Detroit Lions are moving in the right direction when he visited their training camp.
"You can see it and feel it," Goodell said.
It will be time for Detroit to show it Sunday at home against the St. Louis Rams when it kicks off a season of rare high hopes.
"We've got some film on St. Louis and we're breaking it down," Lions linebacker Stephen Tulloch said. "There's a new head coach and a new scheme, so we have to be ready to jump on them."
Detroit, meanwhile, has the same head coach, coordinators, and general manager for a fourth straight season. That, alone, is stunning.
"There's been continuity in the schemes," coach Jim Schwartz said. "It allows the scouting department to have continuity in the way that we scout, which allows our players to be productive."
The plan, led by general manager Martin Mayhew, has worked.
After being a league laughingstock for years, including being bad enough to become the NFL's first 0-16 team in 2008, the Lions are coming off a breakout season. They went to the playoffs for the first time in more than a decade and gained regard as a team on the rise.
"We're a target now," said center Dominic Raiola, who has a 49-127 record since Detroit drafted him in 2001. "We're not the pushover Lions.
"We've got the best player in the league."
Instead of drawing universal laughter at such a bold statement, some might agree that Calvin Johnson is the NFL's top player.
Johnson joined Jerry Rice and Randy Moss last year as the only players in NFL history with at least 95 receptions, 1,600 yards, and 15 touchdowns in a season. He was rewarded with an eight-year deal worth up to $132 million.
The All-Pro receiver knows his position group will be in the spotlight on a team that has quarterback Matthew Stafford and a running game that looks shaky at best.
"We feel that if we don't go, the offense doesn't go," Johnson said. "We put it on our shoulders already."
Stafford, staying healthy last season for the first time in three years, threw for 5,000-plus yards with 41 TDs and just 16 interceptions in a one-dimensional offense. That dimension likely will stay in the air because speedy RB Jahvid Best will miss at least the first six weeks of the season, recovering from two concussions he sustained last year, and powerful Mikel Leshoure has a two-game suspension. Barring a trade, lackluster options left are Kevin Smith, Keiland Williams, and Stefan Logan.
"We're going to have to find ways to try and replace (Best)," Stafford said. "He's obviously a guy that does some things for us that are helpful: screen game, getting him out in space, catching the ball out of the backfield."
Detroit's other glaring weakness is in its backfield on the other side of the ball.
That was exposed in the Lions' last two games, losses to Green Bay to close the regular season and New Orleans in the playoffs, when they gave up 946 yards passing and nine TDs. The situation got more bleak in the offseason when starting cornerback Eric Wright left for Tampa Bay as a free agent and his replacement, Aaron Berry, got cut for being arrested twice, and safety Louis Delmas needed knee surgery.
Detroit is desperate enough for help at cornerback that it was willing to give up a conditional draft pick to Washington for Kevin Barnes, a player the Redskins planned to release.
Cornerback Bill Bentley, a third-round pick from Louisiana-Lafayette, is hoping to take advantage of being the first of three defensive backs the team selected in April.
"They felt like they had a need at corner and obviously liked what they saw in me," Bentley said. "I'm excited about the opportunity to show that I can be a shutdown corner because I'm a guy who presses, gets his hands on receivers and makes plays."
Detroit's best shot at success on defense likely involves the Ndamukong Suh-led line pressuring quarterbacks so that they don't have time to pick apart a shaky secondary. Suh and defensive tackle Corey Williams are counted on to provide the push up the middle and are backed up by Nick Fairley, who may face a league-issued suspension for getting arrested twice this summer. Starting ends Cliff Avril and Kyle Vanden Bosch, along with reserves Lawrence Jackson and Willie Young, allow coordinator Gunther Cunningham to roll fresh pass-rushers into the game.
"It's going to be crucial for us up front," Williams said. "Whoever's in the game, we want to take our game to another level to help the guys in the back end. We've got some injuries back there. We like that everybody puts everything on our shoulders."
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