Tampa Bay Buccaneers
Lions due for league reality check
TAMPA - The 2012 Detroit Lions should have a familiar look around these parts. They are coming off a 10-6 season filled with dynamic finishes, armed with a talented young quarterback and a fan base harboring big expectations for a gritty club on the upswing. Welcome to the 2011 Buccaneers revisited. There are differences, of course.Tampa Bay hasn't boasted a defensive tackle like Ndamukong Suh since Warren Sapp was prowling the halls of One Buc Place. The Bucs have never been blessed with a wide receiver like Calvin Johnson, the best at his profession and just entering his prime. Unlike Matthew Stafford, Josh Freeman has never thrown for 5,038 yards and 41 touchdowns in an NFL season. Yet the similarities are striking. The 2010 Bucs and last year's Lions came out of nowhere, capitalizing on torrid starts to build enthusiasm and confidence. After averaging only four wins in the previous nine seasons, Detroit opened 5-0 behind a series of stunning rallies. A 27-20 victory at Tampa in Week 1 set the tone for a franchise that had been hapless on the road. But there is reason to question all that momentum building in Motown. The Lions averaged almost 30 points per game, but winning shootouts is risky business long term. Detroit went 0-5 last year when scoring fewer than 24 points and defensive coordinators have had a full offseason to figure out how to contain the electric Stafford-Johnson connection. "We want to be good over a consistent period of time,'' Lions coach Jim Schwartz said. "We want to deliver championships. We don't want to be a one-year wonder.'' The Bucs had the same sentiments 12 months ago as Raheem Morris was coming off a second-place finish in NFL coach of the year balloting. A young Tampa Bay roster would only improve, right? We all know what happened. Freeman regressed after a 4-2 start and a thin defense was routinely embarrassed during a 10-game losing streak that stunned ownership, prompting a coaching change. The Lions aren't likely to plunge to 4-12 this fall, but a reality check is dead ahead. Detroit's ground game is a sham, with Jahvid Best plagued by concussion issues and Mikel Leshoure, coming off a torn Achilles, suspended for the first two games after violating the league's substance-abuse policy. Teams like the Giants and the Packers have proven a drab running attack can be overcome, but the Lions don't exactly boast a championship defense, either. In the final two games of last season, a 45-41 loss at Green Bay and a 45-28 playoff setback at New Orleans, Detroit yielded 61 first downs and 1,176 yards. Those are the kind of alarming defensive numbers Bucs supporters got used to down the stretch last year. Suh has plenty to prove after looking quite ordinary for much of 2011 and Detroit's secondary can't make the key stops. Being stuck in the NFC North is another cause for concern. The Packers are 36-12 in the past three seasons and Chicago was 7-3 last year when QB Jay Cutler was sidelined by a thumb injury. "I think the Bears are going to be a real threat to win the North and go deep in the playoffs, provided they stay healthy,'' ESPN analyst and former Bucs coach Jon Gruden said. The over-under win total for the 2012 Lions has been set at 9.5 by Las Vegas sports books, but that number looks a little optimistic from here. The Lions are one of only two NFC clubs that haven't won a playoff game since the start of the 2003 season. It's difficult to imagine Detroit emerging as a title contender with a defense this porous. Curious about the other NFC team burdened by nine years of playoff futility? Don't ask, Bucs fans.