Lions 2008 Season Preview

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ALLEN PARK, Mich. (AP) -- The Detroit Lions are doing and saying all the right things in August.
Jason Hanson, who has played a franchise-record 16 seasons for the lowly franchise, said years of losing have tempered his optimism.
"Those of us that have been around have learned it's not fun to say a lot anymore," the kicker said. "I could say lots of stuff. Who cares? It's about what we do on Sundays."
The Lions did finish with a Matt Millen-high seven victories last season after a second-half that dropped them to an NFL-worst 31-81 since 2001.
Improved chemistry in the locker room and work ethic on the field, however, is what players and coaches are raving about. They're all insisting that a balanced offense, faster defense and better understanding of what coach Rod Marinelli is looking for will make a difference in wins and losses.
A lot seemingly will have to go their way to be at least .500 for the first time since Millen took over as team president seven years ago.
Detroit is determined to make defenses respect the run now that it has parted ways with pass-happy coordinator Mike Martz. But the offensive line doesn't seem to be filled with players who would start on most teams and a rookie running back is being counted on to turn potential into production right away.
The Lions' defense is banking on past-their-prime players familiar with their scheme. The unit also has unheralded defensive tackles replacing standout Shaun Rogers.
Most of all, the franchise is focused on sweat overcoming lackluster resumes.
"I want to lead the league in effort," said Marinelli, who is entering his third season in Detroit. "It doesn't take talent to do that."
Detroit definitely does, though, have plenty of skill at wide receiver with one of the NFL's most spectacular duos: Roy Williams and Calvin Johnson.
Williams, a free agent after the season, might surpass his average of eight touchdowns a season. The 6-foot-5 Johnson, the second pick overall last year, will draw extra attention with a combination of size and speed that reminds teammate Leigh Bodden of a young Randy Moss.
After hearing incessant trade rumors, Williams acknowledged being surprised to be entering his fifth season with the team.
"Especially during draft time, I thought I'd be out of here," he said. "But I'm here and I'm going to put all of that behind me. I know you guys will hound me about it every day until Week 7 when there's no more trades."
Detroit wouldn't dream of dealing Johnson, who sprinkled flashy plays throughout his rookie season despite hurting his back early in the year and playing through the pain.
It will be Jon Kitna's job to get Williams and Johnson the ball, probably with fewer opportunities with offensive coordinator Jim Colletto calling the shots.
Detroit opened training camp with runs up the middle and plans to start and end games this season moving the ball on the ground after being a one-dimensional team the past two years under Martz.
"It's going to be drastic because we used to pass so much," center Dominic Raiola said. "If we can at least run a little bit, it will open things up on the outside."
The key to that will be getting production to be better than the perception of the offensive line and backfield.
Raiola and tackle Jeff Backus, Millen's first two picks in 2001, would likely be starters even if they weren't in Detroit. It's difficult to envision that being true of the other three starters, including right tackle George Foster, who was retained despite losing his job last season. First-round pick Gosder Cherilus might pan out eventually, but he didn't initially seem ready to beat out Foster.
Another rookie, third-round running back Kevin Smith, will have to prove his upright running style can work as well as it did at Central Florida, where he came up just short of Barry Sanders' NCAA rushing record.
Smith might lead a rotation that includes veterans who are not going to strike fear in many defenses.
"It would be nice to start, but that's not my goal," Smith said. "Starters only play the first play for sure. I want to finish."
Detroit began strong last season and just when the much-maligned team seemed to turn the corner, it matched the worst collapse for a team that had won six of its first eight games since the league implemented 16-game schedules in 1978.
"I hope we learned that it takes more work Monday through Saturday because that's where we lost last season," Kitna said. "We didn't get overmatched in the second half. We didn't execute the simple things because we didn't put in time outside of meetings to study our playbook to know every detail."
Defensively, Detroit is leaning on new defensive backs Dwight Smith, Brian Kelly and Kalvin Pearson along with defensive tackle Chuck Darby -- all of whom played for the Buccaneers when Marinelli was an assistant -- to know every wrinkle of the Tampa 2.
Bodden, acquired in the Rogers trade, acknowledges it's not an easy system to learn.
"It's all about knowing where your help is and when you'll have it," the cornerback said.
Detroit might have an edge in some facets of special teams with Hanson kicking field goals and Nick Harris pinning teams inside their 20, but an underwhelming pool of candidates will be returning kickoffs and punts.
Hard work in practices, the Lions hope, will turn perceived weaknesses into strengths.
"I'm so tired of losing," Williams said. "Everybody should be excited to come out here and work, get better and get ready to go to the playoffs."
Well, maybe he didn't get Hanson's message.

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