Know your enemy: Rams-Lions Pregame Q&A with Ty Schalter of

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The Rams will be counting on heavy doses of Steven Jackson against a fearsome Lions' front four.

The 2012 season kicks off with a rematch of two teams that met in a basement brawl three years ago. A young Matthew Stafford was outdueled by Marc Bulger, 176 passing yards to 168, and Steven Jackson had one of his best games a pro to single-handedly carry the Rams to a 17-10 victory. It was the Rams' sole win of that awful season, and one of fourteen losses for the luckless Lions. 

A lot has changed for Detroit since then, as Stafford and Calvin Johnson finally erupted with a fully healthy season together and tore apart the NFC for 10 wins and a playoff berth. The Rams, meanwhile, find themselves crawling out of that basement once again. With Jeff Fisher in charge, though, this is a very different team than last year, and hope is alive again in Rams land. 

The Lions are thinking of bigger and better things this season, but coach Jim Schwartz knows he cannot overlook any team coached by his former mentor Jeff Fisher. But how good can this Detroit team be? And are there any achilles heels that could be exposed by a young and hungry Rams team? Let's talk with Ty Schalter of to find out.  

RamsHerd: The offseason punditry has had mixed reviews of the Lions so far, with Peter King calling for a 2,000 yard receiving season from Calvin Johnson, but many analysts thinking that the Bears will leapfrog Detroit this season. What's your thought on this team's upside, and are you afraid of any regression to the mean? 

Ty: Football fans (and pundits) tend to think in terms of "last season's team, plus the new guys, minus the old." The Bears get Jay Cutler and Matt Forte back (with a newfound appreciation for both players), and added Brandon Marshall and Alshon Jeffrey to a dire receiving corps. Naturally, the assumption is that their offense will be much better and their defense will stay the same.

The Lions returned 21 of 22 starters from last season, and the guy who left (cornerback Eric Wright) was likely to be replaced anyway. It's popularly assumed the Lions will be exactly as they were as they were in 2011, since they neither added or lost significant pieces.

In reality, young "bench" players like defensive tackle Nick Fairley, wide receivers Titus Young and Ryan Broyles, running back Mikel Leshoure, and defensive linemen Willie Young, Sammie Hill and Lawrence Jackson are going to be key contributors in 2012, and some will surpass the veterans ahead of them. 


I don't think the Lions can stray too far from their identity: they will get after the passer with their front four. They'll blitz creatively–but sparingly, because the secondary can't be exposed too often. I'd look for disguised coverages, and a lot of "shown" blitzes that aren't coming.

Offensively, they will release the Calvin.

RamsHerd: It surprised me to learn that the Lions have one of the oldest rosters in the league right now. Is this a "win-now" team with a lot of veteran players, or a team with aging parts that is still working through its rebuilding process? 

Ty: That surprises me, too; so much so that I don't think it's accurate! Matthew Stafford is still only 24. Of all the WRs and RBs, Nate Burleson is the oldest at 31; second-oldest is Calvin Johnson who turns 27 this month. The offensive line is older, especially left tackle Jeff Backus (34) and center Dominic Raiola (33), but that's not unusual.

On the defense it's the same story: Kyle Vanden Bosch is the graybeard at 33, Corey Williams 32, and the entire rest of the defensive line is 27 or under. Stephen Tulloch is the oldest linebacker at 27. Chris Houston was the oldest DB at 28, until the Lions signed 31-year-old Drayton Florence two weeks ago to backfill for injuries.

Burleson, Backus, Vanden Bosch, and Williams are all key veterans whose replacements are already on the roster . . . and who may be superceded by the end of the season. In fact, Raiola is the only veteran starter over 30 who doesn't have a recent first- or second-round pick already behind him on the depth chart.*

Overall, this is a "win-now" team full of talented young veterans just hitting their prime: their championship window is now open and will be for a few years to come.

* counting Lawrence Jackson, 2008 first-rounder.

RamsHerd: Defensively, Ndamukong Suh seemed to take a step back last season after running away with ROY honors in 2010. What is his prognosis for 2012? 

Ty: The quick answer is that Suh wasn't anywhere near as good as everyone thought he was in 2010 (though he was good), and he was much better than than everyone thought in 2011. Suh had MORE QB pressures and hits last season than his rookie year, despite playing  22% fewer snaps.

His sack total went down from 10 to 4, but he pressured the quarterback more frequently. His play against the run also improved quite a bit. Best of all, he made huge plays in huge spots. His Win Probability Added was 1.09, meaning the positive plays he made on defense added up to a more than a whole game's worth of positive impact; that's 8th most amongst NFL DTs last season.

To become truly elite, he must be more consistent in creating pressure on every down, not just hitting a few "home runs" a game. He has the talent and drive to do it, too.

RamsHerd: This will be an interesting matchup of coaches, with the pupil taking on the master. How will Jim Schwartz gameplan against a team that might be his strategic mirror image?

Ty: I suspect this may resemble the classic battle of wits from The Princess Bride: If I know that you know that I know that you know . . . the Lions' staff actually began preparing for the Rams almost a week before the final preseason game. They even showed the players a little Rams tape right before they hosted the Bills, just to whet their appetite.

I don't think the Lions can stray too far from their identity: they will get after the passer with their front four. They'll blitz creatively–but sparingly, because the secondary can't be exposed too often. I'd look for disguised coverages, and a lot of "shown" blitzes that aren't coming.

Offensively, they will release the Calvin.

RamsHerd: Aside from the headline players (Stafford, Megatron, Suh), who will you be counting on this week to have a strong game?

Ty: The Lions need a big game from Kevin Smith. With no Mikel Leshoure, he'll need to establish that he can carry the load–and if the Rams have to respect the run, that'll take a lot of pressure off the passing game. Defensively, Lions will have to hassle Bradford early and often, but a big day from any of the corners or safeties pressed into service would be huge.

My thanks to Ty for dropping his knowledge on us. You can read my responses to his Rams questions here. And give him a follow at @TySchalter for in-game conversation.