September 11, 2009 at 11:32 pm

Bob Wojnowski

Lions defense must improve

The Lions defense should receive a boost from newcomers Larry Foote, left, and Louis Delmas, but the unit still has plenty of room to grow. (Daniel Mears/The Detroit News)

Allen Park

Everyone talks about the kid quarterback. Lions fans get tingly debating the newest era, while opponents crave the classic rookie mistakes.

But this isn't all about Matthew Stafford. (Really, it isn't.) The Lions' long-term hopes are fastened firmly to his arm, and he'll be good eventually, but their short-term hopes are a bit narrower.

They have to find a way to stop somebody, starting Sunday in New Orleans. If they still can't stop anybody, they won't stop anything -- the scrutiny, the ridicule, The Streak.

The Lions defense has to be better, mainly because it's virtually impossible to be worse. The chances of being appreciably better are tied to a pair of veteran linebackers, excellent players in other places. Julian Peterson, the former Michigan State star, and Larry Foote, the former Michigan star, bring leadership and credibility, and hopefully, a few more big hits.

Neither wants to hear about The Streak, 17 losses and counting, including the first 0-16 season in NFL history.

"It's silly even to compare," Foote said. "You got so many new players here, we don't know nothing about 0-16. The good thing is, you got rid of the bad players and kept the ones that were good."

Well, that's the theory. I have no doubt Peterson, 31, and Foote, 29, are upgrades over Paris Lenon, Ryan Nece or whoever else tried to play linebacker last season. I have no doubt they'll push the development of young Ernie Sims.

But my goodness, think about what the Lions are trying to do. They have nine new starters on defense, including the entire secondary. Sims and Dewayne White are the only full-time holdovers.

Actions speak louder

I'm going way, way out on a limb by saying massive change was necessary. But sorry, I must add this: The defensive line still looks weak, the secondary is a gigantic unknown and the defense's woes are the main reason this is a 4-12 team, give or take a game.

"Can you totally turn things over in one year? Probably not," first-year coach Jim Schwartz said. "But the plan is to make improvement. Words are cheap; it's actions on the field that will matter."

Just to recap, the primary actions on the field last season were missed tackles, brutal coaching and poor players performing poorly. The Lions surrendered 517 points, second-most in NFL history. All sorts of gruesome numbers paint the messy picture, including this one -- one. That was the total number of interceptions by the secondary.

All right, I'll stop. No one wants to hear it, certainly no one on the current defense, completely different than the old Tampa Phew defense. There's a new coordinator, Gunther Cunningham, and a new defense-oriented head coach.

No wonder Schwartz's indifference has started melting to irritation when asked about 0-16.

"A lot of these guys aren't accountable for what happened last year, they weren't here," said Schwartz, who coordinated Tennessee's tough defense last year. "We can't have excuses, but there should be no carryover. We're not gonna have that on our backs, that's my attitude."

Plugging holes

That's the correct attitude. But it's on their backs, fair or not. That's partly why I preferred Daunte Culpepper over Stafford, a possible shorter path to that first victory.

The Lions actually have some offensive pieces in place. Calvin Johnson is a great receiver. Kevin Smith is a rising back. Even the offensive line looked better in the preseason, which made Schwartz more comfortable installing Stafford.

If they get in shootouts this season, they might not have both arms tied behind them, with one eye closed. And we know there's at least half a chance of a shootout Sunday with the Saints and prolific quarterback Drew Brees.

The Lions hope Sims and young defensive end Cliff Avril keep growing. They hope veteran cornerbacks Phillip Buchanon and Anthony Henry have something left, and rookie safety Louis Delmas has something fierce to show.

But there's still far more hope than certainty. In Peterson, who went to five Pro Bowls with the 49ers and Seahawks, and Foote, who won two Super Bowls with the Steelers, there's immediacy and much-needed (if older) talent.

"We don't feel like we're rebuilding, just re-finding," Peterson said. "We have guys that have won, very solid players, and we're putting that together with young talent that hasn't had the success it should. No one's dwelling on, 'Oh, there's a dark cloud over Detroit.' "

The cloud won't fade and the counter won't stop clicking until the Lions get their first victory. I say it comes in Week 3 against Washington, but please don't quote me. Stopping the streak starts by stopping somebody, and there's still no certainty of that.

bob.wojnowski@detnews.com">bob.wojnowski@detnews.com

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