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Barry Sanders optimistic changes will help Lions

Josh Katzenstein
The Detroit News

Enfield, England — Barry Sanders ran for at least 1,100 yards in each of his 10 seasons with the Lions.

But, as he watches a Lions team with the league's 32nd-ranked rushing attack, even he doesn't know how he'd play behind the team's shaky offensive line.

"Hopefully OK," he said Thursday. "Hopefully they can just have some good balance going into the rest of the season, and I know they've made some changes. And sometimes that's all it takes."

Those changes Sanders referenced were the team firing offensive coordinator Joe Lombardi and offensive line coaches Jeremiah Washburn and Terry Heffernan. The Lions fell to 1-6 with a loss to the Vikings last Sunday, and they allowed seven sacks in the game.

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Lions players like being in London because, among other reasons, not everyone recognizes them as they walk around. The same can't be said for the Hall-of-Famer Sanders, who was clearly a star to more than 50 local football players — most of whom were 14 to 19 — who attended a community event featuring him and former Lions offensive tackle Lomas Brown at Tottenham Hotspur Training Center.

"In his day, all the YouTube clips that you see are just mental," said Nena Killick, a 31-year-old local woman who plays for the Birmingham Lions. "Like that footwork, it's just crazy. A big inspiration."

Sanders, who did not travel for last year’s London game, has a busy schedule while he’s in England. After the clinic, he headed to a dinner with London mayor Boris Johnson, NFL commissioner Roger Goodell and Lions owner Martha Firestone Ford, among other VIPs. Sanders also will be on a cruise on the River Thames one night.

The Lions traveled to London in 1993 when Sanders and Brown were playing, though Brown missed the exhibition due to a contract holdout. Both players were impressed with how American football has grown in England.

“It’s been incredible just to see how the game’s been received,” Sanders said.

Barry Sanders poses for photos Thursday during a youth football event in Enfield, England.

During the event Thursday at the sprawling Tottenham facility, Brown and Sanders assisted in the clinic led by Chris Fritzsching, the Lions' director of youth football. The two former Lions stars also passed along some ways playing football helped them improve their lives.

After the 90-minute clinic, Sanders took several photographs and signed autographs, including one for Killick and an Oklahoma State jersey for one man. The man had several of Sanders’ trading cards, too.

Sanders said he doesn't know how to fix the Lions' problems this season, but he thinks it's important for the players to realize there's a lot to play for with 10 games left.

"The one thing you have to do is not get down in the dumps and understand that because of how things work now each game feels like there's probably a lot more riding on it than there really is," he said. "You get in there, you get to .500 and you work your way from there. They haven't handed out any awards yet.

"You're just now really figuring out who you are going into the middle of the season, and it's not over yet. Sometimes it feels like it or sounds like that, so you've just got to keep playing."

Obviously, the Lions face an uphill climb after a 1-6 start. After another ugly loss to the Vikings last Sunday, the Lions will try to notch their second win Sunday when they play the Kansas City Chiefs at London’s Wembley Stadium (9:30 a.m., FOX).

To make a return trip to the postseason, the Lions would likely have to win their remaining nine game, but Sanders noted that “they still do control their destiny.”

“A few early glitches,” Sanders said of the 2015 season. “I think the Monday night game (against Seattle), we kind of feel like we had one snatched from under us, but there’s plenty of season left. A lot to play for, a lot can happen in the span of an NFL season. It’s a marathon. A lot that’s going to happen. … Sometimes you get off to a slow start, but there’s still a lot to fight for.”

While the Lions have been inconsistent in all three phases this season, the best way for the team to get on track is to find a way to consistently utilize its talent on offense.

The 47-year-old Sanders told the Dan Patrick Show in January he could rush for 75 yards in a game with the right offensive line. Even though the 53-year-old Herschel Walker said recently he could still play, Sanders changed his tune since the winter.

“I doubt it very seriously,” Sanders said. “I don’t know, but I doubt it. It is fun to think about, and when you’re sitting over here on the sideline and you don’t actually have to suit up, then you can fantasize all you want to, I guess.

“And it’s fun to think about it, but me personally, I don’t think I could. The guys look terribly big out there.”