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Behind Enemy Lines

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Behind Enemy Lines: An Inside Look at the Lions


NASHVILLE, Tenn. — The Titans travel to Detroit to face the Lions in Week Two on Sunday.

The Titans are coming off a 25-16 loss to the Minnesota Vikings. The Lions, meanwhile, rallied to beat the Indianapolis Colts, 39-35, as quarterback Matthew Stafford threw for 340 yards and three touchdowns.

This week, I caught up with Dave Birkett, who is in his seventh seasons covering the Lions for the Detroit Free Press. He's a Hall of Fame voter, and he does a heck of a job covering the Lions. The guy is a real newshound. You can follow Dave on Twitter @davebirkett.


Wyatt:** Hey Dave. I appreciate you taking the time to do this. You saw the Lions win a wild one on Sunday in Indy. What stood out to you right out of the gate about the 2016 Lions?

Birkett: I think there were two really good signs for the Lions. Matthew Stafford, first of all, he continued to play at the level he did the second half of last year, after Jim Bob Cooter took over as offensive coordinator. He threw the ball 39 times on Sunday, and threw just eight incompletions while throwing three touchdown passes. He was really sharp, even before he led the game-winning drive at the end. And the second thing that stood out would be the offensive line. There were so many questions heading into the year about how good the Lions would be up front, starting a rookie at left tackle (Taylor Decker). With as much trouble as they've had at that position the last few years, for them to play well up from in Week One was a pretty good sign.

Wyatt: On thing that impressed me was the production they got out of their running backs. Ameer Abdullah (63 rush yards, 57 receiving yards, TD) and Theo Riddick (45 rush, 63 receiving, TD) combined for a big day. How good of a 1-2 punch are those guys for the Lions and how will they use them?

Birkett: It's amazing to think the Lions haven't ranked in the top half of the NFL in rushing since Barry Sanders was playing. They're not going to be a run-first team by any means with Stafford at quarterback, but they are going to play both of those backs a lot and they are going to use them in different ways. I think they can be effective weapons. I don't know that either one of them is going to get to 1,000 yards, but they both topped 100 yards from scrimmage the other day, counting rushing and receiving, and I think the expectation should be they'll be somewhere in that vicinity moving forward because they are both weapons in the passing game and they can both run the ball, too.

Wyatt: Lions receiver Golden Tate played his high school football just outside Nashville at Pope John Paul II. Folks here have followed his career, from Seattle to Detroit. How has he been with the Lions, and is that receiving corps good enough to win following Calvin Johnson's abrupt retirement?

Birkett: Well, they don't have any superstars on their receiving corps – they have two pretty good players in Tate and Marvin Jones. Tate, you know he is going to catch just about every pass thrown his way. He's pretty sure-handed and is really good when he gets into the open field. He's led the Lions in catches the last two years. Marvin Jones is the guy who is the deep threat for them. Those two are good players, and Anquan Boldin is playing a lot, too, as the No.3 receiver. So all three of those guys should get plenty of playing time.


Wyatt:** I know fans there have to be excited with the start. In your mind, what are the biggest question marks for the Lions looking ahead this season?

Birkett: The biggest question, the way they played in the first game at least, is the back seven. Their defense, they didn't get much pressure on Colts quarterback Andrew Luck. A part of that, of course, is because Luck is so good. But the ease with which Luck and the Colts moved the ball, I think that is a concern. Darius Slay didn't have a great game. He is still a pretty good cornerback, but there are some other question marks in the back end at the strong safety spot and the two cornerback spots. They need to play better. And then offensively, the offensive line, even though they played good and it's a positive, I think there are still some questions they are going to have to answer. The Colts don't have a very good defensive front and they are going to be tested a little more thing week with some of the linemen the Titans have.

Wyatt: We talked a little bit about Stafford earlier. He's turned out to be a heck of a quarterback. He has a strong arm, and has thrown for 26,316 yards and 166 touchdowns in his career. He has five 4,000-plus yard seasons, and one year with over 5,000 passing yards. What is next for Stafford?  What does he need to do to take his game to the next level?

Birkett: Winning. He just needs to win. He's had great numbers in the past, but he hasn't always won. And now, and (General Manager) Bob Quinn even said this, they need to see him sort of take the next step and put the team on his shoulders a little bit. That's not to say they don't have other talent, but the spotlight is more on him than ever before without Calvin Johnson, and some of the other changes they made to change the offense to his liking. They are using a lot of no-huddle and putting a lot on his plate, so a lot is going to be on to lead them to whatever success that they have.

Wyatt: Last thing, and I appreciate you doing this. I know you spent some time with Titans tackle Jack Conklin leading up to the NFL Draft. How is he viewed there, not far from where he made a name for himself at Michigan State? And what kind of impression did he make on you?

Birkett: He's just a pure football player, that's what I know about him. He's a guy who worked his way up from walk-on to all-Big Ten to first round draft pick, and deservingly so. He's a guy I think could play left or right tackle. I know the Titans are using him (at right), but he's talented enough to do either. I know he's a guy the Lions liked in the draft as well. I think just about every team did. I remember going out and spending part of a day with him and I really liked him. I was impressed. He's a polite guy, but a down-to-earth guy who is all about football. What he is doing now is something he's always wanted to do, so he is kind of living a dream. So it is going to be exciting to see his development. I think he's going to be a real solid player for the Titans.

Thanks again, Dave. See ya this weekend in Detroit.

The Tennessee Titans kick off the 2016 season in Week 1 against the Minnesota Vikings at Nissan Stadium. (Photos: Donn Jones, AP)

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