NOAH TRISTER, AP Sports Writer
DETROIT (AP) — A new coach, a new system — plus a couple of significant additions on the offensive side of the ball.
That’s what Matthew Stafford has to work with this season, after his Detroit Lions collapsed toward the end of 2013. It would be an understatement to say the pressure is on.
“When you look at successful teams in the NFL, the majority of them are having their quarterback play at a high level,” Stafford said recently. “That’s something that I’ve always tried to do and hold myself to that standard. This season is no different.”
Stafford wasn’t the only Detroit player making mistakes toward the end of last season, but the former No. 1 overall draft pick was particularly erratic.
After missing the playoffs, the Lions fired coach Jim Schwartz and replaced him with Jim Caldwell, a move that set the tone for an offseason in which the organization seemed fixated on helping its franchise quarterback take another big step forward.
In Caldwell, the Lions have an offensive-minded coach who worked with Peyton Manning in Indianapolis, and new offensive coordinator Joe Lombardi worked with Drew Brees as an assistant in New Orleans.
Detroit also signed wide receiver Golden Tate and used its first-round draft pick on tight end Eric Ebron. The Lions re-signed tight end Brandon Pettigrew — and of course, Calvin Johnson and Reggie Bush are also still part of what could be one of the game’s most dynamic offenses.
Johnson was slowed by injuries last season, but he still caught 84 passes for 1,492 yards. He had offseason surgery on a knee and a finger, and Lombardi is trying to devise new ways to use the star receiver.
“He’s going to move around a lot,” Lombardi said. “You’ll see more motion from him, you’ll see him in different spots, inside and outside.”
The Lions will hope to keep turnovers to a minimum. They lost six of their last seven games last season, and Stafford was intercepted 12 times over that span. Now he’ll be in his first year in a new offense.
“I think for me the biggest challenge this offseason was trying to get a mastery of the playbook, of the new system we have going in,” Stafford said. “That’s what I spent most of my time and effort on, and with that comes new drops and new reads and things like that. So I’ve integrated that in with it. I don’t know if there’s one thing that stands out to me — just trying to be an overall better player.”
Here are a few other things to watch in Detroit’s first season under Caldwell:
SUH’S FUTURE: Ndamukong Suh is entering the final year of his contract, and talks subsided around the start of training camp. Even if Suh has another big season on the defensive line, the pressure will be on the Lions to take full advantage, since there’s a chance they could lose him during the offseason.
STABILITY UP FRONT: Riley Reiff, Rob Sims, Dominic Raiola and Larry Warford all started 16 games last season, and all are back on the offensive line. So is LaAdrian Waddle, who started eight games as a rookie.
Stafford was sacked only 23 times last season.
INSTABILTY IN BACK: Detroit’s secondary was an occasional trouble spot last year, and that was before the team lost safety Louis Delmas and cornerback Chris Houston in the offseason. The Lions signed safety James Ihedigbo, but they’ll also be counting on holdovers Darius Slay and Rashean Mathis to perform in the defensive backfield.
ROOKIE KICKER: For two decades, Jason Hanson handled kicking duties in Detroit with remarkable consistency, but after Hanson’s retirement and a season of David Akers, the Lions are now turning to a rookie. Detroit drafted Nate Freese of Boston College in the seventh round this year, and Freese beat out Giorgio Tavecchio in a preseason competition.
“He’s a capable young man and he’s going to grow and develop and I think you’re going to see him continue to get better and better,” Caldwell said.
CALM CALDWELL: The Detroit sideline will be different this year without the fired-up Schwartz. Caldwell maintains a more even-keeled demeanor, but that doesn’t mean he lacks passion. The Lions are obviously hoping for improvement under Caldwell, but the new coach has stopped short of a complete overhaul.
This is certainly no rebuilding project.
“Be careful of the guy who changes everything or the guy who changes nothing — I think that’s an old adage that’s out there,” Caldwell said. “I’m not going to just change it just to change. To me that’s kind of idiotic.”
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