NOAH TRISTER, AP Sports Writer
DETROIT (AP) — Ndamukong Suh was as emotional as anyone after the Detroit Lions lost a hard-fought, controversial playoff opener against Dallas last season.READ MORE: Ribs RnB Music Festival Kicks Off This Weekend In Downtown Detroit
As Suh addressed reporters after that game against the Cowboys, it was fair to wonder if that was the end of an era in Detroit, and sure enough, the star defensive tackle left via free agency in the offseason, signing with Miami.
The Lions have no choice but to move on without Suh, hoping his departure won’t significantly weaken what was one of the best defenses in the NFL in 2014.
“The guys have come back in better shape,” coach Jim Caldwell said earlier this offseason. “That’s not all across the board, every guy, but the majority of them. I think that’s kind of part of their makeup anyway.
“They did so last summer between our spring and the summer. They did so during the season in terms of their efforts, and they’re making certain that they got themselves in great shape and we hope that continues.”
The Lions have won only one postseason game in the past half-century, and they haven’t made the playoffs in back-to-back seasons since making three consecutive appearances from 1993-95.
Detroit lost 24-20 at Dallas — the game turned when what looked like a pass interference flag on the Cowboys was picked up by the officials.
Quarterback Matthew Stafford faces familiar questions after Detroit’s offense never really took a big step forward in Caldwell’s first season. Stafford cut down on his interceptions, but his 4,257 yards passing was his lowest total in a full season as a pro.
“You want to be explosive and efficient at the same time,” Stafford said. “The way this league is, you throw for a lot of yards and a lot of touchdowns, it’s usually a successful season. I’m just going to continue to try getting better. Make sure that we’re not turning the ball over, and making big plays.”
Receiver Calvin Johnson turns 30 in September after catching 71 passes for 1,077 yards last season — his lowest mark in each category since 2009.
Here are a few things to watch with the Lions:READ MORE: Judge Says Michigan Gov. Whitmer Won't Have To Testify In Abortion Lawsuit
NEW DEFENSIVE LINE: The departures of free agents Suh and Nick Fairley left plenty of uncertainty on the interior. The Lions traded for DT Haloti Ngata of Baltimore and signed DT Tyrunn Walker away from New Orleans.
Don’t assume the Lions’ pass rush will be weak without Suh. DE Ziggy Ansah had 15½ sacks in his first two seasons, and DE Jason Jones had five last season.
PROTECTING THE PASSER: Stafford was sacked a career-high 45 times last season, and the Lions have given their offensive line a makeover. Gone are C Dominic Raiola and G Rob Sims. C Travis Swanson is in line to start, and Detroit used its first-round draft pick on G Laken Tomlinson.
IN THE BACKFIELD: The Lions cut RB Reggie Bush, paving the way for Joique Bell to be the clear No. 1 ball carrier. But Bell could use some help, and second-round draft pick Ameer Abdullah may be able to provide it.
Abdullah rushed for more than 1,600 yards in each of his final two seasons at Nebraska.
BACKUP QUARTERBACK: Kellen Moore signed with the Lions in 2012 and has never played in an NFL game. The former Boise State star is 26 now, and Caldwell spoke highly enough of him during minicamp that it’s fair to wonder if Moore can push Dan Orlovsky for the No. 2 quarterback spot.
Orlovsky hasn’t attempted an NFL pass since 2012, when he was with Tampa Bay.
EBRON’S DEVELOPMENT: Last year’s first-round pick, TE Eric Ebron, caught 25 passes for 248 yards and a touchdown. Ebron should have a chance to shine in this offense — especially since Johnson and WR Golden Tate occupy so much of the defense’s attention — but the 6-foot-4, 265-pounder still has to prove he can be an impact player in the NFL.
Ebron was picked two spots ahead of Odell Backham Jr., so the pressure is on.
___MDHHS Lifts No-Contact Recommendation In Huron River Chemical Spill
(Copyright 2015 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.)