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New-Look Lions Don't Resemble Last Year's Opponent


The last time the Detroit Lions came to Lambeau Field, they were 0-15 and trying - unsuccessfully it turned out - to avoid becoming the first winless team in the history of the NFL's 16-game schedule.

This Sunday they return to Green Bay with a win on the ledger already, but there's so much more that's different about the '09 Lions.

It starts with the roster, which includes just 21 players from the 53-man group that came here for the season finale last December. That's a 60-percent turnover in one offseason.

While some of the big names remain the same - wide receiver Calvin Johnson, running back Kevin Smith and linebacker Ernie Sims, for example - there are several new faces at key positions.

Rookie and No. 1 overall draft pick Matthew Stafford is the starting quarterback, and if his knee injury keeps him out of the lineup this week, veteran Daunte Culpepper will play instead. Bryant Johnson and Dennis Northcutt are the complementary wideouts to Calvin Johnson, while another first-round draft pick, Brandon Pettigrew, is the top tight end.

On defense, the starting secondary is entirely new, while veterans like Julian Peterson and Larry Foote were brought in to boost the linebacking corps. The addition of Foote, a two-time Super Bowl champion with the Pittsburgh Steelers and a Detroit native, was a strong sign that new head coach Jim Schwartz wanted to bring in not only new players, but players with a winning attitude and background to help turn things around.

"It speaks well for what we're doing," said Schwartz, the former defensive coordinator of the Tennessee Titans. "Larry is a really, really good leader. Emotionally he loves the game of football, loves to practice, he prepares well. More importantly he's a good football player. He's not the biggest guy, he's not the strongest guy, he's not the fastest guy, but he's a smart, good football player who's productive."

Signaling change in as many ways as possible - including with a new logo - was Schwartz's top priority when taking over. Players who did return from last year were given different lockers, and different neighbors in the locker room. They were assigned parking spots for the first time, and they began the offseason program learning entirely new offensive and defensive systems.

"We really started from scratch," Schwartz said. "It started from the way we lifted weights to the way we organized practice, different coaches, different schemes. We traveled different. Just about every way that you can do something different, we did. Some of it was by design, some of it was by philosophy. We made sure that we were going to start from the very beginning in doing things a different way."

Veteran center Dominic Raiola said the players noticed the differences right away, not just the cosmetic things, but differences that created a more "urgent attitude" throughout the whole team.

"The biggest thing he's done is he came into training camp and put everybody's job on the line," Raiola said. "He said you have to earn your job or you're not going to be here. He didn't care how much money you made or anything like that. I think everybody's job was on the line and that makes a lot of people more on the edge of their seat."

The changes haven't resulted in a major turnaround, statistically at least, yet. The Lions beat Washington at home in Week 3 to break a 19-game losing streak, but they're 1-4 and once again looking up at the rest of the NFC North.

They've shown a penchant for battling their division foes, though. In Week 2, they led the Vikings 10-0 in the second quarter before falling. In Week 4, they were tied with the Bears at 21-all at halftime before Chicago pulled away in the second half.

Schwartz has no interest in cheering for moral victories, but even some of the Packers have noticed a different team as they've studied film to prepare for Detroit this week.

"They play hard now," nose tackle Ryan Pickett said. "They play hard throughout the snaps. They just have a different look. They're a different-looking team than they were on tape last year.

"Last year maybe they gave up, I don't know. This year they're trying extra hard, they're blocking hard, they're running hard. It's going to be a tough game. It's not just going to be a cake-walk."

It's also worth noting that Detroit's four losses have come to two unbeaten teams (Vikings, Saints), a one-loss team (Bears) and the defending Super Bowl champs (Steelers) last week. In that game, the Lions drove within 21 yards of a potential game-tying touchdown late in the fourth quarter.

Offensive coordinator Scott Linehan built his reputation by running a high-powered Minnesota offense earlier this decade, and provided Stafford and Calvin Johnson stay healthy (Johnson is also battling a thigh injury this week), that explosive connection will provide a constant threat.

{sportsad300}For all their struggles on defense - the Lions rank 27th in the league in passing yards allowed per game and last in points allowed per contest - they've also shown a flair for the big play they haven't displayed in the past. The defense already has scored two touchdowns this season on a fumble return by rookie safety Louis Delmas and an interception return by cornerback William James.

"Defensively I think they're very well coached, both with Jim and Gunther (Cunningham) over there," Head Coach Mike McCarthy said. "You can see the principles that they've used in the past that they're utilizing in their defense. I think they're trying to create an attitude in the way they play. I think they're a much-improved football team."

One that's certainly not worried about avoiding any infamy. While Schwartz acknowledged there was a significant celebration three weeks ago following the franchise's first win since 2007, he sounded somewhat embarrassed by how big a deal it was.

And that's the most important thing the first-year head coach is trying to make different about the Lions.

"We have to get to the point where we don't celebrate Week 3 wins with champagne and parades downtown," Schwartz said, tongue-in-cheek. "We shouldn't be popping confetti when we win a Week 3 game. We should expect to win every week.

"When we talk about change in culture, we never really addressed last year. We addressed it by not addressing it. We just moved on and said we're too busy trying to improve. We have too much to do to dwell on what happened last year."

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