Could the Lions actually contend for a playoff berth in 2011?

Detroit Lions guard Manny Ramirez (L), quarterback Matthew Stafford (2nd L), and their teammates celebrate with fans their victory over the Washington Redskins after their NFL football game in Detroit, Michigan September 27, 2009. REUTERS/Rebecca Cook (UNITED STATES SPORT FOOTBALL)

Every morning I have a routine when I log onto the computer for the day. I read as much NFL content from beat writers, columnists and bloggers that I can, and then I outline story ideas that I want to develop for my own articles.

For a couple of weeks I’ve thought about tackling the Detroit Lions and the possibility that they could contend in 2011. But every time I look down at the Lions on my list of ideas, I bypass them because I believe they’re still a year or two away from competing.

But today, for whatever reason, I felt compelled to write about them. Maybe it was because of their impressive performance against the Patriots on Saturday night or the fact that I’m sick of reading about Peyton Manning’s neck, but today was the day I chose the Lions as a topic. And after getting a shocking phone call from an old friend in Detroit, I’m glad I did.

After graduating from Central Michigan University in 2004, I moved to Detroit and lived there for about four years. During that time, I got a job on the promotions team and as a nights and weekends producer for WDFN Sports Radio AM1130. Passing out free swag to people in bars wasn’t the ideal job for a college graduate, but I felt very fortunate to even have a foot in the door at a sports radio station and was more than happy to do the work.

One of my favorite promotional events that I looked forward to every week during the football season was a Monday evening Lions recap show with WDFN host and beat writer Tom “Killer” Kowalski. While driving out to the bar and setting up the show together, on-site engineer Albert Dale and I used to talk about our fantasy teams or football games from the previous weekend. When Killer arrived, he and Albert would often trade friendly barbs and I would try to get both of them to bet me on the Monday Night Football game. (I don’t remember Tom ever partaking in my sharking, but Albert and I always had something insignificant on the line.)

Killer was a smart ass but he was funny and extremely likable. He was also kind and generous, and most importantly he cared about people whether his exterior expression showed it or not. He was also a little quirky and it never ceased to amaze me how the big guy always wore shorts, even during the coldest of Detroit winters. Lion fans didn’t always agree with him, but he had a big following because he often told it like it was and yet, he had a way of providing optimism even in the darkest of times (which have come all too often for Detroit fans). He was also a damn fine reporter and always provided quality content, which isn’t the case for every beat writer around the country.

In the middle of writing today’s column, I listened to a voicemail that Albert left for me on my cell phone and I could tell by his tone that something was wrong. Apparently Tom passed away this morning after his fiancé found him unresponsive in his home. The long-time Lions beat writer was only 51-years-old.

When I called Albert back, we both expressed our shock over the news but eventually started talking about all of the nights spent with Tom putting on his show. When I eventually got off the phone, I looked back at my computer screen and saw the half-finished Lions column that I had started.

Yeah, today is a good day to talk Lions football. This one is for you Killer, may you rest in peace.

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Is pass defense still the Lions’ biggest concern?

SEATTLE - NOVEMBER 08:  Safety Louis Delmas #26 of the Detroit Lions returns an interception for 29 yards against the Seattle Seahawks on November 8, 2009 at Qwest Field in Seattle, Washington. The Seahawks defeated the Lions 32-20. (Photo by Otto Greule Jr/Getty Images)

Merry preseason, everyone. It’s been a long offseason, but football is finally gearing up again and to celebrate I’m rolling out a new series on TSR entitled “2010 NFL Question Marks,” where I discuss one or two of the biggest concerns that teams have heading into the new season. Granted, some teams have more issues than others, but I’ll primarily be focusing on the biggest problem areas. Today I’ll be discussing the huge issues the Lions still have in their secondary.

A year ago, it was easy to spot the Lions’ biggest weakness, as their offensive line was an absolute mess. But after a productive 2009 campaign and a couple of offseason additions, Detroit’s O-line is no longer an issue.

Now the concern shifts to a secondary that received an offseason makeover, but remains the Lions’ biggest question mark after a dismal performance in 2009.

Last year, Detroit finished dead last in passing yards allowed, yielding 265.6 yards per game. The poor play of the defensive backfield contributed to the defensive unit giving up 30.9 points per content and over 6,000 total yards.

To address the issue, the Lions traded for former second round pick Chris Houston, whom Atlanta had given up on after signing big-money free agent Dunta Robinson. Houston has an impressive skill set and enough talent to make him a No. 1 corner, but he has yet to put it all together for an entire season.

The biggest issue with the former Arkansas product is that he always seems to put himself in position to make the play, but rarely does. He has great speed and is a physical corner, but he’s at his worst when the ball is in the air. He fell out of favor last season in Atlanta because he had major trouble locating the ball when it was in the air and making a play on it. In fact, 66% of the passes thrown his way were completed, which is a staggering number to say the least. That said, if he ever lives up to his potential he’s going to be a solid player.

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Lions get good value in trade for Chris Houston

While the deal isn’t official yet, ESPN’s Adam Schefter is reporting that the Lions are on the verge of acquiring cornerback Chris Houston from the Falcons in exchange for their sixth round pick. In addition, the two teams would also swap selections in the fifth round.

The Falcons drafted Houston out of Arkansas with the 41st overall pick (second round) in the 2007 draft in hopes that he would pair with DeAngelo Hall to form a formidable duo in their secondary. But Hall was traded the following year and despite having the opportunity to gain extensive playing time as a starter, Houston just hasn’t been an ideal fit in Atlanta.

In Detroit, Houston will be able to play more press coverage, which should suit him better than the zone scheme that the Falcons run. He’s extremely athletic and if he can get his hands on a receiver at the line, he can be a decent cover corner. The problem is that he has massive issues trying to find the ball once it’s in the air and struggles playing in space, which is why he isn’t a fit in zone coverage. Still, he has all the athletic tools to succeed and if he winds up fulfilling his talent, he could be a solid No. 2 in the league.

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Dunta Robinson a Falcon by the end of the day?

Using Atlanta GM Thomas Dimitroff’s exact words, the Falcons have publicly stated over the past couple weeks that they would be “fiscally responsible” when it comes to spending money on free agents this offseason. In other words, the Falcons are expected to be awfully quiet in free agency and instead focus on the draft.

But as of Friday morning, the Falcons appear to be a lock to land former Texan Dunta Robinson, who along with Leigh Bodden is one of the top cornerbacks on the market. Robinson is currently in Atlanta now and a deal could be wrapped up by the end of the day.

Despite Dimitroff’s stated plan to fly under the radar this offseason, the Falcons know that their number one need is in the secondary. They re-signed veteran Brian Williams to a one-year deal on Thursday, but he’s 31 and missed most of the 2009 season after tearing his ACL. Chris Houston (a 2007 second round pick) was eventually supposed to emerge as the team’s No. 1 corner and while he’s a tremendous athlete, he has trouble playing the ball when it’s in the air and often gets beat in coverage. Brent Grimes is arguably the team’s best athlete, but he can be beat by taller, more physical wideouts that tower over his listed 5-10 (that’s being generous) frame. Chevis Jackson and Chris Owens are bigger corners that Dimitroff drafted in the middle rounds over the last two years, but they still have a ways to go in their development.

For the Falcons, it’s all about matching up with the Saints. They know they need all the corner help they can get since they have to play New Orleans twice a year, which is why they’re willing to spend big on Robinson. Obviously we don’t know what the final contract numbers will be, but there’s a good chance Atlanta slightly overpays for Robinson because corner is such a need area.

Robinson failed to produce an interception last season, but still displayed the skills necessary to be a top-flight corner. He certainly wasn’t great in coverage, but with a new deal and a new team, he should be motivated to play well next year. If the Falcons do land him, they’ll be taking a significant step in their efforts to return to the playoffs.

12:20PM ET Update: Adam Schefter reports that the Falcons tried to acquire Robinson before the trade deadline last year. If that’s the case, whatever Atlanta signs Robinson for today will be a bargain, seeing as how they didn’t have to give up a draft pick on top of a long-term contract.

Photo from fOTOGLIF

Jets, Falcons suffer blows to their defenses is reporting that Jets nose tackle Kris Jenkins is out for the season with a left knee injury, while FOX Sports reports that Falcons cornerback Brian Williams is done for year after tearing his ACL in Sunday night’s win over the Bears.

Defensive end Sione Pouha will likely move to nose tackle to fill the void left by Jenkins, while Marques Douglas or Mike DeVito enter the starting line up at end. The Jets’ run defense suffers the most with Jenkins’ injury, although Rex Ryan has mastered the art of masking defensive weaknesses so at least New York has that going for it.

Still, this isn’t a good sign for a defense that held opponents to only four rushing touchdowns in the first six weeks of the season. Jenkins has often proved to be a thorn in opposing teams’ sides and will be missed.

Williams was a great find for the Falcons after the Jaguars cut him right before the season. He added a veteran presence to an inexperienced Atlanta secondary and now the Falcons are once again highly susceptible through the air. Brent Grimes and Chris Houston will now be the starters, while Chevis Jackson, Ty Hill and rookie Chris Owens will see increased playing time.

The Falcons are hoping that Houston will eventually cash in on some of his athletic talent and become the No. 1 corner the team envisioned when they drafted him in the second round a couple years ago. Despite his great speed, he often gets burned in coverage by using poor technique and never gets a successful jam off the line. At this point, he looks like a bust but maybe Williams’ injury will motivate him to step up.

These two injuries could wind up exploiting weaknesses for the Jets and Falcons – especially for Atlanta seeing as how it still has to play the pass-happy Saints twice this season.

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