EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. – The Giants open their 2014 season on Monday night against the Detroit Lions in Ford Field. Last season, Detroit lost its final four games, and six of its last seven, to finish 7-9 after a 6-3 start. That poor finish prompted the Lions to fire head coach Jim Schwartz and replace him with Jim Caldwell, who was the coach in Indianapolis from 2009-11. One of Detroit's late-season losses was a 23-20 overtime defeat to the Giants on Dec. 22, also in Ford Field. The Giants have won the last three games in the series (in 2007, 2010 and 2013) and their last five games in Detroit (in 1988, 1996, 1997, 2007 and 2013). Three of those games were decided in overtime. The Giants have not lost in the Motor City since 1983. The regular-season series is tied, 20-20-1. The Lions won the only postseason meeting between the teams, in the 1935 NFL Championship Game.
DETROIT LIONS OFFENSE
The Lions finished the 2013 season ranked sixth in the NFL with an average of 392.1 yards per game. They were third in passing yardage (280.1) and 17th in rushing (112.0). Detroit's minus-12 turnover differential last season was the league's eighth-worst. But the Lions have a new coordinator in Joe Lombardi, who spent the previous seven seasons on the New Orleans Saints coaching staff, the last five as quarterbacks coach.
Quarterback Matthew Stafford, who started every game the previous three seasons, has an exceptionally strong arm and the ability to make every throw. Stafford's 14,655 passing yards in the past three seasons trail only Drew Brees – who was coached during that time by Lombardi. Last year, Stafford started all 16 games and passed for 4,650 yards. It was his third consecutive 4,500-yard season and he is the only Lions quarterback ever to pass for at least 4,500 yards in a single season. Stafford is the only player in NFL history to record three 4,500-yard seasons in the first five years of his career. The game against the Giants was one of just two last season in which Stafford did not throw a touchdown pass. Stafford has good athletic ability and the speed to break free if his protection breaks down. Backup Dan Orlovsky completed 63 percent of his passes in the preseason. The third quarterback is Kellen Moore.
Detroit has a strong 1-2 punch at running back in Reggie Bush and Joique Bell. Bush rushed for 1,006 yards last year, his second career 1,000-yard season. He has exceptional quickness and agility and is a playmaker as both a runner and receiver (his 54 catches last season placed him second on the team). Bell led the Lions with eight rushing touchdowns in 2013 and was right behind Bush with 53 receptions. He is a physical runner who has made big plays after catching screen passes. Theo Riddick is a shifty runner who can catch the ball. Bell and Riddick scored touchdowns against the Giants last season. Fullback Jed Collins can contribute as a blocker, runner and receiver. Montell Owens does his best work on special teams.
Calvin Johnson begins his eighth season firmly entrenched as one of the NFL's very best wide receivers. Last year, he was third in the league with 1,492 yards and averaged a career-high 17.8 yards-per-catch. Johnson has rare size and strength, strong hands and he's a big target who is an excellent runner with the ball in his hands. To take some of the defensive attention away from Johnson, Detroit signed Golden Tate, who caught 64 passes last season for the Super Bowl champion Seahawks. Tate is a strong, quick player at the line of scrimmage with the speed to go deep. Third receiver Kevin Olgletree is productive whether lining up outside or in the slot. Jeremy Ross and Ryan Broyles each have quickness, a knack for finding voids in the defense and blocking skills. Corey Fuller is an improving second-year pro.
Detroit has a trio of tall tight ends in Brandon Pettigrew, Joseph Fauria and rookie Eric Ebron, who are all at least 6-4 and possess good receiving skills. In the preseason, they were sometimes all deployed on the field at the same time. Pettigrew has good coverage awareness and is a powerful blocker. Fauria is 6-7, with uncommon arm length that makes him a frequent Stafford target in the red zone. He scored seven touchdowns as a rookie last year. Ebron, the 10th overall selection in the draft, is an athletic, fast and smooth playmaker.
The same five offensive linemen who started against the Giants last December will open the game on Sunday. The group played impressively in 2013, when Stafford threw 634 passes and was sacked just 23 times, the second-lowest total in the league. Left tackle Riley Reiff is a smart player who attacks defenders in the run game. Left guard Rob Sims is a savvy veteran with good upper body strength. Center Dominic Raiola is a rugged 14-year veteran who is the leader of the group. Right guard Larry Warford is widely considered the line's best player. He is a powerful run blocker player who has a wide base as a pass protector. LaAdrian Waddle is listed as the No. 1 right tackle on the Lions' depth chart after a training camp duel with Corey Hilliard. Waddle is a 6-6, 330-pounder who is solid as both a run and pass blocker.
DETROIT LIONS DEFENSE
The Lions' defense also has a new coordinator this season in Teryl Austin, who previously coached the Baltimore Ravens secondary. Last season, Detroit ranked 16th in the NFL, allowing 346.6 yards a game. The unit was sixth against the run (99.8) and 23rd vs. the pass (246.9). The unit forced just 22 turnovers and recorded 33 sacks, the league's fifth-lowest total.
Get to know the Giants' opponent for the first regular season matchup vs. the Detroit Lions
The strength of the defense is a four-man front that includes three former first-round draft choices in tackles Ndamukong Suh and Nick Fairley and end Ziggy Ansah. Left tackle Suh, the second overall selection in 2010, is Detroit's best defender, a powerful and aggressive player when stopping the run or chasing the quarterback. Fairley uses his quickness to penetrate gaps. Ansah, the starting right end, has speed and upper body strength and an impressive pass rush burst. As a rookie last season, he led the team with 8.5 sacks. End Jason Jones has good straight line speed and a knack for batting down passes at the line of scrimmage. Backups George Johnson, Devin Taylor and rookie Larry Webster are all fast off the edge when rushing the passer. Backup tackle C.J. Mosley is a strong point of attack anchor and rookie Caraun Reid has speed and penetration skills.
Tahir Whitehead played well in the preseason and is the Lions' new starting strongside linebacker. He is an attacking, high-motor player who is removed in sub defenses. In the middle is Stephen Tulloch, a tough run defender who also has quickness and awareness in pass coverage. The other outside backer is DeAndre Levy, who is a bit undersized at 235 pounds but plays with intensity and is very good in man-to-man coverage. Levy led all NFL linebackers with six interceptions in 2013. Last year, Tulloch and Levy combined to play all but 18 defensive snaps and were the only Lions with more than 100 tackles. The backups are former starter Ashlee Palmer, Travis Lewis and rookie Kyle Van Noy.
The secondary benefits from outstanding veteran leadership. Cornerback Rashean Mathis is a 12-year veteran with outstanding awareness and a history of production (30 career interceptions and 98 pass breakups). On the other side, Darius Slay utilizes his exceptional athleticism. Free safety Glover Quin is a heady player with good coverage skills. James Ihedigbo played the last two seasons for Austin in Baltimore and was imported in part for his knowledge of the system. He is a strong, physical, hard-hitting safety. Bill Bentley is the nickel corner. He has quick reactions and makes plays underneath. Don Carey lines up in multiple spots and is active in all of them. Cassius Vaughn, Isa Abdul-Quddus and rookies Jerome Couplin and Nevin Lawson are other potential contributors.
DETROIT LIONS SPECIAL TEAMS
Special teams coach John Bonamego is a holdover from the previous staff. Last year, the Lions did not allow a kickoff or punt return touchdown for the first time since 2004. Rookie Nate Freese is Detroit's new kicker. He has field goal range from beyond 50 yards. Punter Sam Martin shared the kickoff duties with Freese in the preseason. Martin has very good leg strength and hang times and has the ability to change the field. Jeremy Ross is the Lions' primary kickoff and punt returner. Last season, he averaged 16.2 yards on 15 punt returns and 29.3 yards on 15 kickoff returns. Veteran Don Muhlbach is the long-snapper.