Lions trying to clean up act

Schwartz & Co. quietly stressing discipline, self-control on, off field

ALLEN PARK, Mich. — Lost in all the opponent stomps, roadside arrests, practice sucker punches and handshake fracases is the fact that the Lions are mighty fine football team that keeps getting better.

Matthew Stafford to Calvin Johnson arguably is the most dynamic quarterback-to-receiver combination in the NFL.

General manager Martin Mayhew has surrounded Stafford, the No. 1 pick of the 2009 draft, with seven skill-position players who were either first- or second-round draft picks.

If the Lions' defensive line is not the best in the NFL, it is a close second to that of the Giants.

The Raiders, er, Lions really could take advantage of all of this and jump to the next level — if they can improve their discipline and self-control, on and off the field.

It is clear this team is trying to clean up its act.

After cornerback Aaron Berry was arrested twice in a month, the Lions cut him shortly before camp opened. Berry was expected to be a starter, so this was not a move that was made easily.

"Losing him was a big deal," defensive coordinator Gunther Cunningham said. "He is a very good cornerback."

If the Lions are holding up a Lombardi Trophy at some point in the near future, perhaps they will look back to the day they cut Berry as the turning point.

It's about time the Lions and coach Jim Schwartz took a hard line.

According to the Football Outsiders Almanac, the Lions have led the league in personal fouls since Schwartz became head coach in 2009. Last year, the Lions had 1,075 penalty yards, second most in the NFL.

Schwartz publicly has downplayed reducing penalties but privately has made it a mission.

Players say he has railed about penalties in meetings. During offseason practices, when a player did something that would have been called a penalty in a game, he stopped practice and made the team run. At the start of training camp he showed players a chart comparing the Lions' penalties to the penalties of teams that advanced past the first round of the playoffs, which the Lions failed to do.

His message was clear: The Lions need to cut down on penalties if they want to go further in 2012.

But they still want to have a little renegade in them.

Receiver Nate Burleson puts it this way: "We don't want to be too much of the bad guy. But this is Michigan. We do represent Detroit. That means hustling hard and not getting pushed around. If we can tighten up the screws around that attitude and not have so many mistakes, that can work. We definitely embrace a little of being the bad guy."

What the Lions really want is to be physical, tough and intimidating.

"You want to be a team that can impose your will, be a team to be reckoned with," defensive tackle Ndamukong Suh said. "As a defense, we want people to feel our wrath. We don't want to be pushovers, especially the way some Lions teams have been pushovers in the past."

There appears to be no risk of that happening with Suh around. With 10 sacks in 2010, he was the defensive rookie of the year. His sack production fell off to four last year, but he remained a tremendous force.

He missed two games while serving a suspension for stomping on Packers offensive lineman Evan Dietrich-Smith. It was the fifth time the NFL disciplined him for an on-field transgression.

"I'm a guy who is known for my physical play," Suh said. "That's been the (trademark) of my game. There are lots of good things that come with that and there can be some bad things with it."

The plan is for the Lions to see more of the good things this year, and if his training camp performance is any indication, they will.

"He is starting to figure it out," Cunningham said. "I told him last year he probably was hitting 25 percent of his ability. He said, 'We have to change that.' He is on a mission. He's raising hell in practice."

The Lions will need Suh and his pass-rushing partners in crime to turn up the heat, because the Lions' secondary is very suspect.

So is the run game. The Lions ran for more yards than only three teams in the NFL last year, and they still have questions at halfback.

Jahvid Best is dealing with post-concussion syndrome and has had multiple head injuries. Mikel Leshoure is coming off an Achilles injury and a hamstring strain and is facing a two-game suspension.

Still, the Lions need to be more grounded this year.

In more ways than one.

dpompei@tribune.com

Twitter @danpompei
CHICAGO

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