Burleson could be key to unlocking passing game in Motown

Intent on watching quarterback Matthew Stafford and wide receiver Calvin Johnson take the next step, the Detroit Lions focused on some new pieces for the offense this offseason.

Most notable, perhaps, was the trade up to select Cal running back Jahvid Best. The plan is for him to win the starting job and if Kevin Smith can return healthy it will make for an interesting 1-2 pairing.

The Lions also made another move aimed at building the offense when they picked up veteran tight end Tony Scheffler in a bargain deal from Denver. Not only can he be a mentor for young Brandon Pettigrew, he can carry the load if Pettigrew is slowed at all recovering from a torn ACL last year.

But most significant – at least for the passing game – is probably the signing of wide receiver Nate Burleson to a $25 million, five-year contract. It’s more money than many imagined Burleson would land, but if he keeps opposing defenses honest – or somewhat honest – he’ll prove to be worth every penny. The Lions haven’t had a reliable target opposite Johnson and that hurt him last season when he had 67 receptions for 984 yards and five touchdowns. Granted, he wasn’t healthy the entire season and he did miss two games, but it was a drop off from 2008 when he made 78 catches for 1,331 yards and 12 touchdowns. Defenses focused on shutting him down and did so without fearing anyone else.

As Tom Kowalski of MLive.com points out, that is where Burleson comes in. He’s got a knack for getting open right off the line of scrimmage and coach Jim Schwartz has praised him for his open-field ability. Make a man miss near the line of scrimmage and Burleson can go a long way.

The Lions have to be able to take advantage of the opposition’s No. 2 cornerback and the hope is that Burleson will make that possible. He’s had only one 1,000-yard season, in 2004 in Minnesota, but if he can catch 60 or more balls for the Lions, it will be a good thing for Stafford and quite possibly Johnson. Defenses will have to honor Burleson and with the package of tight ends, it could lead to more honest man-to-man coverage for Johnson. It’s not going to happen often, but if the defense it working to shut down Johnson, Stafford has to have some other options.

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