One of the challenges that Jim Schwartz faced, among many, when taking over the Lions' head-coaching job prior to the 2009 season was to make his team tougher. The 2008 club, the first 0-16 NFL team, was another in a long line of Lions teams that lacked mental and physical toughness. Sure, the talent pool was depleted, too, but opponents openly spoke of the Lions' vulnerability and inability to respond to hits taken early in games.
Slowly, over the past two seasons, that has changed. In fact, it's now to the point where the Lions have been accused by opposing teams of being a dirty outfit, much like the Titans were for years when Schwartz was running their defense. This is not to suggest that Schwartz encourages dirty play, but talk like this usually is generated when teams go from mild to highly competitive, as the Lions have. The Jets and Vikings were two teams this season that claimed that the Lions played beyond the whistle and sometimes engaged in excessively rough play.
For some, this is a welcome change of reputation. The Lions now are a scrappy, competitive team. Early in the season, they had major trouble closing out games, but as the year went on, they appeared to learn how to finish off contests in the fourth quarter. Their physicality, more honed by December, was a part of that.
"You go into a game against Detroit and you know you are in for a fistfight," Vikings DE Jared Allen said before the teams met in Week 17. "I think that's a cool reputation to have. It's better than being known as a soft team or a pushover team."
There is a drawback to this attention for toughness, though. DT Ndamukong Suh, through his tremendous rookie season, appears to have gained a reputation as a player who sometimes exceeds the rules. Nothing will accomplish that better than by excessive hits on quarterbacks, and his preseason hit on Browns QB Jake Delhomme and his in-season personal foul against Bears QB Jay Cutler (even if it appeared to be a clean play) earned him league fines. The Lions are among the NFL leaders in penalties, too, which has hurt them at times.
Schwartz has said all season he doesn't want to temper Suh's enthusiasm or change the way he plays, and yet he has reinforced the idea that he doesn't want to be known as a team that cheats or breaks the rules to get a leg up. But he also has helped change the atmosphere around the Lions and appears to like the fact that teams are talking about them as being too tough, as opposed to being soft. "We don't want to be known as anything other than a team that plays hard, physical football," Schwartz said.