With the 2011 season in the rearview mirror for many teams, it's time for NFL.com's annual "Exit Interviews," a chance to review the ups and downs of each team's past season and spin it forward.
2011 in a Nutshell: Detroit's 12-year playoff drought came to an end with a 10-6 second-place finish in the NFC North. That was great news. The bad news was the fact that this team finished six games back of the front-running Packers and were one-and-done in the playoffs.
What Went Right: Two words: Matt Stafford. The former top overall pick not only stayed relatively healthy all season, but really produced, and one 5,038-yard, 41-touchdown campaign later you can put the third-year player in the upper echelon of quarterbacks. By the way, that yardage total is the third-highest in NFL history. Not bad.
Former third-round pick Kevin Smith was very effective late in the season before getting hurt, and will probably be a cog in a running back-by-committee come 2012 (more on running backs below).
What Went Not so Right: Whoever starts, Detroit has to run the ball more to keep Stafford upright and defenses off balance. An effective ground attack would also keep the oft-burned defense off the field. For all the ballyhoo regarding the front four, the defense was a points-allowing machine. Detroit's front four did not control the line of scrimmage as expected, and Ndamukong Suh's suspension did not help matters. The Lions allowed over 24 points per game, and were often terrible against the run, allowing five yards per carry (30th in the NFL).
Meanwhile, the secondary played worse as the season wore on. At midseason, Detroit allowed the fewest big pass plays in the league. But down the stretch, the back four gave up more than their share. They couldn't cover anyone at Lambeau in Week 17, making Matt Flynn look like Joe Montana in Tecmo Bowl. Then there was the wild-card debacle in New Orleans, where Drew Brees threw for 466 yards.
Until Detroit can generate pressure when it counts, and get better safety play, 9-7 is where this franchise will sit. With Suh, Cliff Avril and Nick Fairley on the line, this team was talented enough to get 41 sacks. But until they start imposing their will and affecting games, playoff failure will be more the norm than an anomaly.
Offseason Crystal Ball:Jim Schwartz will have to decide if he's comfortable with Chris Houston, Eric Wright, Amari Spievey and Louis Delmas being his starting secondary again. Wright got burned for 67 receptions, which is not good, but did hold his own considering how much he was targeted. Houston is not a bad player. But the safeties -- Spievey and Delmas -- don't exactly cover for the mediocre play of the corners. With the promising Aaron Berry and Alphonso Smith on the bench, look for safety to be the area of turnover.
If the coaching staff rolls with the same back seven next season, reaching 11-12 wins isn't likely. On that note, linebacker Stephen Tulloch is a free agent. Expect the linebacking corps and secondary to be heavily evaluated as to how much the club wants to invest in both free agency and the draft. This is a club that's looking at extending Megatron, as well as bringing back tackle Jeff Backus, and there's only so much to go around.
Offensively, Mikel LeShoure should get a long look. Don't forget, this club invested a second-round pick last year in the former Illinois standout before the kid got hurt. With Best's concussion problems, and the up-and-down nature of Smith's career, LeShoure could very well play a big role in 2012.
Team Needs and Draft: Outside of the back seven, April's draft should be dedicated to acquiring depth on both lines. That includes finding a new right guard or right tackle. Gosder Cherilus gave up nine sacks from his tackle position. Right guard Stephen Peterman ain't exactly John Hannah. If the club opts not to re-sign defensive end Cliff Avril because of his market price, then drafting a 4-3 end is a priority. Kyle Vanden Bosch will turn 34 in 2012, and despite having eight sacks last year, might not have too much left.
Follow Elliot Harrison on Twitter @Harrison_NFL