Snow on Snow on Snow

>> 12.28.2009

Technically, I’m still on vacation.  But this morning, I had an errand to run, so I woke at my usual time.  Throwing on jeans, a T-shirt, coat, and Lions cap, I trudged out to my snowed-over car.  I sighed, pulled my scraper out, and attacked the windshield.

The scraper zipped across the glass, revealing a swath of the interior. To my surprise, there was no ice underneath the snow!  I smiled, flipped the scraper over to the brush side, and made quick work of the rest.  I hopped into the front seat, turned the key, and the engine roared to life.  Local AM sports talk radiated out of my speakers, and the dashboard informed me: “OUTSIDE TEMP 22”.

I gave the throttle a few quick blips, then rubbed my hands together while I waited for the coolant temp needle to budge.  The sports talk was centered entirely around Michigan State basketball, and for that I was thankful.

You see, it was one year ago that I found myself in this same position—only then, winter’s grip on my car, and my spirit, was much tighter.  The temperature was eight below zero, I’d spent ten minutes chipping the ice off my car, and the radio had spit venom about the Lions just having completed history’s first 0-16 NFL season.

The dizzying range of emotions—dejection and determination, hopelessness and hope—that I went through that morning inspired me to grab a Blogspot account and put it all “on paper”.  This year?  It’s almost the opposite.

The Lions are better this season than last.  They’ve won two games, and have taken many others deep into the fourth quarter.  They’re also further along in the franchise-building process: they have a quarterback who’ll be their starter for the next few seasons, and a rookie has developed into a starting-caliber player at every level of the defense (line, linebackers, secondary).  They have a few veterans who’ve played well this year, and will be back next year.  Most importantly, the head coach and coordinators will be coaching these same systems throughout next year—ensuring continuity for the first time since 1997-1999, when Sly Croom handled the offense, and Gary Moeller assisted Bobby Ross with the defense.

Though Ross, of course, stepped down in the middle of the '99 season, those three consecutive seasons included the Lions' last two non-losing campaigns, as well as their last playoff appearance.  I'm not suggesting the Lions should clear their travel calendars for January 2011—but the complete lack of continuity, of building, of progress is at least partly to blame for the Decade Of Failure.

Simply knowing that this franchise has a direction, regardless of what direction it is, is comforting.  We know exactly what will happen this offseason: the Lions will add talent to what they already have.  There will be no addition by subtraction, no change for change’s sake, no “looking for a spark”.  Indeed, that’s the best part: there already is a spark—it just has to be fanned into a fire.

While I cannot pretend that anything I say or do will ever cause the Lions to win or lose a game, what I can do is keep the flame of fandom burning.  Believe it or not, that will be just as harrowing of a task as it was last season.

You see, a week from now, the waiting will be over—and the “getting on with our lives” will begin.  Unlike the 2008 campaign, where incredible passion about the new front office and furious speculation about the coaching search frothed and surged within hours of the final gun, 2009’s ending will be a languid drift into permanent sleep.

It’s often been said that fan apathy is far more dangerous than fan anger.  Will the fans won’t come back, after having checked out for so long?  The 2009 home opener sold out; everyone wanted to see the New Lions with their new coach and their new quarterback in their new uniforms with the new logo.  It’s hard to imagine the Same-as-Last-Year-But-Better-We-Hope Lions having the same draw.

So enjoy this last round of cider, folks.  Let’s swap a few more tales before we again don our hats and boots and gloves, and trudge back out onto the barren tundra.  Maybe some folks will even stick around through the lean, bitter months.  We can tend the little blue fire together.  We’ll pack up snow to protect against the wind, and we’ll keep plenty of sticks on hand to fuel the flames.  I can’t promise it’ll be fun, but it’ll be more fun than doing it alone.

For now, though, let’s just enjoy what’s left.  Let’s hope the Lions give the Bears all they can handle.  Let’s hope they go out on a win.  Let’s cheer on every Lion, young or old, starter or backup, on a multi-year deal or  on the back of a bus ticket.  Let’s see if these men can stoke the blue fire for us one more time, before Winter descends on us with everything it’s got.


Lions at 49ers: Gameday Post

>> 12.27.2009


First: I hope your Christmas was as merry as mine!  I’ve had a wonderful time with my friends and family over the holiday break.  Good times, good food, and good drink were had.  Far-flung siblings and siblings-in-law were reconnected with.  Of course, wonderful new toys were acquired, and much reorganizing is currently underway . . .

Today feels kind of like a freebie.  Drew Stanton is in, and as long as he’s not completely, irredeemably horrible, it’ll be nice to see him out there.  The Niners are exactly the kind of hot/cold opponent the Lions could either beat, or be decimated by.  If the Lions are competitive for most of the game, I’ll be satisfied.

My apologies for the lack of a Watchtower this week; with the preparations and celebrations, there simply wasn’t time.  I’m also working on some very special Christmas-related content, so keep your eyes peeled for that.  In any event, feel free to share a mug of something with your Lions fan family in the comments below!


Highlight Reel Diaries, Vol. II

>> 12.24.2009

Christmas is a holiday of recipes: gingerbread recipes and casserole recipes, stuffing made three different ways, Grandma’s ancient instructions for cooking ham or prime rib. There are even debates about whether to follow the recipe on the back of the can of cream of mushroom soup, or the one on the back of the can of those crispy onion things.
Christmas is also when Lions fans call for their Fan Favorites—and there’s a recipe for those, too:
1 6th- or 7th-round draft pick (you may substitute an undrafted free agent)
1 Memorable name, or nickname
2 decent plays in training camp
Take rookie with memorable name; watch him in training camp. Once rookie has made a big tackle, blanketed the team’s star wideout for a play, or scored a long touchdown, begin cries of “He just made the team!” When rookie makes a similar play in a preseason game, he may be safely pronounced “better than” the starter at his position. If rookie actually makes the team, print jerseys and cheer immediately. Serves sixty thousand.
What’s interesting about Drew Stanton is that he doesn’t follow this recipe. He’s a second-round draft pick—a cursed Millen second-rounder, no less! He’s been injured early and often. On a team that’s gone through quarterbacks like the All-You-Can-Eat section’s gone through bratwurst, Stanton’s never merited a chance. Yet, Lions fans have spent the last two weeks calling for him to play. Why?
The cynical will point to his alma mater, Michigan State. But it’s not just Spartan fans who’ve been banging the gong on Daunte’s tired act. Drew’s become an icon of the Millen era: even when Millen drafted a true talent, he or his coaches put him in a position to fail. If Drew succeeds, it’ll mean the reclamation of a young career—and a second-round draft pick.
Drew’s never gotten a real chance to prove himself. He’s seen some preseason action, and done well. He’s finished out some regular-season blowout losses, and done poorly. But yesterday, Jim Schwartz announced that Drew Stanton will start this week, and get all the first-team reps in practice. This is the chance he’s never had, to prepare as the starter, practice with the ones, and start.
Judging by what little we have seen of Drew, I don’t anticipate a great day against the 49ers. They have an aggressive defense, led by Patrick Willis, and called by two former linebackers: head coach Mike Singletary, and defensive coordinator Greg Manusky.
Still, the Lions showed last Sunday that they like Drew, they play hard for Drew, and they might even play better for Drew. Schwartz has given Drew Stanton a Christmas present—let’s hope he re-gifts it to us.


Ndamukong the torpedoes

>> 12.23.2009

With the Lions’ loss last weekend, and the Browns’ win, the Lions are suddenly in a two-way tie for the #2 overall pick.  With only quarterback-starved St. Louis ahead of them, Lions fans everywhere are getting revved up for the possibility that Ndamukong Suh, the AP’s College Football Player of the Year, will soon don Honolulu Blue.

With Suh as the pass-rushing 3-technique tackle, and Hill as the run-stuffing 1-tech, the Lions would have their very own Williams Wall.  Several people emailed me (and have been emailing me!) about this exciting concept, and I discussed the notion at length in last week’s mailbag post.

That night, though, something was tickling at the back of my mind.  Fans, and talk show hosts, were already anointing Ndamukong Suh “the next Albert Haynesworth”.  Let’s be real for a minute: Haynesworth is currently listed at 6’-6”, 350 pounds.  Coming out of college, he was already 320.  As beastly as Suh looked against Texas, he sure didn’t look 320.

Here's the sobering reality: the Huskers list Suh at 6'-4", 300.  Wikipedia has him at 295.  GBN Report lists him at 300, and NFL Draft Scout weighs him out at 302.  Bottom line?  He ain’t no Haynesworth.  In fact, if we’re going to compare him to former Schwartz defensive linemen, he’s closer to Kevin Carter—a 6’-6”, 305-pound DE the Lions had extensive talks with this summer.

As a three-technique tackle in the Schwartz/Cunningham defense, I think Suh would be a little light in his loafers.  They want the DTs to hit gaps square and deny rushing lanes; that’s not Suh’s forte.  Frankly, Suh would be Rod Marinelli’s dream—he’s a prototypical Tampa 2 three-technique, a “skinny penetrator” who can burst past guards and get upfield fast.

Don’t get me wrong: Suh is an incredible player, and a dominating force.  But look at this dude:

19 September 2009: Nebraska defensive tackle Ndamukong Suh (93) during the Hokies 16-15 win over the Nebraska Huskers at Worsham Field at Lane Stadium in Blacksburg, VA

Icon SMI

Check out how much of his bulk is in his arms, shoulders, and thighs.  He’s incredibly strong for his size, and possesses a huge amount of burst.  But this is not the type of body that drops anchor at the line of scrimmage, refuses to be moved, then casts off a double team to eat a running back.  This is a disruptor, a penetrator, a—dare I say it?—violator of offenses.  I wonder . . . could he play end?

Tom Kowalski has indicated in radio interviews, that if a massive, athletic, pass-rushing, run-stopping three-down defensive end had been available, the Lions might have drafted him over Matthew Stafford.

28 DEC 2008: Houston Texans defensive end Mario Williams #90 is introduced to the crowd during a football game between the Chicago Bears  and the Houston Texans Dec 28, 2008 at Reliant Stadium in Houston, Texas.

Icon SMI

I'm not saying . . . I'm just saying.

If Suh could drop five or ten pounds of fat, he'd be a virtual clone of Super Mario—especially if he got a little quicker as a result.  Further, of the few people who’ve been bold enough to admit that Suh’s game has any flaw at all, the consensus is that he plays a little too high, and uses his natural speed and upper body strength to go around blockers, rather than beat them at the point of attack.

Now, Big XII guards are not NFL right tackles; “going around” them is a lot harder.  Everyone will expect instant impact from “Kong”, but Suh will probably spend his first full season learning his craft.  As Mario Williams discovered, simply being bigger, faster, and stronger doesn’t cut it on Sundays

Unfortunately, this will probably be true whether he plays end or tackle for the Lions: he’s a little too big to play end, a little too small to play tackle, relies a little too much on his talent, and will need a little work on his technique before he can make an impact.  Sill, he IS the best DL prospect since Mario; I’m sure the Lions can, and will, find a use for him, should they be so lucky to draft him.


Three Cups Deep: Waking Up Late

>> 12.21.2009

In the Watchtower for this game, I followed up fifteen hundred words, or thereabouts, of doom and gloom, with the following:

Every single piece of data I have, both objective and subjective, points to a Cardinals blowout.  However, there has not been a more “off” and “on” team over the past two seasons than the Cardinals.  The one thing they haven’t done in this Warner/Fitz/Boldin/Whisenhunt era is meet expectations—they beat teams they shouldn’t beat and look amazing doing it, and they lose to teams they have no business losing to, and look horrible doing it.
Further, I can’t imagine that a Jim Schwartz team comes back for a home game after a bad performance and rolls over from the opening gun--if so, it should raise some serious red flags.  My instincts tell me this will be more like a 35-21 loss—but if Culpepper plays, and Fitz and Boldin don’t take the game off, I don’t see how the Lions keep it that close.
Amazingly, though Culpepper and Fitzgerald both started yesterday, my “instincts” proved accurate.  As tough as it was to watch the offense founder and struggle to move the ball, let alone score points, we did get to see exactly what I was watching for: heart, effort, moxie, stick-to-it-itiveness, whatever you want to call it.  The Lions did not roll over and die at the coin toss, nor did they roll over and die when they went into halftime down 17-0.
I’m not going to beat the Culpepper/Stanton thing to death.  I’ve made my position on the issue clear: Stanton may, or may not, be any better than Culpepper right now, but Culpepper has no future here, or anywhere else.  Stanton's future, at least, is still undetermined—and if this season ends without giving him one week as a starter, it’ll be a crime.
While Stanton certainly didn’t play the position of quarterback any better than Culpepper, it’s undeniable that the team performed better while Stanton was at the helm.  Coincidence?  Perhaps.  But when Culpepper’s been outscored like 91-3 in his last three starts, you take any coincidence you get.
What blew me away yesterday was the play of the defensive line.  It looked as though The Real Cliff Avril finally got his uniform back yesterday—and Grady Jackson played like the he-beast he is.  On multiple occasions, the Lions’ defensive line won multiple one-on-one battles at the same time; on other teams, this isn’t cause for celebration—but for the Lions?  Pop the bubbly.
The kick coverage units did a reasonable job as well; Zack Follett gave the Cardinals a big ol’ dose of the Pain Train yesterday (Mrs. Ty nearly filed divorce papers after I stood up and “WOO WOO"’d in the middle of the bar).  Of course, they also gave up a huge return at the end of the 4th, that handed the game to the Cards—but at least they waited that long!
The offensive line played with some grit . . . but committed a plethora of false starts, including a drive-killing consecutive pair in the 2nd quarter.  Gosder Cherilus is showing a positively Culpepperian knack for making just a few mistakes—but really, really stupid ones at the worst possible times.
Overall, we’re left with a familiar feeling: the “moral victory”.  The “good loss”.  The “at least it was, or wasn’t . . .”  Is there anything left to say?  Is there anything left to do?  Yes.  It’s time to make the coffee . . .


Neither Rain, nor Snow, Nor Sleet . . . nor 2-11

>> 12.18.2009

It seems bizarre that with so many questions already answered about the 2009 Lions, there’s still so much left to discuss; the mailbox was flooded with excellent inquiries.  To work, then?  To work.  From Scott:

Mr. Inwinter:
Okay that right there is quality.  Very well done, sir.
Had a thought for you- there's been a lot of talk of the Lions being "Stafford's Team" after the Browns game and even though I watched the "miked up" about ten times, I dismissed most of it as hype. On the other hand, I'm relieved that Stafford's not playing this week because it frees me to ignore the game entirely and watch decent teams. So maybe the fact that I'm not even going to watch, and I can't be alone here, means the Lions are Stafford's team even moreso than the hype would indicate.
This is something that I've felt, too--and the statistics bear this out. Not only is Matthew Stafford the future of the franchise, he's the present.
Right now, the Lions’s chances to win any game are zero if he is not playing, and nonzero if he is.  I didn’t expect that to be true this season, but it is.  I can’t wait until Stafford gets back on the field, because these Culpepper games feel like preseason.  Scott also asked about the draft:
Btw, I haven't seen anyone predict this, but I think they go DE in round 1 in April followed by a roadgrading OG in round 2. Better to draft athletes in round one, and if it goes well, it'll rotate protection outside and help the middle. Adequate run-stuffers are usually available among FAs.
A large part of this will be determined by the talent on the board, and where the Lions pick.  The Lions could end up picking anywhere between 1st and 10th, depending on how other teams do—I think they’ll be somewhere in the 4th-6th slots, myself.  To me, there’s no question that both lines, and the defensive secondary need the most help.
Pass protecting OTs, and pass rushing DEs are the premier positions.  If there was a stud prospect at either position, and the Lions were drafting, say, 3rd, I could see it.  But the top OT prospect, from what I’ve seen, is Russel Okung—he’s an athlete and a technician, but (IMO) isn’t strong or bulky enough to step in and play at an elite level yet; he’ll be a project and that’s not what the Lions need.
I take exception with you on the DE/DT thing—and not because you’re wrong; adequate run-stuffers are often there to be had.  The issue is that the Lions want another Haynesworth-type, a natural 315+ world devourer who can singlehandedly collapse the pocket, shrug off double teams, eat running backs, and flush QBs to the sidelines.
Given that so many teams are switching to the 3-4, a he-beast like that is in demand more than ever.  Ndamukong Suh is the perfect fit; he and Sammie Hill could be giving people fits on every down for years.  Yes, the Lions would like a pass rusher too, but their needs are a little bit different . . .
From excellent commenter SomeChoi:
But here is my question: if we do draft defense, is there a place for tweeners such as Brian Orakpo in Gunther's D? Prototypical 4-3 DEs seemed to be rare in recent drafts.
It’s interesting that you ask that.  My understanding of the blueprint for the Lions defense is this: start with a Williams Wall-like DT pair.  A 330-pound NT, like Sammie Hill, and a 310+-pound UT, like Ndamukong Suh, would overwhelm opposing offensive lines.
Bracing them would be two 270-to-280-pound DEs who can rush the passer--but be big enough and strong enough to set a hard edge against the run.  This funnels runs and screens back into the middle—where Hill and Suh (or a Suh-like player) will stop them.
People questioned Schwartz’s sanity when he put Jared Devries in as a starter—and even more when he decried the “great loss” of Devries in camp—but he did so because DeVries was a perfect fit for what they wanted to do.
This is where the OLBs come in.  Since the DEs aren’t 260-pound Freeneyish terrors, both OLBs need to be able to blitz like crazy.  Of course, they can’t be total liabilities in coverage, either.  They’re looking for big athletes who can run and hit; ideally, we’re talking about two Julian Peterson-in-his-primes.
Gunther included the dwindling stock of defenders with size in his tackling tirade:
"I don't like it because the linebackers are getting smaller and they're putting all those coverage people on the field. The (Brian) Urlachers are tough to find,'' Cunningham said. "A lot of teams in the NFL are going to the 3-4 because of that.
"The linebackers that are coming out are the size of safeties: 6-foot and 220 pounds. You look at the Cincinnati Bengals' tackles and they're 6-7 and those linebackers can't even see where the back is half the time. There's a real problem on defense to find the right players and the right mix for you to compete in this league.
So there is your answer: a 250-pound pass rusher like Orakpo could come in and play, but only if he had a little more lateral agility and wouldn't mind being a full-time OLB. Don't forget, Avril fit that mold coming out of college, and they've bulked him up quite a bit. Of course, he's not doing very well . . .
SomeChoi also added:
I'm one of the few who agree with Killer - Lions are better served drafting offense. The defense was good enough to keep us competitive in most games and a decent offense would've won us perhaps 4 more games. But I'm particularly worried we'll lose Calvin if we don't help him realize his potential soon, if we didn't lose him already. Not to mention being fearful for Staff's life. And Mayhew better be losing sleep over whether Pettigrew becomes a playmaker. Otherwise, passing on Oher will haunt him forever.
I'd love to agree with this line of thought: after all, the Colts have been an amazing offense paired with a bad-to-middling defense for over a decade now, and they've been consistently elite.  But the Lions’ defense . . . you guys, it’s so bad.  It’s truly terrible.   No matter how good the offense gets, they won’t be able to consistently outscore what this defense is allowing.
When Matthew Stafford has played, the Lions have been at the bottom of the middle third of the league in scoring—but the defense has been allowing almost double that number of points!  No, the Lions have to at least patch the defensive dam before they can finish constructing their offense.
I received several emails to the effect of, “If not Suh, then who?”  Lopper chipped in his suggestion:
In my opinion, the next best guy to take has to be Berry. The examples of a safety impacting a defense are all over the NFL this year. The Steelers with and without Polamalu, and just yesterday when Delmas was out it was painful watching White and Pearson bouncing off tackles. It seems like big plays against is the biggest problem for the Lions, and a safety pairing of Delmas and Berry would be the best way to stop them from happening. I might even rather see them draft Berry over McCoy depending on how things shake out in the off season.
Time for my usual disclaimer: I watch practically zero non-Big Ten college football; I haven’t yet seen most of these SEC and Big 12 players in action.  In general, the idea of pairing Delmas with another monster safety is appealing.
However, the defense is really weak at the line of scrimmage.  Blowing, in consecutive years, a high second-round pick and a high first-round pick on safeties, thinking they’ll clean up everything the corners and front seven let through . . . well, it seems like putting the cart before the horse.
Further, for as much as everyone raves about Polamalu, Ed Reed, Bob Sanders, and the difference those guys make to their defense, none of those guys were drafted in the top five, or even top ten.  I was curious: over the past few years, what safeties have been drafted high at the top of the first—and have they worked out?
LaRon Landry was the sixth overall pick of 2007.  Michael Huff was seventh overall in 2006, Antrel Rolle was selected eighth in 2005 (as a corner), and the late Sean Taylor was fifth in 2004.  The Other Roy Williams was the eighth overall in 2002—can you believe he’s a seven-year vet?
. . . that completes the list of Top Ten safeties of the past 10 years.  Sean Taylor, a fifth overall pick, was the highest-drafted safety in that time—and was developing into one of the most dominating players in the league, before his untimely death.  But the rest of these guys were either definite disappointments, or are too young to evaluate right now.
I believe that Berry’s a really nice talent, and pairing him with Delmas would indeed be SO AWESOME--but really good safeties can be had in the second, third, and fourth rounds.  Elite linemen, however, are pretty much only available at the top of the draft.
Joe asked:
One of my biggest questions that the usual suspects of Lions' media types don't seem to cover is WHERE exactly are the weaknesses on this team. I know it's easy to throw everyone under the bus and just flatly state we lack talent, but are you able to see exactly where? If you only had ONE pick in the draft or could only acquire ONE free agent with which to upgrade this team and could only draft/sign based on position, which position do you think most needs a serious upgrade?
Whew.  I think the Lions’ biggest problem positions are the non-Mega wideouts, the offensive guards, the defensive line, and the cornerbacks.  Since, again, guards can be had in the second or third round—and, again, I believe the Lions have to have a defensive focus in this draft—I’d look to fix either the line or the corners.  Joe said:
Personally, I think their biggest problem seems to be a lack of any pass rush, exposing the secondary which often has receivers initially covered. However, even the league's best cover corner can't cover a WR for 10 seconds while the QB assesses the entire field without the slightest pressure. I think DE is the biggest weakness on this team. We can't even seem to get pressure with blitzes and often get burned early, forcing Gunther to back off and only send four.
That’s a very strong argument.  With the addition of an elite pass rusher—a 270-plus-pound three-down beast, not an Orakpo or Dumervil—it would “shorten the field” for the corners.  I’ve said before that Will James would be much better if he never had to cover a receiver more than ten yards downfield; if we had a monster pass rush it would minimize the number of times he’d have to.  Killer even said last season that if there were a Mario Williams at the top of the 2009 draft, the Lions would have taken him over Stafford.
Let me be clear: I agree with that. If we could forklift Mario Williams from the Texans to the Lions, he’d make all the difference in the world.  Unfortuantely, there’s no Mario Williams in this draft—but keep an eye on this guy if he comes out.  At 6’-4”, listed at 272 going into his senior year, Derrick Morgan might well show up for the combine as the three-down end the Lions are looking for.
However, if the Lions end up with either of the explosive “under” tackles—Suh or McCoy—it’ll make nearly as strong of an impact.  I don’t see anyone running on a three-tackle rotation of Grady Jackson, a blossoming Sammie Hill, and Suh or McCoy.  Further, Hill and (Suh || McCoy) would be an incredibly athletic inside pairing; both could collapse the pocket with strength, and pursue if the QB scrambles—similar to the dynamic we saw with Big Daddy and Big Baby, only younger and faster.
Finally, don't forget that the shortest path to the quarterback is up the middle; a player like (Suh || McCoy) could “shorten the field” the way a DE could, and also demand double-teams that would make it easier for our existing DEs.
So, if I could add just one player, it’d be either a monster, three-down, athletic, pass-rushing DE, or a monster, three-down, athletic, pass-rushing DT.
. . . that'll do it for this week's mailbag.  Thanks again for all the great submissions, folks!


Highlight Reel Diaries, Vol. I

>> 12.17.2009

Will Matthew Stafford start another game this season? It seems less likely by the day. With every tight end, runningback, and offensive lineman added to the Injured Reserve list, the already-iffy situation Stafford was drafted into gets . . . iffier.
He has fewer weapons with which he can attack opposing defenses, and less protection from enemy attacks. The Lions may indeed be his team now—but that team is currently as bad as it’s ever been. With only two wins so far, and three games left to go, victory has never mattered less.
We can debate about whether starting Stafford in week one, and on Thanksgiving, were wise decisions. But here and now, the decision to shut him down is easy. Unfortunately, it really is his team.
It’s become apparent that without Matthew Stafford at the helm, the Lions have no chance to win. It’s both exciting and depressing to say that about a rookie quarterback, but it’s true. Naturally, it follows that as fans, if there’s no chance of victory, there’s no reason to watch.
Ah, but there is. While the offense has been decimated by injuries, the defense is still relatively intact. Sammie Hill is developing into a force in the middle, and the battle between DeAndre Levy and Ernie Sims will affect the future of all three veteran starters.
Louis Delmas may, or may not, play—but the rest of the defensive backfield is auditioning for next season. Guys like Will James, Marvin White, and possibly new signee Brian Witherspoon will have to make an impact—or face the Turk.
Most importantly, we’ll see a rookie coach developing, too. How this team responds to last week’s fiasco will say a lot about Jim Schwartz’s ability to motivate. Two games ago, against the Bengals, it seemed as though the Lions’ defense played their best game of the season. Now, with absolutely nothing on the line, they’ll need to do that well again just to keep the Cardinals from blowing them out of the stadium.
It’s easy to throw in the towel. It’s easy to stop watching the games—especially when you’re assisted by the NFL’s blackout policy. It’s easy to start talking about free agency and the draft. It’s easy to start talking about Maybe Next Year all over again. But if you watch—really watch—on Sunday, you’ll get a sneak preview of Next Year.
Watch the players who’ll be the foundation of the defense for years to come. Watch the level of effort the veterans put out. Watch to see if Calvin Johnson plays, and if he does how hard he goes. Most of all, though, watch Jim Schwartz on the sideline—both his demeanor, and how the players respond to him. With luck, he’ll never have to coach through darker days than these—and there’s no true measure of a man than how he performs during his darkest days.


the Watchtower: Lions vs. Cardinals

>> 12.16.2009

cardinal brady photo

Last week’s Watchtower, in the words of excellent commenter A Lion in ViQueen Territory, kind of sucked:

I’m sticking with the data here, folks, shaky though it might be: 21-24 points for the Ravens, and 9-13 points for the Lions.

A 48-3 blowout doesn’t look anything like the low-scoring 10ish-point game I predicted.  However, if we dig a little deeper, you’ll see that my prediction came with some pretty strong caveats:

Given a complete lack of data to work with, I can only project the Lions’ offensive production to meet expectations, given the current performance of the two units this year . . . I have very low confidence in this prediction . . . The Lions’ offense IS trending toward respectability, but the leader and triggerman is gone, and they’re playing their second straight road game against a top 5 scoring defense.

For the Lions’ D vs. the Ravens’ O, I projected numbers based on an observed effect: that Gunther’s defenses are supereffective against Cam Cameron offenses when the passing game is contained.  Up until the freaky Mason touchdown, that was exactly what had happened.  Believe it or not, that game was 0-3 at the end of the first quarter—and a Hanson miss away from being tied.

Unfortunately, the offense hung the defense out to dry over and over again—it was only a matter of time before they folded.  If Culpepper and the offense had any ability to control the ball, or keep the game close, I don’t think the defense would have rolled over in the second half (as they did), and let Ravens score 4 more touchdowns.

Unfortunately, the high-flying Cardinals are coming to town, and their scoring may be limited only by the game clock . . .

Gunther Cunningham vs. Ken Whisenhunt


For the second week in a row, the Lions face a coordinator with absolutely no track record against their opposing Lions counterpart.  Whisenhunt’s only called signals since 2004 (with the Cards as HC, and the Steelers as OC), and Gunther hasn’t faced Whisenhunt since then.  As Whisenhunt doesn’t come from a clearly delineated coaching heritage, we can’t use any “school of/disciple of” workarounds, either.

All we have to go on here are the season averages: Arizona’s the 11th-best scoring offense in the league, averaging 23.5 points per game.  Averaging a healthy 6.88 YpA, and surprisingly robust 4.16 YpC, the Cardinals are more balanced than you might suspect—though doubtlessly, defenses are laying back in fear of the Cards’ receivers, not loading the box to stop Beanie Wells.  These averages are practically identical to the Ravens’ stats coming into last week: 10th-ranked scoring offense, 23.4 PpG, 6.95 YpA, and 4.25 YpC.

Meanwhile, Sunday's debacle against the Ravens dropped the Lions' stats across the board; they're now allowing an average of 31.2 PpG, 8.00 YpA, and 4.50 YpC.  Since all we have to go on are the averages—and the Cards’ averages very closely match the Ravens’—it’s straight connect-the-dots: expectations would be that the Cardinals significantly exceed their season averages in PpG, YpA, and YpC: 40-45 points, 9.00-10.00 YpA, and 5.00-5.50 YpC.  I guess that serves as my prediction?  If so, I have very low confidence in it.

Mitigating/Augmenting Influences:

Here's a disturbing trend: in two of the Lions’ last four games (Browns, Ravens) they’ve faced opponents coming off of a deflating Monday Night Football loss, where the offense drastically underperformed its season averages.  Guess which team just got blown out on MNF last night, while drastically underperforming its season averages?  Oh yes—the Cardinals.

I deeply suspect that Warner, Fitz, Boldin, Beanie and the rest of the Cardinals offense will be itching to take out their frustrations on the Lions, and get back on track—just like the Ravens did.  Moreover, the hit-or-miss nature of the Cards’ offense (even with the same QB!) underscores the idea that they’ll bounce back from Monday’s performance.

On the other hand, this game will be in Ford Field, where the Lions are unquestionably more competitive.  Matthew Stafford is at least not yet ruled out, and if the Lions’ offense can actually move the chains and possess the ball a little bit, the defense should be able to not be quite so horrible.  I think. 

Scott Linehan vs. Billy Davis

DET 27th16.15.393.8113th19.86.454.16     

Fortunately, we do have a little bit of data to work with here.  Bill Davis (often “Billy”, thanks to being a Jr.) has a surprisingly long resume for someone I’d never heard of.  He was an assistant under Dom Capers in Pittsburgh, and then a linebackers coach under Capers in Carolina.  After Capers was broomed, he bounced around for a couple of years, then became linebackers coach in Atlanta, under DC Wade Phillips.  That's an impressive 3-4 pedigree! 

Finally, in 2004, he became a linebackers coach with some authority.  According to Giants DC Tim Lewis, he allowed Davis to compile the blitz packages.  I’m tentatively including this data, just to flesh things out a bit.  After that, he was hired by new 49ers head coach Mike Nolan to head up

In 2004, the Minnesota Vikings were very good.  Ranked #6 in the NFL, they averaged 25.3 points per game, 7.16 YpA, and 4.71 YpC.  Meanwhile, the Giants were a decent unit: 17th-ranked, at 21.7 PpG, 6.49 YpA, and 4.33 YpC.  The expectation here would be that the Vikes meet or exceed their typical numbers—but they don’t.  Only 13 points scored, and a measly 5.63 YpA.  4.65 YpC is still good, but not enough to overcome the massive pass suppression.

In 2006, Linehan’s Rams faced Davis’ 49ers.  The Rams were still a typical Linehan offense: 10th in scoring, with a balanced 6.69 YpA and 4.26 YpC.  Meanwhile, the Niners . . . well, they were rebuilding.  They were the worst scoring defense in football, allowing 25.8 PpG.  While they weren’t great against the pass, allowing 6.89 YpA, they were terrible against the run.  Allowing an average of 4.96 YpC is going to make any offense impossible to stop.

Except, apparently, Linehan’s Rams that year.  In the first game, the Niners held the Rams to just 13 points.  They sacked the Rams six times, depressing per-play pass effectiveness to 5.44 YpA, more than a yard less than their season average.  The run game was also depressed; the 4.21 YpC the Niners allowed in the first game fell essentially met the Rams’s season average—despite playing against the statistically worst defense in the NFL.

In the second game, the Rams picked it up a little bit--20 points scored, 6.16 YpA, and 4.83 YpC.  Still, though, the points and passing were depressed below the Rams' averages--not expectations vs. the worst defense in football, the season averages—and the 4.83 YpC was still below the Niners’ average-allowed mark.

The conclusion is absolutely inescapable—with lesser, or much lesser, talent and execution, Billy Davis defenses have an overwhelming systemic advantage against Scott Linehan offenses.  In 2006, the 10th-best offense in football played the dead-last defense in football, twice, and both times produced well below their season averages, across the board.  The only explanation is that Billy Davis has Scott Linehan’s number.

Given that the shoe is on the other foot—the Cards’ defense is the 13th-best in the NFL, and the Lions’ O is the 27th-best—I have no choice but to project the Lions's offense to . . . good Lord . . . significantly underperform expectations: 6-9 points scored, 4.50-5.00 YpA, and 3.5-3.75 YpC.

Mitigating/Augmenting Influences:

Schwartz is back to the maybe-maybe not game with the Lions’ quarterback situation.  Let us make no bones about it: when Daunte Culpepper starts, the Lions are doomed.  In his last two starts, the Lions have been outscored 74-3.  If Matthew Stafford does not play, the Lions will be very lucky to score the projected 6-9 points. 

Starting tailback Kevin Smith is lost for the season with a torn ACL (plus maybe some other stuff).  Maurice Morris, Aaron Brown, and just-signed practice squadder Cedric Peerman will fill in.  Morris is a well-rounded veteran, who’s run hard in limited relief.  Brown has flashed game-breaking ability in both senses: he can break the game wide open on a screen pass, and he can get his quarterback broken with his clueless pass blocking.


Every single piece of data I have, both objective and subjective, points to a Cardinals blowout.  However, there has not been a more “off” and “on” team over the past two seasons than the Cardinals.  The one thing they haven’t done in this Warner/Fitz/Boldin/Whisenhunt era is meet expectations—they beat teams they shouldn’t beat and look amazing doing it, and they lose to teams they have no business losing to, and look horrible doing it.

Further, I can’t imagine that a Jim Schwartz team comes back for a home game after a bad performance and rolls over from the opening gun--if so, it should raise some serious red flags.  My instincts tell me this will be more like a 35-21 loss—but if Culpepper plays, and Fitz and Boldin don’t take the game off, I don’t see how the Lions keep it that close.

The only hope for the Lions is the Cunningham/Whisenhunt matchup—they’ve never faced each other before, and Gunther’s certainly much more experienced.  Maybe, just maybe, a little dose of Guntherball flummoxes Warner early, and the sacks and turnovers come—as they did on Monday Night.

However, this is a statistical analysis, not a "Let's pretend the Lions won't get blown out, despite all rational thought" column. 40-45 points for the Cardinals, and 6-9 points for the Lions.


Mailbag submissions?

>> 12.15.2009

We haven't done a mailbag in several weeks, and I got one in the inbox the other day that just begs for company.  Please, submit your questions, gripes, complaints, causes for alarm, and requests for assistance in the comments on this thread.  Or, by email (  Also, you can @reply or DM me on Twitter. If you're close enough, try Semaphore.


Three Cups Deep: this one hurts

>> 12.14.2009

In yesterday’s gameday post, I said:

Today is either the day the Lions roar back to respectability--or the day the scavengers pick their bones clean.

Well, we have our answer.

I actually fell asleep in the second half.  What was the point?  Ray Rice was running at will, the Lions couldn’t score to save their lives, and—against all rational thought—Daunte Culpepper played until the bitter end.

It beggars belief: he completed only 16 of his 34 passes, for only 135 yards, no touchdowns, and two interceptions.  It was a long, miserable day by any measure.  What doesn't show in those numbers, however, is this play:

3-4-BAL 44
(13:41) (Shotgun) 11-D.Culpepper FUMBLES (Aborted) at DET 50, and recovers at DET 50. 11-D.Culpepper to DET 50 for no gain (26-D.Landry).

That play emobdies everything I always scream about with Culpepper.  It’s the second quarter.  The Lions are down by just three points, having already missed a field goal.  After driving into Baltimore territory, two straight three-yard runs by Kevin Smith put the Lions in a 3rd-and-4 situation. 

This is what they call keeping your offense “on schedule”; giving the offense a great chance to convert on third down.  It’s what good offenses do, and it’s an ability Lions offenses have lacked since . . well, ever.  With this favorable situation, Linehan went to his “third and short” playbook, and pulled out a play from a shotgun, multi-WR set—doubtlessly looking to give Culpepper several close, easy targets.  If the Lions convert, they’re at Baltimore’s 40, or closer, with a new set of downs.  Instead,  Raiola’s shotgun snap hits Culpepper in the hands, and he drops it.

It’ll show up on the stat sheet as a fumble, yes—but not a “lost” fumble, and certainly not as a “an inexcusable f-up that absolutely killed his team’s chances to win”, which is what it was.  Culpepper’s entire career—yes, even when he was almost MVP or whatever—has been afflicted with this plague: an incredible knack for making horrible plays at the worst possible times.

After a punt, and two plays, Derrick Mason took a pair of brutal hits, ran to the end zone, and opened the floodgates.  While this was arguably the result of the Lions’ DBs going for big hits instead of tackling, I’d submit that Mason is on a two-man list of Receivers Tough Enough To Take That Hit and Keep Standing.  Really, at that point, the defense had still done remarkably well.

For all the press about '”RAVENS DESTROY LIONS IN LAUGHABLE BLOWOUT”, with three minutes left in the first half, the Lions were down by only two score.  They had the ball on their own 28, and had just begun a drive that could bring it to a 1-TD deficit.  Then . . .

Culpepper sack.

Culpepper INT.

Ravens drive and field goal.


28 unanswered points.

I hope Schwartz isn’t just blowing smoke when he called this performance was “unacceptable”, because that’s exactly what it was.  The defense simply rolled over.  After standing tall against one of the better rushing offenses in football last week, the Lions allowed 308 yards rushing on 40 attempts; 7.7 YpC.

Meanwhile, the offense kept pounding its head against the wall . . . hoping, I guess that the wall would break?  Granted, conditions were absolutely wretched out there—at one point, it appeared to be a downpour of freezing rain—but it seemed like there was an impenetrable forcefield at the Ravens’ 30-yard line.  Stafford can’t come back soon enough.

Speaking of which, is there anyone who still thinks that Daunte gives the Lions the "best chance to win"?  Even if he did, would it matter?  Drew Stanton again was robbed of any chance to prove himself—why?  We know Culpepper won’t be back here next year.  Kevin Smith blew out his ACL, and possibly ruined his 2010 campaign—why?  To what end?  What on earth were he and Daunte still doing out there?

Let’s face it: the 2009 season is now over.  There’s no point in veterans veterans over youth if said veterans aren’t part of the future plans.  Believe you me, there are some players on this team whose walking papers were filled out yesterday afternoon; I wouldn’t be surprised if some of those papers were served at some point this week.

The Lions need to move on from this loss, and this season, as quickly as possible: cut the deadwood, sign some practice squadders, and get on with the business of Maybe Next Year.


Gameday Discussion: Lions at Ravens

>> 12.13.2009


It’s fitting that the Lions play the Ravens today.  In various cultures, ravens have been feared as omens of doom, or the manifestation of damned souls.  With their jet-black plumage and beak, and their taste for the flesh of dead animals, it’s easy to see how the legends began.

At 2-10, the Lions certainly look more like carrion than kings of the jungle. However, if they can beat back the Ravens, the Lions will close out their last three games with two more winnable ones--and a decent shot at a 4- or 5-win season.  Today is either the day the Lions roar back to respectability--or the day the scavengers pick their bones clean.

Today is momentous for this site as well; the early birds (heh) amongst you may have already noticed. sports producer Phil Zaroo has asked me to contribute to his Lions blog, The Highlight Reel.  It was an honor to be asked, and my pleasure to agree!  This week’s piece is already up.  Please, check it out, and let me know what you think.


the Lions Congregation: WHA? No MO? Edition

>> 12.12.2009


It’s time once again for The Lions Congregation, a roundtable discussion of the most devout Lions scribes.  This week’s edition included a question which got answered for us:

  • The Mo Williams pickup, yea, meh, or nea?
  • The Ravens offense leaves a lot to be desired. Is there any way our defense can contain their offense?
  • What’s your projection for Ravens – Lions?

Please, visit the Church of Schwartz to read, and be enlightened!


the watchtower: lions at Ravens

>> 12.10.2009

492431_raven_tower_555x203 At first glance, last week’s edition of the Watchtower appeared to be nearly perfect:

I'm going to stick with the data: 20-24 points for the Bengals, and 7-9 points for the Lions.

However, besides the Lions getting a late TD to exceed my expectations, 7 of the Bengals’ 23 points came on a defensive TD.  The results of the offense/defense interactions, then, was a very narrow 17-13 margin for the Bengals.

I project 20-24 points, 8.0-8.5 YpA, and 4.25-4.5 YpC. I have extremely high confidence in this projection.

Oops.  The Lions' defense came up big, holding the Bengals to just 6.97 YpA, and--I advise sitting down--2.70 YpC.  Except for the play that was arguably the dagger in the Lions’ heart, the Lions completely contained one of the most physically talented QB/WR combos in the NFL.  With 44 rushing plays, that 2.70 YpC number is no fluke, either.  Sammie Hill was huge in this game, literally and figuratively.  All in all, the defense stepped up to a level I didn’t think they were quite capable of.

Of course, the skeptic in me points out that the Bengals have been notorious for playing to their level of competition this year, that Bengals’ OC Bob Bratkowski has been criticized for his conservative playcalling, and that the 16 penalties called in the game further disrupted rhythm, timing, and momentum—all of which played right into the Lions’ hands.  But hey, it worked.  If they can play as well next week in Baltimore as they played this week, they’ll again be competitive.  Speaking of which . . .

Cam Cameron vs. Gunther Cunningham

Cam Cameron is very familiar to midwestern football fans.  In his four years as head coach of Indiana University, with All-American QB Antwaan Randle-El under center, he won less than a third of his games.  He’s also very familiar to Floridian football fans.  In his one year as head coach of the Miami Dolphins, he one only one game—a freaky overtime TD away from beating the ‘08 Lions to the 0-16 punch.  However, Cameron is also very familiar to southern California football fans—as the architect of one of the most consistent, prolific offenses of the decade.

Cam Cameron is also very familiar to Gunther Cunningham.  For three seasons, 2004-2006, the two coached against each other in the AFC West division.  Regular readers know what that means: good data.  Though Cunningham ran Herm Edwards’ Tampa 2 defense in 2006, we still get four games between Cameron and Cunningham.  In ‘04, the Chargers were the #3 offense in football, averaging a whopping 27.9 points per game, a whopping 7.46 yards per pass attempt, and very-good-but-not-whopping 4.16 YpC.  Cunningam’s Chiefs, meanwhile, were the 29th-ranked scoring defense, probably better than expected given the appalling pass defense (8.05 YpA?).

Note that in the first game of 2004 and in the first game of 2005, the Chiefs held the Chargers’ running game to below its on-season average—quite a feat for a team allowing an 4.62 YpC average and facing LaDanian Tomlinson!  In fact, they held Tomlinson himself to a microscopic 2.19 YpC, and 4.09 YpC in the first contests of 2004 and 2005.  Cunningham must have entered each game absolutely dead set on containing Tomlinson, in order for the ‘04 and ‘05 Chiefs to hold the line like that.  It follows, then, that in both of those games, the Chiefs greatly outpaced their average effectiveness in the passing game, and scored points right in line with expectations.

However, looking at the second games of ‘04 and ‘05, we see the opposite effect: the Chiefs held the passing of the Chargers down below season averages, and also held the scoring down as well.  I was tempted to dismiss this effect when I noted it in the 2004 game, as the Chargers had already clinched the division and were resting their starters.  However, the pattern manifests itself much more plainly in the second game of 2005, when the Chiefs were the median defense instead of one of the worst.  They depressed the passing game severely, holding Drew Brees and company to just 4.88 yards per attempt—nearly two yards per attempt below either the season average gained for the Chargers (6.64) or allowed by the Chiefs (6.58).  The result?  The #5 scoring offense in the NFL put up seven measly points against the #16 scoring defense in the NFL.

There is a bit of a chicken-and-egg thing here; I can practically hear Ron Jaworski pounding the table and hollering, “POINTS COME OUT OF THE PASSING GAME!”  Were there fewer points scored because the passing game wasn’t working, or were the passing stats limited by the denial of long scoring plays?  One clue is in the disruption numbers: when Cunningham defenses depress scoring, it’s usually as a direct, or indirect, result of sacks or forced turnovers.  In this case, though, there was only 1 sack, 1 INT, and one fumble lost.  Enough to impact scoring, yes, but not hold a 26.1 PpG offense to a single score.

This is as strong of a statistical correlation as I’ve seen.  I’m comfortable stating it as fact: when Gunther Cunningham commits to denying Cam Cameron the run game, Cameron’s offenses merely throw more effectively, and score the expected amount of points.  When Gunther Cunningham commits to containing Cam Cameron’s passing offense, scoring is curtailed to well below expectations.

In 2009, Cam Cameron's offense, led by Joe Flacco, got off to a very hot start, leading talking heads to conclude early in the season that Baltimore is now an offense-first team. However, they’ve cooled off a bit since then.  They’re now the 10th-best scoring offense in the NFL, averaging a very healthy 23.4 points per game.  Average per-play effectiveness for both passing and running is very high: 6.95 YpA, and 4.25 YpC.

This is indeed a very balanced, effective offense, despite no real “studs” in the backfield or in space (no slight intended to Derrick Mason, but Larry Fitzgerald, he is not).  Despite the differences in ordinal rankings, which might lend credence to Gunther’s rant about tackling these days, this Ravens offense actually ranks in between the ‘04 and ‘05 Chargers in per-play effectiveness in the run and pass.  The field-goal-plus scoring disparity between these Ravens and those Chargers, though, points toward red zone problems.

Meanwhile, the Lions still have the 32nd-ranked—that is, worst--scoring defense in football: 30.5 points allowed per game.  Pass defense continues to be appalling, surrendering yards through the air at a 7.94 YpA clip.  The average opponent’s rushing attempt nets them 4.33 yards.  Given the state of the Lions’ secondary, and the way the Ravens have played this year, and the way it looks like Gunther figured Cameron out in the second game of the ‘05 season, I expect the Lions to load up to stop the pass.

Therefore, I’m going to gulp loudly and predict the Ravens to meet or slightly fall short of their season averages: 21-24 points, 6.5-7.0 YpA, and 4.25-4.75 YpC.  While I’m sure as I can be about the statistical effect I’ve seen above, I’m not so sure of Gunther’s game plan, so I’ll assign this projection medium-to-low confidence. 

Mitigating/Augmenting Influences:

Offensively, the Ravens seem to be the opposite of the Bengals.  Where the Bengals seemed to be built for explosive downfield passing, yet have been relying on a power run game to make hay.  Meanwhile, the Ravens have been built around Willis McGahee and the defense for years—yet, Ray Rice, LeRon McClain, and a much-diminished McGahee are all cogs in a Flacco-triggered offense that’s been far more effective on-field than it is on paper.

However, the disparity between the Ravens’ ability to move the ball and ability to score feeds right into the strength of the Cunningham philosophy.  Think about the Thanksgiving game—in some cases, the end zone is the Lions’ best defender.  Removing the 20+ pass as a threat allows the Lions’ front seven to play more aggressively, and it allows the secondary to keep the play in front of them.  It’s possible that the Lions could hold the Ravens to even fewer points than I projected above.

Then again, the Ravens are at home, 6-6, fighting for a playoff spot, and recovering from a crushing Monday Night Football loss to the Packers.  It’s entirely possible that the Ravens come out looking to take out their frustrations on the Lions, and blow them out of the stadium.

Scott Linehan vs. Greg Mattison

I got nothin’.

Seriously, though, Greg Mattison’s NFL resumé is as long as last year.  Depsite a long, decorated tenure as a coordinator in the college ranks—think Florida, Notre Dame, and U-of-M—Mattison was hired last season by then-new head coach John Harbaugh to coach the linebackers.  When Rex Ryan left in the offseason to coach the Jets, Harbaugh promoted Mattison instead.  While the Ravens’ philosophy has stayed the same—aggressive, blitzing, no-holds-barred defense—I don’t believe that calling a man with 38 years of coaching experience a “disciple” of a man he worked under for one year is accurate.  Just for the record, though:


When Scott Linehan’s horrible 2007 Rams offense that could sort-of run a little bit met the Ravens’ defense that allowed no running whatsoever, practically no points happened.  I don’t believe that this has any bearing on this Sunday’s contest.

However, the fact that Scott Linehan’s scoring offense is ranked 24th in the NFL, and Baltimore’s defense is ranked 4th?  That will have an awful lot of bearing on this Sunday’s contest.  Note, though, that that number keeps inching higher; at 18.1 points per game, the Lions are rapidly approaching the top of the bottom third of the league.  That, frankly, is ridiculous to point to as a positive, but such has been the state of the franchise.

Given a complete lack of data to work with, I can only project the Lions’ offensive production to meet expectations, given the current performance of the two units this year.  They should fall significantly short of their season average in points scored, while meeting or falling just shy of their passing and rushing effectiveness norms: 9-13 points, 5.00-5.50 YpA, and 3.50-4.00 YpC.  I have very low confidence in this prediction.

Mitigating/Augmenting Influences:

Unfortunately, with Matt Stafford already announced as inactive for this contest, that offense won’t be there.  Given that Megatron will be relatively healthy, I expect the offense’s play to be closer the Steelers game than the first Packers game—but we can’t be sure.  The Lions’ offense IS trending toward respectability, but the leader and triggerman is gone, and they’re playing their second straight road game against a top 5 scoring defense.  I don’t see any way the Lions surprise here, unless turnover margin or special teams swings the game wildly in the Lions’ favor—and that’s a long shot, indeed.

I’m sticking with the data here, folks, shaky though it might be: 21-24 points for the Ravens, and 9-13 points for the Lions.



>> 12.09.2009

 I’ve been running Windows Vista Ultimate 64-bit on this laptop for somewhere around a year, maybe more.  Just now, its very first Blue Screen of Death ate this week’s Watchtower.  Don’t worry, all the research wasn't lost, but I’ll be a little bit behind in posting the analysis.  My apologies.


three cups deep: resignation

>> 12.07.2009

2009 September 13: Detroit Lions center Dominic Raiola (51) reacts during a 45-27 win by the New Orleans Saints over the Detroit Lions at the Louisiana Superdome in New Orleans, Louisiana.

Icon SMI

No, I don’t mean that I’m resigning.  I mean we’ve reached—honestly, passed—the point in the season where we have an thorough understanding of what this team is and what this team is capable of.  They can give any team on any day a pretty good ballgame.  Sometimes, they can pass like a really good passing team.  Sometimes, they can run like a good running team.  Sometimes, they can bottle up the run.  Sometimes, they can rush the passer.  Coverage?  . . . well, sometimes other teams’ quarterbacks throw bad passes.

Unfortunately, it never all happens in the same game.  That’s just not good enough to beat anybody but the dregs of the league, and it’s certainly not good enough to go on the road and take out the #2 team in the AFC.  The offensive line, finally, got some decent push in the middle of the line—and what do you know, Kevin Smith had 12 carries for 54 yards in the first half.  With Stafford and Megatron both mostly healthy, they proved they’re too talented to contain.  The run defense was pretty stout, too; Cedric Benson carried the ball 36 times, but gained only 110 yards (3.06 YpC).

However, Stafford was simply off his game.  Almost all of his 26 throws were high and behind; most of the eleven completions required heroic effort by his targets.  The lack of offensive consistency simply killed the Lions on Sunday.  They were doing all the right things, getting breaks, and playing well, but just couldn’t complete drives.

The whole game turned on one of those drives.  Just before the second half, the Lions stalled in Bengal territory.  Schwartz sent Jason Hanson out to try a 55-yarder, outside, in December, in Ohio . . . and he hit the crossbar.  The Bengals came back the other way in a heartbeat, and hit a 39-yarder of their own.  Instead of going into the half down by only four, the Lions were looking up from the bottom of a 10-point hole.  They put the game on Matthew Stafford's shoulders, and that proved to be their undoing.

Pass defense was as good it’s been all year, with Julian Peterson bringing heat, and Buchanon, James, Delmas, and Henry making plays in the secondary.  Unfortunately, they couldn’t stop Chad Ochocinco forever, and in the second half he blew the game “open”.  At that point, the Lions abandoned the run, and . . . well, you’ve heard this story before.

I've said it before, and I'll say it again: there's simply not enough ability on this roster.  There is some: a few incredible young talents, a few cagey veterans who are defying their age, and an impressive amount of heart.  These guys can feel how close they are—you can tell they came out of the locker room thinking they had a real chance to win.  They didn’t stop fighting, all the way to the end, and that tells you something about these Lions; even if we’re resigned to the notion that they’ll go 2-14, they sure as hell aren’t.


Lions at Bengals: Gameday Discussion

>> 12.06.2009


It’s been a difficult week for Lions talk.  Between the long, long layoff, the Thanksgiving holiday season, the Lions’ record, and the dim prospect of winning this upcoming game, a lot of the enthusiasm’s been sapped.  Besides that, the college football season has finally begun in earnest, and hockey and basketball are underway, too.  People are more interested in discussing how the Lions can get their hands on Ndamukong Suh than if they can bottle up Chad Ochocinco (who, according to his Twitter feed, already has an elaborate celebration planned for when he scores).

However, the Bengals have been an inconsistent team--they lost to the Raiders!--and have a tendency to let inferior teams hang around with them until late in games. Maybe, just maybe, they'll extend us the same courtesy.  Whether or not they do, let’s talk about it in the comments below.


The Watchtower: Lions at Bengals

>> 12.03.2009

For a Lions fan, it seems like there’s no longer wait than the one between the Thanksgiving Day game and second Sunday after that.  For me, it’s been a little over a week since I posted the Watchtower for that game, but it seems like a month-long blur of stuffing, friends, sausage stuffing, family, chestnut stuffing, and stuffing myself.

In said Watchtower, I projected:

If we apply the systemic advantage it appears Gunther Cunningham’s aggressive defenses have against Mike McCarthy’s offenses, scoring should be somewhere above the Lions’ allowed average—the Packers are a well-above-average offense—but below, like, a zillion points. Meanwhile, the Pack should be able to move between the 20s more or less at will. Therefore, the Packers should score 34-38 points, pass for 9.00-10.00 YpA, and run for 4.50-4.75 YpC. I have very high confidence in this prediction.

Let the record show: 27 offensive points, 8.92 YpA, and 2.96 YpC.  Clearly, the defense did even better than expected, despite a decimated secondary attempting to cover one of the more prolific passing offenses in the NFL.  The effect I’d isolated in prior McCarthy/Cunningham matchups, of the Packers moving the ball well but not scoring, was clearly seen in Week 6, and it was clearly seen on Thanksgiving as well.  Despite being thoroughly outclassed, the defense’s ability to generate timely disruption kept the Lions in the game.

Even accounting for the systemic advantage I still believe a fully realized Linehan offense has against a Capers-style 3-4, the Lions should meet, or slightly underperform, their season averages: 14-17 points, 5.25-5.50 YpA, and 3.85-4.15 YpC.

Again, for the record: 10 offensive points, 4.95 YpA, and 3.17 YpC.  My projections here were a little bit optimistic; I place the blame entirely Schwartz’s decision to kick a field goal from the 4-yard-line while down by 18 in the fourth quarter.

I'm kidding.

Stafford, unbelievably, started and played the whole game--though the cortisone/adrenalin was clearly wearing off in the second half.  Megatron suited up, too, but he didn’t appear to be anything like his usual self.  Besides failing to be unstoppable, he had to be helped up on several occasions, and took himself out of the game at least twice.  Kevin Smith ran hard, but didn’t have much room.  There were a couple of runs where he was literally one step away from taking it to the house—but as we’ve repeatedly seen, that’s the one step he just doesn’t have.

At this point, the Lions are what we know they are: a team with good coaches, a few young, foundational players, and nearly nothing else.  Because they can’t run the ball, they are asking a rookie quarterback to beat teams by throwing it 40-50 times a game.  Because they can’t rush the passer, they are asking an injury-decimated secondary to hold the line while they blitz.  There’s no getting around it: the Lions do not have enough talent on the roster to beat good teams.

Who's next on the schedule?  Oh, yes, the 8-3 Bengals.  Sigh.

Bob Bratkowski vs. Gunther Cunningham

Brat Gun Ornk PgG YpA YpC Drnk PpG DYpA DYpC PTS YpA INT YpC Sack
SEA KCC 10th 22.7 6.05 4.57 1st 15.1 5.41 4.38 10 6.28 1 4.33 3-22
SEA KCC 10th 22.7 6.05 4.57 1st 15.1 5.41 4.38 3 2.79 0 1.53 4-29
SEA KCC 16th 19.8 6.13 4.52 11th 18.8 6.60 3.78 17 5.13 1 3.03 7-18
SEA KCC 16th 19.8 6.13 4.52 11th 18.8 6.60 3.78 16 7.00 1 5.50 3-25
SEA KCC 9th 22.8 6.50 4.46 1st 14.5 6.43 3.92 17 9.69 1 6.00 3-32
SEA KCC 9th 22.8 6.50 4.46 1st 14.5 6.43 3.92 19 6.70 1 2.96 5-25
SEA KCC 10th 23.2 6.25 3.82 22nd 22.7 6.23 3.81 6 2.85 2 2.81 0-0
SEA KCC 10th 23.2 6.25 3.82 22nd 22.7 6.23 3.81 17* 5.40 2 3.38 2-14
CIN TEN 31st 14 5.13 3.88 25th 24.2 7.31 3.53 7 5.71 2 1.90 1-10
CIN TEN 31st 14 5.13 3.88 25th 24.2 7.31 3.53 23 7.48 2 3.70 1-4
CIN KCC 4th 26.3 7.10 4.16 16th 20.3 6.58 4.10 3 4.06 2 1.68 1-6
CIN DET 16th 21.0 6.47 4.11 32nd 30.5 7.94 4.33          

When I saw Bob Bratkowski’s name, my blood ran cold.  I knew he’d been an OC in the NFL for a very long time, and when I saw that he’d spent four years coaching in-division against Guntherball . . . well, I was smothered in an avalanche of data.  For those of you who spent Tuesday, Wednesday, and Thursday where this piece was, well, here it is.

Bratkowski is a disciple of Dennis Erickson, having been Erickson’s OC both at Washington State and with the Seahawks.  Yet, unlike the aerial offenses that Erickson employed at Wazzou and elsewhere, with the Seahawks Bratkowski employed a balanced offense with a strong running game.

This may be partially due to personnel—the Seahawks quarterbacks of the mid-90s were a Rogue’s Gallery of has-beens and never-weres.  However, the consistency of the yards per attempt and carry from year to year (despite constantly fluctuating personnel) indicate an intentional approach to run/pass balance—and this is borne out in his approach at Cincinnati as well.

The ‘95-‘98 Seahawks teams were consistently strong offensively.  In ‘95, the were the 10th-best scoring offense, averaging 22.7 points per game.  The passing offense was unimpressive, averaging just 6.05 yards per attempt—but Chris Warren led the rushing attack to 4.57 YpC.  The Chiefs, however, were the #1 defense in the NFL—led by Hall of Famer Derrick Thomas, whose #58 jersey will be retired this weekend.  The result was predictable: 15 points for the ‘Hawks in the first game, and only 3 in the second.  Tellingly, the ‘Hawks moved the ball a bit in the first game, 6.28 YpA and 4.33 YpC, but did no such thing in the second—a pathetic 4.06 YpA and 1.68 YpC. 

What was the difference between an on-par-with expectations first performance and the #10 scoring offense eeking out just a field goal?  Weather and quarterback play.  The first game was Week 1, and Rick Mirer threw it around a little bit, if not efficiently.  The second game was in Arrowhead on Christmas Eve, back when Arrowhead was Arrowhead, and most of the snaps went to John Friesz--who was horrific.  There may be a little something here in terms of schematic advantage, but I’m chalking that performance up to talent, execution, and one of the most notorious home field advantages in modern NFL history.  On an incredible side note, monster returner Tamarick Vanover took a kickoff to the house in both games!

In 1996, Seattle’s offense fell off slightly, to 19.8 PpG, making them the median offense in the NFL (16th-best).  The Chiefs were slightly less stingy as well, allowing an average of 18.8 PpG (11th-best).  The results were right in line with what you’d expect: 17 and 16 points scored by the Seahawks, just a little bit less than their ‘97 season averages.  Interestingly, rushing and passing per-carry averages were depressed in the first game, at home: 5.13 YpA, and 3.03 YpC—and yet, they were elevated well above averages on the road: 7.00 YpA, and 5.50 YpC.  Either way, though, the Chiefs defense held scoring to just below the Seahawks’ season averages.

In ‘97, both teams rebounded: Seattle was the 9th-best scoring offense with 22.8 PpG, and the Chiefs reclaimed the top spot by allowing a miserly 14.5.  Once again, they met in the middle, 17 and 19 points scored in the two times they met.  Before we move on to ‘98, check out the sack numbers!  In six games, 25 sacks for –151 yards.  This was not extraordinary for those Chiefs--who were to the 90s what the Ravens have been in the aughts--but it’s remarkable to note.

Finally, we get to 1998. During this season, the Chiefs' defense got markedly worse with similar personnel: they were they 22nd-best scoring defense, allowing 22.7 points per game. However, for a clue as to why Gunther Cunningham was promoted to the head coach position after the season anyway, when it was his unit that faltered, look at the season-average YpA and YpC numbers; they held steady even though the scoring defense melted.  For another clue, look at the sack numbers: the Chiefs had 54 sacks as a team in 1997, but only 38 in 1998.

Surprisingly, the Seahawks, despite having the best offensive output of the Erickson/Bratkowski era at 23.2 PpG, didn’t fare any better against Gunther’s Chiefs, scoring 6 and 17 offensive points in their annual pair of games.  Neither turnovers nor sacks played any more role than they usually did in these meetings—in fact, the defense had far fewer sacks against the ‘Hawks than in ‘95-‘97.

When Erickson was broomed after the '98 season, Bratkowski didn't coach again until Dick LeBeau tabbed him to coordinate the Bengals’ offense in 2001.  The Bengals, using Jon Kitna, Scott Mitchell, and Akili Smith at quarterback, somehow finished 31st of 31 teams in scoring offense that season (14.1 PpG).  I’ll give you all a moment to recover from the shock . . .

Gunther, for his part, had been axed as Kansas City’s coordinator, and was working with Jim Schwartz in Tennessee.  The Titans weren’t much better on defense--ranked 25th and allowing 24.2 PpG, Tennessee would be expected to allow the Bengals some of their better games.  Not so much the first time around; Cincy’s only score was a Kitna-to-Ron-Dugans touchdown.  YpA and YpC were . . . awful.  In the final contest of the season, though, the Bengals got two scores from Corey Dillon, and three field goals from the inimitable Neil Rackers.  Kitna, throwing 47 times for 340 yards, may have been taking advantage of Titans D that was 7-8, tied for 3rd of 5th place in the AFC Central, and had nothing left to play for.

Finally, in 2005, Bratkowski brought his career’s best offense to bear against Cunningham: the 4th-best scoring offense that year, the Palmer-Johnson-Johnson-Houshmandzadeh quartet averaged 26.3 PpG, 7.10 YpA, and 4.16 YpC.  Meanwhile, the Chiefs were the median defense, allowing 20.3 PpG, 6.58 YpA, and 4.10 YpC.  My projection would be that the Bengals would replicate their season averages against the median defense, but no—they mustered only a field goal.  I checked for injuries; both Palmer and Kitna played, but they both played well.  It was the complete denial of a run game, only 1.68 YpA, that engendered this offensive collapse.

This allows me to conclude: regardless of talent or execution, if a Gunther Cunningham defense can stop the running game of a Bob Bratkowski balanced offense, Cunningham's aggressive playcalling completely disrupts the passing offense, as well.  Otherwise, there is mild systemic advantage for a Cunningham defense against a Bratkowski offense, suppressing point production without affecting per-play effectiveness.

The 2009 Bengals' offense is a shadow of what it was in ‘05: right at the median, averaging 21.0 points per game, 6.47 YpA, and 4.11 YpC.  In terms of run/pass effectivness, this looks exactly like Bratkowski's Seahawks teams of the late 90s: stout, solid, and flashless--but effective.  Has Palmer's effectiveness ironically regressed to Jon Kitna levels?  Was T.J. Houshmandzadeh that important?  For this analysis, though, what's relevant is not that we figure out why this system hasn’t been as effective against other defenses, just that we figure out how effective this system will be against the Lions’ defense.

The Lions’ defense is, as we know, the worst in football.  Allowing 30.5 points per game, a whopping 7.94 YpA, and 4.33 YpC, they’ve been a shot in the arm for every offense they’ve faced.  While the Bengals’ offense hasn’t been spectacular, and Bengals fans have been calling for Bratkowski’s head for some time, they’re running the ball effectively, only throwing when they have to—and they’re winning games.  Lots of games.

I don't believe that the Lions have the personnel up front to stop the Bengals' increasingly effective running game, ergo no triggering of the magical "Stop Bratkowski's offense cold regardless of personnel" effect we see above. Therefore, the Bengals will meet or slightly exceed their average point production, while greatly exceeding per-play averages through the air. I project 20-24 points, 8.0-8.5 YpA, and 4.25-4.5 YpC.  I have extremely high confidence in this projection.

Mitigating/Augmenting Influences:

Chad Ochocinco has publicly called for the Bengals to throw it 50 times on Sunday—but lately, Bratkowski hasn’t thrown it at all unless he’s had to.  While the Lions have been much stouter against the run than the pass, they’ve been only not-very-good against the run, as opposed to disastrous against the pass.  I fear that even if the Bengals throw it only 10 times, it’ll be for 150 yards and two scores.  The Lions might try double-covering The Ocho with Will James and Louis Delmas, and isolating Philip Buchanon on Laverneous Coles—but if the defensive line doesn’t get pressure, it’s only a matter of time.

The Lions will be helped by the lack of a dangerous pass-catching runningback or tight end; death by Andre Caldwell in the slot is a slow death indeed.  Still, I see the defensive line being overwhelmed by the Bengals' enormous offensive line, and their deep rotation of power running backs. It's imperative that the Lions' offense finally be able to stick with the run, keep the defense fresh late, and keep the score close. If the Bengals unleash the deep ball, it will be over quickly.

Scott Linehan vs. Marvin Lewis
Lin Marv Ornk PgG YpA YpC Drnk PpG DYpA DYpC PTS YpA INT YpC Sack
STL CIN 28th 16.4 5.63 3.78 24th 24.1 6.83 4.25 3* 5.46 1 3.67 0-0

It's almost laughable.  After the Bratkowski/Guntherball matchup generated a mountain of data, more than twice as many games as I’d ever broken down before, Linehan’s only faced off against Lewis once.  Unfortunately, one data point really can’t allow me to draw any kind of conclusion.  However, this was at least a recent-vintage Bengals defense.  Marvin has overseen many different defensive systems as both a coordinator and head coach—isolating just one would be practically impossible, even if there’d been a baker’s dozen meetings between the two coaches.

In 2007, Scott Linehan’s Rams were a mess; they had Steven Jackson and little else, and they didn’t have Steven Jackson much, either.  Ranked as the 28th-best scoring offense in the NFL, the Rams average 16.4 points per game, 5.63 YpA, and 3.78 YpC.  The Bengals’ defense of 2007 wasn’t a powerhouse either; the 24th-ranked unit allowed an average of 24.1 PpG, 6.83 YpA, and 4.25 YpC.  The meeting between the two teams resulted in an almost-perfect replication of the Rams’ season averages: 5.46 YpA, and 3.67 YpC.  However, the Rams scored only 3 offensive points, far short of their per-game average of 16.4.

It’s worth noting that those Rams lost almost their entire starting offensive line to in-season injuries; by December 7th (the date of this game) they were even losing the street free agents they'd signed to replace all the injured starters and backups. It's plausible to blame their below-expectations perfomance on that, but without even a second data point we can't determine if it's a fluke or a trend.

Looking at the 2009 data, it's absolutely painful. The Lions are nearly a statistical reproduction of that 2007 Rams offense.  Take the phrase above: "Scott Linehan’s Rams were a mess; they had Steven Jackson and little else, and they didn’t have Steven Jackson much, either".  Then, replace "Rams" with "Lions", and "Steven Jackson" with "Calvin Johnson" , and there you have it.

Meanwhile, the Bengals aren't the 24th-best scoring defense, they're the best in the NFL.  Let me say that again: the Cincinnati Bengals have the best scoring defense in the NFL.  Allowing only 15.8 points a game, 5.98 yards per attempt, and 3.80 yards per carry, the Bengals aren’t giving up anything to anybody . . . certainly not the Lions. 

Therefore, the expectation would be that the Lions significantly underperform their season averages--and we have no evidence of a systematic advantage that would modify those expectations.  Therefore, the Lions should significantly underperform their season averages: 7-9 points, 4.5-4.75 YpA, and 3.75-4.00 YpC.  I have low confidence in this projection.

Mitigating/Augmenting Influences:

There are two ways I see the Lions exceeding the (extremely low) expectations set for them; one is in the interplay between defense and offense. If the Bengals play conservative, ball-control offense and don't score very much early, the Lions may finally be able to get Kevin Smith in a rhythm. If the Bengals never open up a three-score lead on the Lions, it'll only be one Matthew Stafford-to-Calvin Johnson play away from being anybody's game. Of course, the Bengals will be capable of opening it up the other way, too . . .

The only other source of optimism is the relative health of Stafford and Johnson. Both were visibly hurt on Thanksgiving, especially Megatron. IF the long break has allowed them both to return to 100%, then there is at least the potential that the Lions' downfield passing game will force the Bengals to abadon their ball-control game. However, see above; forcing Carson Palmer and Chad Ochocinco will beat us might well result in them beating us.

There are any number of scenarios that may play out. If the Bengals choose to slow it down, and the Lions can't make the downfield pass happen, the two teams might not score 20 points combined. On the other hand, if the Lions or Bengals are aggressive early, it could turn into a track meet--much like the Browns game did. On the third hand, if Leon Hall baits Stafford into three or four picks, which could happen, it could just be a good old-fashioned blowout.

Oh, one other factor: it's in Cincy. The Lions haven't won a road game since before Halloween 2007, and I don't think they break the streak against the best defense in football.

Given all of these contradictory and/or depressing factors, I'm going to stick with the data: 20-24 points for the Bengals, and 7-9 points for the Lions.


  © Blogger template Simple n' Sweet by 2009

Find us on Google+

Back to TOP