long live the Lizard King

>> 7.03.2009

Frequently, when I’m at work, I forgo going out for lunch; instead I walk down to the corner store and pick up a pop, a banana, and maybe a sandwich. The other day, I was at said store, waiting in line to use the ATM, and I saw a dude wearing a black Ernie Sims jersey—just like the one I'd started saving up for in the middle of his rookie season.  At first, I felt a pang of regret--I never did sock away enough cash to pick up that jersey.  Then, I was alarmed: this guy was in a beat-up pair of denim shorts and work boots, and the jersey wasn’t in great shape either.  Being a weekday, this guy had almost certainly been working outdoors, and was just stopping in for a pop.  Was this guy wearing his Sims jersey . . . as a work shirt?

Of course, the Lions have changed their uniforms--the more recent jerseys are neither new enough to be cool, nor old enough to be throwbacks.  Further, they’ve done away with the black jerseys entirely—wearing a black jersey is both dating yourself, and repping the very darkest days of the franchise.  Then, of course, there’s the final piece of the puzzle: Ernie Sims has not exactly been the linebacking terror he promised us he’d be with his monster rookie season.

Coming out of high school, native Ernie Sims was rated the #1 overall recruit by Rivals, and the #1 LB by Scout.  After the native Tallahasseean terrorized people at Florida State for three years, the Lions drafted “Cinnabon” #8 overall.  Garnering 125 tackles in his rookie year, Sims immediately made an impression on his teammates—and left his impression on opponents.  This is about when I started saving my pennies.  A young, fire-breathing, game-changing linebacker?  Yes sir, jersey please!

However, his second season was kind of a mixed bag.  His statistical production went up, but he was clearly freelancing more and staying within the system less.  In the Tampa 2, that’s not just a problem, that’s a liability.  The T2 run defense absolutely depends on every single player being exactly where they’re supposed to be; if someone freelances, the potential to give up a huge play is . . . well, huge.  In the midst of the disastrous 0-16 season, it was painfully obvious that he’d tuned out the coaching staff.  Neither playing within the system, nor exploding to the ball on his own, it looked like Sims had officially checked out—and not buying a jersey looked like a mistake avoided (and in a house currently stocked with Charles Rogers, Roy Williams, Mike Furry, Kevin Jones, and Charlie Batch jerseys, I need to avoid mistakes as much as possible!).

However, this season promises to be different for Ernie Sims.  The Tampa 2 is long gone, replaced by Gunther Cunningham’s highly anticipated blitz-heavy hybrid defense.  The linebackers will be asked to blitz constantly, both to disrupt the pass and defend the run.  The operative word will be “downhill”.  Running downhill, attacking attacking attacking.  Running to the ball with maximum speed and maximum explosion; laying lumber to whomever’s unfortunate enough to be in the way.  This, it should be obvious, dovetails nicely with Ernie’s strengths.

It’s been repeated throughout the offseason, though most fans haven’t paid much attention: Ernie Sims is primed to be an incredible force in 2009.

You know it occurs to me . . . all offseason long, we’ve been so obsessed with the Lions acquiring new talent, “filling” all of the “holes”, replacing all the 2008 starters with different players.  Here, Killer says that in Cunningham’s system, Sims will be a different player—and it really makes sense.  During the minicamp sessions, The Grandmaster said that in the 14-week offseason lifting program—which changed from an emphasis on strength without mass to an Olympic-style explosion- and mass-building program—team upper body strength increased 21%, and lower body explosion increased 14%.  Given the 95% participation rate, that means that some of the players have undergone serious transformations.  Now, Cinnabon is unlikely to be one of them, given his current physique.  However, a lot of players we think we know “the book” on might yet surprise us—players like Ikaika Alama-Francis, who’s been getting a lot of reps at DT, or Stephen Peterman, whose power hasn’t always matched his big frame.  I’m not saying that the team that went 0-16 is suddenly going to be stocked with Pro Bowlers . . . but don’t be surprised if guys you’d written off suddenly look somebody you’d never seen before.

Ernie, however, might look like the guy we all saw in 2006—and that guy I saw last week might want to take better care of that jersey.


have the Lions left the safety off?

>> 6.30.2009

A few days ago, the excellent Chrissie Wywrot of the official Lions site penned a piece on embattled safety Daniel Bullocks.  It almost seemed like a direct challenge to recent articles by Mlive.com’s Tom Kowalski and the Detroit News’s John Niyo suggesting that Bullocks is simply not in the mix to start next to rookie Louis Delmas.  Wywrot discloses something only hinted at before: Bullocks never really recovered from the blown ACL that sidelined him in 2007. 

Safety play is something difficult for the HDTV-deprived fan to quantify (thanks, 4:3 aspect ratio!).  We see the strong safety come up and lay the lumber, and we see big interceptions.  Sometimes, on replays from alternate angles, we can see a safety get beat deep.  However, unlike front-seven defenders, it’s impossible for the average fan to simply watch a safety for a snap, or series of snaps, to see how they’re doing.  Therefore, when it comes to ‘grading out’ a safety, we’re beholden to those who have access to game film.  Kowalski’s sources tell him that Bullocks’ angles were all wrong in 2008, and that the fluidity, quickness, and aggressiveness he displayed in 2006 appeared to be “gone”.  Killer added that when a defense gives up many long runs (as the Lions did in 2008), that’s often the result of poor safety play.

Interestingly, the Niyo piece I linked above appears to have been edited.  Here is the original quote, as snagged from The Den, Scout.com’s Lions forum: Correction: the below quote is actually from rotoworld.com, adding their own analysis to Niyo's.  The article linked above is apparently as it was first published.

“Gerald Alexander and Kalvin Pearson split time at strong safety with the Lions first-team defense during Tuesday's minicamp.  While rookie Louis Delmas is locked in at free safety, the new coaching staff has been less than content with its option at strong safety. They no longer see Daniel Bullocks as a starter, and free agent Marquand Manuel was recently brought on board as another option.”

This jibes with the other reports: the post-trade safety pecking order has Pearson and Manuel splitting time with the ones—but Pearson is thought of as a valuable backup, but too athletically limited to be a starter in the Lions’ new symmetrical defense.  This leaves the door wide open for Bullocks—but Bullocks has to recover his physical skills, rebuild his confidence in those skills, learn the new system, and then incorporate it all, so he can play as aggressively and instinctually as he did his rookie year.  Both from published reports, and my talks with some folks in the know, it sounds like he’s got about 1.5 out of 4 down pat right now—and an uphill climb to be relevant this fall.


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