the first line of defense?

>> 8.12.2009

It’s a little bit difficult to believe that I’m about to write about the desperate, unsettled nature of the Lions’ defensive line.  After all, it was just three years ago that the Lions hired Rod Marinelli—one of the NFL’s top defensive line coaches, and reputed leaguewide to be a brilliant teacher and motivator.  He was going to revamp the Lions’ perennially toothless defense, and leading the way would be a Tampa-like front four, our very own Warren Sapp, Booger McFarland, Simeon Rice and Greg Spires to brutalize quarterbacks with.

The plan was, our fierce, fast, athletic line would crash through the gaps, and terrorize opposing quarterbacks.  Since the D-line would be so dominant, blitzing would rarely be required; our small, fast linebackers could park in short zones and deny the offense the short passing game.  With the terrorizing defensive line up front, and the blanketing zone behind, the Lions’ defense was going to be a nightmare for opposing offensive coordinators.

Yes, well.  We knew things weren’t quite going to go to plan when Marinelli’s “top priority” was to sign Kalimba Edwards to a massive five-year extension, based on an Avril-esque rookie season and three years of groin injuries.  This started a chain of events—bad signings, draft misses, Marinelli “I’ll coach him up” hubris, trades, and injuries--that left the Lions’ defensive line in its current state: a guy who couldn’t even make the Packers’ camp roster now has “the inside track” on starting at left end.

There was an incredible kids’ show on PBS when I was small called “Square One TV”.  Famous for its nonstop U-of-M football in-jokes, the show was somewhere between Sesame Street, a sketch comedy show, and a cartoon—all with math as the focus.  The latter half of each episode would feature “Mathnet”, a Dragnet spoof that followed the adventures of two detectives who would solve crimes with math.  Often, when they were completely flummoxed, with several conflicting leads, they would “play ‘What Do We Know?’”, and the answers would reveal themselves.  It’s played like this:

  • We know that Grady Jackson is listed at 6’-2”, 345#.  We know he’s a natural wide-bodied, two-gap run-stuffing defensive tackle, of which the Lions’ staff would love to have two in the center of their defensive line.  We know he’s 36 years old, and will likely only see action in running situations, i.e., first down and second-and-short.  Despite being limited to 15-25 snaps a game, Gunther Cunningham admits that “when you get him in there, everything else goes good.”  We know he will likely be (unjustly) suspended for the first four games.

  • We know that Chuck Darby is listed at 6’-0”, 297#.  We know that he’s a natural one-gap run-stuffer, blessed with an incredible motor, big heart, and not much else.  Darby is an overachiever who plays at his absolute limit every second he’s on the field, but he—like Jackson—is getting up there in years (33), and is best suited for running down duty only.

  • We know that Landon Cohen is listed at 6’-3”, 274#--though he says he was up to 285 last year, and weighed in to training camp at 302.  We know the Lions drafted him in the seventh round of the 2008 draft.  We know he did an absolutely astonishing 50 reps of 225 pounds on the bench press at the outset of training camp—for comparison, B.J. Raji only mustered 33 at the combine this year.  We know Tom Kowalski reported that he’s been making a splash at camp.

  • We know that Andre Fluellen is listed at 6’-2”, 296#.  We know he’s an athletically gifted 2008 third-round pick.  We know he played at both DT and LE last season, and, according to the official site, allowed only 1.74 yards per play directed at him his rookie season.  We have absolutely no clue where the official site got that stat from, how it’s derived, or where we could get it for more players, but we sure wish we knew.  We also have no word on his camp performance to date.

  • We know that Sammie Hill is listed at 6’-4”, 329#.  We know he was drafted out of tiny Stillman College in the fourth round of this April’s draft.  We know he’s raw and unpolished, but has the physical tools to remind Gunther Cunningham of Albert Haynesworth.  We know his technique and conditioning are a long way from being ready for the big leagues.  We know he was drafted to play Major League Baseball.  We know he is very impressed by hotel rooms (the famous YouTube video of him and fellow RRA clients doing the “Cribs” thing at their agent-supplied hotel room has apparently been taken down).

  • We know that Shaun Smith is listed at 6’-2”, 325#, and has been a moderately effective two-gap DT and DE in the Browns’ 3-4.  We know he was on the outs in Cleveland for motivation problems—motivation problems paired with a penchant for mouthing off to the media.  We know that immediately after signing, he told the Detroit media that ex-Lions DT Shaun Rogers would love to come back to Detroit.  We know The Grandmaster thinks Smith’s talents fit the Lions’ needs.

  • We know that Orien Harris is listed at 6’-3”, 300#, we know he’s a high-motor guy, and has been on six different rosters in his four years in the league.  We know the Lions’ brass thinks he had a better chance of making the roster than Ronald Curry.

  • We know that there’s no way the Lions keep eight defensive tackles on the roster, so John Gill won’t make the team. UPDATE! About an hour after I posted this, John Gill was released.  I apologize to Mr. Gill if I influenced the Lions staff in any way.

  • We know that Cliff Avril is listed at 6’-3”, 253#, though he reported to camp at a lean 260.  We know he’s an explosive edge rusher who led all rookies in sacks last season, in less than half a season’s work.  We know he played mostly outside linebacker at Purdue; the Lions were one of the few teams who saw him as a full-time defensive end.  We know he’s a prototypical 3-4 ROLB, a little bit light for a prototypical 4-3 RE, and probably ten or fifteen pounds shy of the ideal for Schwartz and Cunningham’s new scheme.

  • We know that Dewayne White is listed at 6’-2”, 273#.  We know he was effective in spot duty as a pass rusher in Tampa Bay, and we know that—when healthy—he’s been an effective pass rusher here.  We know he matches the ideal body type and game for a RE in the Lions’ new system.  We know he’s not as effective at rushing the passer from the LE spot, and isn’t the run-stuffer an LE should be.

  • We know that Jared DeVries is out for the season.

  • We know that Ikaika Alama-Francis is listed at 6’-5”, 280#, but that he’s bulked up to 292 in anticipation of switching to tackle.  We know he was a 2007 second-round pick.  We know former NFL head coach Jerry Glanville called him the most talented defensive lineman he’d coached.  We know that with the injury to DeVries, “Five-O” is back at LE.

  • We know that Jason Hunter is listed at 6’-4”, 271#.  We know that he matches the ideal body profile of a DE in Schwartz and Cunningham’s new scheme.  We know he had a promising first few years in Green Bay--including being their best special teams tackler--but that he had no place in their new 3-4 alignment.  We know he has the “inside track” at taking over DeVries’s starting gig.

  • We know that Sean Conover is listed at 6’-5”, 275#, and also fits the physical mold of a Lions DE.  We know he was acquired by the Titans as a rookie free agent, but after two seasons of semi-successful spot duty, he was released.  We know he then kicked off a practice squad tour: the Ravens, Falcons, and Jets all had spots on their practice squads or reserve list for him in 2008.

  • We know that Ryan Kees is 6’-6”, 275#, and also fits the physical mold of a Lions DE.  We know that he tore it up at D-II Saint Cloud State.

In true Mathnet style, let’s look for the emergent patterns.  One is obvious: we see that every defensive end the Lions have acquired this offseason goes around 6’-5” and is 270-275 pounds.  This is the body type the Lions would like to see two of set wide, bracing the offensive tackles on either side.  Two ends built like this can set a very hard edge, denying running backs the outside, denying the pitch, disrupting the screen.  Setting these strong ends out wide will force the running backs up the middle.

Speaking of the middle, another pattern emerges here: with Grady Jackson, Sammie Hill, Shaun Smith, and Orien Harris, every defensive tackle the Lions have acquired has been a natural two-gap run stuffer, with a big, wide body.  According to Schwartz, the Lions still use a one-gap responsibility system, but instead of trying to ‘get skinny’ and blast up those gaps with a leading shoulder, the Lions are now squaring up to the gaps, filling them, and then shedding blockers.

According to Nick Cotsonika and Carlos Monarrez of the Free Press, both Jason Hunter and Cliff Avril have been seeing time at both ends, but DeWayne White appears fixed at the right end.  This makes sense; White is a productive veteran who perfectly fits the mold of the new right end.  It will be between the gifted-but-too-small Avril and the bigger-but-less-explosive Hunter for the starting LE spot—but keep in mind, with the high levels of blitz, and extreme situalization of the defense, no matter what the depth chart looks like, Avril will see a “starter”-like snap count.  Ikaika Alama-Francis would have been the perfect left end coming out of college, but he’s about thirty pounds too heavy now; I have no idea if they’ll have him lose weight, or what.  He may challenge Hunter for first- and second-down LE reps.

When Grady Jackson was signed, the prevailing wisdom amongst fans was that he’s be the starting nose tackle and Chuck Darby would be the #2.  However, basing this on little more than hunch, I think the Lions will play them side-by-side on running downs.  Darby’s simply too small to play the nose tackle role in this defense.  Besides, with the employment of the 3-3-5 nickel defense, there may only be two tackles out there on running downs anyway.  If you have two natural run stuffers who aren’t much good for anything else, and only have 15-25 snaps a game in them, why not use them together for 15-25 ‘1st-and-10’s and ‘2nd-and-short’s?  I think Shaun Smith or Sammie Hill will be the #2 ‘bigger’ tackle; Smith if he shuts his mouth and plays well consistently, Hill if he can get his conditioning where it needs to be.  Landon Cohen’s had an incredible camp, and Andre Fluellen really impressed me with his inside/outside athleticism late last season.  I still think the best place for “Five-O” is at the under tackle spot.

So, where does this leave us?  I decided to chart it out, based on everything we that we know, plus a little good old-fashioned hunchwork:

Base 4-3 (run)Hunter/FrancisDarbyJacksonWhite/Hunter
Base 4-3 (pass)Avril/HunterCohen/FluellenSmith/HillWhite/Avril
Nickel 4-3Avril/WhiteCohen/Fluellen/
Nickel 3-3Francis/Fluellen/Cohen--Smith/HillWhite/Francis/


Lions uncaged

>> 8.10.2009

So I’m sure folks have been wondering where my exquisitely detailed, play-by-play breakdown of the open practice at Ford Field—the “Lions Uncaged!” event--is.  It is here, at NetRat’s blog.  NetRat has been doing incredible work, watching all of the publicly available practices and taking extensive notes.   However, the annual open practice is supposed to be family-friendly, and so I brought my wife and progeny, not a stopwatch and clipboard.  As such, I have no forensic evidence for you—facts, stats, etc.—but I DO have circumstantial evdience: thoughts, feelings, impressions . . . oh, and pictures.

The drive to Ford Field could be described with a single word: “wet”.  It was an all-day soaker; in the hackneyed world of Ernest Hemingway I shouldn’t have bothered to get out of bed, let alone drive to Detroit in an attempt to have a LEGENDARY DAY OF FUN.  We parked in the structure, and then met some friends in the long, long, LONG line to get inside the stadium.  I should mention that this line was outside, in the rain, and it was raining, and it was outside.  We were all soaked in a matter of moments.

One of my friends had peeled off to go to a different gate, to get a better spot in the line for Matt Stafford.  I stupidly decided to try and take my two eldest kids there, too, but after five minutes of slogging through the downpour, I realized I’d led them the wrong way, so we simply turned around and went back.  When the gates opened, all of the fans who’d been waiting in the parking structure immediately ran across the street and cut in front of all of us poor suckers who’d been waiting in the line for 45 minutes, an hour, or more.  As we got in the door, my wife headed to the Calvin Johnson line, and I tried to hustle the two biggest kids directly to the Stafford line; it was already a doozy by the time we got there.

After about ten minutes, a Lions staffer walked the line, telling us it was already longer than they planned to let get autographs, and we may want to find another line.  After another 15 minutes or so, another person walked up and down the line saying that they’d only planned for about 160 autographs, and the cutoff for 160 was well ahead of us—however, we were welcome to say in line if we liked.  I’d been burned by this before: staff convincing me that I’ve got no chance for an autograph--only to have them extend the session after I give up.  We foolishly stayed, and after another ten minutes they closed the line.  Of course, they closed all the lines at the same time, so now we were out of luck entirely.  My kids were crushed.  We ran to the Calvin Johnson line to see if my wife had made it, but they closed it about ten people ahead of her . . . and that was it.  No autographs.

My oldest, when I explained what had happened, burst into tears.  She said, “You mean, we’re not going to get to meet the players?” I had to swallow hard; I didn’t anticipate this at all.  After hustling to get from Lansing to Detroit in time, after waiting in the rain for ever and ever, and after running through the halls of Ford Field to get in line, a scenario where we didn’t end up with anything simply didn’t enter into my imagination.  Well . . . there we were, so we tried to make the best of it.

Since we’d spent the whole time waiting for autographs, all of the prime close-up seats were taken, so we perched high in the end zone instead.  Now, this robbed me of being able to scout the line play, which was a bummer—but, it opened up a new world in terms of watching the quarterbacks.

We as fans are so used to the “TV angle”, the down-the-line-of-scrimmage-cam, that we lose appreciation for how wide the field is.  It’s 160 feet---that’s fifty three and one-third yards.  That’s right, folks--no matter what Tecmo Bowl taught us, the field of play is over half as wide as it is long.  A “30-yard-out” is really a 40-plus-yard throw, assuming the QB’s standing in the middle of the field.  When people say that arm strength “doesn’t matter”, to an extent, they’re right—the 50-yard sideline bomb is only deployed once or twice a game.  But where arm strength DOES matter is getting the rock to the receiver while he’s still open.  It’s difficult to explain without resorting to video clips I don’t have--but in watching the passing drills live, the differences between Stafford, Culpepper, and Stanton were remarkable.

When the ball leaves Culpepper’s hand, it does so with zip.  He, no doubt, has the arm strength to thread the needle.  In the 7-on-7 drills,  he appeared to have the best grasp of the offense.  I could see his eyes going to his second and third reads.  I could see him whipping through his checkdowns and making decisions.  He makes his reads, pulls the trigger, and does so with velocity--but still, it looks like he’s rushing everything.  I saw a frustratingly consistent lack of accuracy on the short stuff—not missing his receivers necessarily, but not putting it where they can easily catch it.  There were a lot of incomplete passes to open receivers 5-10 yards downfield; not what you want to see.

In the 11-on-11 stuff, he really struggled with the pass rush.  What was inaccuracy in the 7-on-7 work seemed to turn into ineffectiveness when line play was added back into the equation.  There was one play where Culpepper hesitated once, twice, and then Jared Devries beat his man around the corner; he pulled up and tapped Culpepper on the shoulder.  Nobody blew the whistle, though, so Culpepper stepped up and launched a bomb to Megatron, who got under it and hauled it in.  The place exploded--but in real life, this was a loss of eight, not a gain of six.  All in all, I would say that Culpepper was adequate; he never made a big mistake, but he didn’t move the ball that much, either.  He looked like a competent, mediocre veteran quarterback—exactly what the Lions needed him to be last season, instead of a turnover factory.

When Stafford throws the ball, it’s not much faster than Culpepper, but there’s a pop, a tautness that Culpepper’s passes doesn’t have.  The spiral is absolute, every time; it slices through the air.  There’s no Joey-esque duck-spiral-duck-quail-spiral-pheasant nonsense; The Truth’s passes in no way resemble game fowl.  Matt Stafford has an unreal arm, and he uses it effectively on dump-offs, go-routes, and everything in between.  There was one deep pass in the early 7-on-7 stuff where Stafford grooved this deep ball down the sidelines . . . thanks to my vantage point, I can’t tell you exactly how long the pass was, but it was somewhere between 40 and 60 yards.  The point here was that Stafford sailed a perfect, perfect spiral from the middle of the field, down the sidelines, to an open man—and the ball arced beautifully in the air, almost rolled over from the middle of the field to the sideline, like a curveball, and then dropped out of the sky, just inside the sideline.  The wideout wasn’t quite sure where the ball was, and his hesitation in picking it up was the difference between a jawdropping touchdown, and a pass that hit the turf a half a step ahead of the receiver—as it did.

It kind of hit me at that point: that’s what Matt Stafford needs to learn.  Not how to set his feet.  Not how to break down a defense.  Not how to grip the ball.  Not how to look off a safety.  Certainly not how to throw a picture-perfect deep ball.  Matthew Stafford needs to get reps in the offense, hone his timing, and develop a rapport with his receivers.  That’s it.  He can’t do it sitting on a bench, folks; he needs to be on the field.  I know it, Tom Kowalski knows it, and according to him, the Lions' coaches know it, too.  Say hello to your Week 1 starting quarterback.

Oh, for that matter, say hello to Killer (in the TV light):

Stafford’s far from perfect; as I said, he’s not looking at a lot of his third and fourth reads . . . at least, not that I could tell by watching his eyes from the end zone.  Then again, Michael Silver of Yahoo! Sports reported the other day that Stafford fooled Julian Peterson with a no-look pass, so maybe I’m off in that assessment.  Stafford seemed to have fewer “little mistakes” than Culpepper—when he threw the ball to the right guy at the right time, it was there, quickly, and on-target.  However, Stafford also had more “where was that going?” moments; not many, but a few where the pass was either with a wrong route in mind, or to a receiver who ran the wrong route.  Given that Stafford ran almost entirely with the twos, I can’t be sure.

In terms of overall gameday effectiveness, I’d say that Stafford is roughly Culpepper’s equal.  Given that, I don’t see how anyone can continue to justify calling for Stafford to sit.  He’s at least as good as a guy who’s starting his 11th season in the league—and has been a starter, when healthy, almost that entire time.  That means that he’s already better than Joey ever was, or ever will be.  That means that he’s an average NFL starter, right now.  That means that he’s not a bust, he’s not a flop, and he’s not a waste of seventy million dollars—and, maybe, just maybe, he’ll be worth every penny.

Drew Stanton showed me a little bit of something; he had a great pump fake that lead to a completion, made a couple plays with his legs, and generally executed effectively.  Stanton was the only quarterback to convert in one of the situational drills (10 seconds left, 1 time out, 30-yard line).  However, the difference between his passes and Stanton’s was remarkable.

Stanton’s balls would, you know, get there and everything, but when he’d run the same drills right after Stafford, you could just see it: the difference in zip on the same passes could mean a step, or two, or three for a closing defender—the difference between a receiver turning it upfield for more yardage, and a safety swatting it away before the catch.

The NFL is a world of instants and inches—and if Drew Stanton wants to survive, he will need to develop a Kurt Warner-like holistic understanding of the offense and defense and keys and reads; he will have to learn to throw the ball well before his receiver gets to where they’re going.  Let’s hope for his sake that the Turk spares him one more season, and he can go into 2010 ready to honestly compete for a career backup gig (a la Charlie Batch).

Now, for some quick final impressions . . .

  • This guy, Adam Jennings, was everywhere.  Ones, twos, threes, and a favorite target of all three quarterbacks.  I don’t know what his chances are of making the team, but he certainly caught my eye.
  • Aaron Brown flashed real explosion working with the twos and threes; in live move-the-ball drills he showed a compact running style, great lateral burst, and bounced off of tacklers.  I know he infuriated The Grandmaster the next day, but if it comes down to Brown or Caseon on the final roster, I really hope it’s Brown—someone might pluck this kid off the practice squad, and we could lose out on a good one.
  • I passed Landon Cohen in the halls, and he’s RIPPED.  I mean, the guy is allegedly up around 305, but he can’t be more than five or six percent body fat.  It looked like he was wearing pads—but he wasn’t.  Unreal.
  • Grady Jackson, Jon Jansen, Daniel Loper, and Stuart Schweigart all stayed late afterwards to sign autographs.  I brought my two eldest down to the rail:

               Schwiegart saw my daughter holding out our football, and gladly signed it.  After he signed a few more balls and shirts, he took off his socks and shoes and wristbands, and called for quiet.  He then started asking trivia questions about himself (“What school am I from?”), and rifling pieces of his gear towards correct answerers.
  • Check out the difference in color between my authentic and my kids’s replicas!

  • We moved towards midfield for the end of the session (live 11-on-11), and I definitely noticed the offensive line getting a LOT of push up the middle; much much more than I have seen in years from a Lions' squad.  Check this out:

    The LoS is around the 30, the runner is at the 28, and he’s got a five-yard-wide hole up until around the 32. I don’t know if this is just significant because of the weak DT play, or if the Lions’ OL is really that improved, or a combination thereof.  Note the pressure the RE is getting, though—this was a pattern I saw over and over, the wide-set ends ‘pinching’ or ‘funnelling’ the runner to the middle, just as the defense was designed.   The DTs aren’t holding their ground—but all three LBs are patiently in position.  I think we’ll see this a lot; the defense will give up a lot of three-to-five yard runs up the middle, but the ‘backers will hold them to no more.

In my last post, I mentioned about how I thought the soul of sports is the young fan, sitting in awe and wonder of the spectacle of it all. Despite the filthy, naked greed on display--both by the organization in charging us four bucks for a bottle of water, and by fellow fans by cutting in line--and the awful time we had before, during, and after the ‘family fun’, this is what it’s all about:

A HUGE thanks goes out to my shutterbug wife, her incredible patience and understanding around this endeavor, and the excellent snaps she took without the aid of a zoom lens.

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