interview: it’s just sports

>> 9.25.2009

It’s Just Sports is an blog that casts a languorous, snarky eye on the sublime and the ridiculous in the world of sports.  If you haven’t been keeping tabs on it, I highly recommend you do.  Patrick Hayes, Pardeep Toor, and a cast of other cool cats have spent the last year gathering (and skewering) the latest sports news, naming the ”best worst” Detroit athletes, keeping tabs on ridiculous player Tweets, and getting to know some of the many excellent sports bloggers that call this wooded mitten home.

Apparently, they ran out of excellent sports bloggers, because earlier this week Patrick asked me some seriously excellent questions, and I did my best to answer them.  It’s my first interview of any kind, and part of a series which has included some of the very best local sports blogs around.  I’m thrilled, honored, and pleased that Patrick took the time to ask me some questions and publish the answers—I hope you’ll take the time to go read them!


Neither Rain, Nor Snow, Nor Sleet . . . Mailbag!

>> 9.23.2009

I got some great submissions for this week's edition. First up is "Calvins Got A Job":

I want to know what the deal with Gosder Cherilus is? He's huge and has a NASTY streak and has seemed durable so far in his short young career. But he guy gets a flag or two thrown at him every week! 15-yarder after 15-yarder... Unreal, Millen... I'm starting to think this kid is going to suck and do this his whole career... i'd be happy if some team was dumb enough to trade for him. Do you know how many penalties he's had in his tenure with the Lions?

Well, you partially answered your own question there; Cherlius's emotions often get the better of him. He has a tendency to get too wrapped up in the emotional battle between him and the guy across from him, and lose his head. It's these lapses in focus that get him to jump early, commit personal fouls, and miss assignments.

The good news is that the initial fears about Gosder--that he just wouldn't be any good--appear to be unfounded. His size and strength are unquestioned, and he's shown improved fluidity and technique. Outside of the penalties, you really don't hear his name called--and as we know, for O-linemen, that's a good thing. I'm going through the film right now, so I'll let you folks know if I see anything on there either way.

From Jeremy Riesman, Lions writer for the Study of Sports:
How do you explain Detroit's success on the ground last week against Minnesota? I figured they would try a bunch, but I really thought Kevin and Pat Williams were going to crush us. You think ManRam won himself the starting job?

Well, again, I'm just tucking in to my film review, so no "Eureka" moments yet. One thing I noticed the Lions' interior linemen doing in the preseason was a judo-like move: they allow DTs to "beat" them in the direction away from the play--then when the back runs past, use their momentum against them, with a hard shove in the direction they're already going. This prevents the DTs from changing direction and getting back in the play.

I'd be willing to bet that that little trick, along with a lot of traps and pulls to Pettigrew's side, opened up seams that wouldn't normally be there. Credit must also go to Kevin Smith for finding those seams and decisively bursting through. According to Nick Cotsonika, Ramirez is now splitting reps 50-50 with Loper, and the Lions will essentially play the matchups between the two of them. Considering I'd essentially written off Ramirez ever contributing, this is great to see. Also, it gives the Lions depth and options at guard--which, considering the Lions' history at that position, is never a bad thing. Mike emailed in with some very kind words (highly appreciated!) and the following question:

Can you see the resemblance? If Ben from Lost was coach, what would he do to help the Lions right this ship?

Well first, I can see where you're going with the resemblance; I chuckled. As for what do to with the team? I think the answer's obvious! He'd beef up the pass protection:


And from Matt:

I still would like your take on Schweigert getting cut? Again, all I saw him do was make plays. . . so what's the problem?

As anyone who's been reading for a while knows, I've been rooting hard for Stu ever since he stayed late to sign my kids' football at the "Lions Uncaged!" open event. He also made plays like crazy in the the preseason; he was practically a one-man defense against Atlanta.

I was aggrieved enough by his release to do some judicious asking around. The response was that he played his way out of a gig during the Cleveland game--of course, the one I didn't see much of. That explains why he was still essentially quarantined to the second halves of the Colts and Bills games--he was already a dead man walking. Impressive performances against the Colts' and Bills' dead men walking apparently weren't enough to stop the Lions from trading for Ko Simpson, and cutting Stuey Schwagger. He continues to stay in touch with fans with his Twitter feed, @schweigert39.

Finally, my man Steve of Detroit Lions Weblog called me out:

You have recently defended the Lions decision to select Brandon Pettigrew with their second first round selection in the April draft. In a comment on another blog you said regarding the selection of Pettigrew over additional assistance to the Lions defensive personnel would have made a tangible difference in the game's outcome, : "No. Absolutely not. The Saints have the best offense in football, and might well be the best team in football this year. With Buchanon out and Eric King starting, it’s a wonder the Saints didn’t push for triple digits! The Lions certainly played better against the Saints this year than last, and for right now that’s all you can ask." Really? Do you honestly view the Saints as legitimate Super Bowl contenders? Do you believe that the Saints are truly that good, or is the Lions defense that bad? Is playing better than last year a real consolation? I know that Saints offense is quite prolific, but given the attention that the Lions paid to their defense during the recent off-season, is it unfair to expect better results? I am already worried that very little has changed in Allen Park, and I will remain a skeptic until given reason to believe otherwise.

First of all, yes, I absolutely believe that the Saints are going to be playing in January, and probably February. That offense is going to go down as one of the most potent ever assembled--and while their defense is not exceptionally talented, it's the *right* one for their offense. What the Saints did to the Lions--get up 14-0 and send everybody at the QB--they're going to do to a lot of teams; they're going to win a LOT of games because of it. Given that divison, I see a 12 or 13-win season for the Saints.

Second, yes, I absolutely stand behind my statement that Brandon Pettigrew is going to do more for the Lions this season (and for the next decade) than any of the defensive personnel available at the 20th pick. Rey Maualuga certainly wouldn't be playing any better than Larry Foote has shown so far, and Peria Jerry--besides being the completely wrong kind of DT prospect--has already been lost for the season due to an knee injury. Can you honestly tell me that there was a late-first-round rookie that was going to slow down the best offense in the NFL?

On Sunday, the Lions will be starting Sammie Lee Hill, DeAndre Levy, and Louis Delmas. They'll also be starting Grady Jackson, Jason Hunter, Anthony Henry, Philip Buchanon, Larry Foote, Julian Peterson, and either Marquand Manuel or Ko Simpson. Given that the whole defense was overhauled, should we expect better results? Well, that depends on what you mean by "better results". All of these players are either untested rookies, or veterans on the downsides of their careers. This was a defense assembled from scratch in one offseason. Will it be better than the 2008 defense--by almost any standard, the worst defense ever? Yes. Will it be a "good" defense? Maybe. Should we "expect" it to be a good defense? . . . no.


The watchtower: lions vs. redskins

>> 9.22.2009

In last week's watchtower, we looked at the historical matchups of Gunther Cunningham defenses versus Brad Childress offenses, and Scott Linehan offenses versus Dungy-style Tampa 2 defenses. Here's what I came up with:

Given greater or equal talent, Scott Linehan’s balanced offense significantly outperforms its averages when facing a Dungy-style Tampa 2, especially with the run. Given lesser talent, Linehan’s offense meets or mildly outperforms expectations against a T2. However, a disproportionate amount of sacks and turnovers seem to be created by a Tampa 2 when facing a Linehan offense. It’s that pesky turnover thing that will make the difference; if Minnesota sacks Stafford five or six times and generates two or three turnovers, the Lions will have an extremely hard time keeping pace, even if the ground game is working well (and scheme or no, nobody runs on the Williams Wall!). However, Minnesota’s lack of a downfield passing game should allow Gunther Cunningham to turn up the defensive heat to an extreme level, which should have a disproportionately disruptive effect on the Vikings’ offense. Given how amazing Adrian Peterson looked in the Vikings’ first game, and how inept the Lions looked against the Saints, it’s tempting to say this will be a blowout—however, the Vikings didn’t blow out the Browns, and I don’t think this one will be a blowout either. It appears as though the Lions have a decided systemic advantage on both sides of the ball, assuming Gunther feels safe enough to crank up the heat. It remains to be seen if those advantages will be enough to overcome the gap in talent on both sides of the ball. Therefore, the most likely result of this game is a closely contested, medium-to-low scoring slugfest, with a lot of turnovers and penalties. It is slightly more likely that Minnesota’s talent overcomes Detroit’s systemic advantages, but this will be a volatile game in Detroit’s home opener.

This method of prediction--breaking down historial scheme vs. scheme data, and layering on subjective analysis--has its flaws. Indeed, the brighter analytical minds of the football universe have been privately critical of my work so far. While I take said critiques to heart, I think I may be on to something.

  • I found that Linehan's offense seems to be unusually successful against Dungy-style Tampa 2 defenses; Detroit was so successful on the ground that the Vikings abandoned their base defense, and put eight men in the box.
  • Linehan's teams seem to turn the ball over frequently when facing a Dungy-style defense.  I noted that avoiding that would be key to the Lions' chances for victory.  Instead, the Lions turned it over three times, and that was arguably the difference in the game.
  • I projected that Minnesota's lack of a consistent deep threat would allow Gunther to blitz, thereby disrupting the Childress offense. It did, he did, and it did; the Lions nearly carried a shutout into halftime. In the end, the turnovers--and resultant short fields for the Vikes--were too numerous to overcome.
  • It was indeed an ugly game marred by sacks, turnovers, and controversial calls--most notably the phantom Gosder Cherilus "chop block" that negated a long gainer by Megatron.

This analysis isn't anything more than that: analysis. But rather than pretend that Dominic Raiola had some sort of secret Pat Williams kyrptonite in his pocket, I prefer to believe that the interaction of schemes provided an opportunity for Kevin Smith to succeed . . . and I know of no other way to project or predict such interactions. I said as long as I find this analysis to have predictive value, I'd continue--and I do, and so I shall.

Zorn Gun Ornk PpG YpA YpC Drnk PpG PTS YpA INT YpC FumL Sack
SEA KCC 12th 21.1 6.47 3.45 13th 20.1 31 7.2 0 2.1 0-0 3-9
SEA KCC 19th 20.0 5.84 4.27 19th 22.1 17 5 1 5.5 4-1 5-37
SEA KCC 19th 20.0 5.84 4.27 19th 22.1 22 5.33 3 5.7 1-1 3-16
SEA KCC 14th 20.9 5.96 3.97 11th 19.7 28 6.6 2 2.94 0-0 2-8

Jim Zorn, former Lions quarterbacks coach, has only been an offensive coordinator for as long as he's been a head coach--this is his second season as anything more senior than a position coach. However, he's been a top assistant to Mike Holmgren in Seattle since 2001, and runs that flavor of Walsh-style offense in Washington, so I decided to extend my reach back to Seattle-era Holmgren offenses.

This opened up something I've been anxious to see: two meetings between the same schemes in the same year.  In 2000, Holmgren's Seahawks met Cunningham's Chiefs twice; this should give us an idea of how reliable our single-sample data has been.  I don't want to get ahead of myself though, so let's look at the prior meeting first.

In 1999, the Seahawks brought the 12th-best scoring offense (21.1 ppg) up against Gunther's 13th-best scoring defense (20.1 ppg). You'd expect the Seahawks to match their usual output, and they roughly did, scoring 24 points. While they outperformed expectations through the air (6.47 ypa avg., 7.20 actual), their already-weak running game was completely ineffective (3.45 ypc avg., 2.14 actual). They didn't simply abandon the run, either—that’s 60 yards on 28 carries! The three sacks might be interesting, but paired with zero turnovers, it doesn't point to anything systemic.  Let's get to the really interesting case study: 2000.

In 2000, the Seahawks were a below-median scoring offense, posting up exactly 20 points per game (19th). Meanwhile, Cunningham's defense was also ranked 19th, allowing 22.1 points per game. The offense scored very near expectations: 17 and 22 points in the two games.  In both meetings, the offense passed below their season averages: only 5 and 5.33 yards per attempt, versus the average 5.84. In a reverse of the 1999 data, though, they ran with success far above average: 5.47 and 5.72 yards per carry, over the average 4.27. The disruption numbers, however, are consistently high: 5 & 3 sacks for -37 and -16 yards, 4 & 1 fumbles forced (1 and 1 recovered), and 1 & 3 INTs.

What are we to make of this? I'm excited by the strong parallels in the stats between the two games. This is exactly what I was hoping to see; it buoys my assertions that the 16-game averages can roughly capture annual swings in talent and execution. There's a quirk, though: when the Seahawks had a strong passing game but weaker running game, the run was shut down--but the passing attack outperformed expectations. Then in 2000, when the Seahawks were much better on the ground than through the air (thanks Shaun Alexander), the Chiefs took away the pass, but were steamrolled with the run. Before drawing any conclusions, I'll go to the last data point.

In 2006, Seattle had a fairly balanced offense, scoring 20.9 points per game (14th), averaging 5.96 yards per pass attempt and 3.97 yards per carry. Cunningham's Chiefs were the 11th-ranked scoring defense, allowing 19.7 points per game. Though the Seahawks, at first blush, exceeded expecations, 7 of their 28 points came from a defensive TD--putting them right where you'd expect them, at 21 points. Now, we see a reversion to the 1999 pattern: the Seahawks passed for 6.60 YpA, 0.7 yards above average--and rushed for a measley 2.94 YpC, 1.03 yards below average.

I looked at the 1999 data, and the Seahawks were ranked 24th in the NFL in rushing attempts (25.5 per game), and 24th in yards per carry (3.45). In 2000, however, the Seahawks ran almost exactly as often (25.19 CpG, ranked 23rd), but were markedly more successful when doing so (4.27 YpC, ranked 9th). It seems as though Cunningham was almost "taking what the offense gives him"--simply blitzing both the run and pass, generating many turnovers and sacks, interrupting the scoring success of what a team does well, and denying what they don't. As this is the guiding principle of Cunningham's defense--extreme blitzing, and a focus on touchdown denial vs. yardage denial--I'm willing to say that given equal talent and execution, there is no systemic advantage for either Jim Zorn's WCO or Gunther Cunningham's hyperagressive 4-3.

If this week's game follows the above trends, Clinton Portis will have an above-average day on the ground, but the Lions' blizting will disrupt and confound Jason Campbell and the Redskins' ho-hum passing game. Point production by the Redskins should be right at expectations--which, for 2009 so far, means 13.0; they're ranked 31st.

Lin Bla. Ornk PpG YpA YpC Drnk PpG PTS YpA INT YpC FumL Sack
MIN CHI 8 24.4 6.60 5.3 25th 23.7 19 8.36 2 4.24 2-1 1-6
MIN CHI 8 24.4 6.60 5.3 25th 23.7 24 7.20 0 3.4 1-1 0-0
MIN CHI 6 25.3 8.18 4.71 22nd 21.6 25 8.23 0 5.18 3-1 3-16
MIN CHI 6 25.3 8.18 4.71 22nd 21.6 10 6.53 1 4.68 1-0 2-7
STL WAS 30 14.5 5.67 3.95 6th 18.5 19 5.23 0 2.92 1-1 2-12

On the other side of the ball, the analysis unfortunately gets murkier. 'Skins DC Greg Blache has been in Washington since 2004, but only as the defensive line coach until Zorn took over. Moreover, Blache was not a product of the Gregg Williams "tree"; he was a refugee from Dick Jauron's ouster in Chicago. While Blache allegdly had significant input into the Williams defenses of 2004-2007, Blache apparently removed many of the more exotic blitz packages, and called fewer blitzes in 2008. Further, the signing of Albert Haynesworth and drafting of Brian Orakpo bolster the notion that Blache's scheme and playcalling will more closely resemble the stout but staid defense Blache put in place during his time in the Windy City . . . therefore, I'll use Linehan's matchups against the pre-2004 Bears defenses, and the 2008 Redskins for my analysis.

In 2002, Linehan's Vikings met Blache's Bears twice, again giving us a good look at in-season trends. Linehan's Vikings were ranked 8th in the NFL in scoring offense, with 24.4 points per game. They passed for 6.6 yards per attempt, and rolled with an outstanding 5.3 yards per carry. The Bears scoring defense was subpar; they allowed 23.7 PpG, slotting them 25th in the league. You'd expect the Vikings to score well above their already-prodigous average, but don't; they only muster 19 and 24 points in two tries. While they were very successful in passing the ball (8.36 & 7.20 YpA, 6.60 avg.), the vaunted Vikings ground game ground to a halt (4.24 & 3.4 YpC, 5.3 avg.).

Disruption numbers were low (2 picks; 3 fumbles, 1 lost; 1 sack for -6 yards for both games COMBINED), but it's undeniable that the Blache defense smothered an excellent Linehan ground game with far inferior talent, and the success of the passing game wasn't enough to do anything but equalize the offensive output to normalcy.

In 2003, both teams were slightly bettter; Minnesota was the 6th-best scoring offense in the NFL with 25.3 PpG, and Chicago was the 22nd-ranked scoring defense with 21.6 PpG allowed.  The passing attack was extremely potent, averaging 8.18 YpA, and the running game was still solid (4.71 YpC), despite losing over half of a yard per carry from the previous season.  Expectations would be that the Vikings outperform their usual scoring average—and in the first game, they do, scoring 25 points.  However, in the second game, they took a pratfall, mustering only 10. 

Here we have the first discrepancy between two contests in the same season.  In the first matchup, the Vikings slightly outperformed their 16-game averages both through the air and on the ground (8.23 YpA & 5.18 YpC, vs 8.18 & 4.71 avgs.).  However, in the second contest, the Vikings managed a mere 10 points, passed for only 6.53 YpA, and ran for an average 4.68 YpC.  The only real variance between the two games that I can find is that the first game happened in mid-September in the Metrodome, and the second happened in mid-December at Soldier Field.  It’s entirely possible that the climate and crowd were decided factors in limiting the Vikings’ high-flying offense—though I admit, that’s nothing but conjecture.

There's one more data point to look at, so let's do: last season, just two games after Linehan's ouster, his Rams faced Blache's Redskins. I realize that this won't perfectly capture Linehan's playcalling tendencies, etc., but it's the only data point we've got with Blache leading the Redskins' defense. The Rams were fairly well wretched that season--the 30th scoring offense, ekeing out just 14.5 points per game. The passing offense could only manage 5.67 YpA, and the rushing game was only good for 3.95 YpC. Meanwhile, Washington's defense was the 6th-best scoring defense in football, allowing only 18.5 PpG. One would expect a truly wimpy offensive output, and yet the Rams scored 19 points. How?

Well, their only touchdown came from a interception return, and the remainder of the scoring came from kicker Josh Brown's foot. YpA and YpC were both depressed (5.23 YpA vs. 5.67 avg.; 2.92 YpC vs. 3.95 YpC avg.). Disruption numbers again weren't great, but it hardly mattered; the defense did their job. Therefore, I'm concluding that regardless of talent or execution, Greg Blache's philosophy of a strong front four and committment to run-stopping disproportionately slows Scott Linehan's balanced offense. Where does this leave us? With the burden entirely in the hands of the respective quarterbacks. Given the Redskins' meager offensive output so far, and the lack of any decided systemic advantage for either the Redskins' offense or the Lions defense, the Redskins will move the ball only if Jason Campbell can be successful deep and force Gunther Cunnigham to call off the dogs. Meanwhile, the Redskins' impressive apparent advantage when matching up their defensive system against the Lions' offense means that Matt Stafford will have to minimize turnovers and connect with Calvin Johnson deep.

In my opinion, the most likely scenario is an absolutely brutal game, a physical brawl where both teams try but fail to control the ball with the running game, sacks and turnovers abound, penalty flags fall from the sky like rain . . . and the team whose quarterback performs the best wins.


this is your brain on lions . . . any questions?

>> 9.21.2009

I’ve received a couple of mailbag submissions already, but once again I’d like to invite folks to send questions you might have to my email address,, message me at my Twitter feed, @lionsinwinter, or of course comment on this post!

I'll feature, and answer, your submissions in this week's mailbag post.


three cups deep: cold comfort

Yesterday, I saw the Lions lose.  The 18-game skid was didn't stop; it’s now a 19-game losing streak.  The Lions are 0-2, 0-1 in division, and all alone in the NFC North cellar once again.

I've never been a "there are no moral victories" guy. A loss is a loss, and a win is a win, but you can take positives from a game where the final score doesn't tilt your way. Lions fans can certainly take heart in Kevin Smith grinding out 83 yards against what's been the stoutest run defense of the past couple of seasons. Likewise, you can be pleased with a defense that contained Adrian Peterson to only 92 yards, and sacked Favre three times for a loss of 16 yards. You can be pleased with Matthew Stafford ‘s first touchdown connection with Calvin Johnson.  You can be pleased with Aaron Brown locking up the kick returner's role, I guess, and Jason Hanson's still perfect . . . sigh.

As frustrating and painful as this loss was, it’s much easier to find positives in this loss than in many of the previous 18.  There are a lot of folks saying that this loss was "just like last year", but those people either weren't paying attention then, weren't paying attention yesterday, or are being disingenuous.

Last year's teams would be down 21-0 at the end of the first quarter, and then spend all game trying to claw their way back into it. Then, as soon as they got a fingerhold back on the edge of the game, the other team would wake up, stomp on their fingers, and the Lions would fall back into the abyss. Many of the games where the score looked "competitive" weren't ever, really. This game was.  The Lions drew first blood, extended that lead, and then held it all the way into the locker room at halftime. 

That's probably the only truly valuable nugget you can sift out of this sand: the Lions were really competitive against the Vikings--a talented, and highly regarded, contender. Quoth their graybeard under center:

"Detroit played hard, played well, and I was worried."
Lions RT Gosder Cherlius spoke well, too:
"We took the ball from the 25-yard line and didn't throw it until we got to the end zone. That felt good. Our best beat their best . . . "
It's true. The Lions, especially early, were able to get the lead, control the ball, and hold the lead for the whole first half. Unfortunately, the Gozerian finished that sentence:
" . . .but it wasn't good enough because we didn't win the game. So it means nothing."

Yeah; pretty much. I'm finding it harder and harder to muster the energy to take the positives from losses; harder and harder to tell everyone I meet that the Lions are on the right track; harder and harder to quiet the rumbling hunger in my belly for victory.

I keep telling myself that nothing's changed, this is still a Murderer's Row of an early schedule, there's still a rookie quarterback starting under center, and a win over the Vikings would have been a monumental upset--but it was bitterly frustrating to come out of the stadium having to try to be happy, rather than actually just being happy.

Oh, don't worry, I'm still me. Late in the fourth quarter, someone sitting near me called for Daunte Culpepper, and I roared back at him to shut his mouth. I'm willing to grant that Culpepper might have thrown one fewer pick and one more TD pass, but that just makes it 20-27. Stafford is not the problem here. The turnovers he committed didn't lose the Lions the game--that honor would go to Kevin Smith's third-quarter fumble.

On the Lions' 27, Smith put the ball on the turf, and the Vikings recovered. On the first play of the ensuing Vikings position, Peterson got free for the only time that day; he ran 27 yards to the house. That was pretty much the end of that. Down by a TD, the Lions' offense started pressing to make up the difference, and ultimately lost effectiveness.

Nobody's killing Smith for that fumble. He played hard, did better than expected, and was a key part of this close-but-not-quite performance--and you could say the same for Stafford.  Stafford, I suppose, just hasn't yet earned that benefit of the doubt, that "free pass" with the media and fans. That's okay, he will. He just needs to get that first "W" to take the pressure off of him, the Lions, and all of our backs.


a little bit of Karma, Maybe

>> 9.20.2009

When my wife went into labor with our first child, it was during an MSU loss to Notre Dame.  Our little girl was born the next day, during a Lions victory at Ford Field.

That was exactly five years ago, Saturday.

I'm gonna take that as a sign.


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