Have Punt, Will Travel

>> 1.23.2010

UPDATED with fixed link to must-read GQ article. Thanks, David!

Often lost in the hullabaloo of professional football is the first half of the equation: professional.  Much is made about the thousands, even millions of dollars thrown around to athletes, coaches, and executives that make the game we follow--but then we naively ascribe all sorts of amateurish motives and ideals to these men: honor, loyalty, the love of the game.  We take all we know of them—their on-field personas and their public statements—and we build them up in accordance with this paradigm.
Marvin Harrison was a receiver of electrifying ability.  On the field, he did nothing but his job; off the field, he didn’t exist.  He didn’t make commercials, didn’t blog, didn’t Tweet, didn’t even speak unless he absolutely had to.   The football viewing public decided he must be classy, humble, and workmanlike.  He was held up as the anti-TO—a wide receiver whose grace, maturity, and selflessness elevated him beyond his look-at-me contemporaries.
Faced with the GQ article that will surely go down as one of the most powerful pieces of sportswriting this year, we must face the reality: we know absolutely nothing about Marvin Harrison.  All we saw was what he did on the field—and on the field, he did nothing but his job.  He was a professional football player: he showed up, punched the clock, busted his ass, got results, punched the clock, and went home to do whatever he does in private.
Stan Kwan had a job in the NFL, too.  But he wasn't getting results—and his firing had been called for, vociferously, by just about everyone in the Lions blogosphere, myself not excepted:

As for Kwan . . . well, there is absolutely no excuse for what Stan Kwan’s coverage and return teams did to the Lions’ chances for victory on Sunday. According to the official game book, the Lions’ average starting field position was their own 18-yard-line. The Bears’ average starting field position was the Lions’ 48. As pointed out by Killer, the defense allowed the Bears only 276 yards of total offense—but 277 yards of punt and kick returns.
It’s undeniable; the Lions’ special teams were absolutely wretched this season.  According to Football Outsiders’ special teams analysis, the Lions put together the second-worst special teams unit in the NFL this year.  His performance was manifestly wretched; his firing, inevitable.
Yet, it must be pointed out that Kwan had practically nothing to work with.  Nigh-on a decade’s worth of fruitless drafts had left, ahem, the cupboard bare, and Kwan was making do with the rejects of the rejects.  The promising and developing young players that competitive teams allocate to special teams were instead forced into starting roles, evaluated, and often released.
Reader TimT’s incredible analysis of the Lions’ roster churn proves the point: Kwan was often saying “hello” and “goodbye” to his players before a game had elapsed in between!  Think of it this way: we’re all marveling at the quick development of DeAndre Levy as a three-position reserve linebacker, and possible 2010 starter—but on a “real” team Levy would have spent all of this season, and likely the next, destroying people on special teams.  In his place, we had street free agents like Vinny Ciurciu.
Kwan did the best he could under the circumstances, but he readily admitted to the Detroit News’ John Niyo that it wasn’t anywhere near enough:
"Bottom line is results, and I don't have any regrets, other than that I didn't fulfill that for him and the Ford family and really the fans. It's disheartening, because a lot of people, especially with the economy we're in, everybody's working hard and that one Sunday out of the week, they want to see a winner. And I didn't fulfill those duties."
Wow.  It’s rare that someone who just got fired speaks with such candor about his failures.  He didn’t blame the roster, he didn’t blame the Rogue’s Gallery of coaches and executives he’s worked for here, and he didn’t even dissemble about “going in a different direction”, a “difference in philosophy”, or even a “mutual parting of ways”.  No, his performance didn’t measure up—he knew it, he accepted it, and he admitted it.  You think that’s classy?  Wait until you read this:
"I hope the people of Detroit realize that they have got the right guy (in Schwartz)," Kwan said. "We became good friends, and for him to have to let me go because the special teams wasn't where it needs to be, I mean, that speaks volumes about what he's trying to get accomplished.
I mean, I just . . . wow.  While I’ve never been fired for poor results, I have been laid off—and my first reaction was not to call the local paper and tell them the guy who just took my badge and laptop is doing a hell of a job.  Kwan must be a hell of a friend, and a hell of a class act.
Unfortunately, he’s unemployed.
He'll be traveling to Mobile, Alabama for the Senior Bowl: the annual college all-star game which doubles as a job fair for football coaches with steep mortgage payments but no income.  On the sidelines for the North squad will be Jim Schwartz, Gunther Cunningham, Scott Linehan, and the rest of the Lions’ staff—including Danny Crossman, the Lions’ new special teams coordinator. 
Sean Yuille over at Pride of Detroit already has a great little background piece on Crossman’s background and recent performance.  It also includes a link to the Panthers’ SB Nation blog, wherein Crossman’s firing garnered eerily familiar proclamations of joy—and eerily similar defenses of his 2009 performance.  Quoth Panthers cornerback Dante Wesley:
“You’ve got to look at what he had to work with. It seemed like we were bringing new guys in each and every week. Then with the injuries we had, the backups are playing bigger roles on offense and defense, and we never had the same group. With that, I mean, Danny was teaching things over and over and over, because he never knew who he was going to have. It can be frustrating, because so many guys are coming through. You want to try to do it by yourself, but you can’t. That’s not how it works.”
And how did Schwartz settle on Crossman?
"He brings a wealth of both college and NFL coaching experience that undoubtedly will have a positive impact on our special teams play. I've known Danny for a long time, and I've always had tremendous respect for his special teams units."
It’s hard not to conclude that the Lions have made a lateral move here.  Yet, it was a move that had to be made.  There are plenty of good people out in the “real world” who can’t hold on to jobs because their performance doesn’t warrant it—or, more accurately, they’re not so amazing at their jobs as to be indispensable.
I hope Danny Crossman’s fresh face, fresh voice, and approach will catalyze great improvement here.  I hope a full offseason of roster-building will result in a little quality depth trickling down into the coverage and return units.  I hope Crossman, a former all-Big East cornerback, Pitt team captain, inaugural World Bowl MVP (!), and, briefly, Lions DB (!!), can connect with Lions special teams aces like Ciurciu and Zack Follett. 
Meanwhile, I hope Stan Kwan finds a good job in Mobile.  I hope he finds a head coach who values the quasi-Olympic ideals we foist upon our professional sportsmen: honor, loyalty, diligence, and work ethic.  I hope he finds a team with young talent, a winning culture, a supportive fan base, and—why not?—better weather.
Hey, I hear Carolina’s looking.


Old Mother Hubbard: The Defensive Tackles

>> 1.21.2010


Here are my “bottom line” summaries of each of the defensive tackles on the roster, as of the end of the 2008 season:

Cory Redding: The Lions are committed to Redding, money-wise, for at least 2009 and maybe 2010.  Look for him to be starting as a 4-3 UT or 3-4 DE/NT in '09.
Shaun Cody: the Lions' interest in retaining Cody will probably depend on the chosen defensive alignment.  If they choose a 3-4, they may pay to keep him as an end. If they stay in a 4-3, he could be allowed to walk.
Andre Fluellen: a talented natural one-gap player who could blossom into a force as he goes through NFL training and nutrition. In 2009 I see him as a 4-3 SDE/UT, or a 3-4 DE.
Landon Cohen: Cohen is a true 4-3 one-gap nose tackle who was born a little too small. If he could add a lot of bulk he could stay at NT--otherwise, he's another 4-3 UT/3-4 DE project.
Chuck Darby: Darby could make a good 3-4 end, but would be a liability at NT. No matter the alignment, Darby is a valuable rotational player who brings emotional leadership on and off the field--and comes at a low cost. If he'll stay, we should keep him.
Langston Moore: Moore will probably be the first guy cut . . . if he sticks around, he'll be 4-3 DT depth.
It’s obvious that Mayhew and Schwartz saw the exact same thing that you and I do in this list: six players who have no business starting in the NFL, all of whom barely flirt with 300 pounds.  Of these, only Fluellen and Cohen remain on the roster.  Redding, of course, was flipped for Julian Peterson in a truly excellent trade.  He played 15 games for the Seahawks, starting only 3, and managed just 18 tackles (16 solo) and two sacks.
I had very high hopes for Andre Fluellen—but they still can’t figure out if he is an end or a tackle.  He was cycled between the two spots constantly, filling in wherever needed.  I said in last year’s breakdown that:
I see him as a replacement for Cory Redding: a big, lean defensive tackle with a motor and tackling skills . . . I think if he could add 20 or 30 pounds over the next several years and work on his strength and technique, his short, wide frame and high motor could allow him to be a pocket-collapsing nose tackle.
Shockingly, Fluellen’s 2009 production was almost identical to that of Redding’s: in 14 games (3 starts), Flu garnered 18 tackles (9 solo) and 1.5 sacks.  I no longer think he has NT potential in either alignment; he lacks the natural bulk to be a run-stopper.  His body may yet mature, but he’s just not built like a natural 1-technique DT.
We saw evidence of this in Week 8, against the Rams.  Here are two plays where Flu is asked to line stop the run as 1-technique:

On the first play, we see Flu get good burst and initial penetration.  He follows Jackson’s first steps, to the strong side of the field (bottom of the frame).  Unfortunately, it’s a counter.  Jackson cuts back to the weak side, the guard easily seals Fluellen off, and Andre can only crane his head around as Jackson runs past.  Compounding matters, the weakside end took a very wide path upfield, leaving a five-yard-wide hole filled only by 188-pound Kevin Hobbs.  The results are predictable.
On the second play, it's a simple affair: he gets blown off the ball.  Flu’s manhandled by the guard, technically doubled by the tackle—who hardly needs bother—and keeps getting pushed back until Jackson slams into him, seven yards downfield.  Not what you want from your nose tackle on a first-and-10 run up the middle.
On the other hand, Fluellen’s athleticism tantalizes:

This is a wide receiver screen, a play where a defensive tackle almost cannot make an impact.  However, we see him use that burst to shoot through the gap the pulling guard just vacated, getting in the backfield before the center can lay hands on him.  The quarterback has already released the ball, so Flu turns to the sideline without slowing down.  He pursues to the end of the play—and, if the receiver had shaken the corner and cut inside, he might have made the tackle.  A sideline-to-sideline DT?
Here're a couple of very interesting clips from the Redskins game:

This is the 3-3-5 nickel alignment that, when discussed in the preseason, sent Lions fans into a speculative tizzy.  These were on the Redskins’ second-to-last drive, and the Lions used this alignment almost exclusively—drawing a delay-of-game the first time they deployed it.  Sammie Hill, however, was on the sidelines with an ankle sprain, so Andre Fluellen was called upon to play nose tackle.
On the first play, Gun has the linebackers do a presnap dance all up and down the line, suggesting several different blitzes.  When the snap does come, the linebackers all drop back into coverage, and Fluellen ends up mostly one-on-one with giant guard Derrick Dockery.  After a decent initial push gets stymied, Flu keeps the motor going, and manages to get upfield—even forcing a mild hold!
On the second play (and other plays on that drive that I didn’t clip), the ‘Skins took no chances.  Flu is triple-teamed, while the ends are merely blocked one-on-one.  Though the third guy is mostly there for moral support—the center and right guard pretty much neutralize Fluellen—it’s nice to see another team make absolutely sure Flu doesn’t get free while the QB is waiting for deep routes to develop.
This is the duality of Fluellen: he's a very interesting inside-outside prospect, an undeniably talented player who’s far more athletic than a man his size has a right to be.  However, he’s a very, very long way from being a complete defensive tackle.  He cannot consistently hold the line against big guards, and is consistently neutralized by double teams.  However, the Lions’ lack of depth along the defensive line is such that his versatility and potential nearly ensure his roster spot for 2010.
Bottom line: Fluellen is a very versatile, high-effort player only two years removed from being a third-round draft pick.  Whether he plays inside, outside, or both in 2010, Flu should get plenty of rotational snaps next season.
One of the biggest surprises of training camp was Landon Cohen. Coming out of college at 6’-3 1/2”, 278 pounds, the Lions picked Cohen in the seventh round of the 2008 draft, and immediately threw him on the Rod Marinelli Under Tackle Pile. A year later, he added over twenty pounds of pure muscle, proved he could bench 225 pounds fifty times in a row, and earned a spot in the rotation.
Cohen is extremely lean, and very athletic—he ran track during all four of his years at Ohio University—and yet he’s powerful enough to play DT in the NFL. I happened to bump into him at the “Lions Uncaged!” fan event, and I was completely blown away by his physique. At his bigger weight, he’s not just lean—he’s cut, especially in the upper body.
Let's bring up my scouting report from last year again:
Cohen is a true 4-3 one-gap nose tackle who was born a little too small. If he could add a lot of bulk he could stay at NT--otherwise, he's another 4-3 UT/3-4 DE project.
Up to a listed 300 pounds from his original 278, Cohen has indeed "added a lot of bulk", and the Lions have used him as both a 1-tech nose tackle and a 3-tech under tackle in their 4-3 alignment this year. I'm not sure he'll ever have the junk in the trunk needed to be an immovable run-stopping 1-tech, but if he hasn’t yet maxxed out his frame, his potential is great.
What I like from Cohen is his patience—much like a tailback who waits for a hole and then explodes, Cohen has a great sense of where and when a crease in the line will open up.  Watch these two runs from the Rams game; see how he first moves laterally, then bursts past the center:

That motor and burst is great, but he's still got to be able to win one-on-ones in order to be more than a situational player. Here are a couple of clips that show him getting a lot of upfield push--even if he doesn’t make the play, he beats his man and limits the offense’s options.  He’ll have to do this more consistently, and actually make those plays, to win a full-time starting gig, but for now, this shows a lot of progress:

Here's one more I liked. This is the 4th-and-1 goal line stand from the Redskins game. Cohen's lined up as an end, and again he shows that knack for rushing through the gaps opened by center or guard motion.  If you’re wondering which Lion is Cohen, he’s the one who gets a couple yards into the backfield.

The run was designed to go outside of the OT, so Cohen couldn't make the play.  But again, we see his quick feet, upper body strength, and instincts making up for what he lacks in bulk.  Unlike Fluellen, he’s not a straight-line runner who could play outside.  He’s a true DT with good short-area quickness.
This is a good example of how you can't scout body types by listed size: Fluellen is theoretically 6’-2”, 302, and Cohen is listed at 6'-3", 300.   But look at Cohen in that last clip: as the camera zooms in from behind the Lions’ line, you can see Cohen’s shoulders are so wide, his jersey has to crease to stretch over his pads.  He’s built like a DT, he’s just not yet a finished example of one.
Bottom line: Cohen is rapidly developing from a seventh-round flier into a useful rotational DT. While he'll never be a 320-pound line-clogger, he's only 23.  If he focuses on lower-body development, improves his leverage, and continues to hone his technique, he’ll be a very nice complement to/backup for/situational replacement of Sammie Hill.
The Lions’ biggest free agent signing—in at least three senses of the word—was former Raiders, Saints, Packers, Falcons, Jaguars, and Falcons DT Grady Jackson.  Standing 6’-2”, 345 pounds, Jackson’s picture may as well hang in the dictionary next to the word stopgap:  “something that fills the place of something else that is lacking”.  Obviously, there was a big, empty space in the middle of the Lions’ defensive line—and Grady Jackson, at least partially, filled it.
The excitement when the Lions snagged Jackson was palpable.  Jackson was an immediate infusion of legitimate run-stopping ability, something the Lions had absolutely none of in 2008.  I gushed that he’d be worth a half a yard-per-carry all by himself!  Actually, this might have been true; the Lions’ opponent’s gross YpC for 2009 was 4.42, down from 5.14 last season (-0.72 YpC).
Jackson was brought in explicitly as a situational player, not a full-time starter.  As a line-clogging run stopper, he really isn’t much use in passing situations anyway.  He was even deactivated for the Seattle game, because their running scheme is mostly draws and stretches—as Schwartz put it, "That's sideways chasing, and that's not his forte".
Unfortunately, even in his specific niche, Jackson wasn't an instant hit.  He was in and out of training camp--first battling an illness, then dealing with his brother's stunning, bizarre, depressing murder case.  Grady also had a four-game suspension hanging over his head, thanks to the well-known tale of the NFL and StarCaps.
Right up until the end of the preseason, it was unknown whether the Lions would have Jackson available.  Fortunately, Jackson wasn’t forced to serve that suspension at the beginning of the season.  Unfortunately, he didn’t help all that much either:

The first play, we see something that looks depressingly like 2008: both Grady (NT, towards top), and Sammie Hill (UT, towards bottom), are both driven way, way, way off the ball—Grady’s even being singled here!  Depressingly, this happened quite a bit in the Saints game.  The Saints' LG, Carl Nicks, absolutely owned Grady in this game.  He goes 6'-5", 343, but I was apalled by how a second-year 5th-round draft pick just pushed around one of the more prolific run-stoppers of recent NFL history.
The second play on that clip is a little more like it--Grady's briefly doubled, and gets pushed back--but then he stands his ground, gets an arm out and ends up making the tackle.  This is hardly an amazing play, but it's one that would never have been made if Cory Redding and Andre Fluellen were our starting tackles.
While reviewing the film, I found a disturbing tendency: a positively Rogers esque tendency to be unblockable when the Lions are already winning.  Check out these two plays from the Redskins game:

Seriously, this is heroic one-on-one domination, in both plays.  Look at the explosion Jackson gets off the line!  He sends his man reeling and flailing backwards with just his initial punch, then rushes, re-engages, and gets up in Campbell's grill.  In the sescond play, we see Jackson go low--real low.  He dives down underneath the right guard, gets into the backfield untouched, if on the ground, then does a push-up and makes an ankle tackle.  That's an incredible hustle play--and one I don't see on film when the score is 0-10, opponent instead of 10-0, Lions.
Here are two clips that are exactly what the Lions expect of Grady--no more, and no less:

In the first clip, we see Grady hold the point of attack.  Unfortunately, he doesn't make the play, but he at least gets a little push and fights off the block.  In the second play, he's initially doubled.  When the guard releases, Grady sees the tailback come back his way, and he gets an arm free to make the tackle.  Again, no world-destroying, just exactly what the Lions got him for.
The Rams game also bolstered my play-when-he-wanna-play theory.  Here are two plays, both classic DT situations with the Lions still in the game:

In the first one, it's a critical 3rd-and-1, with the Lions down 2-10.  The Rams make the critical mistake of trying to block Grady with one man. Not only does he blow that dude up, when Steven Jackson runs around Grady, he turns and pursues.  Like, he runs downfield!
In the second one, the Rams are backed up on their own 1-yard-line.  It's a tie game, and Grady smells two points.  Again, inexplicably, the Rams try to block him with only a guard--and if their tailback was any less of a juggernaut, Grady'd have gotten his man.
It's clear that the 10-to-15 snaps per game that Grady Jackson can contribute will not make for an effective run defense.  However, he was absolutely critical to the improvement the Lions’ run defense made this season—from “apocalyptically terrible” to merely bad.  Grady’s under contract for two more years, and as a situational/rotational guy, he’s still useful.
Bottom line: Jackson turned in a B- performance in doing exactly what the Lions asked—stop the run on 1st and 10.  Even if the Lions draft or sign a three-down starter, Jackson can still contribute in that role.  I expect to see him back on the roster in 2010, though hopefully not as a “starter”.
Outside of Matthew Stafford, no 2009 Lions draft pick was more talked-about, or more important to the future of the team, than DT Sammie Hill.  A 6’-4”, 329-pound man-child from tiny Stillman College, Hill came to the NFL a tabula rasa, a natural born defensive tackle with zero coaching or technique base. 
Jim Schwartz immediately compared Hill—and scouting hill—to Leon Lett, the small-school big man who helped anchor the Dallas Cowboys dynasty of the mid-90s:
He was playing teams like Northern State and some of these others; I can't even remember some of the schools. The film was real grainy. You don't have the nice sideline and end zone (views), you got end zone that looks like it was filmed from the moon. And you just saw one guy that was twice as big as everybody else and then there'd be a pile and then you'd see somebody get knocked out of the pile the other way and you'd know that Leon was there.
With Sammie, it was a lot of the same thing. Part of the film - literally, they took it from the booth and you can see the reflection of the guy filming it more than you can see down on the field. But then again, you see guys get knocked backwards a lot. You see him show up around the quarterback. He played end in a 3-4 and they used him to sort of shut down half the field.
The consensus was that Hill was a 2-3 year project, an intriguing prospect with the tools to, someday, with the right coaching, develop into a special player.  Instead, the desperately undersized Lions plunked Hill into the starting lineup from Day One.
Hill—despite never having attended an NFL game prior to being drafted—walked onto the field and did pretty well for a rookie.  He still took his lumps, though:

One thing I noticed all season long was Hill's susceptibility to trap blocking, downblocking, reach blocking, zone blocking, or really anything that wasn’t straightforward one-on-one or two-on-one.  It’s like it didn’t occur to Sammie that anyone other than the guy directly across from him might exist.  As strong as Landon Cohen’s instincts were about the offensive line’s intentions, Hill’s were that weak.
To be fair, this is to be expected from a guy who was playing 3-4 end at a D-II school against guys half his size nine months before the above clip was shot.  To be fairer, the guard doing the blocking in that clip is 2010 Pro Bowl starter Jahri Evans; it's not like Hill was getting dominated by a scrub.
Even having taken his early lumps, Hill's natural talent was apparent.  Here's a beautiful clip of him holding his own against a true double-team, fighing them off, and then contributing to the play.  This isn't a chip, or an assist, this is a center and guard both blocking Sammie with everything they've got.  Yet, after initially getting pushed back, he recovers, and holds his ground:

Unfortunately, Hill "had an ankle" in that 'Skins game (to use The Grandmasters' parlance).  He missed the next three games, plus the bye, then came back against the Rams . . . strong:

Here we see two run plays where Hill proves he's too strong to block with just one guy.  Unfortunately, he seems a little more concerned with beating his man than actually tackling the runningback—but that much penetration forces an offense to adjust, and that’s what you need from a DT.
Frankly, folks, I think Sammie Hill is going to be seen as one of the sharpest late-round picks since Cortland Finnegan—a Schwartz-polished seventh-round diamond in the rough.  Hill is the Lions' only quality tackle, and we're only seeing the beginnings of what he could develop into.
He only mustered 14 solo tackles, and 12 assists, in his 12 starts.  He’s no pass rusher—he didn’t have a single sack—but he showed strength, power, and athleticism in a perfectly-sized package.  My hope is that a full offseason of NFL nutrition, strength training, and technique coaching with DL coach Bob Karmelowicz, the man who tutored Jared Allen in Kansas City, will help him take that next big step.
Bottom Line: Sammie Hill is already the Lions’ best defensive tackle, and should prove to be much better in 2010 and beyond.  He has the size, strength, and athleticism to become a perennial Pro Bowler, and his steady improvement from preseason to the end of the season shows the effort and coachability he’ll need to get there.  He’ll start for the Lions this season, and for many more to come.
The Lions are still desperate at this position.  They started with six players who, as I said, have no business starting in the NFL—and now they have a young, three-down starter on the rise, an aging situational run-stopper, a young, rotational, three-down NT/UT with upside, and a young inside-outside ‘tweener.
In order to continue building the defense that Schwartz and Cunningham envision, they'll have to acquire another starting defensive tackle, one with some real explosion and pass-rush ability.  Cohen is showing that he could develop into that player—if a little too small—but he won’t be that player next season.  Fluellen just isn’t built big enough to be an every-down DT in this system—and though the tools and potential are there, I haven’t yet seen anything from him that shows he can actually rush the passer, from either the end or tackle spot.
Reader SomeChoi commented that there’s a disconnect here between the highlights and warm fuzzy words above, and the apparent lack of production from the defensive tackle spot during the season.  As I said in the comments, this is because you’re seeing highlights and lowlights; it wasn’t feasible to show you all hundreds of snaps of our defensive tackles failing to be awesome.
Another factor, however, was that apparent weakness in the defensive line play turned out to be errors by the linebackers or secondary.  Yes, Julian Peterson, Larry Foote, Ernie Sims and DeAndre Levy are all massive upgrades from last season, when street free agent Ryan Nece was arguably our best linebacker.  Still, the LB play was wildly inconsistent throughout the season—often playing well when the line did not, and vice versa.
All that having been said, the run-stopping is still inadequate, and the interior pass rush is nonexistent.  Though flawed linebacker and safety play exacerbated the insufficiency up front, the insufficiency is real.
Bottom line: There’s no doubt that the defensive line is much stouter this season than last—that 0.72 YpC improvement in the run defense had to come from somewhere!—this is still a D+/C- line.  The Lions absolutely must add an impact starter.  Whether that is an elite DT talent in the draft—as in, with the #2 overall pick—or, by trade for a veteran starter, or by making a splash in the free agent market, it must be done.


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