Jahvid Best Interview: A New Perspective

>> 12.17.2010

Jahvid Best is interviewed by Ty from The Lions in Winter, while signing autographs for fans at his Pepsi Max event.  Photo by Matt.

A thrilled Lions fan gets an autograph from Jahvid Best. Also pictured: some little kid

As part of the Pepsi Rookie of the Week/Rookie of the Year award, Jahvid Best, along with thirteen other top NFL rookies, has been honored with his very own Pepsi Max can.  The can design got a grand introduction at Meijer the other night, and Jahvid was on hand to meet, greet, take pictures, and sign autographs.  Thanks to the Pepsi Max folks, I got a few minutes alongside Jahvid to talk with him, and watch him interact with fans.

As a proud and dedicated Lions fan, I’ve been to my fair share of these events.  You bring (or buy) something to be signed, you file in with the rest of the crowd, you wait your turn, the anticipation builds . . . and in a few moments of smiling and signing, you try to say something cool, reference something obscure about the player, pass along a message from another fan—something, anything to make a connection.  You try and establish a bond, a kinship, a little moment of commonality with them that you can treasure forever.  This time, though, I sat on the other side of the table; instead of one brief moment of connection, I got to witness dozens.

Men, women, boys, girls, people of all sizes, shapes, colors, ages all approached the table with a story, a message, or a tidbit.  “Dude.  I just want you to know, I scored a 92-yard touchdown with you in Madden yesterday.  I just—I just had to tell you.”  “I just wanted to say, we know you can do it!  Well-wishes for his health, the season, the Lions, his future.  People taking pictures left and right, people who’d been through the line coming back up.  The Meijer folks wanting a group picture.  Through it all, Jahvid was smiling, calm, friendly, seeming not only willing, but excited to hear everyone out—even with me buzzing in his ear.

I mentioned I love the way Jahvid uses Twitter interactively; he talks about what he’s into, how he’s feeling, and he listens and responds.  “I like to use Twitter to talk to fans,” he said.  “I mean, I would have loved the chance to talk my favorite players growing up.”  Indeed, Twitter helps us have these little connections with our favorite players all the time.  I mean, when Jahvid tweets:

This jimmyjohns is hittin right now... Shoulda got two

I nod sagely, having said the same thing to myself many times.  Following him on Twitter throughout the season, something that’s jumped out at me is his consistently positive outlook on life—even though he’s had to take some lumps along with the good this year.  I asked him about it: “That is something my parents taught me, growing up: that you should always keep a positive attitude, no matter what happens.”

Whenever NFL talk turns to breakout rookies, an old chestnut always comes up: the “rookie wall.”  When college football’s regular season ends, there’s still more than a month left to go in the pro schedule.  Rookies’ bodies, we’re told, often aren’t conditioned for the long haul.  “Oh, I definitely hit a wall,” Jahvid told me, “but it was much more of a mental wall than a physical wall.  In college, it’s half school, half football—but in the NFL, you wake up, and it’s football.  And then, football.  And then, more football.  Film, meetings . . . it’s a much harder grind than in college.”

In the last two games, it’s obvious that some of the burst, some of the explosion we saw in Jahvid’s running has returned.  Is that, I asked, because of getting over the mental wall—or because his injury is healing?  “Oh, it’s much more mental than physical,” he said, which surprised me.  “I wasn’t one hundred percent—I’m still not one hundred percent—but settling into it mentally, I just feel much more like myself.”

I asked him about the turf toe; I knew someone who had it and it seemed really, really painful.  “Well, the first one happened in Week 1, and the second in Week 3.  Everything I kept hearing was, ‘rest, the only thing that’ll help it is rest,’ but there isn’t any rest in the middle of the season.”  I asked him if maybe, looking back on it, it would have been better to shut it down for a few weeks earlier in the season, and try and come back strong.  “Well . . . I don’t know.  I could have done that, or I could have done what I did—either way, it’s in the past now.  All I can do is focus on getting healthy going forward.”

Something I’ve always wanted to ask an NFL running back is the importance of “getting into a rhythm,” the idea of feeding your starting back a steady diet of carries early in the game, to try to get going—and know that if he’s stuffed a couple times early, his number will still be called often.  Scott Linehan has been diversifying the run game, profoundly, over the past few weeks, and I asked Jahvid if he’d prefer “getting into a rhythm,” or if the rotation was helping keep him fresh, and defenses off-balance.  “It doesn’t necessarily matter,” he said.  “You just need to find what works for your offense, and we’re definitely finding that.”  With 453 rushing yards in the last three games, it’s hard to disagree.

Given the inital results of my offensive line research, I felt it my journalistic (bloggalistic?) duty to ask Jahvid about Dominic Raiola.  Full disclosure, for those who don’t know: I’ve long been a fan of Raiola.  I  concede his lack of road-grader-ness, but I’ve always thought his tenacity, his excellent calling of pass protections, and agile second-level blocking more than made up for his lack of pure power.  I referenced Jahvid’s experience at Cal behind All-American center Alex Mack (now of the Browns), and asked him if he’d prefer to have a more beastly center opening up seams in front of him.  “Oh, Raiola’s a great player,” he said.  “He’s been in the league—honestly, I’m not sure how many years—but a long time.  No, he makes great plays for us, and he puts us in a position to win.”

Does he have any personal goals for the remainder of the season?  “A hundred-yard game,” he said.  “I’ve got to get that one taken care of.  Also, just getting healthy.” By this point, the swirl and buzz of the event started to reach fever pitch, and I didn’t want to take up too much more of his time.  “How awesome,” I said, “is it, getting to be on your own Pepsi Max can?”  He immediately flashed a bright smile.  “Oh, it’s ridiculous,” he said, “a great honor for me—and the product is great, too!”  I thanked Jahvid for his time, shook his hand, and shook my head in wonder as another round of flashes popped.

I do thank Jahvid, and the Pepsi Max people, for the opportunity; it was an awesome event.  I also want to thank my boy, the man you know as “commenter Matt,” who served as my wingman and photographer for the event.  I got some great pictures . . .

Jahvid Best talks with Ty of The Lions in Winter, and his BlackBerry, at a Pepsi Max event.

. . . Matt got himself a stunner for the Detroit Lions Jersey Menagerie . . .

The Lions in Winter commenter Matt's autographed Jahvid Best away Detroit Lions jersey.

. . . and I got a new perspective on being a fan—and being a player—in today’s NFL.  Now, I underscore the modern, hyperconnected, multi-dimensional fan experience with calls to action: please, vote for Jahvid for Pepsi Rookie of the Week/Year!  And also, if you’re a Facebook-type-person, Like Pepsi Max on Facebook!  Finally, if you aren’t doing so already, follow me, Jahvid Best, and Pepsi Max on Twitter!  Double-finally, feel free to discuss in the comments below.


Detroit Lions Offensive Line Analysis: Part I

>> 12.15.2010

Detroit Lions offensive line: offensive tackle George Foster (72), center Dominic Raiola (51), guard Edwin Mulitalo (64), and offensive tackle Jeff Backus (76) line up in the red zone in the Atlanta Falcons 34-21 victory over the Detroit Lions.  Sigh.In the 1993 offseason, the Lions attempted to compensate for the tragic death of All-Pro guard Eric Andolsek—and freak paralysis of G Mike Utley—by signing three free agent linemen: Dave Lutz, Bill Fralic, and Dave Richards.  I clearly remember the newspaper headline that echoed a quote from a coach: “Lions Add ‘900 Pounds of Beef’.”  The gambit didn’t work, and the Lions have been frantically sandbagging the offensive line ever since.

Those who’ve been reading since the beginning might remember that I wrote about that memory last spring, while contemplating the additions of Gosder Cherilus, George Foster, Jon Jansen, Ephraim Salaam, and Daniel Loper over the preceding year.  Four of those five are gone—yet I’ve noted several times this season that the offensive line is better than you think it is, especially in pass protection.  Many have rampantly bashed Cherilus, as well as usual suspects like Backus and Raiola all year long.  Many and called for drastic action to overhaul the offensive line, theoretically to protect the Lions’ investment in Matthew Stafford.  Few, however, seem to realize that the Lions’ O-line is keeping its quarterbacks clean as well as any in the NFL.

Sean Jensen, Bears writer for the Chicago Sun-Times, posted the latest “New York Life Protection Index” stats, while lamenting the Bears’ position on that table (dead last).  This metric, per the creators:

“ . . . was created by sports information leader STATS to provide a composite gauge for this undervalued component of the game. While the New York Life Protection Index is calculated using a proprietary formula, the fundamentals are comprised of the length of a team’s pass attempts combined with penalties by offensive linemen, sacks allowed and quarterback hurries and knockdowns.”

Okay, so check out the New York Life Protection Index, and check out where the Lions rate: ninth.  Ninth?  Yes: ninth-best in the NFL, first-best in the NFC North.  Yes, in pass protection.  Yes, the Lions.  I’m tempted to crow about how all of my suspicions have been confirmed, and how my own eyes have been seeing the truth while all others’ have been clouded with lies and suspicion, and on and on and on, except . . .

The Colts are first.  The Colts, whose profound struggles on the offensive line are a matter of fact, are ranked #1 by this metric.  This reminds me of that year the Lions allowed the fewest sacks in the NFL, at least in part because Joey Harrington was throwing the ball into the stands on every third dropback.  Something similar has to be happening here with Peyton Manning and the Colts’ patchwork line . . . but how do we capture it?  Let’s examine another advanced offensive line metric, one that’s far less of a “black box.”

Football Outsiders’ Offensive Line Rankings feature a variety of interesting stats.  First and foremost, there’s Adjusted Line Yards, which their attempt to mathematically isolate yards gained because the offensive line got good push from yard gained because the running back broke a play open.  The mathematical methods Football Outsiders uses to isolate offensive line yards are detailed here, but for now let’s just see how the Lions stack up.

  • Adjusted Line Yards: 3.25 per carry, ranked dead last in the NFL.
  • Power Success: 59%, ranked 17th in the NFL.
  • Stuffed: 25%, ranked 27th in the NFL.
  • 2nd Level Yards: 1.00, ranked 25th in the NFL.
  • Open Field Yards: 0.43, ranked 28th in the NFL.

So, the Lions’s offensive line isn’t doing great; it’s actually the worst run-blocking line in football.  Detroit running backs have the least daylight to work with of any in the NFL.  This, unlike the Colts being #1 in pass protection, jibes with what we’ve seen on the field.  But Football Outsiders’ ALY stat can drill down even deeper.  They’ve actually broken down the Adjusted Line Yards by gap: “A” gap (between center and either guard), left and right “B” gap (between guard and tackle), and “C” gap (outside tackle/between OT & TE).  Here’s what they came up with for the Lions:

32 DET 4.65 13 3.7 25 3.33 30 2.73 32 1.61 32
- NFL 4.31 - 4.19 - 4.06 - 4.03 - 4.06 -

This table has two rows: the Lions, and the NFL average.  Working from left to right, we see that runs to the outside of Jeff Backus, or between Backus and the tight end, get the benefit of slightly-above-average run blocking.  Runs between Backus and Sims have get below-average help from the line.  Runs on either side of Dominic Raiola get poor help from the offensive line, runs between Stephen Peterman and Gosder Cherilus are at a steep disadvantage to the rest of the NFL, and . . . well, just don’t run to the outside of Gosder.

This is both surprising and unsurprising.  First, remember when the Lions passed on Michael Oher to take Brandon Pettigrew?  Some subscribed to the notion that Pettigrew’s size and blocking would result in improved pass protection and running lanes anyway—getting “offensive line help” without actually drafting a lineman.  Football Outsiders’ stats show this is exactly what’s happening, which is surprising and exciting.  What isn’t surprising is the total lack of daylight in the A gaps.  Stephen Peterman has been playing hurt, and Lord do we ever see it here.  And Gosder?  I had no idea the Lions were struggling so much to run behind him.  These numbers are flatly appalling for a 6’-7”, 325-pound RT with a legendary mean streak.

Okay, so the left side of the Lions' line is average at run blocking, and the center and right side are butt-naked last in the NFL.  So how did the Lions end up with the ninth-best offensive line by the New York Life Protection Index?  Well, because that looked only at pass protection.  Well, what does Football Outsiders have to say about pass blocking?

Adjusted Sack Rate (ASR)/Sack Rate: Sack Rate represents sacks divided by pass plays, which include passes, sacks, and aborted snaps. It is a better measure of pass blocking than total sacks because it takes into account how often an offense passes the ball. Adjusted Sack Rate adds adjustments for opponent quality, as well as down and distance (sacks are more common on third down, especially third-and-long).

The Lions rank 4th in the NFL in adjusted sack rate, having allowed just 24 sacks while passing constantly against tough competition.  Above them are the Saints, the Giants, and . . . at number one . . . the Colts.  Okay, so this metric has its limitations, too—it’s still derived almost entirely from sacks.  Clearly, we can’t just measure pass protection by sacks allowed, because sacks are as often taken by quarterbacks as they are allowed by the offensive line.  Aaron Schatz ended the 2003 “Fun With Sacks” article where he conceived of Adjusted Sack Rate with the following plea:

Consider this a public request: If you have an idea for another statistic to measure pass blocking/pass rushing, please let me know. The never-ending quest for knowledge marches forward!

Coming up in Part II: we march.


Watchtower Review: Lions vs. Packers

>> 12.14.2010

Let’s start with all the totally wrong things I said in last week’s Watchtower:

It seems unlikely that the Lions’ defense does that well against an offense that good twice in a row, though, so I’m going to project the Packers to slightly underperform scoring expectations: gaining 23-26 points. I expect the Lions to be more successful defending the pass with zone coverage, allowing 8.0-8.5 YpA, at the expense of fewer interceptions. The Lions will likely cede the run to the Packers again, allowing 4.25-4.5 YpC. I have high confidence in this projection.

3 points, 3.30 YpC, 6.02 YpA.  Tremendous performance by the defense.

As I said, in Week 4, the Lions managed to hold the Packers’ offense to as few points as can be expected, given how effective they were on a per-play basis. If the same offense shows up this week, I don’t see the Lions being so fortunate.

It can be argued that the same offense didn't show up—but the defense far outstripped their Week 4 effort, even with several key starters lost.  I’m still stunned at how well this defense performed on Sunday.

I don’t expect the Lions to put up 454 yards against the Packers this time around, but I do project them to be more productive with their yards: scoring 17-23 points, gaining 4.50-5.00 YpC, and throwing for 5.75-6.00 YpA.

Yeah not so much.  The yards projections were fairly close—4.63  YpC and 5.32 YpA—but they spun that effectiveness into a single measly touchdown.  Two interceptions and a missed field goal didn’t help.

The Lions gave the Packers their best shot in Week 4, and lost the game mostly by shooting themselves in the foot. Between a truly massive amount of penalties (13 for 102 yards), and the now-obligatory Charles Woodson pick-six, the Lions let the Packers off the hook. As I said above, it’s hard to believe that the Lions could play that well against a team as talented as Green Bay twice in once season—and yet, it’s there. It’s there for them, again. They lost by two on the road before, they can win this one at home. They can . . . but they won’t.

They could . . . and they did.

CTRL-C, CTRL-V, folks. This will be an extremely painful 17-24 defeat.

Or, an incredibly improbable 7-3 victory!  I haven’t ever been more wildly wrong in a score projection, and I couldn’t be happier about it.  I will take that over, and over, and over, and over.  Okay, I’ve got an idea: let’s talk about everything I said that was right.

Look for the Lions to drop eight men into coverage on a regular basis, essentially the same game plan we saw against the Patriots on Thanksgiving. The idea is to get enough rush from the front four to slow down the Pack’s offense just long enough for the Lions’ offense to outscore them.

The Lions did blitz the Packers more than they blitzed the Pats—but they certainly got most of their production from the front four.  It also took a looooooooooooooong time, but they slowed down that Pack offense just long enough for the Lions’ offense to outscore them.  Barely.

Greg Jennings will be the key to this game for the Packers’ offense.  If the Lions can stop him with double- and triple-teams, I don’t think Donald Driver and Donald Lee will be enough to score more than the 23-26 I project, if enough to score that much at all.

Greg Jennings: 4 catches, 52 yards, one bobbled pass that was ultimately intercepted.  They didn’t score the 23-26 I projected, either.

Last year, I thought I’d identified a systemic advantage for Scott Linehan against Dom Capers (and most 3-4 defenses), where the running game was disproportionately effective, and scoring was therefore disproportionately higher.

They didn’t score much, but the Lions ran very well against the Packers—the #1 defense in the NFL—and it was the difference in the game.

However, the Packers are allowing 4.49 YpC on the ground, 7th-worst in the NFL—so clearly, my notion that the Packers are generally struggling against the run was true.  Further, the Lions will be starting Drew Stanton, whose running ability is well-known, and whom the Lions have never hesitated to call designed running plays for.  I expect to see at least one rushing touchdown, or 20-plus-yard scramble, from Drew Stanton on Sunday.

Drew ran 4 times for 44 yards.  He didn’t score, and his long was only 17 yards (not 20).  However, on his other three carries he averaged 9 yards per; he was asked to make plays with his feet and he did—along with the six other Lions who toted the rock on Sunday.

First, this presumes that Drew Stanton plays like he did last week: an efficient, effective, conservative backup quarterback.  If Stanton has a regression to his “2009 49ers game” form, this will be an ugly blowout.  However, there’s an X factor here named Jahvid Best. We saw a return to form last week, and if he still has that burst, that bounce, he could do an awful lot of damage against a Green Bay defense that’s lost three of its top five linebackers for the year.

Unfortunately, Drew did regress to 2009 form against the Packers’ defense—at least for the first three quarters—and boy, was it ever ugly.  However, the running of Best, Maurice Morris, Stefan Logan, and Stanton himself bailed the offense out.

Finally, in the first matchup, Brandon Pettigrew made a lot more headlines for the two or three crucial passes he dropped, than the eight he caught for 91 yards. Likely being matched up against A.J. Hawk, as 49ers TE Vernon Davis was last week (4 catches, 126 yards, 1 TD) could result in a field day for Jumbotron.

Okay, this one was pretty much entirely wrong; Pettigrew was held to just 2 catches for 14 yards.  However, it’s worth noting that the game-winning touchdown came on a tight end screen to Will Heller—who was spelling Pettigrew.  Further, Heller ran right through A.J. Hawk on his way to paydirt.


Three Cups Deep: Lions vs. Packers

>> 12.13.2010


That’s the only word to describe it.  In just over twenty four hours, the roof of the Metrodome collapsed, the Lions held the 25-point-per-game Packers offense to a field goal in a 7-3 victory, and Ford Field sold out of free tickets to the re-located Vikings/Giants game in just 90 minutes.

Turk McBride led the Lions with two sacks, as the Lions’ defensive line won the game almost by themselves.  The Lions’ 190 team rushing yards outstripped their team passing yards by the length of a football field.  Nearly as many Lions, 7, had at least one rushing attempt as had at least one reception, 8.  Greg Jennings not only didn’t put the team on his back, his bobble was the difference between a 75-yard touchdown and an Amari Speivey interception.  Drew Stanton, after an appalling game throwing the football, was flawless on the game-winning drive.  It must be said: the Lions won as they have lost—improbably, incredibly, nerve-shreddingly, and with more than a touch of surreality.

Jim Schwartz has given the players the day off today, which is a fitting reward.  Those hearty souls who waited outside in the freezing cold of the wee small hours were rewarded with tickets to tonight’s Vikings-Giants game—which the Lions’ staff has truly pulled out all the stops to accommodate.  Kevin Seifert detailed the Lions’ efforts to make their division rivals feel at home, which includes stadium sounds, scoring their mascot Ragnar a Harley, and scrubbing off the Lions wordmark and logo from the turf, and painting the Vikings’ logos on the field instead.

I’m incredibly proud of Lions fans, and the Lions organization, for putting together this incredible effort.  With just over a day’s notice, the Ford Field staff and the city of Detroit will give the nation a Vikings-Giants environment nearly indistinguishable from the one that had been scheduled for months.  This is a tremendous achievement, one that should be worn as a badge of honor by Mr. Ford, Tom Lewand, everyone in the Lions organization, the people of Detroit, and all Lions fans everywhere.

If you're lucky enough to go, a list of acceptable TLiW modes of rooting:

  • Wear Vikings gear and root Vikings. They're our NFC North neighbor, after all, and having them avenge the Giants loss would be nice. Besides, if we're replicating the real home field experience for them, why not be truly committed?
  • Wear Lions gear and root for a good game.  Hey, it’s a free NFL game in Detroit!  Let’s just make it classy and memorable for everyone.
  • Wear Lions gear and boo the hell out of the Vikings, because screw the Vikings.

Now, all that having been said . . . I can’t wait until they scrub that Vikings crap off our field.  It’s making me itch.


Fireside Chat: LIons vs. Packers


I began this week’s Fireside Chat with a celebratory toast.  Please, relive the revelry with us:


Gameday Post: Lions vs. Packers

>> 12.12.2010


This is what I want: revenge.  I want to see the Lions, bruised and battered though they may be, take control of their fate.  Screw the records, screw the refs, just go out and beat a division rival at home.  I want to see the Lions take out their frustrations.  I want to see Calvin stiff-arming people, Javhid breaking long ones, Maurice Morris pounding people, and Drew play a clean game while making plays.  I want to see the defense force Aaron Rodgers to run for his life, sacking him early and often.  I want to see the Lions get a big turnover early, and capitalize on it.  I want to see the Lions wrest control of this game from the Packers at the opening gun, and never relinquish it.

I want to see the Lions take back what’s been taken from them.  Show a near-national audience what they’re made of.  Prove to the world that they’re more than what they were.  Leave no room for doubt, for error, for injustice, or for theft.  I want to see the Lions get payback for everything that’s been done to them.  Revenge! I want to see it.  I want to taste it.

I bet it tastes sweet.

2nd-half update: Well, half the Lions are out for revenge.  This is the best half of defensive football I’ve seen the Lions play in years.  Now, if only the offense could hold up even part of their end of the deal.

VICTORY UPDATE: WOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOO!  Don't forget to pop in for the Fireside Chat podcast, streaming LIVE tonight at 11 EST! Bring your comments and questions! And your WOOOO!


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