The Detroit Lions are the Opium of the Masses

>> 12.28.2011

Is there any more oppressed creature than a Detroit Lions fan?

“Religion is the sigh of the oppressed creature, the heart of a heartless world, and the soul of soulless conditions. It is the opium of the people.”

—Karl Marx, Contribution to Critique of Hegel's Philosophy of Right

Faith is a marvelous thing. It comforts those who have no other comfort. It fuels those running on empty. It inspires people to do wonderful—and terrible—things, even in the face of great adversity.

I started this blog because I was trying to do something wonderful. After 0-16, the fanbase had been reduced to two small camps: those who’d never stop caring because they loved the Lions too much, and those who’d never stop caring because they had no idea what else to be angry about on the Internet. I wanted to write to, and speak for, the former. I wanted to teach, and inspire, the latter.

As the self-appointed Flamekeeper, I’ve spent years figuratively slogging through the woods with a laden sled, and literally poring over spreadsheets ‘til I woke up the next morning upright in my chair with my hands on the keyboard. All the while, my general faith that things will turn around for the Lions—bolstered by my specific faith that the Lions have found the right executives and coaches this time around—has kept me going.

This season has been the culmination of everything I’ve worked for, and everything us fans have waited for. No more arguing, no more hypotheticals, no more drama: the Detroit Lions are going to the playoffs. All that’s left is to watch, cheer, and see how far they go.

This is an existential crisis for me. I’m reminded of a passage from Douglas Adams’s The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy:

"I refuse to prove that I exist," says God, "for proof denies faith, and without faith I am nothing."

"But," says Man, "the Babel fish is a dead giveaway isn't it? It could not have evolved by chance. It proves that You exist, and so therefore, by Your own arguments, You don't. Q.E.D."

"Oh dear," says God, "I hadn't thought of that," and promptly vanishes in a puff of logic.

"Oh, that was easy," says Man, and for an encore goes on to prove that black is white and gets himself killed on the next zebra crossing.

On May 27th, I flatly declared The Lions are Going to Make the Playoffs. On August 18th, I said there are two possibilities for Matthew Stafford this season: injury, or becoming a Top 5 quarterback. When called out for drinking Lions Kool-Aid, I poured another round. I knew, without knowing. I believed. The glory I’ve seen far-off on the horizon since the day Martin Mayhew and Tom Lewand assumed control of the franchise—the day I started this blog—is here.

And the moment itself? Where was I, as the clock on an eleven-year nightmare hit 00:00?

I was at church.

Maybe I shouldn’t be surprised that the actualization of everything I’ve been telling everyone will happen has thrown me. Over the years, I’ve learned very well how to rationalize the difference between my hopes and reality. I’ve learned how to soak up disappointment and despair, use it to adjust my perspective on things, and then wring it out, ready to keep tending the little blue flame.

I have absolutely no idea what to do with this fact: the Detroit Lions will walk into Lambeau Field, and play a game for no higher stakes than what seed they’ll be in the playoffs.

Throughout the previous eleven years there have been many seasons the Lions have won a big game, or a streak of games, at the bitter end of an awful campaign. Every time, it’s been pointed at as the start of something new, a stepping stone for the promising season to come. In reality, it’s often had more to do with the Lions’ opponent sleepwalking through a game they figured they had in the bag.

I don’t know whether the Packers are going to play Aaron Rodgers, or any of their other starters Sunday morning. I don’t know whether the Lions will play the sixty-minute, mistake free game they played against the Chargers, or implode as they did in the first Packers game. I don’t know if the Lions will rise to the occasion and claim a higher seed—and potentially, a much easer path through the playoffs—or show up, punch the clock and go home.

So what now? What now, that I have no idea what the future holds? What now, that my convictions about this season have all been satisfied? What now, that the Lions players, coaches, and staff have shown to the world they can play with anyone in the NFL? What now, that I’ve had my faith—my opiate—denied by proof?

I’ll do what I’ve always done: I’ll cheer with all my heart, and hope to inspire you all to do the same.

This blog was partially born out of a struggle between factions of Lions fans—but now, there are no factions. We’re all just celebrating the Lions’ success together—exactly what I’ve always hoped for. The Lions in Winter’s mission was and is an exploration, and chronicle, of what it means to be a Lions fan—and I can’t think of anything more exciting to explore and chronicle than the Lions’ run to and through the 2011 NFL Playoffs.

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MNF: Monday Night Fireside Chat

>> 12.26.2011

Thanks to Christmas-y activities—and pure time mismanagement--I couldn’t do a Fireside Chat post-game show this weekend. So tonight, around 10 pm, be sure to tune in at the Fireside Chat Ustream channel, or at the Podcast tab above!

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Christmas Time is Here Again

>> 12.24.2011

It's time.

It's time for family and friends to get together, gather 'round the big blue bonfire and share in the old traditions. We feast in this time of plenty. We sing the song handed down through generations. We stand and cheer the brave.

It's felt like the Lions have been guided by fate this season. The fourth-quarter comebacks, the signature wins, the tough losses to great teams and the blowouts of bad ones.

Though individual games have been surprising, the overall course of the season has followed the rails of conventional wisdom. A fast start, a shaky stretch in the middle, and a bounceback before a tough final three games.

The good news is, everything else has fallen into place around them.

All year, I've been sounding the alarm about Week 17--the final, fateful crucible in Lambeau Field. It's possible, even probable, I've said, that the Lions enter that game at 9-6, needing a win to make all of their dreams--and ours--come true.

Instead, the Lions could clinch this week without winning another game. With losses by the Giants, Cardinals, Seahawks and Bears the Lions' ticket will be punched.

But forget that. Forget backing in. Forget the iron rails of fate. Forget the zodiac and tarot cards and crystal balls and tea leaves. I don't care about any of that stuff.

I care about the Lions winning.

If the Lions can beat the red-hot Chargers tonight, if the Christmas Eve crowd can be merry and bright enough to swing the advantage their way, they'll have wrested the pen away from Fate and inked their own name in the record books.

It's the time we've all been waiting for, chopping the wood for, tending the fire for. It's the time we've spent days upon weeks upon years wondering if it would ever come.

It's time.

Spend tonight in the company of friend and family and good food and good spirits. Cheer the Lions on with all your heart, wherever you may be. Then, win or lose, comfort yourself with family, friends, and faith.

May God bless you all on this sacred night.

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So what’s up with Ty?

>> 12.22.2011

So why haven’t I posted in a couple days? A) I came down with a nasty cold on Monday, and it put me almost completely out of commission Tuesday and Wednesday. 2) My laptop power cord died, and after six hours of uselessly wrestling with it Wednesday night and Thursday morning, I broke down and got a new one.

So. First crucial link: my exclusive interview with Justin Durant, over at Bleacher Report.

Second crucial link: Detroit OnLion’s Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Black Hole.

Thirdly, I’m going on a lyrical rampage tonight. There should be some legit content here and Bleacher Report tomorrow. Many thanks for your patience.

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Three Cups Deep: Detroit Lions at Oakland Raiders

>> 12.20.2011

coffee Let’s get one thing straight right now: nobody controls their own destiny.

It’s impossible; destiny is what’s written in the stars. It’s capital-D Destiny, the end the fates have penned for us. If you believe in Destiny, then you know the story of this Lions season has already been written. We’re just flipping through the pages, week after week, chapter after chapter

No matter what happens in the final chapter, we know this much: it’s a hell of a story.

You know whoever’s got the pen knows exactly what they’re doing. I’ve said before that this Lions team has an identity, and it’s Matthew Stafford throwing to Calvin Johnson and his receivers, as Ndamukong Suh and the defensive line prevent the other side from keeping pace.

Well, Matthew Stafford led a 98-yard comeback drive, capped it off with a touchdown pass to Calvin Johnson, and Ndamukong Suh (back from suspension) blocked the Raiders’ potential game-winning field goal. The symbolism is so thick Earnest Hemingway could cut it with a knife. In the rain.

The Lions won the game, and as a result they are winners. Not just noble losers, or not-losers, they are winners. They have won more games than they can possibly lose this year, for the first time in over a decade. It’s incredible, it’s unbelievable . . . but is it surprising?

Via text and Twitter, I received messages throughout the game that saw it both ways. Some were sure the Lions had already disappeared, Marty McFly style, from the NFC playoff picture. Some, though, were convinced the Lions had it in the bag—they were just watching to find out how Stafford and company would pull it off this time.

Three seasons ago, the Lions played an entire season and didn’t win a single game. On Sunday, Matthew Stafford had just been sack-fumble-six’d to go down 27-14 with 7:47 on the road in Oakland with the season on the line, and he played like he’d just been waiting for the Raiders to make it interesting.

Stafford kicked it into an incredible gear. He was both more intense and much calmer. His passes, a little sail-y and a little gunslinger-y all day, were laser-guided cotton balls. He shrugged off some excruciating drops, avoided the rush, even took matters into his own hands on 4th-and-2, juking out a linebacker to pick up the game-saving first down.

We knew Matthew Stafford was a gamer when NFL Films mic’d him up for that legendary comeback against the Browns. But we didn’t know if he’d ever be good enough, or he’d ever have a good enough team around him, for the “gamer” thing to matter. What Stafford did that day was nothing short of incredible, and watching it gives me chills to this day.

But he did it to beat a wretched Browns team with a coach who’s coaching his D-III alma mater now and a quarterback who got traded for a backup white running back and made it look like a steal for the team that traded him away. This time, Stafford clutched up to not only beat a playoff contender on the road, he did to to save—and possibly, cement—the Lions’ first playoff campaign in twelve years.

Now, the Lions’ path couldn’t be straighter. They have two games to do what they’ve done nine times already this year: win a game. They win, they’re in—that’s it. That’s the challenge. Unfortunately, the fates have damned the Lions once again: they must either beat one of the most talented teams in football just as they’re hitting their stride, or travel to Lambeau Field and leave with a “W,” which they haven’t done since 1991.

If the last chapter in this story is the NFL playoffs, the Lions are going to have to come up with their most mind-boggling, credulity-straining performance yet. Just the way Matthew Stafford likes it.

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Fireside Chat: Detroit Lions vs. Oakland Raiders

>> 12.19.2011

I'm still vibing off this win. It's a watershed moment in the development of this team, these players, and this fanbase. The Lions are WINNERS now, and nothing can take that away from them.

As always, if you dig, please subscribe to the Fireside Chat via iTunes and rate it highly!

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Fireside Chat at 10:00 PM EST!

>> 12.18.2011

Y’all. Hit up http://tinyurl.com/firesidechats at 10:00 PM EST.

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The Fallen Watchtower: Detroit Lions at Oakland Raiders

raider_tower

In the excitement of interviewing Brandon Pettigrew (and Justin Durant, keep your eyes peeled), plus adding stat analysis to my weekly film study, PLUS all the various pre-Christmas festivities, it’s been a wild, wild weekend here at TLiW Headquarters.

Normally, I’d power through and do a full Watchtower, but look: Hue Jackson has the most ridiculous resume I’ve ever seen. Since starting out as a grad assistant at Pacific, Jackson has been promoted, or taken a new gig, nearly every single year. He’s worked at almost every level of college, the NFL, and even the World League of American Football. He’s coached under all kinds of coaches in all kinds of systems, from Marty Schottenheimer to Steve Spurrier and everyone in between.

His offensive coordinator is Al Saunders, a prominent disciple of Don Coryell (along with Norv and Ron Turner, Mike Martz, etc.). But I’d need do to some pretty extensive digging to confidently say how much Air Coryell exists in the Raiders’ current attack. So, I punted.

Raiders offense vs. Lions defense

There’ll be no systemic data here, but we can still compare season averages as usual. The Raiders are the 16th-ranked offense in the NFL, averaging 22.3 points per game. They’re averaging 7.14 YpA through the air, and 4.57 YpC on the ground. If this sounds like a very effective dual-threat offense that keeps shooting itself in the foot, you’re right.

Carson Palmer has thrown an interception on 5.9% of his pass attempts, by far the worst in the NFL. Perspective: Rex Grossman is #2 at 4.6%. The Raiders are also the only team that’s kept pace with the Lions’ league-leading 27 personal fouls. The Raiders’ running attack was extremely potent when Darren McFadden was catalyzing it with his 5.4 YpC, but he’s sidelined for the year with a lingering foot injury. Michael Bush and his 3.9 YpC will be carrying the load today.

The Lions defense is allowing 23.5 points per game, 23rd in the NFL. They’re still only allowing 5.82 YpA through the air, and still a whopping 5.10 YpC on the ground. On the whole, they’re a much better defense than their points-per-game shows; they get a lot of three-and-outs and takeaways—but they also get hosed by the offense giving it back, and both sides of the ball commit a lot of penalties.

I'd expect the Lions to force a lot of turnovers today, especially if Suh and the defensive line can generate pressure without the blitz. I project the Raiders to score 17-21 points, passing for 6.00-6.50 YpA and rushing for 4.50-4.75 YpC.

Lions offense vs. Raiders defense

The Lions have been Jekyll and Hyde all season long. Their passing game has been everywhere from dominant to disjointed, and their rushing game has been everything from unstoppable to invisible. On the whole, the Lions are averaging 28.2 points per game, still 4th-best in the NFL. They're still averaging 6.91 YpA, and 3.68 YpC.

Kevin Smith returns (again) this week, so perhaps the running game will be a little closer to the former than the latter. Matthew Stafford has been “on,” or close to it, for three out of the last four weeks. On the average, the Lions’ offense is a less potent-but-more-effective version of the Raiders’. In the specific, when Matthew Jekyll (and his offensive line) shows up the Lions are one of the best offenses going . . . Mr. Jekyll shows up most often against bad passing defenses.

The Raiders are allowing 27.2 points per game, 28th-best (4th-worst) in the NFL. However, like the Lions, their pass defense is quite stout: they’re allowing must 6.24 YpA. But like the Lions, they “can’t stop the run;” they’re allowing a ridiculous 5.24 YpC on the ground.

Though the Lions should do much better than average against the 28th-ranked defense, the Raiders’ tight pass defense and raucous home crowd should depress scoring a bit. I project the Lions to score 28-32 points, averaging 6.75-7.25 YpA and 4.50-4.75 YpC.

Conclusion

Jeremy Reisman of Detroit OnLion will actually be at the game—and not just there, but in Section 104, in the heart of the Black Hole. On last week’s Fireside Chat he promised to wear his Honolulu Blue; please admire his spirit and pray for his safety. If you’re curious how to cheer in non-Lions games, follow Pride of Detroit’s Rooting Guide.

As for the Lions? I project a 30-17 Lions victory, though both numbers could easily be swayed either way by turnovers or penalties.

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Matthew Stafford Must Learn to Balance Risk

>> 12.16.2011

Matthew Stafford has never been accused of being conservative. From high school to college through the combine to the NFL, he's always put his cannon arm to good use. However, for the first time as a pro, Stafford appears gun-shy.

Against Minnesota's beleaguered secondary, Stafford seemed content to take what the defense gave him throughout the second half—even as his Lions watched their lead dwindle. Is Stafford becoming a risk-averse dink-and-dunker? I looked at stats from Pro-Football-Reference.com to find out:

Matthew_stafford_passing_effectiveness_original_crop_650

The top (blue) line is Stafford's game-by-game average yards per completion. The bottom (black) line is average yards per attempt. The chart at the bottom has the values for each data point.

This chart tells the story of the Stafford's aggressiveness and effectiveness throughout the year. Look at the difference between the Cowboys game and the first Bears game, Week 4 and Week 5. Stafford's average yards per completion is practically identical: 11.43 versus 11.53. However, his yards per attempt were wildly different: 5.58 versus 8.42.

The difference between those figures is incompletions. Every incomplete pass is a zero-yard attempt, which drags down the YpA. In the games against Dallas, San Francisco, Chicago and Atlanta, the yards per completion was nearly flat at around 12; he was going deep in all four games. But his YpA was below six—extremely low—against Dallas, San Francisco and Atlanta.

Stafford was throwing deep whether or not it was working. At the time, I wrote that he needed to step up, to be confident in the pocket and execute the offense. To find his second and third options instead of bombing it downfield to Calvin Johnson every time he's under pressure.

Since then, Stafford's risk/reward balance has been wildly inconsistent. Against the Broncos, Panthers and Saints, Stafford was both aggressive and effective. His completions averaged 12.63 yards across those three games, and his attempts averaged an outstanding 9.18.

At Soldier Field, and on Thanksgiving, Stafford was extremely conservative and much less effective. His average completion gained just 9.31 yards, and his average attempt netted just 5.6. Calvin Johnson was used heavily in the slot and on short crossing routes; the Lions used him like a Keyshawn Johnson-style possession receiver.

I expected to see Stafford and the Lions take advantage of the depleted Vikings secondary—but their game plan seemed very risk-averse, especially once they established an early lead. In the third quarter, I saw Stafford pass up a wide-open touchdown. The television broadcast cut the dramatic proof off, but this is the play:

Let's examine this a little more closely.

Pre-snap, Calvin Johnson is at the top of the screen, to Matthew Stafford's right. At the bottom (Stafford's left) is Nate Burleson. The Lions have two tight ends to the strong (right) side, and Maurice Morris in at tailback.

Matthew_stafford_conservative_1_crop_650

At the beginning of the clip, just before the snap, Stafford's eyes are right on Vikings strong safety Jamarca Sanford, showing blitz. Cornerback Asher Allen is lined up perpendicular to the line of scrimmage, trying to deny Calvin Johnson the outside. The read should be single coverage; Stafford should be looking for Johnson deep.

At the snap, there is play action to the weak side, then Stafford bootlegs back to the strong side. Both tight ends go out: Tony Scheffler down the seam and Brandon Pettigrew on a short out route.

Sanford, the blitzing strong safety, flies towards the run action but wisely picks up on the play fake. He hits the brakes, and turns to chase Pettigrew to the sideline.

Here's where you're going to have to trust me. Calvin Johnson, just off-frame, breaks inside, then quickly towards the sideline. Allen bites on the first move and Johnson gets WIDE DIRTY OPEN on the second. Watch the clip again: you can see Stafford look downfield and pat the ball once, twice, looking at Johnson the whole way. Stafford then gives up and fires it to Pettigrew for an easy four-yard gain.

Maybe Stafford was spooked by the approaching presence of Jared Allen. Maybe Johnson waited too long to make his move. Maybe Stafford just wanted the sure thing. But on 1st-and-10 from the 40-yardline? Up 31-14? That's the perfect time to take a shot deep.

Johnson was left all alone, two steps behind his only defender—in an offense where single coverage is supposed to equate an automatic ball his way.

The Lions didn't know it then, but after scoring 31 points in the first quarter, they would only muster one field goal in the whole second half. Stafford passed up a golden opportunity to put the Vikings away here, and that lack of killer instinct nearly cost them the game.

If the Lions are going to beat the Oakland Raiders in the Black Hole in December, Stafford must do a better job of balancing risk and reward.

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Brandon Pettigrew Interview, Courtesy of Legends Sports & Games

>> 12.14.2011

a Detroit Lions mini-helmet won by TLiW reader Chris, courtesy of Legends Sports & Games.

Congrats, @ttopherstevenn!

Last night, Brandon Pettigrew came to Legends Sports & Games, and a few faithful followers joined me going to see him. Courtesy of Legends, I was able to give @ttopherstevenn a Lions mini-helmet, and Pettigrew’s John Hancock upon it:

Detroit Lions tight end Brandon Pettigrew signs an autograph for TLiW reader Chris

Brandon was cool throughout the event, having a good time with just about everyone who came through the long autograph line. He seemed engaged and relaxed, very comfortable with his fans. I asked him why, unlike a lot of his teammates, he wasn’t active on social mediums like Facebook and Twitter.

“I used to be on Facebook a little bit. Never been on Twitter," he said. "My deal with that is just . . . it’s having to deal with what everybody has to say all the time, having to respond to it and put up with it.”

Case in point: @ndamukong_suh going almost completely silent from the Thanksgiving Day game to Suh’s reinstatement yesterday.  Those of you who remember the abuse Suh took on Twitter during his few-days-long holdout can up that by a couple orders of magnitude; it’s no wonder Pettigrew doesn’t want to deal with a distraction like that.

I’ll spare you folks the lecture this time, but it’s unfortunate that a cool player like Pettigrew doesn’t feel like the benefit of interacting with the cool fans is worth giving the boo birds a direct pipeline to his smartphone. Honestly, I can’t blame him.

Pettigrew and Matthew Stafford were drafted together; the “third season” is supposed to be the make-or-break for both quarterbacks and receivers. Pettigrew’s taken a big step forward in the role of the offense, especially on third downs and in pressure situations. He’s second on the team with 62 catches, and third with four touchdowns. I asked him if this was because he and Stafford were developing unique chemistry as they developed together.

“I think we've all got good chemistry, as we develop as a team and an offense,” he said. Sure, but is the offense designed to get him the ball when it counts? Or is Stafford favoring him, specifically? Pettigrew said it’s neither; just that Stafford is “going through his progressions, matchup-wise. Calvin's getting doubled, and [Stafford]'s got to find the guy who's getting open.”

With three games left to play, the Lions face two road games in notoriously tough environments. I asked Pettigrew how the Lions planned to handle the adversity. “We've been hurting ourselves with penalties. If we do away with that, I think we'll be fine. We just need to play mistake-free football, and play the way we're capable of playing.”

Once more, thanks go to Legends Sports & Games for putting this event together, and providing a TLiW reader with an awesome little piece of awesome.

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Brandon Pettigrew Giveaway Update

>> 12.13.2011

For those of you who missed it, I’ll be in Grand Rapids tonight at Legends Sports & Games in the Westland Mall from 6:00 – 7:30 for a Brandon Pettigrew autograph signing. Those of you who entered  the contest for the DirecTV remote, I’m going to contact you later in the week; as of the Fireside Chat I didn’t feel like I had enough entries to make a “drawing” truly random.

As for the Mini-helmet, I have two confirmed online entrants: @jasontwilliams and @ttopherstevenn. Anyone else in GR is welcome to drop by; I will hold the drawing at 7:00. You do gotta be there.

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Three Cups Deep: Detroit Lions vs. Minnesota Vikings

>> 12.12.2011

coffee

Eight wins.

The Lions have won eight games.

For the first time in eleven years, the Lions will not have a losing season.

Since Bobby Ross quit midseason, and former U-of-M head coach Gary Moeller took the reins. Since Charlie Batch was the starting quarterback. Since Desmond Howard was the star returner. Since Jason Hanson . . . okay, bad example.

Lost in the hubbub of a missed facemask call that may or may not have affected the outcome of the game, the mysterious failure of the offense to score more than 20 points when the defense handed them the ball four times, and the infuriating transformation of Joe Webb into Mike Vick, was the Lions shattering a seven-win glass ceiling that stymied each of their last three head coaches.

As I said on the Fireside Chat, this was a bizarre, disorienting game. The offense moved the ball effectively. Matthew Stafford’s stats looked great. The defense got six turnovers and converted two of them directly into 14 points. There are hints of the problem in the 269 rushing yards surrendered and 72 rushing yards gained, but even that doesn’t explain the bizarre inability the Lions had to put the Vikings away.

Throughout the game, folks watching at home hit me up on Twitter and via text to ask me what was wrong with the crowd. The “Lions Nation Army” of Ford Field was more like Bingo Night at the VFW Hall.

In the crowd’s defense, it was a hard game to get into. The lighting-fast run up to 28-7 made it feel like the rout was on. It felt like, just as with the preseason games and Kansas City and Denver, the switch had been flipped and the good-old-fashioned woodshedding everyone had hoped for (and was secretly expecting) was underway.

When that rout didn’t come, it took the crowd out of the game. When the Vikings started creeping back into it, it really made the crowd antsy. When time after time after time, the Lions found a way to fail to put a dagger in the Vikings’ hearts, the crowd grew restless. There were even boos audible on 4th down decisions to punt and/or kick field goals. Boos, mind you, when the Lions were still leading by multiple scores.

It was hard to get into it when the Lions couldn’t put the Vikings out of it. It was hard to get loud when we were trying to figure out what the heck was going on. It was hard to get amped for a defense that’s so convinced Joe Webb can’t possibly beat them throwing that Joe Webb was killing them on the ground.

None of this excuses the crowd, of course. I think we’ve already grown happy and fat on expectations. If we Lions fans want a reputation as a huge home field advantage, if we want to keep earning game balls, if we want to keep other teams practicing with fake noise set at 120 dB, we have to arrive loud and stay loud. We can’t just wait to see if it’ll be worth our effort and then buy in. The team needs our support for four quarters; let’s give it to them. Also, I saw some “fans” heading for the exits during Minnesota’s final drive. As I said on Twitter, I have some words for those folks: NEVER COME BACK.

Ultimately, the Lions got the ‘W’, and in terms of the season that’s all that counts. At 8-5 the Lions are a game up on the Bears, Cowboys, and Giants—all of whom can’t string two wins together to save their lives. With the division win over the Vikings, and the Bears’ common-opponent loss to Denver, the Lions now have the tiebreaker over the Bears, on top of the head-to-head tiebreaker against the Cowboys. With three games to play, the Lions have an effective two-game lead on both the Cowboys and the Bears, and a one-game lead on the Giants.

But of course, one of the Cowboys or Giants will win the NFC East, meaning the Lions and Falcons are essentially in a two-horse race for two spots. If the Lions take care of business in Oakland, they’ll earn their first out-and-out winning season since that fateful 2000 campaign. After that, the Lions could clinch a playoff berth at home against the Chargers, completing their first 10-win season since 1995—not coincidentally, the year Scott Mitchell set all the passing records Matthew Stafford is on track to break. That game falls on December 24th . . . and what a wonderful Christmas present that would be.

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Fireside Chat: Detroit Lions vs. Minnesota Vikings

A minor technical snafu (I didn't press record right away) chopped off the intro and the first minute or so, but here's this week's Fireside Chat. A strange and bizarre-feeling win, but . . . yes, a win. Subscribe (and rate!) via iTunes if you are an iTunesy person like myself.

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Lions-Vikings Must-win Gameday Notes

>> 12.11.2011

It's a must-win game today, playoffs aside. I explained why over at Bleacher Report.. The Fireside Chat will still be tonight around ten, but if more people don't enter the contest, I won't be giving away that remote!



As for me, I'll be at the game, likely for the last time this year. I'm going to make it count.


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Brandon Pettigrew Detroit Lions Mini-Helmet Giveaway: Legends Sports & Games/The Lions in Winter

>> 12.09.2011

 

brandon_pettigrew_detroit_lions

On Tuesday, December 13th, Detroit Lions tight end Brandon Pettigrew is coming to Legends Sports & Games at the Woodland Mall in Grand Rapids. He’ll be there from 6:00 to 7:30 pm signing autographs, and I’ll be there, too—though I won’t be signing autographs. Well, I mean, I will sign if anyone asks . . .

Now this is the cool part: Legends is hooking me up with a Detroit Lions mini-helmet to give away. I still have a custom Lions DirecTV remote to give away, too, so, this’ll be a two-part deal.

GRAND PRIZE

detroit_lions_mini_helmet

One (1) Detroit Lions mini-helmet (similar to above), immediately autographable by Detroit Lions tight end Brandon Pettigrew. Winner must be present at Legends Sports & Games, Woodland Mall, Grand Rapids on Tuesday December 13 between 6:00 pm & 7:30 pm.

FIRST PRIZE

detroit_lions_directv_remotedetroit_lions_directv_remote_2

One (1) custom Detroit Lions DirecTV remote (as shown above). Winner can be anywhere the USPS is willing to ship.

HOW TO ENTER

Just comment on this post with why you’re proud to be a Lions fan! Make sure you include your email or Twitter handle (or sign in to Disqus with same) so I can contact you, and whether you’ll be available to come to the signing or not (so I can enter you for the helmet or remote).

I’ll pick the winner at random LIVE on this week’s Fireside Chat, which broadcasts around 10:00 pm Sunday Night.

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The Watchtower: Detroit Lions vs. Minnesota Vikings

>> 12.08.2011

vikings_tower_thumb[2]

The last time the Vikings played at Ford Field, they were the home team. Now, they couldn’t be less welcome guests. After the Week 3 contest that teetered on the brink of disaster, Jared Allen & Co. are coming to Detroit, dead set on finishing what they started. The Lions and Vikings are headed in opposite directions: the Lions started 5-0 but are 2-5 since; the Vikings are 2-10 but have found their quarterback in rookie Christian Ponder, and might be getting Lion tamer Adrian Peterson back.

As before, this game is a must-win for the Lions. The Lions are favored by as much as 11.5 points as of this writing; surely the heaviest they’ll be favored by for the remainder of the year. Moreover, as a division opponent (and common opponent with the Falcons and Saints), the Lions’ record against the Vikings strongly affects the Lions playoff tiebreakers.

Bill Musgrave vs. Gunther Cunningham

Mus Gun Ornk PgG YpA YpC Drnk PpG DYpA DYpC PTS PTSΔ YpA YpAΔ YpC YpCΔ
MIN DET 22nd 20.5 6.28 4.92 21st 23.1 6.06 4.81 23 12.1% 5.86 -6.7% 5.74 16.7%

In the previous Watchtower, I found that Bill Musgrave had never faced off against Gunther Cunningham as a signal caller—and though he boasts strong Bill Walsh offense credentials, he has a diverse resumé and does not run a Childress-style WCO in Minnesota.

In the first meeting, the Vikings managed to score 23 points. That’s almost a field goal above their season average—fitting, because the Lions’ defense is currently ranked 21st, just below the middle. The Vikings are averaging a decent 6.28 YpA through the air, and a monster 4.92 YpC on the ground.

Of course, the Lions aren't facing the Vikings they faced last time. Donovan McNabb started at quarterback in that game, and he's since been supplanted by first-round rookie Christian Ponder. To the surprise of many observers, though, Ponder hasn’t been able to shake a supposedly-minor hip injury; he did not practice on Thursday. If he can’t play on Sunday, last year’s sixth-round pick Joe Webb will get the start.

The Vikings got some very good news when Adrian Peterson had limited participation in Thursday’s practice and was able to cut without pain. If Joe Webb is under center and All Day isn’t lining up behind him, the Vikings are going to get their doors blown off.

There's no evidence of a systemic advantage or disadvantage here, but if Ponder, Peterson, or both are not 100% the Vikings will be in trouble. If Ponder and Peterson can go, I’d still expect the Vikings to fall just short of expectations, scoring 17-20 points, passing for 6.00-6.50 YpA and rushing for 5.00-5.25 YpA. If either Ponder or Peterson cannot start, those figures fall to 13-17 points, 5.50-6.00 YpA, and 4.50-4.75 YpC. With little historical info, I have low-to-medium confidence in this projection.

Mitigating/Aggravating Factors

Well, I pretty much laid them out for you up there: if Ponder and AD go at 100%, the Vikings should be good for roughly their season average. If either cannot start, or if one or both are significantly limited, the Vikes are going to be very hard-pressed to move the ball. Banged-up secondary or no, the Lions defense should be going for the juglar from the opening snap. An early turnover or barrage of sacks could get the Lions up quickly—and put it in cruise control. I don’t see a scenario where the Vikings score more than three touchdowns.

Scott Linehan vs. Leslie Frazier

Lin Fra Ornk PgG YpA YpC Drnk PpG DYpA DYpC PTS PTSΔ YpA YpAΔ YpC YpCΔ
MIN TBB 8th 24.4 6.60 5.3 1st 12.2 4.88 3.79 24 1.6% 7.78 17.9% 7.52 41.9%
MIN IND 6th 25.3 7.16 4.71 19th 21.9 7.15 4.43 28 9.7% 8.89 24.2% 5.75 22.1%
MIA TBB 16th 19.9 5.94 3.69 8th 17.1 6.15 3.46 13 -44.7% 6.21 5.5% 3.56 -3.6%
DET MIN 27th 16.4 5.27 3.92 10th 19.5 6.89 4.14 13 -26.1% 5.07 -3.8% 3.79 -3.3%
DET MIN 27th 16.4 5.27 3.92 10th 19.5 6.89 4.14 10 -64% 4.39 -16.7% 4.23 0.2%
DET MIN 14th 22.8 5.99 3.99 16th 21.9 6.36 3.92 10 -66.2% 5.51 -8.1% 3.32 -16.8%
DET MIN 14th 22.8 5.99 3.99 16th 21.9 6.36 3.92 20 -14% 6.62 10.5% 3.96 -0.8%
DET MIN 4th 27.8 6.89 4.44 31st 27.5 7.53 3.76 26 -3.6% 8.22 19.3% 0.95 -78.7%
DET MIN 4th 27.8 6.89 4.44 31st 27.5 7.53 3.76            

From the last Watchtower:

In Watchtowers past, I’ve found there is a mild systemic advantage for Scott Linehan offenses against Leslie Frazier defenses. However, in each of the last two games, critical red zone turnovers have short-circuited that advantage, and the Lions’ offense has underperformed expectations. Today, Matthew Stafford will leading the offense, instead of Shaun Hill—and I’ll presume the Lions’ systemic advantages remain intact.

What happened was not quite what I expected. The Watchtower review explains:

The story of the game was the one I worried about: the Vikings playing their brains out, the crowd noise and the pass rush handing the Vikings the momentum, and the Lions finding themselves having to scrap their way out of a hole, as opposed to putting it in the cooler.

This is why I was so grumpy about the probably-enhanced crowd noise: it made an enormous difference in the way the game played out. The lesson to take away from this game, and this Watchtower, is that the Lions are clearly much better than the Vikings. The Lions took Minnesota’s best shot—and staggered—but leaned on the ropes long enough for their talent and skill to win the day.

So what we have here is the 4th-highest-scoring offense that squared off against what has been the 31st-best (2nd-worst) scoring defense and didn’t, quite, meet its season scoring average. This continues a trend we’ve seen with Frazier and Linehan that’s kicked in just since Linehan took over the Lions offense: turnovers (and dirty cheating fake Viking crowd noise) are severely depressing the Lions’ scoring, even as passing effectiveness is boosted.

Obviously, the crowd noise won’t be slowing the Lions down on Sunday, but this is too strong of a trend to ignore. I’m going to say Leslie Frazier defenses disproportionately disrupt Scott Linehan offenses with sacks and turnovers, even while allowing greater per-attempt passing effectiveness. Since the Lions have been especially turnovery lately, I project the Lions to significantly underperform expectations. However, expectations would be that the Lions, facing the second-worst defense in the league, would exceed their scoring averages by 10-14 points. So, the Lions should score 33-35 points, pass for 8.00-8.50 YpA, and rush for 4.00-4.25 YpC.

Mitigating/Aggravating Factors

Or, the Lions crowd could give it to the Vikings almost as good as the Metrodome sound reinforcement system gave it to the Lions, and for the fourth time this year the Lions get back on track after a shaky game by hanging forty points on somebody.

Conclusion

I’m hoping this game mirrors the Broncos game: where the Lions work out a few weeks of frustrations by completely dominating an inferior opponent. The crowd will be on their side. The injuries to the Vikings’ stud running back, only serviceable quarterback, and half their defense should help swing momentum their way too.

But things haven’t gone too rosy for my Watchtower projections as of late, because the Lions keep drawing ridiculous penalties, shooting themselves in the foot, getting field goals blocked and other such nonsense. They’re moving the ball just like they have been all season, but it hasn’t translated into points. That this seems to be the Vikings’ particular mojo vs. the Lions scares me, too. So, I project that the most likely outcome of the game is a 35-20 Lions win. This presumes that Ponder and All Day make their starts and are significant fractions of healthy. If not, well . . . it’s time for that #BEATEMDOWN.

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Jim Schwartz, Good Parenting, and Discipline

>> 12.07.2011

jim_schwartz_disciplinePeople are social animals. We’re hardwired to help acclimate and acculture each other into serving the greater good. We compliment those who embody our collective virtues, and we damn those who embody our cultural vices. As children, we tease and gossip and bully each other until we (mostly) conform, rounding off each other’s sharper corners so as to better get along. As adults, we do all the same things, usually via “helpful advice” or passive-aggressive notes.
     Charlie Capen of How to Be a Dad, having suffered through a doozy of a parenting critique, vented on the Good Men Project:

This past week someone close to us told us that my son evidently has a “discipline problem.” This information was delivered first to my wife (who almost lost it), after which I called Captain Commentary to see if I could clear up the misunderstanding. The critic launched into a solid hour of armchair quarterbacking. I paraphrase:

“Your son, maliciously and premeditatedly, hurled a sippy cup at your wife’s head. On purpose. Following that, he went over to a younger cousin and hit him. Twice. On purpose. He is undisciplined and the sole cause of stress in your life.”

This, after only 40 minutes of observation. He was barely 18 months old at the time. My son, not the critic.

Parenting is the most sensitive topic I know of. Politics, religion, and even the BCS don’t raise more hackles than parenting choices. As a parent, you get all kinds of unsolicited advice on how to raise your child—and once you get past a certain point you start to feel very strongly that others could benefit from your own wisdom. Of course, every child is different and every parent is different; there’s never a “one size fits all” solution.

The Detroit Lions have a discipline problem, and everybody is all eager to tell Jim Schwartz what he needs to do. He needs to fine his players. He needs to pull them out of games. He needs to not pull them out of games. He needs to bench them. He needs to publicly denounce their acts. He needs to keep it all in house. He needs to stop playing favorites, and punish all offenders the same . . .

It just doesn’t work that way. Everyone is motivated differently. Everyone has different goals. Everyone has different fears. Reinforcement can be positive or negative, and the “carrot” and the “stick” are different for everyone. My middle child absolutely cannot stand being told to go to his room. Being alone with nothing to do is abhorrent to him; it’s a powerful punishment. Sending my eldest to her room results in her shrugging her shoulders and planting her nose in a book; it’s hardly a punishment at all.

Of course, the Detroit Lions aren’t children; they’re grown men. But some are long-married parents of multiple kids, and some are just a year or two removed from frat parties. Some are already set for life, and some are going to be selling insurance in a few years. Some are brilliant, multi-faceted people who could have felt fulfilled in any number of careers. Some were born to play football. You can’t apply the same standards of discipline to them all and expect the same results.

Moreover, just like the all the unsolicited parenting advisors, we know practically nothing about these men and their situations. We know nothing about their relationship with the coaches. We know nothing about about what’s said or done in private. We know nothing about what’s been demanded, what’s been promised, what the internal rules are or when they’ve been broken or how many times or by whom.

Publicly, we’ve seen a loss of self-control on the field, and it’s killing the team’s ability to win games. That has to stop and that is on Jim Schwartz. But we shouldn’t be armchair-coaching each and every individual incident. That’s not going to do anybody any good. Schwartz and the players have acknowledged there’s a problem, and they’re going to address it. Let’s give them a chance to teach and learn and correct the problems before we start lecturing a guy who might be the best Lions coach of the last fifty years on how to do his job.

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Detroit Lions at New Orleans Saints Retrospective

>> 12.06.2011

Talking about justice
Hush this
We’re not supposed to discuss this
We gotta hide it in a song
We gotta keep things quiet
They don’t want us to riot
Gotta make like nothings wrong
Cause when you talk about politics you gotta talk about all of it
you can’t leave nothin’ out
We need to walk up to the front door
tell em we ain’t takin it no more
Whats it all about
About Justice

-Victor Wooten, “Justice”

I have a thing about justice.

I want things to be right. I want things to be fair. I want the playing field to be level. I want people to get what they deserve. When I hear about a story or a news event without a clear right or wrong, I consume all the information about it I can; I have to know what I think is right.

Yesterday I sat down with my third cup of coffee (more or less (more)) and put my hands on the keyboard. My thoughts weren’t ready yet. Perhaps it was the short turnaround from Sunday Night Football to Monday morning, but the events of the Saints game had yet to percolate through my mind. With nothing but the title typed, I stopped “writing.”

Last night I didn’t go near the computer. I didn’t write a word. I let my thoughts brew slowly. I let frustration and disappointment dilute in the liquid heat of my id while I played some FIFA and ate pancakes. Eventually, I found the words to “Justice” on my lips. This morning, I went to the coffee pot and found that overnight my post had brewed.

DISCLAIMER: I am not equating NFL football with institutionalized racism, race/class conflict, or police brutality. To paraphrase Bill Watterson, I’d hope the juxtaposition is ludicrous enough that no one would take it seriously—but people take everything seriously. So. In this case, please don’t.

The way fans talk about football with each other is a shadow of the way players talk smack on the field. As I said last week in response to a post on Cheesehead TV, it’s part of the illusion of fandom. We brand ourselves with their brand, we wrap our identity up in theirs, we take their successes and failures to heart, and others project their successes and failures onto us.

Complaining about the refs is for losers. It’s what happens when loser fans watch their loser teams lose. Winners know the better team usually wins. Why do you think Vegas sets a betting line? In the NFL, any fan can pick straight winners far more often than not. When upsets happen, it’s because the “worse” team showed up and played better on that day.

The Saints are better than the Lions; there’s no doubt about it. They’re undefeated at home. They went up to Lambeau in Week 1 and were a yard and/or bad playcall from taking the Packers to overtime. By SRS, they’re the second-best team in the NFC, and fourth-best team in the NFL. As the Watchtower showed, they’re scoring a little more, and allowing a little less, than the Lions.

The game’s stats reflect that exactly. The Lions gained 408 yards passing on 44 attempts; that’s an awesome 9.27 YpA. The Saints, though, threw for 342 on 36 attempts, a slightly-better 9.50. The Lions did okay on the ground, getting 87 yards on 22 carries (3.95 YpC). The Saints were a little better; 100 on 23 (4.35 YpC). The Lions were sacked 3 times for The Lions turned it over once, but only after the game was all but in the books. As I said in the Watchtower:

The Saints are like the mini-Packers, and the Lions are like the mini-Saints. These two teams hold up a mirror to one another, and the Saints are a little bit better in every phase of the game—except the Lions play much, much better pass defense. I could see this going either way.

So what turned my projected 30-28 Lions win into a 31-17 Lions loss? Well, the Lions had one field goal blocked, and missed another—getting zero points from two good drives. But that only makes it 31-23. Where’d that other touchdown go?

Oh, right: the Lions were flagged 11 times for -107 yards, and the Saints were flagged 3 times for –30 yards. The penalty differential was exactly one scoring drive.

It isn’t that the Lions didn’t commit these infractions; they did. But as with last week, the problem is consistency. Offensive and defensive holding, and offensive and defensive pass interference, are subjective calls. Much like charging and blocking in basketball, there are technical definitions but enforcement is done by “feel.”

When Nate Burleson is flagged three times for offensive pass interference—as Pride of Detroit user “NobodySpecial” pointed out, that’s as much as any offensive player in the NFL had been tagged with OPI all season long—the game “feels” rigged.

I mean, here’s the SaintsNation Saints blog:

In my entire life of watching football I've never seen an offensive player get flagged 3 times for the same penalty in a game, especially something rare like offensive pass intereference. That goes back to the poor discipline, but it's also just weird.

I don't believe the referees were being controlled by Vegas, mobsters, Roger Goodell, or any other outside force determined to make sure the Lions lose. But it’s impossible to claim with a straight face that the Lions are being officiated the same way other teams are. For instance: pushing a hand into another player’s face is a penalty, except when it’s a ball carrier stiff-arming a defender . . . unless that ball carrier is a Detroit Lion, then it’s a penalty again.

My personal belief is that the league and/or officials are trying to send a message to the Lions. Now that they’re a “dirty team,” the Lions not only have to play as clean as everyone else, they have to play cleaner. They’re going to get flagged for things no other team gets flagged for. Rough stuff from the other side is going to go unpunished. The league is sending a message to the Lions, and it’s up to them to listen.

For once, the one-way street of fandom cuts both ways: on Sunday, the Lions were just as furious as fans were. They were feeling just as confused, just as upset, just as impotent as everyone hollering at their TVs. They were playing the game just as well and just as clean as the Saints, but the refs were taking the results away from them. It’s not fair. It’s not right. It’s unjust.

Civil disobedience isn’t a choice here; the Lions cannot #OccupyTheNFL. There are two possible responses: have a tantrum, or grow up. Remember when Gosder Cherilus was our resident hothead? He of all people should be the first to jump in and make a stupid play after the whistle—but he got it. He gets it. He lets it roll off his back. The Lions are going to have to learn to do the same.

The great thing is, the Lions are talented enough to do it. They can win playing clean. They can win playing cleaner. They can beat the Vikings, Raiders, and Chargers with one hand tied behind their back—and that’s good, because they’ll have to.

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Fireside Chat, Week 13

>> 12.05.2011

Kind of an odd duck this week. I was broadcasting from just before halftime, but forgot to hit “record” at the beginning of the actual show. The first few minutes were absolutely sparkling, just unbelievably riveting. Seriously, best radio segment since the Gettysburg Address.

Trust me.

What got recorded includes the Q&A portion, as well my attempt a play-by-playing a few series. This is an experiment that may or may not continue.

As always, subscribe (and rate!) the podcast on iTunes if iTunes is your thing.

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The Watchtower: Lions at Saints

>> 12.03.2011

saints_tower

This Watchtower is a little extra special to me. The last time the Lions played at New Orleans, it was the first regular season game of Jim Schwartz’s career. It was the first regular season game after the founding of this blog. And to prepare for it, I wrote the first Watchtower.

It was a rough-and-ready thing. I didn’t have my table CSS figured out, and I didn’t project a score or per-play effectiveness. Most of the piece is spent explaining the Watchtower concept, and not on analysis. However, I isolated some systemic advantages, and told the story of the game: “The most probable outcome of this game is a shootout that the Lions lose.

Honestly, that was giving the Lions a touch more credit than they deserved. The eventual Super Bowl champion Saints were up 14-0 within what seemed like minutes of kickoff, and they barely slowed down. Drew Brees threw for six touchdowns, and images from the blowout loss were plastered all over Madden ‘10. Louis Delmas returned a fumble 65 yards for a touchdown, which made the final score 45-27 instead of 45-20. Then again, for a team fresh off 0-16 against a team about to go 13-3 en route to winning it all, it wasn’t too bad.

This time, these two teams are much more evenly matched. The Saints are 8-3, one game ahead of Atlanta in the NFC South. The Lions are 7-4, knotted up with Chicago for second place in the NFC North. With Chicago going up against patsy Kansas City, a win would mean the world for their chances of hanging with the Bears. A loss could put one more nail in the Lions’ coffin.

Sean Payton vs. Gunther Cunningham

Pay Ornk PgG YpA YpC Gun Drnk PpG DYpA DYpC PTS PTSΔ YpA YpAΔ YpC YpCΔ
NYG 21st 20 7.2 3.8 TEN 29th 27.2 8.05 4.62 29 45% 8.04 16.7% 1.53 -60%
DAL 15th 20 6.7 3.6 KCC 16th 20.3 6.58 4.10 27 33% 9.59 44% 5.83 63%
NOS 1st 31.9 8.01 4.50 DET 32nd 30.9 7.80 4.42 45 41% 10.53 31% 4.49 0%
NOS 2nd 32.9 7.74 4.83 DET 18th 22.4 5.75 4.84            

In previous Watchtowers, I thought I'd identified a systemic advantage for Gunther Cunningham defenses against Sean Payton offenses. But looking at the numbers today--and including the 2009 game--it's hard to come to the same conclusion.

Almost without fail, Gunther's defenses have been heavily outmanned when facing Payton's offenses. Trying to distinguish between fine shades of blowout is not a methodology that will produce strong results.

So, let's look at this season. The Saints are the second-best offense in football, scoring 32.9 points per game. No surprise, Drew Brees leads the way: the Saints are averaging 7.79 YpA. However, the Saints' running back by committee is one of the most effective platoons I've ever seen: they've chewed up ground at 4.83 yards per carry, to the tune of 1,380 yards and 12 touchdowns.

Defensively, the Lions currently rank 18th, allowing 22.4 points per game. But they've been playing much better than that; note the outstanding 5.75 yards per attempt allowed. They've been run on--allowing 4.84 YpC--but they've been great.

The reason the defensive points-allowed doesn't look that great is because of the offense and the special teams. Since the 5-0 start the defense has had to contend with the offense turning it over, the offense going three-and-out, and the kick coverage teams allowing plenty of long returns and short fields for the other team.

Still, it is what it is: opposing teams are scoring an average of 22.4 points per game on the Lions, and the Saints are much more potent than an "average" offense.

Given, though, how the Lions put the clamps on the Packers, I can't project the Saints to exceed their season average. I project the Saints to score 27-30 points, passing for 6.50-7.00 YpA, and rushing for 4.75-5.00 YpC. Without a clear systemic effect, I have low-to-medium confidence in this projection..

Mitigating/Aggravating Factors

There are several aggravating factors here, and their names are Ndamukong Suh, Chris Houston, and Louis Delmas. They will be missing, and it will be aggravating.I still think the Lions can slow down the Saints' passing attack, but it's going to be a tougher task. Many will worry about the Saints' running game--but as we've seen many times this season, the Lions can handle a potent running game.

Really, the biggest problem facing the defense is the offense.


Scott Linehan vs. Gregg Williams

Lin Ornk PgG YpA YpC GW Drnk PpG DYpA DYpC PTS PTSΔ YpA YpAΔ YpC YpCΔ
MIN 8th 24.4 6.60 5.3 HOU 27th 24.8 6.20 4.49 39 60% 6.24 -5% 5.46 3%
MIN 6th 25.3 7.16 4.71 HOU 21st 19.3 6.89 3.92 34 34% 7.92 11% 4.69 0%
STL 10th 22.9 6.69 4.26 WAS 20th 19.2 7.18 4.47 37 62% 10.21 53% 5.05 19%
DET 27th 16.4 5.12 4.42 NOS 20th 21.3 6.57 4.49 20 22% 4.95 -3% 3.17 -28%
DET 4th 28.7 6.72 4.48 NOS 19th 22.9 6.52 5.03            

Ah, yes, the offense. For all its struggles, the Lions offense is still the 4th-most potent in the NFL. Averaging 28.7 points per game, the Lions are still putting up points. However, the shift in per-play effectiveness has been dramatic. Going into Monday Night Football, the Lions were averaging 7.44 YpA and 2.95 YpC. Since then, as you can see, the rushing game has gotten far more potent, but the passing effectiveness has fallen off a cliff. Now the Lions are only averaging 6.72 YpA, though they’re grinding out 4.48 YpC.

This has been a reflection of both the tougher defenses the Lions have face, and Matthew Stafford’s struggles with consistency. The Saints defense, statistically, is very similar to the Lions’: 19th-ranked in scoring at 22.9 PpG, allwoing 6.52 YpA and 5.03 YpC.

In the previous Watchtower, I identified a strong trend: Linehan offenses tend to outperform expectations against Gregg Williams offenses. The situation is similar comparing Payton offenses to Cunningham defenses: in every meeting, the offense had a significant upper hand, and performed significantly above their season averages . . . until 2009.

In the last meeting between the Lions and Saints, the Lions had the 27th-ranked offense. They were averaging a pathetic 5.12 YpA through the air, and the solid 4.42 YpC couldn’t make up for it. Yet, when going up against the 20th-ranked Saints defense, the Lions scored 20 offensive points. This, despite falling well short of their usual rushing effectiveness, and slightly shy of their average YpA.

Even if I’m reaching slightly on the specific versus-Williams advantage (and, look at the numbers, I don’t think I am), the Lions typically do well against aggressive 3-4 defenses. With that in mind, I project the Lions to score 30-33 points, pass for 6.75-7.25 YpA, and rush for 5.00-5.25 YpC. I have medium-high confidence in this prediction.

Mitigating/Aggravating Factors:

Actually, there aren’t too many. Unless Stafford completely melts down—or ditching the gloves unleashes a truly magnificent performance—I don’t see much wiggle room here. I expect the Lions to be able to take advantage of the Saints pass defense . . . whether that’s early on in an upset win, or in garbage time of a blowout loss, like last time.

Conclusion

The Saints are like the mini-Packers, and the Lions are like the mini-Saints. These two teams hold up a mirror to one another, and the Saints are a little bit better in every phase of the game—except the Lions play much, much better pass defense. I could see this going either way, and the Saints have a huge advantage in the Superdome (they’re 5-0 at home).

However . . . last week I was rooting for a huge Monday Night Football win for the Saints over the Giants. Why? Because we’ve seen all too well what can happen to a team that pulls out all the stops for a huge home MNF win, and face a tough follow-up test the following Sunday. The Saints are due to come out flat, and the Lions are coming off a long week of rest and preparation.

I could sit here and flip thought-experiment coins all day, but that wouldn’t help much. I’ll just follow the numbers: The most likely outcome of the game is a 30-28 Lions win. From these numbers to the Football Gods’ ears, eh?

*** IMPORTANT: FIRESIDE CHAT WILL BE AT HALFTIME. ***

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Ndamukong Suh/Packers film Breakdown

>> 12.02.2011

Hey all: I broke down the film of everything that went down between Ndamukong Suh and the Packers offensive line that provoked The Stomp over at Bleacher Report. I humbly suggest it’s worth the time to click.

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Slowing Down Drew Brees & the Saints With the 3-3-5

>> 12.01.2011

With the suspension of Ndamukong Suh, the Detroit Lions are down one starting interior lineman. With injuries to Louis Delmas, Chris Houston and Brandon McDonald, the Lions may be down two starters and one contributor in the secondary. Now, they face the No. 1 passing offense in the NFL: Drew Brees and the New Orleans Saints.

How can the Lions hope to slow down the lightning-fast Saints without their best interior pass rusher and a banged-up secondary? The answer may lie in a package the Lions deployed on Thanksgiving: the 3-3-5 nickel.

The Lions have used this formation a few times before, most extensively in their first win under Jim Schwartz. Gunther Cunningham’s talk about it during his first minicamp as Lions DC helped fuel speculation the Lions would run a base 3-4. Here's how it looks:

detroit_lions_3-3-5_nickel

The four square boxes are the three nickel cornerbacks, along with safety Amari Spievey. They're playing tight man-to-man coverage on the three Packers wideouts, as well as tight end Jermichael Finley. Louis Delmas is playing one-high zone, lined up deep off camera.

Kyle Vanden Bosch stays put at right defensive end, but 330-pound Sammie Hill is in at the zero-technique nose tackle. Suh is playing LDE. Behind them are the Lions' base linebackers: MLB Stephen Tulloch, and OLBs DeAndre Levy and Justin Durant.

The down and distance here is 3rd-and-3, so the Lions are trying to force a quick incompletion. Let's watch what happens:

The Lions blitz all three linebackers, bringing a total of six rushers. The Packers send Finley out but keep RB John Kuhn in to block, for a total of six blockers. The Packers do establish a pocket, but QB Aaron Rodgers knows he doesn't have all day. He throws the short out to Greg Jennings, and the tight coverage forces him to lead Jennings to the sideline rather than downfield. Even if Jennings had been able to keep his feet, Eric Wright was there to help prevent the first down.

This is a very aggressive play call, but it's perfect for the situation, and would be effective against the Saints' many multi-WR sets.

In different situations, the Lions could blitz two, one or none; this would allow for a variety of zone and man-coverage packages. Defensive coordinator Gunther Cunningham could also do some clever stuff with safety and zone blitzes. By platooning Durant (an outstanding run stopper) with Bobby Carpenter (much better in coverage), the Lions could further tailor this package to suit non-nickel situations.

The onus would be on the defensive line to continue to bring pressure and maintain outside run containment, but the Lions' depth will help them there. Sammie Hill and Corey Williams could platoon at the two-gap nose tackle spot, with DTs Nick Fairley and Andre Fluellen at left end. Vanden Bosch and Cliff Avril could platoon at RDE, though asking Avril to fill two run lanes might be asking too much.

Running the 3-3-5 for 40 or 50 snaps would give Brees time to figure out the looks and attack the deep coverage, especially if the Lions need to blitz two or more players to get pressure.

But, if the Lions are to have a chance, they'll need to avoid what happened the last time they went to the Superdome at all costs: two Saints touchdowns in the first few minutes, leading to a 47-25 blowout. Running a lot of 3-3-5 early, with a lot of blitzing and confusion, could keep the Saints off-balance enough to give Matthew Stafford—and the Lions—a chance.

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I am a Detroit Lions Fan; I Support Ndamukong Suh

>> 11.29.2011

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The Lions in Winter is more than a Detroit Lions blog. It’s about more than game previews and reviews, or analysis and breakdowns, or numbers or charts or wins or losses or even my feelings about all of the above. Though much of what you read here falls into one of the above categories, part of TLiW’s mission is to write about Detroit Lions fans: the state of Lions fandom, what it means to be a Lions fan, and what it means to be a fan of anything.

Over at Cheesehead TV, the preeminent Packers blog, writer CD Angeli (formerly of Tundra Vision) wrote a post called “Packers’, Lions’ Destinies Diverge.” As the self-appointed chronicler of Lions fandom, I feel duty-bound to respond.

Angeli effectively brings to bear his memories of the Forest Gregg Era. Gregg took over the Packers in 1984, when Green Bay was coming off 12 straight years without a winning season. Gregg immediately led the Pack to their second and third consecutive 8-8 seasons, but couldn’t break the .500 barrier. In 1986 and 1987 the Pack went 4-12 and 5-9-1, respectively, ending Gregg’s run as Packers head coach.

As Angeli writes, there wasn’t much to root for during those losing seasons except the Packers’ penchant for vicious hits:

As the Packers posted just thirteen wins over the final three years of Gregg’s tenure, Charles Martin delivered the “Body Slam Heard Round Mostly Wisconsin”. Yes, with no chance to beat the Bears on the scoreboard late in 1986, Martin grabbed Punky QB Jim McMahon a full two seconds after the ball was away and threw him into the Solider Field artificial turf, separating his shoulder. It was the beginning of a new approach for the “hard-nosed Packers and their hard-nosed coach”. If you can’t beat them, beat them up.

And, I am humbled to say that, like many Packer fans at the time, I didn’t completely decry the incident. In fact, I kind of celebrated it. I mean, the Bears were cocky, right? And McMahon was a jerk, right? He kind of deserved it. You saw Martin’s face as he was ejected, and there wasn’t a look of outrage or contriteness on his face. He looked almost bemused. And so did many Packer fans, as we found ourselves face-to-face with Bear fans that week in our cubicle, our classes, or our local tavern and let them know we scored a point against them.

Angeli goes on to describe what he calls a “loser’s mentality,” getting in a cheap shot or complaining about the refs because it’s all you can do when overwhelmed by a superior opponent. He correctly notes that the Lions are a much more talented team than the mid-80s Packers, and the Lions don’t need to be dirty to gain an advantage. They can, and should, test their mettle against great teams like today’s Packers while playing clean, fair football.

Ultimately, Angeli lays blame for Detroit’s loser mentality on Lions head coach Jim Schwartz:

Abraham Lincoln once said, “Character is like a tree and reputation like a shadow. The shadow is what we think of it; the tree is the real thing.” I am thankful that Mike McCarthy and Ted Thompson preside over a team that is thoughtful enough to protect both.

And, as the shadow of the Lions’ reputation gets longer and longer, you only need to follow it to the source…and that is the character of Jim Schwartz.

A bit of perspective: in 2008, the Lions capped off a seven-season stretch of going 31-81 by losing every single game they played.

Those 2008 Lions had the worst defense ever assembled. They surrendered over 2,700 rushing yards at an average of 5.1 yards per carry, and over 3,700 passing yards at an average of 8.29 YpA. Opposing quarterbacks had a 25:4 TD/INT ratio, and a passer rating of 110.1. As wretched as the defense was, the offense wasn't much better. The 2008 Lions not only went 0-16, they didn’t even belong on the same field as their competition.

Since then, Jim Schwartz’s Lions are 15-28. Incredibly, that’s a better winning percentage than any of his three most recent predecessors, despite the talent cupboard being completely bare when he took over. The Lions’ statistical Great Leap Forward from 2009 to 2010 was remarkable, and after 2011 there will be a similar jump. When Schwartz was hired, the Lions were the worst team in professional sports, and in Schwartz’s third season they are legitimate playoff contenders in the strongest division in football.

Jim Schwartz is the best thing to happen to the Lions since Barry Sanders—not since Barry left, mind you, but since he arrived.

Angeli’s use of Lincoln’s shadow metaphor is particularly apt; before Thanksgiving  most of Ndamukong Suh’s “dirty” reputation was built upon a shadow. Suh “ripped Andy Dalton’s helmet off,” though it actually popped off in the midst of a legal sack because Dalton didn’t fasten it. Suh “horse collared” Marion Barber, though Suh legally grabbed Barber’s hair only. Suh “forearm shivered” Jay Cutler, though Suh just pushed one flat hand into Cutler’s back.

Perception, though, sometimes becomes reality. In the PR-minded NFL, any negative publicity is reacted against with a knee-jerk gavel and mob-justice sentence. Suh has been branded a “dirty player,” and the Lions a “dirty team,” so officials are cautioned to watch them more closely.  Minor Lions infractions draw flags, and major Lions infractions become talking points for talk radio. The Packers are “winners” who play “the right way,” so their minor infractions are overlooked and their major infractions are lauded as hard-nosed play—Charles Woodson, j’accuse.

By Angeli’s definition, Evan Dietrich-Smith has a loser’s mentality. Faced with a far superior opponent—Suh—Dietrich-Smith did what he had to do to stay competitive: he cheated. He clutched, he grabbed, he flailed, he did everything he could to keep Suh from killing Aaron Rodgers. On the down before the incident, Dietrich-Smith and center Scott Wells resorted to attempting to tackle Suh, both wrapping both arms around Suh’s chest and hanging on for dear life.

I’m not supposed to complain about this. That’s the loser’s mentality, right? The Packers blatantly cheated to hold off Ndamukong Suh, sure, but that stuff happens all the time in football, right? If Suh’s really so great, he should just overcome it, right? Unfortunately, yes: no matter how dirty the other guy plays, no matter how many obvious penalties go uncalled, no matter how many flags are getting thrown at the Lions’ offensive line for much lesser fouls, Ndamukong Suh is—and I  am—expected to keep a stiff upper lip.

This is the funny thing about being a fan—a true fan, a diehard fan, a supporter in the world’s parlance. You wrap yourself up in your team, allow their identity to become part of yours. You feel a kinship with the team and players. When you brand yourself a fan, your team’s successes and failures reflect back on you—both inwardly, in your emotions, and outwardly, in how other people treat you.

When what your team does clashes irrevocably with who you are as a person, it's an awful feeling. It’s the feeling I got sitting in the stands, watching Suh nuke the Lions’ chances of pulling off the biggest Lions win since 1991. It’s the feeling I got when I got home and had to explain the incident to my kids. It’s what makes people call in to sports talk radio and shout “THIS IS UNACCEPTABLE!” They’re saying, “I can’t accept being a fan of this team anymore, if this team is stands for [fill in the blank].”

After the incident, I lashed out on Twitter, and got dozens of Packer fans filling my feed with comments along the lines of “ha ha, losers weepers.” It was like a flood of 140-character versions of C.D. Angeli’s piece. What could I do? What could I say? I was impotent in my frustration and rage. I am not a dirty person. My favorite players shouldn’t be dirty players. My favorite team shouldn’t be a dirty team. It’s unacceptable.

If I go on a rampage like Suh, I’ll face a backlash of scorn and ridicule like he did. If I say nothing, I have to hear a bunch of crap from Packers fans who are no more righteous in their offended sensibilities than Evan Deitrich-Smith is in his.

Ultimately, this is fandom's great illusion. I am not Ndamukong Suh, and C.D. Angeli is not Evan Dietrich-Smith.  I am not a loser because the Lions lost, and he is not a winner because the Packers won. I have no more business being indignant about the terrible officiating than he has lecturing Lions fans about “character.”

What Ndamukong Suh did WAS unacceptable. It has no place in the game. He deserved the penalty, deserved to be ejected, deserves a big fat fine, and deserved to be suspended for two games without pay. I completely denounce his attack on Dietrich-Smith, and pray he never does anything like it ever again.

But . . . I am a Lions fan. It’s part of my identity. If I can brand myself with the colors of 0-16, I can brand myself with the colors of Ndamukong Suh, for good or bad—and believe me, even with this incident, Suh has done much, much, much more good in his life than bad. I am hurt, ashamed, and disappointed—but I choose to continue to accept Suh and these Lions as my team. Their destiny on the field is my destiny as a fan, and I will support them to it, come what may.

What else am I supposed to do—root for the Packers?

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