Tinderbox: NFL Defines Catch; Still Wrong on Calvin

>> 3.31.2011

Yesterday, ProFootballTalk talked to Rich McKay, the NFL’s Competition Committee chair, about the catch/no-catch thing. You should watch/listen to the whole thing, but here’s a money quote:

That rules has gotten more complicated as we've gotten into super slow-mo. As in the Lance Moore play where literally, people look at that frame-by-frame and go "Well, that's a catch," and then you turn it on full speed and go, "Eh, that's not a catch."

This is valid. With people at home watching on 60” plasmas getting digital frame-by-frame replay ability, there’s an ability to split hairs finely—so finely it transcends what’s possible to see at full speed, divorcing these players from the flow of time. If a player only possessed a ball for 1/24th of a second, did he really possess it?

I’m glad they decided to take a step back to the fundamental concept of a catch, and apply it to all the catch rules going forward.  As I’ve said, there were multiple different rules, and multiple different (conflicting) phrases governing the same play. So, McKay says, they started from the three fundamental elements of a catch: you have to get two hands firmly on the ball, be in-bounds, and have a “time element:” an affirmative moment where there’s no doubt that the player has the ball and could do something with the ball.

Further, I agree with the idea that the burden should be on the receiver, not the refs: catch the ball, then keep catching the ball until everyone knows for damn sure that you caught the ball. If you catch a touchdown, hold on to that ball until you can walk over and flip it to the ref. Now that everyone knows full well that just catching the ball, coming down with two feet, your knee, your butt, and one hand isn’t enough to prove possession, nobody has an excuse going forward.

That all having been said? Calvin Johnson caught that ball for a touchdown. I know it, you know it, and the side judge with an unobstructed, close-up view of the whole thing knew it—emphatically signalling the touchdown. The only slow-mo, post-hoc lawyering that occurred was done by the referee, and by Mike Pereira. Everyone who it at full speed, including the players, announcers, coaches, fans, and refs, knew what happened. It was only in the super-slow-mo frame-by-frame that words were parsed, and truth was made into lies. That was a catch, and a touchdown, and the Lions won that game. Period.


Old Mother Hubbard: The Safeties

>> 3.29.2011

Throughout the OMH series I’ve been waiting to get to this one; I’ve got a really cool data visualization thing I wanna do with each complete unit. So, the safeties:


The top-graded safety is Philadelphia’s Quintin Mikell, who absolutely murdered the coverage and run-stopping grades. Despite below-average blitzing, and being called for four flags, Mikell’s performance still made him the highest-graded safety, by far. In fact, only four safeties cracked positive double digits. 50 of the 85 safeties were within +5.0 and –5.0 . . . just as with OLBs, though, I wonder if this is a manifestation of the way PFF grades, or if it reveals something innate about the game of football. Safeties are very difficult to grade from TV broadcast footage—but perhaps the safeties simply don’t impact the game as often as other positions?

There’s no question who the Lions—and their fans—view as their top safety, or even top defensive back. Louis Delmas was a player who exploded onto the scene out of Western Michigan in 2009—and while we knew he gambled a bit, and missed almost as often as he hit, he made some flat-out incredible plays his rookie year. I think, though, most of us had a sense throughout this year that while he wasn’t making obvious mistakes, he wasn’t making many highlight-reel plays either.  He seemed to be toned down, the edge taken off. Was that maturation, or regression?

Delmas took 940 snaps, and his overall grade matched the NFL average to within three tenths of a point. He was a full notch below average in coverage (-3.9), but a shade above average in run defense. However, he was an impressive +4 in pass rush; the fifth-best blitzer in the NFL! These numbers, however, reveal an overall regression from 2009, when Delmas played almost exactly the same number of snaps, and was a bit above-average in every dimension.

Last August, I wrote a piece called “Something’s Rotten in Delmas,” a slightly over-the-top look at the rumors about Delmas’s injured groin. Pro Football Talk had sources telling them Delmas might be lost for the year, while every Detroit scribe’s sources were pounding the table in denial. The truth, I guessed, was somewhere in between:

The Lions and Delmas are absolutely right to be cautious with the injury. Further, if the specialist Delmas saw didn’t recommend surgery as a first course of action, then why do it unnecessarily? But this is clearly more serious than “a short-term thing.” I don’t believe that limited practice reps are going to seriously harm Delmas’s play in 2010—but if going full-speed sporadically isn’t “restful” enough for the groin to completely heal before the season starts, Delmas may not be able to go at full speed all year.

For the first nine weeks of the year, Delmas appeared to be his usual self: except for a –0.8 against Philly (entirely due to a –1.6 coverage grade, likely a single mistake) he was graded neutral or positive in every single game. Then, after a very nice +2.6 against the Jets, something happened. He went six straight weeks without a positive grade, including three awful ones against the Cowboys, Pats, and Bucs (-1.9, –3.8, and -2.9 respectively). He missed week 16 with a concussion, then turned in a great final game; earning an impressive +2.7 run defense grade against AD and the Vikes.

I can only speculate [Ed. Note: SPECULATE] that Delmas aggravated the groin injury, or suffered some other malady, in between his great performance against the Jets, and his weakly negative one against the Bills. Seriously, he turned in a +1.9 coverage grade against Braylon Edwards and Santonio Holmes, but –1.2 against Steve Johnson and Lee Evans? Delmas had groin surgery immediately after the season, which jibes perfectly with my theory. If Delmas is taking the time to fully recover, he should be full-speed for 2011—and back to being “Da Missile” we saw in 2009, two and a half years wiser.

Bottom Line: Louis Delmas is an athletic, hard-hitting safety who can make big plays against the run and the pass. Despite being limited by injury, he proved extremely effective on the blitz this year. If he can go full speed, he should be one of the best safeties in the NFL next season.

The good news, and bad news, is that Amari Spievey was the Lions’ top-graded safety in 2010. The third-round draft pick, who we’d hoped would step in and start at cornerback, instead struggled and switched to safety. Learning the new position slowed him down some more, but he saw spot duty in weeks 3, 5, 6, and 8. Finally, he got his first full workload against the Jets, and he played the game of his career to date: a +3.3 overall graded, 7-tackle performance. He was average or better in every category, and a very strong +2.9 against the run.

Unfortunately, Spievey hit a rough patch immediately after: three straight negative games against Buffalo, Dallas, and New England, struggling against the run and the pass. Then, he tightened it up against Chicago, Green Bay, and Miami; his grades in every dimension (and therefore overall) were flatly average. He finished off the season with a very strong +2.6, boosted by his only positive coverage grade of the year, a +1.9.

Looking at the stats, Spievey's a sure tackler. I added tackles and assists, and divided by missed tackles, and Spievey's rate of 7 tackles per miss is below the league average of 8.2. I am a ding-dong. I interpreted this stat exactly backwards. Spievey missed tackles a little more frequently than average. Thanks to commenter Laimbrane for spotting this! Interestingly, both Spievey and Delmas were thrown at a little less than the NFL average safety—but Spievey allowed a worse (better) passer rating, 82.5 to Delmas’s 89.2. Again, Spievey was just better than the NFL average of 85.7.

Seeing a pattern? The PFF stats paint a slightly rosier picture of Spievey’s coverage than the grades do—and while normally I’d trust the grades more, safety play is very difficult to grade from TV footage. Overall, it’s safe to say Spievey played just below average in coverage, and a bit above average against the run, and on the blitz. He definitely had trouble focusing, and gave up some big plays, but showed the resiliency to shake it off and minimize his mistakes.

Bottom Line: Spievey is a talented, hardworking kid with the raw ability to be a very good safety. He struggled with consistency and mental mistakes in his first season, and this offseason will be crucial in finding out if he’s a long-term starter or medium-term rotational player.

As for the rest?  Well, C.C. Brown is not likely to return. Interestingly, C.C. covered okay enough but was a disaster against the run. He graded out at –6.5 and missed 10 tackles to just 32 made. UDFA Randy Philips flashed some promise in camp, but “spit the bit” as Tom Kowalski likes to say. He didn’t do well with a heavier preseason workload, and moved up and down off the practice squad. He got only 13 reps of live action. Paul Pratt got just one rep at safety; I believe they see him as a corner. John Wendling got 59 reps, but is clearly a special teams specialist. Erik Coleman was signed as a street free agent after being released from Atlanta.

SHOPPING LIST: The Lions are set at one safety position with Louis Delmas, who played admirably despite fighting through injuries. Amari Spievey showed enough promise to be considered a future starter, but will have to fight off FA signee Erik Coleman. Coleman has limitations, but will be a nice veteran insurance policy for both young safeties. Wendling and Philips will likely fight it out for the fourth safety spot. If the Lions want to make this a position of emphasis, they could acquire a clear-cut upgrade over Spievey, but my guess is they think they’re set here.


Old Mother Hubbard: The Cornerbacks

>> 3.28.2011

Now, we get to the heart of the matter. As usual, a disclaimer: this review is working off of Pro Football Focus player grades and statistics;  CB play is the hardest to assess from TV broadcast footage. Figuring out a player’s true assignment, and assessing how well he carries it out, takes a lot more education and intuition when it comes to DB play than line play. That having been said, I think this chart matches up well with our armchair understanding of the Lions’ CB situation:


The purple line with the ridiculous overall grade is Antoine Winfield, who—unlike most other top PFF graders—has an exceptional mark in every single area of play. He’s ranked in the top ten of 100 qualifying cornerbacks in every graded dimension. At the bottom is Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie, who despite half his last name isn’t the player is cousin is. A strongly negative coverage grade, combined with 8 called penalties (one declined/offset) make him the low man on the cornerback totem pole.

Then again, Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie played the second-highest number of snaps in the NFL, over 1,130. The only corner who played more snaps than Cromartie was Cortland Finnegan, with just over 1,200 . . . and he had the lowest coverage grade in the NFL, –13. This suggests that the more snaps a corner gets, the worse his coverage grade is bound to be—even though the PFF folks normalize the final grades by snap count. Just to be sure, I ran a regression:

imageNope, no correlation. I think the effect in play is the old line, “You have to be a pretty good pitcher to lose 20 games.” Maybe Cortland Finnegan and Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie aren’t great cover guys—but they’re far and away the best corners on their team, and they kept getting run out against their opponents’ best wideouts. Even normalized for snap counts, though, they simply didn’t grade out like KC’s Brandon Carr (+5.4) or New England’s Devin McCourty (+9.4), players with similar snap counts but much better coverage grades.

Lions’ best corner, far and away is Chris Houston—but the PFF grades don’t reflect it. Houston played over 900 snaps; the only Lion above the league average of 750. Though near NFL average in pass rush and run support, Houston’s coverage grade was decidedly below (-4.5), and his five called penalties weren’t great either. From the grades alone, the 5’-11”, 178-pound Houston turned in a subpar performance in 2010. However, I dug a little deeper.

Houston was thrown at 85 times, once every 10.7 snaps; that exactly matches the NFL average. Sixty percent of those passes were caught, which matches up to the average of 60.2. However, he allowed only 10.6 yards per catch—yards less than the average. His TD allowed/INT ratio was near average (3/1 vs. 3/2), his passes defensed were above average (9 vs. 6), and his NFL passer rating allowed was slightly better than average (85.5 vs. 88.0).

The overall picture this paints is, well, average. Compared to every other starting, or heavily-rotated, cornerback, Chris Houston was just about average. That’s better than any Lions cornerback has been in a while, especially wire to wire. He also had some great individual games, turning in a +1.8 (+1.2 coverage) in the first Green Bay game, and +3.2 (+2.3 coverage) against Washington. Unfortunately, he did poorly against the Cowboys and Bucs, and was absolutely abused by the Patriots (-4.5 coverage).

Bottom Line: With a full #1 starter’s workload, Chris Houston performed at an average, maybe just-below-average, level for an NFL starter. Considering the pittance the Lions paid to get him, performance like that is impressive. As the Lions’ #1 corner, they should draft someone with flashier coverage skills to pair with him. As the Lions’ #2 corner, he’d be excellent. Further, he’s only 26—if the Lions can hold onto this likely RFA, he may continue to improve.

With just over 350 snaps and a –0.9 overall grade, Nathan Vasher is the best-graded Lion cornerback with a significant number of snaps. Snaps had been hard to come by for the 2005 Pro Bowler, and the Bears finally released Vasher a year ago. Despite his productive history, and that ESPN article suggesting he’d wind up as a starter somewhere soon, the 5’-11”, 185-pound Vasher was available for the Lions to sign when the regular season started.

He didn’t see much action until the last four weeks. 250 of his snaps came in those last four games, where he barely came off the field. When he did, he turned in two very good performances, and two not-so-good ones. He turned in coverage grades of +1.2 and +2.8 against Green Bay and Miami, alternated with –0.9 and –2.2 coverage marks against Tampa Bay and Miami. What it all averages out to is “average.”

When we look at the statistical metrics that PFF charts, Vasher was thrown at 31 times, and only 16 were completed; an excellent 51.6%. Though he gave up yards at a 13.1 YpC clip, had just one INT, and defensed only one pass, Vasher’s Allowed Passer Rating was a miniscule 70.6; 14th-best in the NFL!

Bottom Line: Nathan Vasher is only 29, and proved he can still play corner in the NFL. The Lions re-signed him to a one-year deal, and he’ll be in the mix in the summer. If Houston sticks around, I like him as a #2 for a rookie to challenge. If Houston leaves, Vasher replaces Houston as the cross-your-fingers-and-hope-this-guy-returns-to-form #1 corner.

One of the more outrageous moves Josh McDaniels did in his short time with the keys to the Denver franchise, was trading 2009 second-round pick Alphonso Smith, who he’d dealt a 2010 first-rounder to acquire, to the Lions for Dan Gronkowski. Smith, a 5’-9”, 190-pound fireplug who some thought would be a great fit for the Lions at the slot that ended up being Louis Delmas, was disappointing in his rookie year—but to dish a player you burned a first and second-rounder to acquire after one season? In a position that traditionally requires a year or two of development?

Sure enough, Smith flashed some of the potential that caused the Broncos to go crazy for him; leading the Lions’ corners in INTs with 5 (in fact, he was the only to get more than one). However, Smith also flashed the mental mistakes that drove the Broncos crazy. Smith looked like a fool in key moments against the Patriots and Jets, and it cost the Lions two ENORMOUS possible (probable, in the Jets’ case) wins. However, Smith has a very bright future on this team . . . as a slot corner.

In the first three games, Smith's overall grades were +1.6, +1.8, and +0.2, influnced by very strong performances against the run, and in pass rush, and neutral pass coverage grades. Unfortunately, when the Lions moved him to the starting right cornerback spot, he turned in a poor game. They put him back in the slot against St. Louis, and he had one of his best coverage games all year. Then he went back outside, and was either neutral (WAS, NYJ, @DAL) or a disaster (@BUF, NEP, CHI). The only exception to this was the Giants game, when Smith started at right corner and received, by far, his best coverage grade of the year (+3.0), while also turning in, by far, his worst effort against the run (-1.3).

Bottom Line: Alphonso Smith is a gifted natural slot cornerback, with the tenacity to play well against the run, and even be dangerous as a pass rusher. His instincts and hands are enough to make him a ballhawk, but his repeated brain farts make him a liability as an outside cornerback. Perhaps time and development will iron this out, but for now pencil him in as a multi-year “starting” nickel back.

As for the rest, Aaron Berry and Jack Williams are talented youngsters who lost the entire season, or nearly so, to injury. Prince Miller barely played, but has been tendered a contract for next year—as has Paul Pratt, a practice-squadder from last season.

SHOPPING LIST: As it stands, Chris Houston, Nathan Vasher, and Alphonso Smith performed like a just below-average-but-not-awful starting trio (even though they didn’t play as a triumvirate much this year). However, Vasher has already worn out his welcome at a team he was a Pro Bowler for; he’s not likely to be a long-term fix. If Houston stays, the Lions need to draft a cover corner, a guy who can challenge Vasher by the end of his first season, and challenge Houston by the beginning of his third. If Houston leaves, the Lions need to acquire a starter of Houston’s caliber, and draft that developmental cornerback.


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