Watchtower waitin’

>> 9.23.2011

Hey, everyone, it’s been a crazy week here at TLiW HQ. While you wait for this week’s Watchtower, may I suggest:

  • My exclusive interview with Justin Durant, over at Bleacher Report.
  • Neil at Armchair Linebacker's brilliant deconstruction of the Vikings and Donovan McNabb.
  • Awesome new Lions blog Holy Schwartz! breaks down the Xs and Os of the Lions vs. Vikings.


Take The Detroit Lions With A Grain of Salt

>> 9.22.2011

Taking the Detroit Lions with a grain of salt. credit: The Lions in Winter

Salt is a miraculous little substance. It helps regulate the water content in our body. It helps our nervous system conduct electricity. Its presence in food awakens flavors on our palettes; food without salt tastes lifeless. We need salt in order to live—without enough, we die. Salt is also a preservative, allowing perishable foods to be stored in times of plenty and eaten in times of need.

Now is a time of plenty for Detroit Lions fans. The Lions are on a six-game winning streak and are No. 1 in the NFL in scoring differential. Yet, they still haven’t played their best football. Matthew Stafford looks every bit a franchise quarterback, and historically weak units of the team (offensive line, secondary) have been amongst the best in the league this year.

After the longest offseason ever, throughout which Lions Kool-Aid was being quaffed at unheard-of rates, this spectacular start has Lions fans giddy. Every best-case scenario is coming true. The Lions are heavy favorites to go 3-0: the first time Vegas has liked the Lions to win in Minnesota since I was ten days old.

As fans, we are tempted to tap the brakes. To pull back on the reins. To take this early success with a grain of salt:

(With) a grain of salt, in modern English, is an idiom which means to view something with skepticism, or to not take it literally.[1] It derives from the Latin phrase, (cum) grano salis.

Since in Italy "to have salt in your pumpkin" (avere sale in zucca - pumpkin is a humorous way to say "head") means to have intelligence and reasoning capabilities, "grain of salt" often means "a little bit of intelligence". So, "cum grano salis", in its Latin form, it is often used when it is needed to show that intelligence and personal judgment are needed, as in "I drink wine cum grano salis since I must drive" (with care, moderately).

We are scarred, brutalized by years of tantalizing mediocrity and years of hopeless futility. We want to hope. We want to believe. We want to know that it’s for real this time, but we don’t want to be burned again. “Well, let’s see them do X,” we say, as if the Lions cannot possibly play winning football until they pass a series of specific tests.

Honestly, though—which of those tests remain unpassed? The Lions have won their season opener. They’ve won at home and on the road. They’ve beaten two teams who boasted double-digit wins last year (though the Chiefs will almost certainly lose as many this year). They’ve closed out a game where they held a lead, and they’ve put on the biggest regular-season rout in franchise history. If they take care of business as favorites this Sunday, they’ll add a division road win to their smoking pile of defeated challenges. Including this preseason, the Lions have won their last ten games.

If we remain skeptical of the Lions’ success, we may suffer the same fate as many Tigers fans have. They steeled themselves all summer for the inevitable collapse, wasting their long-awaited AL Central championship season. They took little joy from the Tigers’ 2011 run to the title, because they spent all year pretending it was an illusion. They’ve railed against Jim Leyland so often for so long that they can hardly find it in themselves to be happy he was right.

Let’s not do that with this Lions campaign. Let’s take it cum grano salis, in the Italian sense. With avere sale in zucca, a little bit of intelligence, we can see and appreciate exactly how rare and special this Lions season will be. Let’s not only cheer and celebrate with all of our hearts. With just a pinch of perspective,  we can see how good—how greatthese Lions are, and will be.

If they continue to perform as they have, the Lions will be not be “pretty good.” The they will not be “a playoff contender.” They will not be “a team on the rise.” They will be one of the best in the NFL—and they will have the players driving that success locked up for years to come. The Lions’ offense will be a Top 5 scoring unit, and Stafford a Top 5 quarterback. Just how good the defense will be against competition like the Packers and Bears remains unknown, but to date they’re blowing away expectations.

With our eyes shut tight and our nose pinched closed, Lions fans have no hope of experiencing all the wonderful emotions this season has to offer.

Relax. Let your guard down. Take a deep breath in through your nose. Open your eyes, and see the meal that’s laid before you. Add just a grain of salt, and savor the flavors that come alive inside of you. Revel in your favorite team entering the Vikings’ lair as conquerors, ready to ransack and pillage and do as they will. Grow strong as the warmth of victory swells in your belly.

Then, salt it away.

Preserve these memories; keep some safe in the larder for leaner times. Remember every big play, cherish every win, knowing the Lions won’t stay undefeated forever. Someday, Lions fans will again have to to subsist on what they remember of the good times—so make sure every moment of these is present and preserved in your mind, having been taken with a grain of salt.


Watchtower Review: Lions vs. Chiefs

>> 9.20.2011

From the Lions vs. Chiefs Watchtower:

Last season, the Lions had the 19th-best defense in the NFL, allowing 23.1 points per game. The Chiefs scored 22.9 PpG, 14th-best in the league. I’m going to project the Chiefs to score 23-27 points. I have hellaciously low confidence in this projection.


When a Romeo Crennel defense has average-or-better skill level, it disproportionately disrupts a Linehan offense’s scoring—primarily, by depressing per-play pass effectiveness. Run effectiveness seems to go up in response, possibly due to Crennel ‘ceding’ the run in order to stop the pass. When Crennel’s available talent is lesser, though, the situation reverses itself: Crennel’s defense becomes extremely susceptible to the pass, and therefore allows points in bunches.

Given that the Chiefs have lost their best pass defender, Eric Berry, to an ACL tear, and given the Lions’ explosive passing offense, I believe Detroit able to at least compensate for this schematic advantage—and possibly, overcome it and flip the tables on Crennel.

I project the Lions to score 31-34 points. I have extremely low confidence in this projection.


Knowing this is more of a shot in the dark than an actual projection: I project a 34-23 Lions win.


When looking at the history and resumé of Chiefs’ OC Bill Muir, I noticed eerie parallels between him and former Lions OC Jim Colletto. Both Muir and Colletto were previous colleagues of the OCs they replaced, Charlie Weis and Mike Martz. Both Weis and Martz are known as pass-first schematic innovators who occasionally overestimate their own superiority. Both Muir and Colletto were charged with maintaining the existing framework of the offense, while streamlining out the “wizardry” and reinforcing the MANBALL.

So far, Muir’s tenure has been every bit the disaster Colletto’s was.

Early on, the Chiefs used tosses, sweeps, and reverses to exploit the Lions’ defensive line. As I’ve said on here before, and as Pro Football Focus has repeatedly identified, the Lions’ linemen often abandon gap responsibility in the name of penetration. Notably, I saw Kyle Vanden Bosch drawn well out of position on the reverses—leaving nobody home to make the tackle. This was a clever bit of scheming by the Chiefs, and one I expect to see deployed by other teams this year.

After halftime, the Lions did a much better job of staying home—and of course, the Lions’ offense made stopping the run a moot point anyway. I believe this is a design principle of the defense. As someone on the Fireside Chat noted, Schwartz has said “We’ll stop the run on the way to the quarterback,” and that’s exactly what we saw in effect: the Lions did not stop the run well, but the Lions’ offense made stopping the run irrelevant.

Instead, the Lions focused on pass rush and pass coverage, and the result was incredible. Two sacks, one QB hit, nine pressures, a batted pass, four forced fumbles (three recovered), and three interceptions. As I said in my latest Bleacher Report article, 5 Ways NFL Experts Were Wrong About the Detroit Lions, the Lions’ back seven currently rank number one overall in Pro Football Focus’s pass coverage grades.

On the offensive side, I’d found Crennel’s defense did a disproportionately good job against Linehan’s offense in years when Crennel’s defense was ranked in the top two thirds of the league. Crennel’s 17th-ranked Patriots held Linehan’s 8th-ranked Vikings to just 17 points—and Crennel’s 11th-ranked Browns completely shut out Linehan’s 16th-ranked Dolphins. In both games, passing effectiveness was static, or down, while running effectiveness greatly increased. It seemed like Crennel was allowing the run in order to stop the pass.

However, the year Crennel’s D was ranked 23rd and Linehan's Rams were the 28th-best (read: 3rd-worst) offense in the NFL, the Rams went wild. Those timid Rams hung 27 points on the Browns, 65% above their season average. They averaged 8.36 YpA, 48% better than their season average—though their run game managed only 3.29 YpC (-13%). I concluded that when Crennel’s defensive talent is well below average, Linehan’s offenses explode through the air (despite running less effectively).


The Lions mustered only 2.97 YpC, but blew up for 8.05 YpA—and, of course, scored 48 offensive points. It must be said: the offense was assisted by a short field several times, as the defense forced an astounding six turnovers—but the Lions were excellent in the red zone, converting many of the chances they got. It looks as though my analysis of what happens when Linehan meets Crennel was spot on.

In conclusion, this game was super-awesome, and the Lions haven’t even played their best football yet. It’s all part of finding out exactly how high expectations for the Lions should be—and in this case, how low expectations for the Chiefs should be.


Three Cups Deep: Lions vs. Chiefs

>> 9.19.2011


Ford Field was rocking. Everyone was standing, cheering, clapping, and laughing. The Wave was in full effect, circling the sold-out stadium three, four, five times. Me, my seven-year-old, my five-year-old, and my father-in-law had long since blown out our voices cheering, screaming, ‘SUUUUUUH’-ing, and yes—singing Gridiron Heroes so many times we lost count.

Said Dominic Raiola:

"In the years I've been here, it is never been like that in the stadium."

Said Ndamukong Suh:

"The crowd was amazing, as they always are," defensive tackle Ndamukong Suh said. "I love to see our field continue to be sold out - no empty seats anywhere in that stadium. I appreciate it fans, and look forward to the next time we get back here."

Said Kyle Vanden Bosch:

"It was loud out there. It was difficult for (Kansas City) to make adjustments, to run audibles, and even get the snap counts. We have a definite advantage at home, and we can feel the crowd's energy."

The thing that impressed Vanden Bosch the most was how long the fans stayed despite the score.

"It was nice to see - I don't know how many touchdowns we were up late - that the fans were still there supporting us," he said. "They weren't in a hurry to get home, they wanted to finish this thing out with us."

Of course. Of course! Who wouldn’t? Who wouldn’t want to see this through to the end? Who wouldn’t want to stay to the final whistle, to lap up every minute, to savor every second? Who wouldn’t want to let the warmth of the big blue bonfire wash over them, bathe them in its glow, and laugh and cheer and high five along with 65,000 of their closest friends?

Said Nate Burleson:

"We said before the game that we wanted to give the crowed what they've been wanting," he said. "Some of the coaches said in a meeting last night, 'There's no better place to throw a party than at your own house.' We had a pretty good party today."

That’s exactly what it was: a party. From the second half on, the Detroit Lions hosted an enormous coming-out party, with everyone in attendance or watching at home or seeing highlights of it later or reading about it this morning invited. It was an announcement and celebration of the time of the Detroit Lions having arrived.

Matthew Stafford and Calvin Johnson were just too good to stop, adding another two touchdowns to their mutual total. Besides Calvin, Stafford hit six other receivers at least once. The not-Calvin skill position triumvirate of Nate Burleson, Titus Young, and Jahvid Best combined for 18 catches, 246 yards, and a touchdown. Tony Scheffler had one catch—but it was a 36-yard touchdown grab.

None of this counts the 43-yard pass to Burleson or 24-yarder to Calvin Johnson (that would have put the Lions on the Chiefs' 1-yard-line) that were called back on penalties. Add in Best’s 57 yards and touchdown, and Keiland Williams’ 25 yards and touchdown, and you’ve got yourself one hell of an offensive explosion.

On defense? The Lions held the Chiefs to three points, 267 total yards, 18% third-down conversion percentage, forced six turnovers and eight penalties. The Lions are now #3 in the NFL in scoring defense, #2 in scoring offense, and #1 overall in points differential—by a long shot.

As I said in the Fireside Chat, the party didn’t get started right away. The Chiefs moved the ball on the ground well early, and the Lions struggled with a few just-out-of-reach passes and an inability to get two yards on the ground when they need it. But that can’t be the takeaway from this incredible win.

The Lions’ offense is nothing short of spectacular, and when this defense plays with a lead, it’s not much less so. The much-maligned secondary played its tail off, and the Lions looked It’s true that the Chiefs are anything but stiff competition—but an honest-to-God blowout is a rare treat in today’s NFL. Let’s take this one at face value, shall we? Let’s bask in the national attention the Lions’ six- (kinda ten-) game win streak is getting. Let’s have another round of cider, and bask in the glow of the big blue bonfire.


Fireside Chat: Week 2, Lions vs. Chiefs

Kool and the Gang, HIT IT.

Our Week 2 celebration came in three parts thanks to me accidentally kicking my network cable. Twice.

Part one:

Part two:

Part three:

If watching them here doesn't strike your fancy, you can always subscribe via iTunes for free.


Fireside Chat at 10:30

>> 9.18.2011

Come one, come all to the Fireside Chat podcast! I'm streaming live at 10:30 tonight; head on over to Ustream with this link:

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