Biding Time on Prime Time: Saturday Night Football

>> 12.22.2012

The left boot’s lace snapped as I tied it. The axe was rusty and dull. It took a few tries to open the shed’s padlock, and I forgot to zip my parka. The wind driving the year’s first snowfall whipped into my chest, chilling me to the core. I steeled myself against it and set to work.

I walked the path to the bonfire, sled laden not with wood but with guilt. Too long, I’d let my tasks go uncompleted. Too long I’d left my duty undone.

The Lions aren’t going to the playoffs. They aren’t winning more games than they lose, or even winning as many games as they lose. They’re having a terrible season, and all the close calls and almosts and maybes and robberies adding up to a measly four wins out of 14 games.

The problems have been the same all season: a misfiring Matthew Stafford, special teams disasters, and a defense that can’t quite make up for all the offense’s mistakes. Calvin Johnson is going to break the single-season receiving yardage record, but the Madden Curse robbed him of his touchdowns—and the Lions of every other useful receiver.

Tonight, the Lions will take Ford Field for the second-to-last time this season. They face the 12-2 Atlanta Falcons, with nothing but pride at stake. Lions fans will fill Ford Field again, expecting to witness an excruciating loss for the fifth time this season.

And yet, the Lions will play, and the fans will watch and cheer and roar.

Trudging through the woods, the cold red light in the west fading, I pulled the sled toward the bonfire spot, fearful of what I’d find. To my surprise, I could make out a wan blue light dancing off the tops of the trees. As I got closer, I could hear voices.

People. Fans.

The blue fire was nothing like the raging, towering inferno it had been. But it was bright and strong enough to keep the folks gathered there warm. There was no laughing, no singing, no loud carousing. The cider had long since run dry, the casks I’d last left weeks ago emptied and never replaced. But people were quietly resting, basking, keeping each other company.

Whether the Lions win or lose tonight, the blue flame is not threatened. Many, myself included, have had our faith tested this season, and the old bickering can be heard in murmurs around the edges of the fanbase. Many are questioning if the Lions are on the right path, but few have abandoned the flame completely.

Many have left the blue bonfire, but not for good. Not for long. Just for the winter.


On Thanksgiving, Lions Fans Give Thanks

>> 11.21.2012


“…although it be not always so plentiful as it was at this time with us, yet by the goodness of God, we are so far from want that we often wish you partakers of our plenty.”

-- Edward Winslow, A Relation or Journal of the Beginning and Proceedings of the English Plantation Settled at Plimoth in New England

Ten games in to the 2012 season, the Lions have won four games and lost six. Jeff Backus’s 186-game starting streak is about to end. Nate Burleson will be in crutches, cheering from the sideline. Titus Young will be in street clothes, inactivated for insubordination. Jahvid Best may never play again.

Corey Williams is iffy, Aaron Berry is in New York, Bill Bentley is on IR, and Drayton Florence will likely be out with a concussion. Two of the Lions’ top three safeties are on IR, and the third (Delmas) likely won't play either. Everything we thought this season would be is lost, or nearly so.

Now, let us fill Ford Field to the rafters and roar thanks for all our blessings.

Last season was the first season I made the more-literal-than-usual Pilgrimage to Ford Field on Thanksgiving Day. I was not surprised to find the atmosphere as it always seemed at home, on TV: an extra-special mood of festivity, a wide-open expression of joy and pride, a welcoming, party atmosphere.

There's something magical about the Lions on Thanksgiving, doubly so when you're there in person. Through thick and thin, and there's been an awful lot of very thin, this game sells out. It’s an annual national celebration of blessings, and no matter how bleak things have been on- and off-field for the Lions, their fans turn out in force to spend all day reveling in the immutable fact that we are still here.

The Pilgrims themselves gathered ‘round with some corn and some eel and some venison and a few pints of homebrew and toasted their incredible luck at just being able to do so. It’s the same with the Lions and their fans: spit on the team, on the City of Detroit, the State of Michigan, on our way of life all you want. Dismiss us, deny us, wish us all to lose our jobs, whatever.

We are still here.

We're here: 64,000 of us, 750,000 of us, four million of us, ten million of us, and we’re all wearing blue and fake turkeys on our heads and we’re going to raise a glass to one another and scream our fool heads off and you can’t deny it. You can’t take it away. We have our team, we have each other, and we are united in celebration of those simple facts; we are still here.

Whether you are there with me and mine tomorrow morning, or at home in the City of Detroit, or at home somewhere else, or visiting Grandma’s House, or even if you’re on the other side of the world: tomorrow we are all together, united in support of our team and each other.

There have been much, much worse seasons than this one. There have been much, much less exciting versions of our team. There have been much, much worse Thanksgiving Day games than this one will be, even if the Texans beat the Lions by more than the three-point spread. It’s not about the winning or the losing, though a win would be wonderful and a loss the final doom of the Lions’ playoff hopes.

Tomorrow, we give thanks for the blessings we have, and the blessings we have are so many: We have a team, we have a stadium, we have food and drink, we have each other, and we have hope. Always, always we have hope.

By the goodness of God, we are so far from want, we wish you partakers of our plenty.


Turkey Day Q&A with TexansChick Steph Stradley


Today, TLiW is thankful for Stephanie Stradley (@StephStradley on Twitter), a Houston lawyer who writes about the Houston Texans for the Houston Chronicle online and a general interest, non-Texans blog at her own site. Stephanie is a sports blog O.G., and one of the very best.

I answered her Qs with my As at her TexansChick Houston Chronicle blog, and after adding her own must-read analysis, she’s provided her own As for us, here:

What are differences between this Texans team and previous ones? And why are Andre Johnson's numbers (with the exception of last week) down this year?

“The Texans offense with few exceptions hasn't had to open up much because with better defense, the team has played with many early leads. Due to salary cap concerns, they had to replace the starting right guard and right tackle, which would also make a team lean toward a more conservative, less-risk filled approach. The strength of the 2012 Texans is their experienced tight ends relative to their young 3-5 WRs, so they can use their TEs to help the offensive line but also to make pass plays and create mismatches.

The Texans have three tight ends that are listed in the top 15 in TE efficiency: Owen Daniels, Garrett Graham and James Casey. Casey is not built like a traditional tight end and came into the league as a do-everything athlete after his remarkable time at Rice University. (Nickname: "Thor"). The Texans use him as a hybrid TE, FB, WR and line him up in various ways. They run/pass out of the same looking formations and create matchup problems for defenses, especially given that no teams look like what the Texans are doing this year.

Andre Johnson is still Andre Johnson. He's made key move-the-sticks plays, and big plays downfield. But this year he has functioned mostly as a "Break Glass In Case of Emergency" option. If the Texans have a big lead, there's no reason to take downfield shots at him. In the game against the Jaguars, he faced some unusual single coverage matchups. In addition, with the Texans down by 14 late, they started running more 3-4 wide receiver sets with a more open offense like they used to do a lot when their defense was terrible. Eventually, if the Texans decide they are going to throw on teams, Andre Johnson is going to get his.

He's a very unselfish player and would rather have wins over stats.

In general, the Texans offense is all about taking advantage of what the defense gives you. Some defenses load up against RB Arian Foster. Some defenses aim at taking Andre Johnson out of the game. So each week the targets are different...the yard can be all about Arian Foster or the TEs or the #2 WR or the Andre Johnson show. They have many ways they can be efficient in moving the ball, and I think Texans coach Gary Kubiak is underrated as a playcaller. (The old "It's the players when things are going well, and the playcalling when things aren't." If you talk to the Texans players, they have a great deal of respect for what Kubiak does).

It's also worth mentioning with Andre Johnson that both he and Matt Schaub were coming off of injury filled seasons where neither one of them had a full camp. Johnson says he is feeling more like himself as the season progresses.”

What are key injuries for this team or players coming off of injury?

“The number one concern is whether standout CB Johnathan Joseph is going to be available for this game given his hamstring issue coming out of the previous game. He's usually the corner who is matched up with the best WR when there's a clear dominant #1. The Texans haven't played a lot of snaps with him off of the field.

Probably the greatest loss for the Texans this year was losing ILB Brian Cushing for the year to an ACL injury suffered against the Jets. He is a physical player against the run and the pass and gave Wade Phillips flexibility for what he could call on defense. Against better offensive teams, his aggressive play in the middle of the field will be missed. Tim Dobbins has played well in replacement, but suffered a shoulder injury after an interception return that makes his return uncertain.

Darryl Sharpton was expected to play alongside Cushing in 2012, but had a hard time coming back from a quad injury suffered last year. He had his first game against the Jaguars after coming off of IR and played well despite the rust. He played well before his injury, and Texans fans will be watching if he is the same player now. He will likely get the start on Thursday.”

What do you think are the strengths of this Texans team?

“Balance. If you look at the best teams in 2012, they are very balanced between offense and defense. In recent years, there's been a trend for teams to be dominant on one side of the ball and use that dominance to overpower opponents. (Typical examples: Patriots, Colts). This year, there's a number of good teams that are balanced: Texans, 49ers, Broncos, Seahawks, Packers. Teams that can win through both their offensive and defensive play.

Even within their offense and defense, they are balanced. They're run/pass playcalling is almost 50/50, and they can be very effective doing either one or both. The Texans defense is balanced as well, being good against both the run and the pass.

The Texans defense third down percentage numbers allowed is absurdly low. Currently the Texans defense leads the league in fewest a 3rd down percentage made at 26%. To put in context, the Bears and 49ers are 2nd and 3rd in that number respectively at 32%, 33%.

The Texans are also 1st in the NFL at Time of Possession (excluding OT) at 34:38. The defense has been doing a great job at forcing punts, and the Texans are usually good for a number of clock chewing offensive drives each game and at the end of games with a lead.”

What concerns Texans fans?

“Special Teams. This is the biggest concern by far. This unit has a number of new faces and new a kicker and punter who weren't the plan A's going into the season. Coverage units rarely worked all together in the preseason, and they did not appear to be a cohesive group going into the season. The unit has had some untimely penalties, and sometimes have created problems with the field position battle. They've looked better in recent weeks, and the hope is that with more time together, they won't lose the Texans games.

The right side of the offensive line. The Texans have been doing an unusual rotation on the right side of their line. Usually it has been fine, but in a couple of games it has led to some cringeworthy shots against Matt Schaub and difficult yards for Arian Foster.

Pass rush other than JJ Watt. Second year defensive linemen JJ Watt has been having an absurdly productive year. They move him up and down the line to give him good matchups, and he often takes advantage. The question for some is whether the other linemen/OLB can take advantage of situations where JJ Watt is being double teamed. Given the wild productivity of the Texans defense in 2012, that might be a quibbling concern.”

What do you think is the best way to beat the Texans?

“Stop the run and don't overpursue such that the best playaction/zone running team in the league kills you. Disguise coverages and bring infrequent, delayed blitzes to keep Matt Schaub from finding a rhythm. Bring quality pass rush with only four rushers and make sure Schaub makes few clean throws.”

What do you think the Texans gameplan will be against the Lions?

“The Texans focus mostly on what they like to do. On defense, stop the run, don't get beat by the deep play, take plenty of hard shots on the quarterback. Give extra attention to what the opponent does best, in this case, make it difficult to throw to Calvin Johnson.

On offense, see what the defense is giving you with the scripted plays at the beginning of the game, and then take advantage of defensive tendencies and matchups. Throw early in the game to amass a big lead and then run a lot late to chew clock.”

Who are some Texans players that Lions fans may not know who may have an impact on the game either in a negative or positive way?

“I've already mentioned the tight ends. Specific to the line, Ben Jones is a rookie who is rotationally playing right guard. He was a quality center in college, didn't play guard but started working on it during camp. He rotates with Antoine Caldwell, and both of them have had some up and down moments. Right tackle Ryan Harris rotates with Derek Newton, and Harris sometimes reports as an eligible receiver in red zone situations.

Those from Michigan may be familiar with rookie WR Keshawn Martin who went to Michigan State. He had his first touchdown last week, and had his best game as a returner last week. The Texans are slowly giving their inexperienced WRs more work, and if this game becomes a shootout, it is easy to hear other receiving target names being called other than just Andre Johnson because of how much Schaub distributes the ball.”


Three Cups Deep: Week 10, Lions at Vikings

>> 11.13.2012


Fire is mysterious. It burns, it sears, it destroys—and it heals. You know me to be a man of facts, of analysis, of numbers and science and truth. But I’m also a man of emotion, perception, and faith in ultimate justice. There are times when truth is inescapable, and times when it is ineffable. There are times to rely on intellect, and times to open up to what we don’t know.

After nine games the Lions are one game below .500, and the Lions fanbase is wounded. We watched the Vikings again grind out an improbable victory, again saw the offense flail ineffectively as the defense stood tall, and again saw huge Vikings touchdowns nullify a spectacular fourth-quarter offensive awakening.

Once again, the Lions fanbase is crying in pain, dazed and struggling for answers. Are the Lions a good team, playing below expectations and falling victim to circumstance? Are the Lions an overrated team, a castle built on sand, heading for another complete collapse? Are the Lions a young team, experiencing growing pains as they learn to win? Or are these manifestations of that poltergiest undisciplinedness; Mikel Leshoure’s offseason pot habit mischievously causing Stafford to throw a pick, Ponder to throw deep spirals, Megatron to fumble and Adrian Peterson to reel off 120 yards in the last 15 minutes?

There is an ancient art of healing called fire cupping, which if you saw the Karate Kid reboot you know what I’m talking about: a lick of flame in a glass jar pressed against skin, causing a partial vacuum that bursts capillaries and rushes life-giving blood to the patient’s afflicted body part. Science, it isn’t. But in this case a little mysticism, a little blue flame, is exactly what Lions fans need.

While the treatment might be ineffable, the disease is not. The Lions offense is, statistically, still among the best in the NFL. They’ve gained the third-most yards, scored the 13th-most points, are ranked 6th in overall offense by Pro Football Focus, fifth in Offensive Expected Points Added and ninth in Offensive Win Probability Added. But anyone watching sees a much less effective offense.

calvin_johnson_detroit_lions_fumbleThe Lions are ranked 20th in average yards-per-attempt, tied with the league average at 7.2 YpA. This is down from 12th (7.8 YpA) in 2011. The Lions are a little bit better when interceptions and touchdowns are factored in: They rank 15th in the NFL in Adjusted YpA, at 7.0--but they ranked 7th in the NFL last season with 7.8 AYpA. The most telling stat of all? Yards per Completion, where the Lions dropped from 14th (12.0 YpC) to 23rd (11.4 YpC). Nevertheless, the Lions lead the NFL in passing attempts, just as they did last season.

So: the Lions are throwing the ball much less farther down the field, and they’re doing it less effectively. For the first three quarters of nearly every game, Matthew Stafford is able to hit the broad side of a barn, but it seems like he’s only able to hit the broad side of a barn.

In prior games, Stafford’s problem has been his ineffectiveness on third down. The Lions were again dreadful on third down (1-of-9, 11%) against the Vikings, but that was because they were so often dreadful on first down, especially in the first half.

By my count, the Lions faced 35 first downs on Sunday, 17 in the first half. Of those, they rushed 9 times at 3.1 YpC (10 at 3.7 including a Stafford scramble), and passed 7 times at 6.71 YpA. In the first quarter, the Lions lined up for a first down, and were held to two yards or less five times. That’s just not good enough. Putting the offense in constant second-and-long and third-and-long situations is going to result in punts.

Punts kill defenses.

Through the first seven quarters the Lions faced the Vikings in 2012, the Lions allowed 153 rushing yards and no touchdowns from Adrian Peterson, and 312 passing yards and 1 touchdown from Christian Ponder. That’s 106 offensive plays, an average of 4.39 yards per play, and seven offensive points.

In the last quarter, the dam burst: the Lions allowed 120 yards and a touchdown to Adrian Peterson, plus a 20-yard touchdown pass to Christian Ponder. That’s 15 offensive plays, an average of 9.33 yards, and 18 offensive points.

The Lions are an offensive team. It is built to score 28-plus points every time it takes the field. This Lions defense is an aggressive defense, built to ravage teams playing catch-up. Asking them to completely deny Adrian Peterson any yards and the end zone for eight quarters is asking too much. Asking this defense to shut down the run and suffocate the pass for eight quarters is too much. Asking this defense to make up for a cornucopia of punts and turnovers committed by a 200-million-dollar offense is too much.

Stafford and the offense have to stop playing scared in the first quarter, and incandescently in the fourth. Stafford has to stop breaking down and rolling out and flushing away when he’s got the second-best pass protection in the NFL.

But what, you ask, is the good news? That the incandescent play of Stafford & Co. is still there. That the switch is still able to be flipped. That when push comes to shove, these coaches, these players, and these schemes can still rip other teams to shreds. As long as all the elements are in place, anything is possible—even making the playoffs.

Before you scoff, remember: the Lions have made the playoffs from unlikelier circumstances.


Three Cups Deep: Week 7, Lions at Chicago Bears

>> 10.23.2012


It was all but a must-win, and the Lions didn’t win.

This loss hurt. It hurt to see Calvin Johnson stone cold drop a sure long gainer. It hurt to see Matthew Stafford again struggle to make good reads quickly, struggle to stand tall in the pocket, and struggle to execute the offense efficiently. It hurt to see Mikel Leshoure and Joique Bell pound the vaunted Bears defense for five yards a carry and each lose a scoring-drive-killing fumble.

It hurt to see the Lions excel on special teams: block a field goal, allowing only 1 return of 4 to exceed five yards—and then have Stefan Logan lose yet another fumble.

It hurt to see the Lions defense kick the Bears' ass and lose.

The Lions are 2-4, two games below .500 and functionally three-and-a-half games behind the Bears. The sputtering offense is scoring just 22.2 points per game—and despite the defense allowing just 18 points per game, the six non-offensive touchdowns scored on the Lions are mean they have a –2.8 point per game scoring differential. They’re –5 in turnovers, ranked 25th in the NFL. That’s down from +11 last season, which was fourth-best.

So far, it’s been all but a Murphy’s Law season for the Lions: they have two semi-miracle comeback wins and three that fell just a bit short. They’re seemingly inches from being 4-3 or 5-2, yet they’re no further from 0-6. The offense seems like it’s this close to putting everything together, and yet if they haven’t by now when will they? The defense is playing out of its mind and getting better every week—but how long can that last?

Fortunately, it’s a short wait to this weekend, and a game against a team much like the Bears. The Lions will face a Seahawks team with just as vicious of a defense, just as strong of a running game, and with a quarterback even harder to pin down.

But it will be during the day, in the welcoming den of Ford Field, instead of at night in the Windy City. It won’t be in front of a primetime national audience. It won’t have any of the historic, bitter import. It won’t have any of the divisional implications. It’ll just be another football game—one the Lions, again, will have the talent to win.

But this time, it will be a must-win. There will be no “margin for error,” as Jim Schwartz said. The Lions, as ever in the Schwartz era, are victims of playing in the best division in football. Had they won this game they’d still be in the cellar, even at .500. This Sunday, the Lions offense has to execute. The Lions defense cannot take their foot off the gas. The Lions special teams cannot blow it again.

The Lions must win.


Monday Night Vengance: the Bears-Lions Rivalry Renewed

>> 10.22.2012


"They don't like us. We don't like them. That's how it is.”

--Dominic Raiola, Detroit Lions center, on the Chicago Bears

They don’t like us. We don’t like them. The Chicago Screwjob. Last season’s Monday Night triumph. The return blowout at Solider Field. Glorious wins, stinging defeats, bitter complaints, searing pain, delicious triumph.

Actual rivalry.

A “rivalry” can be any recurring matchup. Any two teams with history, any two teams in the same division, any two teams that have played each other before can be called “rivals.” But this rivalry is something different; this rivalry means more. This isn’t about Alex Karras or Dick Butkus or Gayle Sayers or Lem Barney or George Halas or Dutch Clark. This is, but isn’t just about soliders bearing the livery of Honolulu Blue and Silver and a Leaping Lion meeting soliders clad in Light Black and Grody Orange bearing the standard of that tweezers-C.

This is about two groups of men who hate each other.

This is something rare in professional sports. With its mercenary nature, massive salaries, players rarely have time to inspire true loyalty, or true contempt. With the genteel manner in which we demand the modern player behave, we rarely see two pro sports teams who truly want to kick each other’s ass.

Tonight, on Monday Night Football, the nation will see exactly that.

Of course, this means  something extra to the fans, too: we won a game ball for our support on the last Monday Night Football matchup between these two teams, and restored pride to our beleaguered franchise’s national reputation. Then, the Bears returned the favor, putting a serious wobble in the Lions’ playoff trajectory and dulling the roar of the “Lions Nation Army” for most of the rest of the season.

Here in Week 7, the season’s already at stake for the Lions: win, and they pull up to .500: within a half-game of the Packers, a game of the Bears, and a game-and-a-half of the Vikings. Lose and they’re down three full games to the 5-2 Bears, with the tiebreaker unlikely.

The situation's similar for the Bears: win and they're sitting atop the division, lose and they're a mortal 4-3 with a murderous second-half schedule lurking around the corner.

This will come down, as always with these two teams, to two factors: the quarterbacks, and the defensive lines. Whichever quarterback makes more plays and avoids the other’s defensive line wins.

The hour is late; the Lions are at the gate. The Bears stand ready to defend their fortress. The rivalry is about to be renewed.

We cannot tilt the battlefield in favor of our team. We cannot intimidate their players or bully the refs or short-circuit their communications or make them commit penalties in their terrified confusion; all we can do is watch.

Watch, and hope.

Watch, hope, and hate.


Bo Knows Low-Variance Football. So Does Jim.

>> 10.19.2012


Jim Schwartz, on why the Lions have scored more points in the fourth quarter than the first three in all of their games so far:

"We've had to in the fourth. We've been behind and that's put the pressure on us to have to do it. We're trying just as hard in the first quarter. Certainly no design or scheme or anything like that. We have to be efficient all four quarters and it can make a difference for us if we can get a lead and we can hold a lead. But we've got to battle for 60 minutes. You're judged just like a 16 game season, you're judged on all 16 games, you're judged on all 60 minutes. So no matter where you're scoring them they all count."

“We’ve had to in the fourth.”

Schwartz says it’s “no design or scheme or anything like that,” but the Lions’ close games are the result of obvious changes in approach on offense.

The biggest change from last season to this season is the way defenses are playing the Lions—and all of last season’s 5,000-yard passing offenses. The Saints, Patriots and Lions went 36-10 last season; through Week 6 of this season they’re 6-10. NFL defensive coordinators are paid way too much to let teams beat them with the same thing over and over—so they’re taking away the bombs-away offense and forcing these teams to adjust.

The Lions have adjusted by re-emphasizing the run game, drastically cutting back on hopeful shots downfield, and trying to emphasize intermediate routes. Linehan has also been doing a lot of “setting up” defenses with repetitive/predictable playcalls early in games, to subvert them later—or in the case of this play broken down by TuffLynx at Pride of Detroit, use repetitive/predictable playcalls in early games, to subvert them in later games.

By taking fewer risks and being less aggressive on offense, the Lions are pursuing a low-variance strategy.

This concept has been discussed all over the Internet, but it was synthesized best for me by Brian Cook at MGoBlog, in a piece called “Keep it Close and Lose in the Fourth Quarter," and its follow-up, "Mathy Mailbag." Read them both, plus all the links in both if you really want to grok this.

To summarize: low-variance strategies result in fewer possible outcomes. Two equally-matched teams both running more often than they pass and always punting on fourth down regardless of field position and never blitzing on defense won’t produce a 48-0 blowout in either direction.

This is, as discussed by Cook, Chris Brown, and Malcom Gladwell a “Goliath strategy.” When you’ve got a massive talent and skill advantage—as Goliath did over David—you want to eliminate the chance of anything crazy happening. Since the expected outcome is “you win,” you want to maximize the probability of getting the expected outcome.

As Cook notes, this is the strategy used by Bo Schembechler at Michigan: grind it out, play suffocating defense, take few risks, minimize mistakes, and use your massive size and talent advantage to consistently beat opponents with execution. Cook cited a passage from a book called Bo’s Lasting Lessons, wherein Bo, at a coaching clinic, veered dangerously close to schematic enlightenment before reaffirming his fevered belief in fundamentals and “playing Michigan football.” Cook:

This may have been brilliant in 1985, and brilliant against the poor, huddled masses that comprised Michigan's opponents at the time, but it's fundamentally a variance-hating strategy that presumes better talent. In it are the seeds of Michigan's time-honored failure against Rose Bowl foes, and its recent struggles to put away inferior competition.

It’s that old chestnut, attributed to darn near every midwestern football coach of historical note: “Only three things can happen when you pass the ball and two of them are bad.” Passing is a high-risk, high-variance strategy.

No NFL team passed more, or more often, than the Lions did in 2011.

This is why the Lions aren’t  doing it again in 2012: the Lions can assume a talent advantage over most NFL teams. They just beat the Eagles, one of the most talented teams in football, and Jeff McLane of the Philadelphia Inquirer wrote you could “see” the Lions were “physically dominant.” This is why the Lions passing twice as often as they run would be dumb, and playing things close to the vest is smart.


One of the side effects of playing for low variance by running the ball a lot, making ultra-conservative fourth-down calls and, I don’t know, refusing to try an onside kick when you’re kicking from the opponent’s forty-yard line is that you shorten the game. With more time running off the clock, there are fewer plays and possessions—fewer chances to press your advantage.

If you flip a coin that’s weighted to land on “heads” 60% of the time 10,000 times, it will land on heads 60% of those 10,000 flips. If you flip that same coin ten times, it’s much more likely to land on heads for some other percentage.

If you reduce the number of ‘trials’, you increase the chance for an unexpected outcome. That is to say, if the Lions have an advantage over their opponent, attempting to control the clock gives them fewer chances to leverage that advantage. Re-stated again: by playing to reduce risk, the Lions can’t blow people out like they used to. They’re also not going to get blown out, but that’s cold comfort when you’re starting 2-3 instead of 5-0.

As a consequence, the Lions are running into the same problem Lloyd Carr did: if you’re going to keep it close for four quarters, you actually have to execute significantly better than the other team. Bo's reliance superior talent and execution left him unarmed against opponents with equal talent. Carr's similar approach with less-superior talent against less-hapless Big Ten opponents guaranteed him at least one embarrassing upset a season.

The Lions let the Rams hang around when Stafford throwing three first-half interceptions, and it almost cost them. The Lions were on track to beat the Titans 27-20 and the Vikings 13-6 except, you know, two punt return touchdowns, two kickoff return touchdowns, and a fumble return touchdown. By playing it close to the vest, the Lions couldn't build up the kind of lead that can withstand these freak occurrences/horrible mistakes. They have to get touchdowns from their early scoring opportunities and not settle for field goals.

Still, throughout these games, the Lions’ advantage has become apparent in the final stanza: Mikel Leshoure and Joique Bell punishing bruised defenses, Matthew Stafford and Shaun Hill carving up beleaguered secondaries downfield, shellshocked quarterbacks running for their lives and throwing picks.

Over the course of the season, the weird bounces and fluky breaks will even out. Stafford quickly eliminated the terrible picks of the Rams game, and the coverage teams managed to go a whole game without allowing a single return touchdown. The Lions are taking the correct approach—but they’re going to have to improve their offensive execution, or continue dropping games to inferior opponents.


Three Cups Deep: Week 6, Lions at Eagles

>> 10.17.2012



It was neither easy nor pretty. It did not answer questions or inspire confidence. It was much, much, much, much more exciting than it needed to be. But the Detroit Lions went into The Linc with their season on the line and came out victors.

The defensive line won this game. PFF credits the Lions with 3 sacks, 10 QB Hits, and 15 QB Hurries.

Kyle Vanden Bosch had his best game in ages. Avril had two sacks, including one in overtime that essentially won the game. Suh and Fairley were stout inside, especially against the run; LeSean McCoy was held to a laughable 1.57 YpC on 14 attempts. Suh and Fairley also each had a batted pass; Suh’s likely preventing a game-winning TD for the Eagles. LoJack got two hits and two hurries in just 18 pass rush attempts.

The return of Louis Delmas had a big impact, though he gave back his interception with an Eagles touchdown off his blown assignment. Despite a mix of solid play and obvious rust in coverage, Delmas made a huge impact in the run game. He had 9 solo tackles (and 4 stops) with just 2 misses.

The Eagles have been a thorn in the Lions' paw as long as I can remember. Until Sunday, the Lions hadn't beaten the Eagles since 1986; I was five years old. Of course, there was the 1995 first-round playoff rout that ended the Lions' incredible seven-game win streak. Those Lions started 2-5, ran to 10-6, then ran a bunch of smack before facing the Eagles in the first round and were down 51-7 by the middle of the third quarter.

Somehow, the 2008 game was even worse: the Eagles beat the Lions 56-21, an even bigger margin of defeat than the 1995 debacling. I have never, ever felt more helpless watching a football game.

The Eagles offensive dominated the Lions front seven in a way I've never seen before or since. Shaun Rogers and Cory Redding were being driven five yards off the ball even when the Eagles were pass protecting. Brian Westbrook ran for 110 yards on just 14 carries (7.86 YpC!). Donovan McNabb completed 21-of-26 for 381 yards (14.65 YpA!!). Worst of all, receiver Kevin Curtis—who averaged 412 yards per season in his 8-year career—racked up 211 yards and 3 touchdowns on 11 catches.

Sunday, the script was flipped: the Lions dominated in the trenches, on both sides of the ball. The result was never going to be similar domination; 2012 Eagles have as much talent as any team in the NFL and the 2007 Lions would go 0-16 the next season. But the opportunities were there for this game to be a much bigger win.

The Philadelphia Inquirer's Jeff MacLane on the Eagles' performance against the Lions:

The same excuses were there following the game, but there didn’t seem to be as much passion behind the Eagles defensive line’s claims that they’re not getting sacks because opposing offenses are max protecting and quarterbacks are making quick throws.

The extra blockers and chip blockers were there on occasion, but Matthew Stafford was taking plenty of chances downfield. The line had its chances to pressure the Lions quarterback. It just didn’t get there. It was dominated by Detroit’s unspectacular, yet workmanlike, offensive line. The Lions’ defensive line, meanwhile, manhandled the Eagles’ o-line. You could see how they were physically superior...

...right guard Danny Watkins struggled against Suh and Nick Fairley. Both Lions crushed Vick after Watkins made very poor blocking attempts. In the first quarter, Suh penetrated and knocked the quarterback to the ground. In the third, Vick threw a short slant but was clobbered by Fairley after he released the ball. The Lions rushed only four but Watkins did little to impede the second-year defensive tackle’s path. The second-year guard wasn’t much better as a run blocker. In the fourth quarter, Fairley blew by Watkins and tackled McCoy for a four-yard loss.

So yeah. How about those other opportunities?

This offense is simply not in sync. Defenses are taking away the easy option—Calvin Johnson—and forcing Stafford to beat them with trickier, intermediate stuff. Titus Young hasn’t been reliably getting open—and, as we saw with that dropped bomb, isn’t as reliable as Johnson and Nate Burleson. Brandon Pettigrew, as a surehanded safety valve, has regressed. And even when everything’s working, Stafford has occasionally misfired like he never seemed to last season.

Stafford made some amazing throws on Sunday, but he also missed some easy stuff. That wouldn’t be an issue if it weren’t for the way his targets are failing him. PFF credits him with 42 “aimed” passes (not spikes or throwaways), and just 22 completions (52.4%). Stafford threw for 311 yards (6.91 raw YpA), a touchdown, and one armpunt of an INT—a case of Calvin stumbling trying to get from from airtight double-coverage, but still.

That throw, as I said on Twitter and in the Fireside Chat, is an example of why I've always railed against the "just throw it up to Calvin" offense that so many Lions fans push for: it simply doesn't win football games. It's great for fantasy owners, but it's awful for consistently scoring points against NFL defenses. Throwing a long ball up to a guy with a defender down both the front and rear of his pants is not a strategy, it's a prayer. There's a time for those, and it's not during a hard-fought, close-scored, crucial road game.

These kinds of throws are part of Stafford's football DNA. Check out Trae Thompson's outstanding SB Nation piece on Stafford, "The Making of a Quarterback." He's been beating teams with prayers like that since middle school.

The Lions need Stafford to have that confidence, that swagger. But it's one thing to read a defense, see weakness and know your guy's going to be able to make a play; it's another thing to read a defense, see they're trying to stop your guy at any cost, and lob it up there anyway because they're stopping everything else and you're out of ideas.

This is part of Stafford's maturation, part of his growth process, part of his evolution into a quarterback who can stand atop Mount Quarterbackmore with Brees and Brady and Manning and Elway and Montana and Unitas. He shouldn't have made that throw, and he should have found a way to get it into the end zone when he had three tries from no distance in the fourth quarter.

Flip those two outcomes, and this a somewhat comfortable win instead of another amazing comeback. Flip those two outcomes, and the story is how a bruising defense and punishing Lions running attack (128 yards on 28 carries! 4.23 YpC!) led the Lions to an inexorable, inevitable win borne of pure physical domination.

That's the challenge for Monday Night: eliminate that pick, make that touchdown happen.


Fireside Chat Week 6: Lions at Eagles

>> 10.14.2012

Video streaming by Ustream


Mad Ducks and Houses of Spears: Karras and Suh

>> 10.13.2012


US Presswire

The story of the NFL stretches back ninety-two years, to 1920. It has existed as long as the greatest lifetime of a man. The NFL’s most celebrated chronicler, Ed Sabol, is just four years its elder—and tragically, he has already outlived his equally celebrated son.

The history of the NFL is at at turning point: when Ed Sabol passes, the last person who can understand and share its entire story will be gone. Like baseball, the history of the NFL will have to be told through generations, kept and tended and groomed and passed down from parent to child; from scribe to scribe.

Earlier this week, Fredorrarci at The Classical wrote a fascinating piece about being a foreigner trying to understand baseball. This line struck a chord with me:

My principle sporting passion, soccer, seems to be in the process of shedding its memory, believing itself to be an invincible megabeing that sprung from nothing, fully mega, around 1992.

I have often complained about this phenomenon in the NFL, where anything that happened before Jerry Rice never happened. With every franchise relocation, with every schedule realignment, with every record broken our collective sporting consciousness distances itself further from its glorious past. History becomes legend, legend becomes myth, and things which should not be forgotten fall out of memory.

This week, Alex Karras passed away.

I knew him first as Webster’s dad, a wise and gentle giant with a quick wit and a big heart. I knew him second as ‘Alex Karras, Former Detroit Lion’ in sundry TV appearances, local commercials, and the like. I knew him third as Mongo in Blazing Saddles, and nary an internet scribe mourned Karras’s passing this week without quoting his immortal line. I knew him most recently as the ringleader of the Lions' rowdy band in George Plimpton's Paper Lion.

It is this amalgam of genial wiseacre, big-hearted big guy, and former jock who was anything but dumb that most of us deep in the football Internet streets will picture when we think of The Mad Duck.

It is a gravely incomplete picture.

"For me, Alex Karras will always be a pink giant with a towel wrapped around his waist. He will always have a scowl on his face, a cigar in one paw and a cold beer in the other."

--Bill Miller, New York Times Fifth Down

Karras was a fiercely competitive player, a relentless hater and destroyer of quarterbacks. Karras, as Greg Eno reminds us, once nearly killed his own quarterback, Milt Plum. Karras threw his helmet at Plum’s head after Plum cost the Lions a crucial win over the Packers with a late interception.

Karras moonlighted as a professional wrestler. He owned a bar—and not just any bar, a seedy joint with a sports betting ring with ties to the mob. After admitting he’d placed bets on the NFL, too, Karras was suspended for a year. During his suspension, he went back to pro wrestling and kept on doing his thing. When he got unsuspended, he went right back to humiliating quarterbacks, rookies, kickers and other “milk drinkers,” both on the field and off.

Karras is not in the Hall of Fame, despite his on-field dominance and off-field, well, fame. His flouting of law and authority kept him out of Canton, though I guess nobody told the San Jose Mercury-News.

NFL Films, with Steve Sabol at the helm, produced this feature on Alex Karras as one of the top ten players not in the Hall of Fame. Not only are there several hard-to-find-online clips of Karras’s game footage, but Gayle Sayers weighs in on whether Karras belongs in Canton:

“No. Alex Karras was a dirty football player.”

Watch the footage of the legendary Lions defensive tackle. See the athleticism. See the relentlessness. See him fly to the quarterback regardless of everything else. Hear the lamentations of his opponents about his dirty play. Consider the obvious intellect and humor, and the improbably spectacular array of headline-grabbing off-field exploits.

Sound familiar?

The day after Karras passed, Ndamukong Suh made headlines after being involved in yet another car accident—and, allegedly, another incident of losing his temper. Suh, I hardly need point out, is famously considered dirty. Famously competitive. Famous for losing a grip on his temper on and off the field.

Less famously, Suh is smart. He’ll discuss his vicious pursuit of quarterbacks with charm and loquaciousness. Talk to Suh for a few minutes, as I have, and you’ll feel he’s got a lot more to give the world than quarterback sacks.

Lions fans across the globe spent a lot of words, appropriately, praising good old Alex Karras this week. With Karras’s violent, vicious, dominant play a memory from another generation, and his post-sports career as lovable TV and film personality wore his famous rough edges smooth.

Lions fans across the globe also spent a lot of words dismissing Ndamukong Suh this week. They’re sick of his antics, sick of his temper, sick of dreading whatever his next crazy, embarrassing mistake will be.

I was sick of going 0-16.

It’s hard to think of pro athletes as human beings. But they are: real, complicated, multifaceted people with neuroses and complexes and contradictions and flaws and hopes and goals and favorites and family. They can be a vicious sonuvabitch on the field, and hug their mother off it. They can scream at people in traffic and donate millions to their alma mater. They can be a brilliant, generous, funloving guys and flip out when maybe your actions have consequences you’d rather not have to deal with.

Don’t let this incident be the last straw for you with Suh, or the Lions. He, and they, are young and talented and have the next few years to fulfill their potential. If, as I’ve implied, Suh could become the next Karras, get a head start now on accepting his flaws, so you can accept his many strengths.


Fireside Chat Bye Week Extravaganza

>> 10.07.2012


Breaking Down Harvin’s Return Touchdown

>> 10.02.2012

This is an excerpt of my weekly film breakdown of the week’s biggest plays over at Bleacher Report, for your edification and edumacation:

On a day when the Vikings managed only six offensive points, Percy Harvin’s runback of the game’s opening kickoff provided the margin of victory. The Lions took a brutal home division loss, mostly because of this play:

According to's Justin Rogers, Vikings head coach Leslie Frazier said it was a victory of Xs, Os and film study:

I remember in our first special teams kickoff return meeting we saw some things, and we pointed out that if everybody held their blocks, Percy's going to score. I mean, it was obvious. There are some things that we saw if we just held our blocks and our guys did it. They leveraged the football. They got where they needed to be and Percy did the rest.

Let's see if we can see what they saw.

Film breakdown of Percy Harvin's kickoff return touchdown against the Detroit Lions, in 2012 NFL Week 4.At the kickoff, we see nothing unusual. The Lions are lined up conventionally, and so are the Vikings. But by the time the Vikings finish retreating, some things take shape:

Film breakdown of Percy Harvin's kickoff return touchdown against the Detroit Lions, in 2012 NFL Week 4. Slide 2.Doug Hogue and Stefan Logan were set up as the second- and third-leftmost players, but by now Hogue's inside the hash mark and Logan's nearly so. The Vikings have paired up into their two two-man wedges (the most allowed by current NFL rules), but are also double-teaming Hogue.

Film breakdown of Percy Harvin's kickoff return touchdown against the Detroit Lions, in 2012 NFL Week 4. Slide 3.

The key here is No. 34, Keiland Williams. He was initially lined up five yards outside the left hash, but in order to avoid former Lions fullback Jerome Felton's block, Williams dances to the outside of the right hash. The Lions' fate, and Williams, is sealed by Felton.

Hogue can't beat the upfield double-team, and one wedge takes out No. 97, Ronnell Lewis. The other wedge splits up; one man seals Logan, while the other, Matt Asiata, splits off to block the widest Lion, Jonte Green:

breakdown_harvin_4This creates the lane Harvin eventually runs through, having sprinted on a steep angle from the far right corner. Incredibly, one Lion does his job and then some. Special teams captain John Wendling:


Wendling was lined up all the way to the right, but he shadowed Harvin's sprint to the left around all his blocked-off teammates. He has neither the angle nor the speed to make a play, though, and Harvin races off to the end zone untouched.

The Lions overcommitted to the right and didn't penetrate deep enough downfield to prevent Harvin from beating them far to the left. The Vikings knew exactly who they had to keep from making the play, and they made sure they had more than enough beef in place to block them.

That's the power of breaking down film.

For the Lions, this seems to be a coaching failure: the Lions have “obvious” flaws in their approach to covering kickoffs, and Vikings special teams coordinator Mike Priefer (yes, longtime Lions STC Chuck Priefer’s son) had no problem exploiting it.

However, note the big “if” in Frazier’s statement: “We pointed out that if everybody held their blocks, Percy's going to score.” The Vikings double-teamed the two guys with the size and speed to blow the run up: Doug Hogue and Ronnell Lewis. Keiland Williams is next biggest/fastest, and he got assigned the strongest single blocker, Jerome Felton. The Vikings knew nobody else would tackle Harvin, especially if he made sure to get away from Wendling.

What this means is that it's also a failure of execution: the three beefiest Lions couldn't overcome the stiff blocks, nor could any of the other Lions get free to make a play. In all three phases of the game, the Lions are coaching to execution; they expect the talented players to make plays. When they don't, it looks like bad coaching, as in here. The question is, can the Lions coaches scheme up good performances out of okay special-teams talent? Or should they try and upgrade the talent?

At this point in the season, the latter's almost impossible--which means, the former had better happen fast.


Three Cups Deep: Week 4, Lions vs. Vikings

>> 10.01.2012

d_logo_bw no really, Dichotomy Coffee & Spirits

Being a Lions fan is maddening. Your mind must exist in dichotomous states: perpetual amnesia, so you can forget the torrents of sorrow that have drowned you your entire life, and eternal remembrance, so you can always appreciate the now for at least not being then. You must constantly believe the future will be better than the past—or else, you could never keep being a Lions fan—but always be wary, because that future may not be this present.

If you throw yourself into believing that every coach, quarterback, first-round draft pick, and season are Salvation and Glorious Future Incarnate, you will have your heart torn out again and again and again. Every loss and failure will sting bitterly, and the days those coaches, quarterbacks, first-round draft picks, and seasons are finally declared failures you’ll feel like you wasted years of your life believing in them.

If you abandon hope, harden your heart, become one of the jeerers and booers and talk-show callers every failure becomes redemption, proof the bums and morons running things are being paid millions to muck it all up while any drunken idiot in the stands can see exactly what needs to be done.

But when those good days finally come—and bringing back a playoff team intact is as good as we’ve seen around here—you must have believed to be joyful. You must have invested yourself to reap the rewards.

Lions fans who bristled angrily at the team’s three straight season-ending losses spent six months waiting for the Lions to bring in a new Savior, a new franchise cornerstone around which to build. But none was coming, because the foundation had already been laid; indeed the walls were done and the roof just needed shingles and pretty much the team was what it was, which is a damned fine young strong playoff team.

Those same fans, and many others, are today lying dazed by the side of the road, scraped and battered from having fallen—or jumped—off the Lions’ bandwagon.

What Lions fans have is called cognitive dissonance. From Wikipedia:

Cognitive dissonance is the term used in modern psychology to describe the state of holding two or more conflicting cognitions (e.g., ideas, beliefs, values, emotional reactions) simultaneously. In a state of dissonance, people may sometimes feel surprise, dread, guilt, anger, or embarrassment. The theory of cognitive dissonance in social psychology proposes that people have a motivational drive to reduce dissonance by altering existing cognitions, adding new ones to create a consistent belief system, or alternatively by reducing the importance of any one of the dissonant elements.

Last season, Lions fans wailed and groaned and gnashed their teeth about the team’s inability to run and stop the run. All season long, the frustration boiled and rolled about the team’s constant struggle on second- and third-and-long, the team’s slow, predictable starts, and the apparent necessity of the high-powered offense to rely on the defense for momentum.

This hue and cry reached its peak during that fateful three-game stretch: obviously, the Lions could pass and score nearly at will—but just as obviously, opponents could pass and score completely at will. This was the state of the team as we remember it, and for eight long months we saw no evidence to the contrary.

Now, it seems, the Lions are able to ball with a modicum of effectiveness, especially on first and second down. Now, the Lions are much, much better at stopping the run. Now, every Lions fan is screaming for them to drop into shotgun and throw it fifty times a game because “it worked last year.” The problem is, it didn’t.

The Lions are better this year.

The “throw it fifty times” offense has been solved, league-wide; check the Packers’, Giants’, and Saints’ results so far if you don’t believe me. Defenses are dropping very deep in coverage and demanding offenses either find balance or be perfect. The Lions are not quite balanced, and not quite perfect, and the results are what they are.

But as I walked up the steps to the Ford Field concourse Sunday afternoon, I heard two fans loudly proclaiming the team “just wasn’t good” and “didn’t do anything well.”

"They played sweet defense," I said—which stopped them in their tracks, mouths agape.

It’s true: The Lions held a Minnesota Vikings team that had just beat the Invincible 49ers to just 238 total yards and just six offensive points. In fact, if you subtract the five non-defensive touchdowns, the defense has allowed just 79 points in four games; that’d slot them 11th between Atlanta (76) and Green Bay (81). But of course, it’s a lot easier to rage about how no Lion could bring Adrian Peterson down on first contact than it is to admit that nobody brings down Adrian Peterson on first contact.

It’s cognitive dissonance: contrary to all expectations, the Lions offense is not an unstoppable passing juggernaut, the defense is not wet tissue paper, and the Rams, Titans, and Vikings are not terrible. All Lions fans are feeling some combination of surprise, dread, guilt, anger, or embarrassment. That doesn’t mean the season is lost, or the pieces aren’t in place, or that heads need to roll.

Well, no, some heads need to roll: the heads of everyone responsible for the Lions' kick coverage.

The Lions would be 3-1 if it weren't for galactically, horribly, awfully terrible special teams play. Literally no team in NFL history has ever given up kick and punt returns for touchdowns in back-to-back weeks before. The Lions have allowed those four returns for touchdowns, the rest of the NFL has allowed just five.

Jim Schwartz says special teams coordinator Danny Crossman’s job is not in jeopardy, but it has to be. Vikings head coach Leslie Frazier said they saw on film that “If everybody held their blocks, Percy's going to score . . . I mean, it was obvious.” So Crossman isn’t putting the players in a position to be successful—and the execution, getting off the blocks, isn’t there either.

Finally, of course, there is the offense: It’s not firing on all cylinders. Stafford isn’t as clinical as he needs to be. His placement on downfield passes is sometimes amazing, sometimes iffy. It’s often iffy when it most needs to be amazing, and sometimes when it’s amazing his receivers betray him, and often when it’s iffy his receivers don’t bail him out (except Nate Burleson, who earns his keep at least once a game).

The Lions have an average, streaky offense with the potential to explode, and an above-average, consistent defense. The offense is grinding out mediocre performances in the space that defenses give them, and the defense is collapsing the space opposing offenses have to work with. The Lions’ offense and defense are both playing well enough to win more games than they lose—and we know the offense is playing about as poorly as it’s capable of. Give the season time to work its levelling magic on the flukes and drops bounces; remember 2010’s regression to the mean after a 2-10 start?

The Lions’ challenge as a team is to fix the special teams. Our challenge as a fan base is to reduce the dissonance between the level of the Lions’ performance in their first four games and the final scores of those games by altering our existing cognitions—or go mad.


No Live Fireside Chat tonight

>> 9.30.2012

Sorry folks—my computer and DSL router simply will not communicate tonight. Not a problem with Google+ at all; can’t even get the darn thing on the Internet. Will try to reschedule soon.


Fireside Chat Week 3: Lions at Titans

>> 9.27.2012

Belatedly, here's the Fireside Chat from the Titans loss. Also, efforting to resolve my iTunes problems!

ANNOUNCEMENT: THIS WAS THE LAST WEEK THE FIRESIDE CHAT WAS TO BE HOSTED ON USTREAM. From now on, the Fireside Chat will be a Google+ Hangout. The Lions in Winter's Google+ page is here, and best you keep an eye on it, because there's more stuff coming.


Three Cups Deep: Week 3, at Tennessee Titans

>> 9.24.2012


Coffee, by Martin Gommel

McDonald's has espresso now.

They've had it for a few years now, in fact. They’ve quickly been renovating all the zillions of McDonald’s restaurants across the globe. Gone is the dramatic, quasi-art-deco Yesterday’s-Diner-of-the-Future-Today chic of the original restaurant, gone is the sometimes-drab, sometimes-garish look of the utilitarian huts of the Eighties and Nineties; now we have “McCafe.”

The one closest to my house sports breathtakingly detailed blue-and-black tilework, hardwood floors, and an enclosed bubbling “waterfall” backlit by color-changing neon. The “chairs” to some tables are rolling upholstered cubes that seemed to have rolled off an Ikea showfloor. The food is as it always was. I have no idea what to do with this edifice.

Now, when I go through the drive-through for a morning breakfast fix, my nostrils get an arresting double shot of ground, roasted espresso beans: a knee-buckling aroma that renders me oblivious to everything but wanting coffee.

If McDonald’s put their robot-barista where you order instead of where you receive McGriddles, they’d be rich.

So Three Cups Deep returns after a hiatus. I’m not lying when I tell you I’ve started each of the last few 3CDs only to be unable to finish them due to real life commitments, or caught waiting for the new Coaches’ Film to be released, or simply beaten to the punch by all the wonderful Lions bloggers out there making the same point I wanted to make.

But the coffee’s in the air, and we need to talk about some things.

Abandoning the running game is bad.

It just is. As hard as it is for an NFL offense to consistently get the better of NFL defenses for four quarters, let alone sixteen games, it’s so much harder when you tell the defense what you’re going to do. The Lions lined up in the shotgun 68% of the time in 2011, and passed on 62.9% of all plays.

The Lions have an offensive “identity,” they are built around Matthew Stafford and his arsenal of targets. The offensive line is a pass-blocking offensive line. The Lions have invested heavily in talented running backs who can flourish without dominating run-blocking. They might well be described as a pass-to-run team.

However, defenses know the Lions struggled to run the ball last season, struggle to sustain drives, and can be beaten by taking away the deep pass. This season are dropping their secondaries very, very, very deep and daring the Lions to beat them with runs and short passes.

In order to remain effective, the Lions have to beat them with runs and short passes.

For years, the Texans tried to force-feed Andre Johnson with 20 targets a game. They didn’t win much. When they finally got a consistent running back, a reliable tight end, and some decent No. 2 and No.3 receiving options, the offense exploded. Also, I should not need to remind any TLiW readers about the “Randy Ratio.”

Being predictable does not work in the NFL, not unless the execution is absolutely perfect. Matthew Stafford, for whatever reason, has not only been not-perfect, his first two games looked very suspiciously only “pretty good.” On Sunday, Stafford was outstanding: 33-of-42 (78.6%) for 278 yards (6.62 YpA) and a touchdown. He completed passes, he overcame drops, he protected the ball. Brandon Pettigrew didn’t, and that’s unfortunate, but none of that is why the Lions lost.

The Lions lost because they allowed two special teams return touchdowns, two of an NFL record five touchdowns of 60-plus yards.

Let's be very clear about this: without those two return scores, the Lions win this game. They also allowed the bizarre Pettigrew strip-return for six, and beaten by the weird over-the-top-of-Jacob-Lacey-who-turned-the-wrong-way score. Just like against St. Louis, the Lions dominated the down-to-down ball movement: With all the freaky long scores, the Lions still outgained the Titans 583-437. just like against St. Louis they couldn't make the scoreboard reflect it until the closing seconds.

Just like against San Francisco, the Lions' coaches brought the right game plan, and the Lions' players executed it almost well enough to win. But not quite. Not quite.


Lions - 49ers Halftime Show Fireside Chat

>> 9.16.2012

Join us for the second-ever Fireside Chat Halftime Show! We'll be broadcasting live as soon as the teams hit the tunnel. Same Lions time, same Lions channel:


Fireside Chat Week 1: Detroit Lions vs St. Louis Rams

>> 9.09.2012


The Watchtower: Lions vs. Rams

>> 9.07.2012



The Lions host the St. Louis Rams on Sunday, and all the months of half-informed, befuddled claptrap about the Lions “regressing” or “taking a step back” or having “discipline problems” or whatever will but up against the hard reality of the Detroit Lions taking the field and playing honest-to-God competitive football.

The baseless “regression” hogwash that floated throughout the diaspora has been logically debunked, most spectacularly by Nate Washuta of Holy Schwartz! and Jeremy Reisman at Detroit OnLion. Now, the Lions have a chance to physically debunk it, by playing four quarters of great football against a team that’s served as a benchmark for Jim Schwartz’s Lions twice before.

It was against the Rams that the Lions suffered the most obnoxious defeat of the 2009 campaign: the Rams’ 17-10 win at Ford Field was their only win of the season, the only “W” standing in between them and repeating the Lions’ 2008 feat.

It was against the Rams that the Lions enjoyed their most emphatic win of the 2010 season: a 44-6 romp that not only answered the question of which team’s turnaround was further along, but served as a desperately-needed release for apoplectic Lions fans; it was a laugher in every sense of the word.

Now, somehow, the stakes are exactly the same: a loss to the lowly Rams would be again be a gut-punch, a convincing win all the proof we need that everything is going to be alright.

Scott Linehan vs. Jeff Fisher

MIN 6th 25.3 7.16 4.71 TEN 30th 27.4 7.27 4.55 20 -21% 6.10 -15% 5.63 20%
MIA 16th 19.9 5.94 3.69 TEN 29th 26.3 6.84 4.22 24 21% 5.03 -15% 5.05 37%

Scott Linehan has faced off against Jeff Fisher twice before: in 2005, as the offensive coordinator of the Dolphins under Nick Saban, and the season before, as architect of the Vikings offense. The ‘04 Vikings were a powerful unit, ranked 6th in the NFL in scoring. They averaged 7.16 yards per pass attempt, and 4.71 yards per carry on the ground—both figures second-best in the NFL.

The Titans were not, as they say, in their glory in these days. In 2004, the Titans were ranked 30th (3rd-worst) in the NFL in scoring defense. They allowed an average of 27.4  points per game, 7.27 yards per pass attempt and 4.55 yards per carry.

Surprisingly, Linehan’s Vikings only scored 20 points against the Titans that day, 21% below their season average. They also held the Vikings to 6.1 YpA, 15% below their season average. The Vikings, however, ran at will: 5.63 YpC, a 20% boost above their already-stout 4.71 season average. Further, it didn’t really matter: the Titans’ offense could only muster a lousy three points; the Vikings didn’t have to put up pinball numbers to win comfortably.

In 2005, the Titans at least managed an offensive touchdown: Billy Volek hit Drew Bennett for a 55-yard score in the fourth quarter. But 10 points couldn’t match the Dolphins’ 24. Linehan’s Dolphins scored 21% more points than their season average against Fisher’s Titans, and again ran wild: 5.05 YpC, a 37% boost over their 2005 norm.

Interestingly, the YpA depression was exactly the same as in 2004: 15%. So we have two contests between these two coaches, with two different teams running the same offensive system against the same defensive system. In both cases, there was a major talent gap: the 2004 and 2005 Titans defenses were terrible overall, the 2005 Dolphins were average, and the 2004 Vikings were excellent.

We have only two games to work with, and the scoring differentials weren’t consistent. But the passing depression was exactly 15% both times, and the running boost was significant both times. I'm willing to declare: when facing Jeff Fisher/Jim Schwartz defenses of poor quality, Scott Linehan offenses tend to pass less effectively, and run much more effectively, than their season averages.

Brian Schottenheimer vs. Gunther Cunningham

Shot Ornk PgG YpA YpC Gun Drnk PpG DYpA DYpC PTS PTSΔ YpA YpAΔ YpC YpCΔ
NYJ 12th 23 6 4.8 DET 19th 23.1 6.75 4.51 24 6% 8.62 45% 3.67 -24%

The last time the Lions faced Brian Schottenheimer, I went on one of my most ridiculous flights of if-then fancy. Not only did I play telephone with Schottenheimer’s mentors and influences, going all the way back to Sid Gillman, I went to ridiculous lengths to construct a narrative from the data I cobbled together. The result? Durr Sharks.

From that original Watchtower, I pointed out:

If there were no systemic advantage or disavantage, the expectation for the Jets’ offense against the Lions’ defense would be 24-27 points.

The Jets needed an overtime field goal to get there, but 24 points is exactly what they scored. That field goal pushed the points delta from –7% to +6%,  to go with a whopping 45% increase in YpA. The Lions, surprisingly, held up very well against the Jets’ bruising running attack, holding them to just 3.67 YpA (-27%) . . . fat lot of good it did them.

That the Jets had the 12th-best offense, and the Lions the 19th-best defense, and they did such a fantastic job of holding down such a powerful running attack (very much unlike the rest of the season). The Jets met scoring expectations, but only because they dragged it out into overtime. Their YpA was extraordinarily high; I’d be surprised if Mark Sanchez equalled that mark in any other game. Of course, he was helped tremendously by two 74- and 52-yard bombs;  subtract those two throws and Schottenheimer’s Jets only netted 5.68 yards per attempt.

The bottom line here is that it seems as though there may be a mild systemic advantage for Jim Schwartz defenses against Brian Schottenheimer offenses, especially against the run. However, I got burned really badly when speculating on Schottenheimer before, and now we’re dealing with a completely different team.


I’m not doing mitigating/augmenting influences this time; we have no strong statistical trends and no data from this season to work with, either. This might also be the most incestuous game I’ve ever Watchtowered, too: Schwartz, of course, coached under Fisher in Tennessee for years, and Gunther Cunningham worked with Brian Schottenheimer (and his father) in Kansas City.

All of these coaches know each other (and each other’s schemes) very well; there’s going to be a lot of chess-matchery going down. But in this battle of student and master—or, should I say, mentor and Grandmaster—the student is playing with quite a few more pieces.

The Rams have two strong running backs and a great pass-rushing defensive line. They also have a young quarterback who’s still more potential than reality, and a bevy of talented new faces in the secondary. They don’t have any real receivers, or an offensive line worth mentioning.

The injuries to the Lions’ secondary make me wonder if this will be a shootout, but I can’t believe the Rams’ offense will be consistent enough to string several scoring drives together. Based on last year’s Lions offensive output and pass rush, plus the Rams’ profound awfulness and in-progress recovery therefrom, I see the most likely outcome as a 32-17 Lions win. As a corrolary, watch to see if the Lions’ systemic advantage in running the ball, and disadvantage passing the ball comes into play.

I can't pretend this is a mathematically derived anything, and so have very low confidence in this projection. AFTER this game, we’ll have a pretty clear idea on whether or not Gunther really does have the drop on his homeboy’s kid, and whether the student truly has become the Grandmaster. Going into it, I’m going with my gut.


Week 1 Preview: Q&A with WIll from


To help break down the regular season opener, I traded Qs and As with Will Horton of, whose site got a killer makeover today.  RamsHerd combines smart Rams opinions with deep-dive analysis and snappy charting, much the same as we endeavor to here at TLiW. But, you know, with Lions.

Will, who is an excellent follow on Twitter @RamsHerd, sent me five well-researched questions and I attempted to do the same. Here’s how he replied:

The first question Lions fans are going to want to answered: How is Sam Bradford adapting to Brian Schottenheimer's offense? Schottenheimer took a lot of heat from Jets fans over the years, and this season must be considered the make-or-break for Bradford's development as a franchise quarterback?

The adaptation for Bradford seems to be going well, in terms of his understanding Brian Schottenheimer’s playbook (which is akin to Pat Shurmur’s, but a little more diverse) and being able to direct traffic. Most importantly, the ball is coming out of his hand much quicker than it was under McDaniels. Whether it’s route simplicity or more decisiveness on his part, he looks much closer to his rookie year form than his 2011 “deer in the headlights” form.

I still have concerns about his mechanics, especially his footwork and his ability/willingness to slide in the pocket to avoid pass rush, rather than simply bailing out or tucking in. He showed progress this summer, but a strong pass rush like the one the Cowboys put on him in game 3 of the preseason made him revert to last year’s bad habits.

As far as this being a “make or break” season, I think Bradford needs to have a good year, but it’s still too soon to expect greatness. Give him two years in the same offense and continue to upgrade his weaponry, and I still believe he can be a top-ten quarterback in this league.

For that matter, can Steve Smith, Danny Amendola and the rest of the Rams' receivers test the Lions' beleaguered secondary? With Chris Houston and Louis Delmas looking very unlikely to play, can the stoppable force move the movable object?

Bradford has been targeting outside receivers more often in Schottenheimer’s offense than he did under Shurmur, but the real wildcard will be TE Lance Kendricks. He plays the invaluable Dustin Keller role in this offense, and has looked very good at times. His hands run hot and cold, which is a big concern, but Bradford still looks comfortable throwing to him, particularly on third downs.

We have seen a decent amount of intermediate targets and a handful of deep throws in the offense so far, which is potentially good. But unless the offensive line picks up the Lions’ pass rush, though, Sam won’t have much time to hang in and stretch the secondary.

Chris Long had a breakout performance rushing the passer in 2011, and was rewarded with a lavish four-year extension. How will his ever-changing role change for 2012, and how hard will the Rams' pass rush be for the Lions to contain?

To use a Detroit metaphor, Chris Long’s best attribute is that he has plenty of horses under the hood. He is relentless on the pass rush, and is making a more focused effort against the run as well. He should have a strong year. But Robert Quinn is the pass rusher you have to fear. His speed to the passer is breathtaking, and he has a knack for finding the ball. However, with Michael Brockers out, Quinn will face more double-teams. Long has the better running partner this week in Kendall Langford, but long-term Quinn will be the guy that takes the big step forward this year.

You posed this one to me, let me turn it back on you: "This will be an interesting matchup of coaches, with the pupil taking on the master. How will Jeff Fisher gameplan against a team that might be his strategic mirror image?"

If I’m Jeff Fisher on offense, I try to take advantage of Ndamukong Suh’s over-aggressiveness with a lot of inside running plays, redirecting him out of a lane and sending a back through there. If we consistently get a back into the second level, that has the dual effect of putting your D back on its heels and saving Bradford from a lot of early wear and tear. Plus it makes Sam’s play-action (which is very good) a more potent weapon.

On defense, I don’t think you have to do anything special to contain the Lions’ running game. I roll the dice with Janoris Jenkins or Cortland Finnegan singled up on Calvin Johnson, and roll a safety over to help. However, given our woeful situation at safety, it’s really going to be up to the corners and the pass rush to keep Megatron from blasting huge holes in the defense.

Even if it doesn’t pay off, Fisher is looking to establish a blueprint based on strong individual cornerback play and this game gives him a great stress test.

The Rams' defense has a lot of new faces--including Cortland Finnegan, whom Lions fans coveted from the instant Schwartz was hired. Which one will have the biggest impact against the Lions?

Finnegan’s impact and leadership has already been huge in restoring a swagger to a decrepit Rams secondary. But the key difference-maker is Janoris Jenkins, who has as much pure playmaking ability as any rookie I’ve seen in a Rams uniform since Torry Holt. I’m really excited to see how he performs, especially since opponents will likely be targeting him like mad. If he plays up to the potential he flashed in camp, he has a very real shot at running away with the DROY award.

I’ve often cited the Rams and Bucs as comparison cases for the Lions: all three franchises hired new coaches in 2009, all three franchises rebuilt around a first-round quarterback, and all three had some measure of early success. But while the Lions were slower to get to a winning record, both the Bucs and the Rams crashed out, and find themselves at something like square one this season.

The Rams’ rebirth and re-death was stunning: they went from a 1-15 team to a 7-9 team and back down to 2-14, all with the eminently qualified Steve Spagnuolo (“Candidate 1A”) at the helm. The collapse also occurred with Bradford, the quarterback people said the Lions should pass on Matthew Stafford and tank the 2009 season to get, under center.

With Tampa Bay, Raheem Morris’s turnaround job always felt like smoke and mirrors. His resumé was laughably thin, his demeanor and approach unconventional. Many refused to believe that Morris was getting it done with anything other than smoke and mirrors—and in 2011 his detractors seemed to be proven right.

None of the strongest bounceback indicators are there; with the Rams’ –13.4 points-per-game scoring differential, Pythagoras expected them to go 2.3-13.7. But despite a lot of roster turnover on the defense and in the WR corps, the identity is the same: Sam Bradford and Steven Jackson, Chris Long anchoring a strong defensive line.

I can’t help but feel like that 7-9 team just needed a quick dusting-off before the playoff-bubble teams from two seasons ago would shine through.

If I’m right, we’ll find out quickly.


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