Lions at Ravens Preview: a Finally, a Real Fake Game

>> 8.17.2012


My apologies to the Cleveland Browns, but even by Great Lakes Classic standards last week was a snoozer: little anticipation, little of the stars doing their thing, little to get excited about. What little of Stafford & Co. we got to see was uninspiring. The promising rushing improvements came mostly with backups, mostly against backups, and the two units most in question (offensive line, back seven) failed to answer any questions.

This second game presents the first real test: the vaunted Baltimore Ravens defense, a hostile crowd, an offense actually capable of scoring points, more reps for the starters and less Kellen Moore/Seneca Wallace.

Also, as John Kreger of Tweeted, the Lions are gameplanning more for the Ravens; Baltimore is Schwartz's home and he'll want to put up a "good show."

A “good show” will consist of:

  • Matthew Stafford looking sharp, and being on the same page with his receivers.
  • More consistent pass protection from Jeff Backus; continued solid run blocking from the interior line.
  • Titus Young making an impact.
  • Kevin Smith, Keiland Williams and Joique Bell running with a high success rate; don't need home runs as much as solid gains on 1st-and-long and 3rd-and-short.
  • At least one touchdown by the starting offense against the starting Ravens defense.
  • The interior pass rush making an impact.
  • Continued success by the exterior pass rush.
  • A MUCH improved showing by the linebackers in coverage.
  • Bill Bentley and Jacob Lacey keeping Anquan Boldin out of the end zone and Torrey Smith from hauling in a 30-plus-yard reception.
  • A MUCH improved showing by the safties, in coverage and in tackling.

Okay, maybe asking for all that is too much. So I'll just ask for this:

Please, Lions, take this one seriously. Play like you want to play. Play like you want to play well. Play like you want to win.

Jim Schwartz told Dave Birkett of the Freep the same thing:

"Hopefully we play a lot better," he said Wednesday. "We need to play a lot better. We need to play with a little more sense of urgency."

It's not that I want the Lions to pull out the schematic stops, or run the starters all the way to halftime. To the contrary: I want to keep the best stuff under wraps and the starters injury-free. But I want the guys that are fighting for starting—or roster—spots to fight. I want the guys who think they’ve got a role locked up to show us why. I want the Lions to make the most of every rep they get.

That's what the Patriots' “Next Man Up” philosophy has always been about: no matter what letters are arranged on the back of any Patriot’s jersey, that player is supposed to do his job just like the man before him did. Let us not forget who our own Baltimorian, the Grandmaster himself, studied under: Patriot head coach Bill Belichick.

Last week, the Lions mostly looked to be sleepwalking, waiting for their proven awesomeness to win out over an opponent who wanted desperately to prove that they can play. The reality is, these 2012 Lions haven’t proven anything. If they want to wear getting whooped in last year’s Wild Card game like a badge of honor, they’re in deep trouble.

Tonight, I want to see two playoff teams smack each other in the mouth for four quarters, regardless of whether it's the first-stringers or the fourth-stringers on the field.


Three Cups Deep: Preseason Wk. 1, Cleveland Browns

>> 8.14.2012

great-lakes-classic-trophy-winner-of-browns-vs-lions-preseason-game. . . and once again, there was Lions football.

The Lions faced off against the Browns on Friday. Ford Field was packed to the brim with season ticket holders on family vacation, such as myself. Nevertheless, those who were there made plenty of noise in close junctures—of which there were many, because neither offense did much against either defense.

For all the horribleness of the Cleveland Browns in general, their defense was in fact outstanding last season: they had the fifth-best scoring defense in the NFL. When you consider that defense was paired with a 30th-ranked (i.e., second-worst) offense, it’s even more impressive. It shouldn’t be too surprising, then, that a cagey don’t-show-too-much-or-risk-too-much effort from Stafford & Co. didn’t result in much scoring.

It also shouldn't be a surprise that the defensive line hassled Brandon Weeden something fierce. It shouldn’t be a surprise that without Trent Richardson, the Browns couldn’t run the ball well. Unfortunately, it also shouldn’t be a surprise that once the backup secondary and linebackers were in, discipline in zone coverage and screens was severely lacking.

Seneca Wallace’s ability to extend plays resulted in frequent breakdowns, allowing the Browns to move the ball much more effectively in the second half. That, combined with Kellen Moore’s inability to find and deliver the ball to a downfield receiver, denied the Lions their eighth straight preseason victory.

It wasn’t good enough, was it?

As we know from 2008, thrilling fourth-quarter preseason comebacks usually mean the losing team didn’t care enough; so it seemed with the Lions. Matthew Stafford, about whom the press has been flat-out gushing all offseason long, threw an ugly ball off his back foot as he fell away from pressure that wasn’t so much there; Brandon Pettigrew ran the wrong route and the ball was picked off.

The players with something to prove took it seriously, and made an impact: Willie Young looked incredible, Bill Bentley had a pick (and should have had another), Keiland Williams continued his excellent camp form and Joique Bell showed why he’s been a camp sensation wherever he’s camped.

But some of those who had nothing to prove played like it; it looked like the offense was both executionally and playcallingly mailing it in. Against the stiffer-than-you might think Browns defense, the results were disappointing, especially from the passing game. However, the running game showed up for all four quarters. Kevin Smith opened the game with a nine-yard carry; by the end of the day Smith, Williams, Bell and Stefan Logan combined for 198 yards on 33 carries (exactly 6.0 YpC).

Special note has to be made of the offensive line here: the right side of the line, especially Gosder Cherilus, looked excellent, and the extra weight Rob Sims has chosen to carry shows in his ability to hold his ground at the point of attack. There was daylight for the backs, inside and outside, when it was mostly-starters against mostly-starters; that daylight waxed and waned as players subbed in and out on both sides, but on the whole it was a marked improvement from 2011.

The caveat to this is the play of Jeff Backus. Backus injured his thumb in camp; I have no idea to what extent that limited him on Friday but he didn’t look like himself. He was inconsistent against the run and the pass—sometimes he looked solid, others overwhelmed. He gave up the inside rush on the Stafford interception; the DE simply went to his inside shoulder and he wasn’t prepared. Backus tried everything once he was beaten, but he was beaten too easily.

The other concern is the second- and third-string back seven’s defense against screens and broken plays. This was an old Achilles heel of pre-Schwartz Lions defenses, but I thought this system was inherently stouter against such things. The lack of discipline in the second half was both obvious and lethal. Colt McCoy and Seneca Wallace simply did too much damage, even considering they were doing it against backups.

So the Edmund Fitzgerald Trophy returns to the shores of Lake Erie for a year; in the long run that doesn’t matter. Here’s what does matter: 1) as a gestalt, the running game is improved, 2) as a gestalt, the back seven still struggles to make stops, 3) Jeff Backus is not his usual self.


Three Cups Deep . . .

>> 8.13.2012

. . . later today.


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