Tuesday, September 25, 2012

Two Days Late "Live" Blog: Lions at Titans

Alright, let's get this out of the way...

First Quarter
14:50 - Pettigrew drop #1.

11:43 - Great first drive (five passes, three runs) killed by third down failure. Pettigrew and Burleson's routes practically collide, and the linebacker covering Pettigrew out-physicals him (maybe gets away with a hold), giving Stafford no room to pass.

8:52 - Oh, Stephen Tulloch, when will you learn how to fall on a fumble?

6:50 - Two inaccurate passes by Stafford on 2nd and 3rd down stall this drive, not the running game. 3 rushes for 15 yards, two passes for four yards.

6:00 - No idea what went wrong on this 32 yard pass for the Titans. Lions playing a soft zone. Either Tulloch didn't drop far enough back, or Bentley or Coleman dropped too far. Ugly.

4:12 - "Maybe his first big run of the year...that's ten yards!" Hilarious. Terrible job by linebackers. Just check out Levy.

Chris Johnson is directly behind him. That is, Levy is facing the wrong way with Johnson DIRECTLY BEHIND HIM.

2:45 - Tully with a great read, fires into the backfield, gets held and STILL slows down Johnson enough for no-gain.

2:08 - Holy crap! An effective blitz! Probably the first time all season the Lions managed to get an unblocked blitzer. And what do you know, it caused a 3rd down stop.

0:49 - Still very confused at people who were insistent that Calvin caught this ball. He did not. Yes he got both feet in, but ball CLEARLY comes out when he hits the ground.

Hard to see on a screen grab, but that ball isn't in his hands and hits the ground. No controversy here.

Drive summary: 2 rushes, 5 yards; 1 pass, 0 yards.

0:33 - I have nothing to say about the Music City Miracle play.

Second Quarter
14:45 - Stafford did not sell that screen at all, too obvious, and Logan continues to be a liability on offense. Don't understand why he's ever used.

13:00 - Epic. Epic safety failure. Lions in cover-2, Locker trying to split the two deep safeties. Coleman was in good position, but failed to knock the ball away or make a tackle. One ugly, Spievey whiff later, touchdown.

12:52 - Very effective play-action resulting in 10 yards on first down.

11:00 - Pettigrew with a 3rd down catch in traffic. Goooood, Pettigrew.

10:00 - Big hole for Leshore. Good...run...blocking?

7:00 - Incredibly frustrating drive. Moved so effectively down the field, had 2nd and 3 from Titans 15. Followed it up with an ineffective bubble screen, then a failed assignment on running play. Peterman went straight to the second level, letting a guy through that Cherilus couldn't get to in time. That guy made the tackle. Cherilus was pissed.

FOX decides it's more important to show Jake Locker running down the field at this point, rather than the Titans' big stop on third down. I am not amused.

5:49 - Chris Houston with a great stop on third down. Caused a disruption on the catch AND made the tackle. Safeties, take notice.

4:15 - Leshoure is a first down machine. According to Football Outsiders, he had eight first downs on the ground and two through the air.

2:55 - Scott Linehan came under fire a lot for this game, and on this third down play, he deserved it. The defensive end did not bite on the inside draw and was there to blow up the outside pitch. Leshoure had been dominating up the middle. No reason to be cute here. Credit to Leshoure for almost picking up the first anyway. 4th and 2 from Titans 45 yard line. Debatable go-for-it territory.

1:44 - BILL BENTLEY WITH A HUGE HIT!!! on jacob lacey...

1:04 - Tulloch and Lacey with terrible angles on the Locker scramble. Clearly underestimated Locker's speed.

Third Quarter:
13:45 - For all the crap that the defensive line took this game, they sure clogged the middle of the line all day. It's when Johnson bounced it outside that they had problems.

13:24 - Hey guys, I found it! Good coverage by a safety!

12:20 - Two good defensive plays on 1st and 2nd down, followed by an offsides and a three-yard pass that allowed the tight end to walk his way to a first down. Pattern...developing...

9:30 - Announcing tip: When calling a field goal good, it's imperative that you actually watch the ball go through the uprights first.

9:25 - Pettigrew drop #2. Baaaad Pettigrew.

6:36 - I wish offense was this easy all the time. Lions took less than three minutes to drive 69 yards.

5:17 - Absolutely inexcusable third down defense. Lions only using three lineman, so they are depending on good coverage. Problem is, the players in zone in the middle of the field inexplicably drop too far beyond the first down sticks. Just look at all the space the tight end has for an easy first down.

4:39 - Levy missed tackle. Drink.

0:29 - Calvin Johnson draws a couple defenders, Burleson wide open. I'm starting to feel...better.

Fourth Quarter
14:30 - Holding call on Cherilus. Debatable. It wasn't for long, but it was pretty effective. I think that normally gets ignored. Absolutely killer in the red zone.

14:00 - I hate this play. Stafford doesn't sell it again, and everyone sees the pass to Burleson coming.

12:44 - Titus Young with his best Dan Orlovsky impression. White field means baaaaad. More frustration as the Lions mistakes continue to mount, costing them four points here.

6:53 - Lions touchdown drive: 9 plays. 6 rushes, 3 passes....perhaps I'm being too subtle.


Better? Side note: Calvin Johnson with no touches on that drive.

6:41 - I have nothing to say about the kickoff return other than Logan left his lane, and Jonte Green manages to annoy me even when he only plays four plays a game.

5:59 - Terrible call on the Pettigrew hold. Once again, devastating. Also, once again, there's no replay. FOX did an awful job today.

4:09 - Cherilus and Peterman again not on the same page and yelling at each other. Offensive line chemistry is important, and those two clearly don't have it.

3:13 - *PROJECTILE VOMIT EVERYWHERE*  Where do I start with this play? Jacob Lacey is in position to make a play, but fails to put a hand up, make a tackle or do anything that resembles football. Wendling decides to take a terrible angle and has no interest in making a tackle, so he pretends to make an effort by swatting at the air for some reason. But, hey, at least we have one of the best secondaries in the league...

Let me take this moment to warn you that the rest of this post will contain a lot of caps lock and obscenities. If you are not comfortable with that, or just do not want to relive the rest of this game, I completely understand.

2:20 - Drop by Will Heller. I BET THAT WON'T COME BACK TO BITE US IN THE ASS..


0:20 - I'm not being facetious. That was one of the best clock-managed drives I've ever seen. Used all three timeouts to perfection. Only issue was Joique Bell failing to get out of bounds once.

0:18 - I love you, Jason Hanson. I fucking love you.

0:08 - If Burleson doesn't drop that pass, this never happens...


Everything is going to be oooooooooookay.*

*NOTE: everything was not okay. I don't forgive Titus, and I certainly don't love him.

14:40 - A tight end against a Lions safety that isn't Louis Delmas is always a mismatch.


12:12 - DOUBLE INCOMPETENT REF TIME! First they overturn the catch for some stupid reason, then they mark the personal foul penalty from the wrong side of the field. Replacement refs are horrible. There is no refuting this.

10:20 - Play-action rollout to Pettigrew. All. Day. Long.

9:15 - What an unbelievable catch by Calvin. That pass is easily picked off with any mortal receiver, but Megatron elevates soooo damn high, it's hard to believe what you're watching.

Series of events on final four downs:
1) Joique Bell misses huge cutback lane, 2 yards.
2) Bell drops a poorly thrown pass that would've gained a first down.
3) Leshoure escapes tackle nicely, but fails to reach the ball out as he's going to the ground. This was a good spot by refs, but if Mikel reaches out, there is no fourth down.

As stated by everyone, I'm extremely disappointed to hear that Jim Schwartz had no intention of going for it here. It was the right call and, hell, it was even the right play call (even though there technically wasn't a play call). If the rest of the offensive lineman are intending on playing that down, I bet they pick it up. Instead, we have the enormous gaffe by everyone and an embarrassing Sunday.

Thus ends the game that shall be known forward as Clusterfuck 2012.

Monday, September 24, 2012

The Darkest Timeline

 I can come up with a lot of scenarios of how the Lions win this game, but I'm finding it hard to come up with ways the Lions drop this one.
- Me, previewing the Lions/Titans game

What a moron. How did I not see this coming? How did I not see the Titans pulling out the Music City Miracle play? How did I not see the Lions giving up a return touchdown? How did I not see the Lions giving up the most 60+ yard touchdowns in one game in NFL history? How did I not see this Lions defense let Jake Locker look like Aaron Rodgers (or, I guess, Matt Flynn)? How did I not see six(!!) touchdowns in the final 6:53 of regulation? How did I not see the Lions "miscommunicating" on the final play of the game?

Oh, because I'm not crazy person. Or, at least, I wasn't. If that game was a food, the FDA would have banned it for causing ailments previously unknown to man. Side effects include: prehistoric grunting, wall-punching, spontaneous stripping, and overactive twitter.

But beyond all the improbable, inconceivable plays, the Lions didn't really deserve to win this game. The offense, continuing their stretch of the most frustrating unit in the NFL, came out slow, once again. Game plan be damned, the Lions made mental errors on third down that resulted in field goals rather than touchdowns.

The defense is in shambles. Opposing quarterbacks are slowly, but steadily shredding the Lions defense to pieces. There's no pass rush, the safety play is horrible, the cornerbacks are below-average, and the linebackers are a non-factor in the pass game. Here's what teams are doing to this Lions team:

Sam Bradford: 17-25, 198 yards, 105.1 passer rating
Alex Smith: 20-31, 226 yards, 107.7 passer rating
Jake Locker: 29-42, 378 yards, 113.0 passer rating

Three quarterback that most people would not consider top ten quarterbacks absolutely lighting up the Lions defense. They now rank 29th in passer rating allowed.

And this is not just the Lions suffering from bad secondary injuries. Granted, Chris Houston looked pretty good yesterday, and Louis Delmas is to John Wendling as Ed Reed is to Pat Carter (some freshman Idaho State DB I randomly googled). But the Lions front four isn't getting any consistent pressure, blitzing schemes are not working, and many of the Lions are reacting too slow to their zone reads. Getting Delmas back will be huge, but it won't solve everything.

But despite all this mud-slinging and finger-pointing, the Lions were in a position come away with a road win...twice. First, the Lions took their first lead late in the fourth quarter, 27-20. But then they proceeded to committ several devastating errors, starting with the ensuing kickoff return TD. Then they committed a killer holding penalty on the ensuing offensive drive. Then Wendling took a horrible angle and Nate Washington made a miracle catch. Then Brandon Pettigrew handed the ball off to the Titans for a touchdown, injuring Matthew Stafford in the process.

And despite ALL of that, one miracle later, the Lions again had a chance to win the game. Watching it all unfold pulled the memory of my afternoon in Ann Arbor on the day of The Horror from the depths of my subconscious. Obviously, Tennessee wasn't the underdog that Appalachian State was, but the fan experience was the same. The Lions were supposed to win this game, they had played horribly, but there they were, on the doorstep of putting the ugly experience behind them. In Ann Arbor, it was a blocked field goal. In Tennessee, it was an ugly miscommunication that resulted in the worst QB sneak in history. The portal to escape catastrophe was a step away, but we tripped just before the stargate slammed shut. We're now left to wander this horrid universe, not completely sure of where or who we are.

Michigan turned out to be a terrible team that year and got absolutely embarrassed the following week against Oregon. Next week, the Lions host a 2-1 Minnesota Vikings team that just dismantled a 49ers team that many believed was the best team in the league. Nervous?

If Raiola doesn't snap that ball, and the Lions go on to win, we escape this darkest timeline and we're likely spending this morning forgiving and excusing the Lions' poor play. But we have to accept our reality and the mistakes are impossible to ignore.

And the problems the Lions are suffering from are not even new. They're the same ones that plagued the Lions' 2011 season: iffy secondary, disappointing pass rush, slow starts by the offense. People excused them because the Lions ended up pulling nearly every close game out of their ass. We all swallowed the "Win" Pill, conveniently allowing us to avoid and ignore the true problems that exist. Now we're running out of Win Pills and while we still may not understand the universe we currently exist in, it's beginning to look like the darkest timeline.

Wednesday, September 19, 2012

Three Days Late "Live" Blog: Lions at 49ers

This is a recounting of tales from Sunday night's game against the 49ers, which I attended.

First Quarter:
13:48 - Using timeouts on your first drive of the game makes me angry...unless it works. Let's see how the Lions come out from that timeout. 

13:41 - Damnit. 

13:25 - Cliff Avril is the latest defensive line victim of the misdirection plays. Getting pretty sick of EVERY misdirection working against this defense. 

13:00 - So the Lions come out running and the Niners come out passing. Did not see this coming. 

12:44 - Wendling abused #1

12:25: Wendling abused #2

The first mistake by Wendling was just poor form. He had his hips turned the wrong way and got turned around in an embarassing fashion. The second was Wendling underestimating Vernon Davis' speed. He simply let Davis run by him and couldn't catch up. Inexperience at it's finest.

10:00 - 49ers sent TWO defenders to pass rush. This is why we did not pass all day.


9:21 - Terrible pass interference call. I'll take the free three points, anyway.

9:15 - If that ball to Scheffler is a little higher, the corner doesn't get his hand on it and Scheffler Gangnam Styles in the endzone I'm standing in. Sadface.

6:47 - Second third-down pass deflected. This whole running ourselves into 3rd and short thing does not seem to be working out.

6:32 - Hey, wham play. Didn't miss you at all.

5:20 - Fun fact: Drayton Florence is from Tuskegee University. Funner fact: Tuskegee has a University.

2:21 - Bad throw by Stafford, worse attempt(?) at a tackle by Titus Young. Cost the Lions 20 yards of field position. 

0:43 - Fun fact: Drayton Florence likes giving his opponents four free points. 

-00:01 - Ultimately, it's on the Lions for not making a play here. But it's hard not to get frustrated when they blow it on a play that shouldn't have happened.

Second Quarter:
14:10 - Joique Bell just joiqued that Niner out of his joiques. Joique!

9:53 - Lions with a...COVERAGE sack? Nice.

8:36 - If Crabtree doesn't drop that pass...uh oh.

That's a lot of green in front of him.

8:20 - 2:46 - This is exactly what the Lions tried to do for the entirety of the game. Kevin smith ran the ball six times for 25 yards, Stafford completed two passes of 10+ yards. It was a great, great drive. And it ended with no points.

Third Quarter:
11:27 - Suh having a solid day in pass rushing. Pretty meh in run coverage, though.

11:00 - Levy missed tackle. Drink.

6:30 - Holy crap, Kevin Smith made it to the second level! 

5:00 - Ouch. Ouch. Ouch. After a good gain on first down, Joique blows it on a crucial play. He could have put his head down and picked up at least 2-3 yards in the intended hole. Instead he tried to bounce it outside and lost a yard. Once again, DON'T RUN IT OUTSIDE WHEN BACKUS IS NOT TRYING TO SEAL ALDON SMITH.

3:44 - Another frustratingly good drive that ends in disappointment. If those last two offensive drives had finished better...

Fourth Quarter:
14:56 - Drop. Phew.

14:51 - Drop. Phew.

14:47- Drop. Phew.

11:55 - Love, love, LOVE, this read by Stafford. Checks the play at the line and calls a perfect QB draw. 

10:32 - I equally hate, hate, HATE this misread by Stafford. He takes a bad sack here when he EASILY could have had at least eight yards.

Drive killer. Another good drive wasted by one missed opportunity.

The following is a verbatim transcript of what I said live at San Francisco:
9:10 - Holy crap, that is the first unassisted tackled I've ever seen by DeAndre Levy.

7:00 - Holy crap, that is the second unassisted tackled I've ever seen by DeAndre Levy.

6:59 - 3:11 - Four straight minutes of obscenities. Most frustrating defensive drive ever.

2:32 - Bell trying to make amends on this screen. Good read by him and great downfield blocking.

2:00 - Titus Young with his first and only catch of the day with two minutes left. I continue to be disappointed with him. 

1:45 - That side-armed throw by Stafford on fourth down is really something to see in person.


1:29 - I hate this onside kick attempt. Not only have I never seen it work, I've never seen it come close. I understand the Niners were loading the line, but its much harder to grab a ball midair than it is to just fall on it. Just do it normally next time, please.

I was shocked to see how not-bad the offense was in this game. Look at the final four drives (excluding the drive where the Lions ran out the clock): 11 plays, 65 yards; 10 plays, 39 yards; 9 plays, 50 yards; 10 plays, 80 yards. Those aren't outstanding numbers, but against San Francisco's defense that certainly ain't too shabby. 

This game might've gone much differently if it weren't for three key plays: Hanson's missed FG, Joique Bell's bad read, and Stafford's missed read. That's potentially an 11-point swing. Of course, I'm sure the Niners could just as easily play the what-if game, but those were three VERY minor changes that could have easily gone Detroit's way. I feel much better having rewatched the broadcast and going into Tennessee next week. 

Wednesday, September 12, 2012

Stafford Infection: Eyes

Matthew Stafford had some trouble in the first half against the St. Louis Rams. This is not news. He threw three interceptions that left many fans scratching their heads wondering what had happened to their franchise quarterback. Indeed, all of those interceptions were pretty ugly looking and concerning. However, what most people didn't see was the adjustment Stafford made in the second half to prevent the Rams from getting a fourth or fifth pick.

In the first half, the Rams defenders were jumping routes with impressive instincts. They seemingly knew where the ball was going before Stafford did. But the Rams defenders don't have ESP, they were just reading Stafford's eyes.

Over at Pride Of Detroit, I broke down all of Stafford's interceptions, but take a look at Stafford's second interception, specifically. (click pictures to big-ify)

As you can see, Stafford is eyeing his target (Brandon Pettigrew) the entire time. The Rams linebacker, Jo-Lonn Dunbar, is already breaking on the route before Stafford has even begun his throwing motion. The aggressive play by the defender was typical of the first half of this game. An adjustment was needed.

In the second half of the game, Stafford started to use the Rams' aggressiveness against them. How did he do it? With his eyes.

Early in the fourth, facing a 3rd and 10, backed up near their own endzone, the Lions needed a big play, and they nearly got it thanks to Stafford's misdirection. Matthew eyes the receiver along the sideline, drawing the linebacker that way. Pettigrew is a running a route that will occupy the space that the linebacker is vacating. From another angle:

Here, you can clearly see the linebacker cheating right, so Stafford squares up and fires a bullet at the wide open Pettigrew. Unfortunately...

...he airmails it. The Lions are forced to punt, but have found a glaring defect in the Rams' defense.

And on the very last drive of the game, Stafford and the Lions took advantage of this new-found weakness and exploited it to perfection. 

Here, we see Stafford glancing to the right just for a split-second. The Rams defender (#58) is again trying to read Stafford's eyes. He hesitates, and even slightly drifts to the right. Behind him, Nate Burleson is cutting into the vacated space. There's not much room, but that is all a quarterback like Stafford needs. He fires a bullet just over the defender's hands leading to a big gain. 

First down. Six plays later, the Lions win the game. 

Next week, facing another aggressive defense in the Niners, Stafford will need to use his eyes again to keep the defenders guessing. However, with the 49ers' strong defensive line, Stafford will not be afforded the time to misdirect defenders that he had against the Rams. He will have to go through his progressions quicker, and make his misdirections more subtle. 

Monday, September 10, 2012

Same Old Lions

I wish I could come out and say "You know, I could get used to this." But the truth is, I can't. The Lions will be the death of me. Yet, it's what we have all come to expect from this team. Infuriatingly slow starts, followed by amazing comebacks. Of course, it is much better than the alternative. As long as the Lions come out on top, I guess it doesn't matter, but my developing ulcers are starting to think differently.

The Lions offense was particularly maddening. Matthew Stafford and company started off hot tallying over 150 yards in their first two drives. Yet they were down 13-10 at the break. They played a pretty awful second half, managing only 43 yards in their first four drives, yet finished with two near-perfect drives and got the win. Their inconsistencies are nothing new, as this was a common motif last year, but it's frustrating nonetheless.

The only difference from last year is most of the Lions' inconsistencies were the fault of Stafford on Sunday. Though Stafford was the victim of a couple of bad drops, the Lions completely avoided any harmful penalties (Titus Young's penalty, while extremely idiotic, was completely harmless). According to Jim Schwartz, most of Stafford's interceptions were the result of Matt trying to fit the ball in too tight of a window. And while Stafford has certainly been guilty of this in the past, I can't agree with Schwartz on this one. I'm going to break down some of these play more thoroughly later in the week, but I'm almost positive on one particular interception, Stafford read man-to-man when the Rams were actually in zone.

But in the end, I'm not all that concerned about Stafford. He's got a certain amount of gun-slingerness in him, and it's going to result in interceptions fairly often. I don't really expect that to ever change, and it probably shouldn't. Stafford will likely always be a quarterback who takes chances, and more often than not, it'll pay off.

But what DOES concern me is the way he came out in the second half. Stafford, clearly a little rattled from three first-half picks, was too careful and too inaccurate. He was making sure that his passes were out of the defender's reach, but in the process, he put it out of the receiver's reach. For maybe the first time ever, Stafford was cautious, and that's when the Lions offense looked its worst.

But, of course, Stafford eventually got comfortable, dialed in, and finished the game with two beautiful 80 yard drives to win the game. So in the end, does all that ugly stuff matter?

Well, yes and no. Obviously, it is not a good sign that Stafford had some trouble, then took a quarter and a half to fully recover. But on a per-play basis, the Lions offense was just as dominant as it was last year. Stafford's 7.4 yards per attempt was 0.2 off his 2011 average, and his 355 yards was his 7th most of his career. The Lions offense outgained their 2011 average, and overall looked just as dominant.

Even with the Lions traveling to San Francisco next week, where the Niners look like they haven't lost a step defensively, I wouldn't expect Stafford to make the same mistakes. He will take a long, hard look at those throws he made, learn his lesson and move on.

Oh, and speaking of defense, I guess I should briefly talk about the other side of the ball. The defense was kind of bend-don't-breaky, but it worked to perfection. The Lions waited for the Sam Bradford and the Rams to stall, and they usually complied. The Lions tackled solidly, the front four was dominant again, and in the end, despite the Lions offense giving them no favors, the defense held the Rams to just 16 points (10 of which were on drives that started in Lions territory).

The biggest question surrounding the Lions defense was not addressed this game. The Lions' depleted secondary was not really tested on Sunday. The Rams had maybe two deep passes in the game. One resulted in a touchdown (though Jonte Green had decent coverage, it was just an amazing play by the receiver to hold on), the other was an underthrown bomb to a wide-open receiver that Dreyton Florence was able to catch up to and knock away. With Bill Bentley suffering a concussion, and Houston's and Delmas' availability still unknown, I'd expect to learn more about this unit next week against the improving Niners offense.

But for now, we're 1-0, we're the exact same team as last year, and I guess I'm okay with that.

Saturday, September 8, 2012

Long Train Runnin'

When the Lions walked off the rugged New Orleans turf in early January, it was a tough site to see. I mourned not the loss itself, but the eight Lions-less months that lay ahead. Little did I know how painful it would be.

If you're reading this, you're likely a Lions fan and survivor of the shit-storm that was the Lions' offseason. I don't need to chronicle the offseason woes, we've all heard too much about them already. But what it's led to has been more significant to me. I can shake offseason issues and easily forget about character faults once the game-clock moves to 14:59. And, typically, I have no problem avoiding the talking heads spewing their typical filth about how the immature and overrated the Lions are going to be.

But for some reason, it got to me this year. At first, I went through my typical anger. I figured the Lions had finally gained some well-earned respect from last year. If anyone denied such things because a couple players had impaired judgement while drinking, they were the idiots. But then the sentiment grew. People I respect started telling me the Lions were due for a regression.

When everyone is around you telling you something is true, even when you believe it is false, you start to believe it anyway. Psychologist Solomon Asch was famous for his conformity experiments that identified this phenomenon. And like the unknowing test subjects, I fell for the lie. Armchair Linebacker calls it "The Fear," I liken it to an abused animal. After the horrors of the past decade, I have never learned to fully put my trust in the Lions. I was burned after a 6-2 start. I was burned after an electric 4-0 preseason. I was burned by a first-round quarterback. I didn't want to get burned again after a 10-6 season, especially with Tampa Bay's fall from grace still fresh in my mind.

For 2012, I predicted a slight regression to 9-7, or even as low as 8-8.

But then I remembered this:

I remembered where this all began. I remember immediately thinking knowing that this was the beginning of something special. I remembered that last year wasn't a flash-in-the-pan, but had been building from this exact moment.

I remembered 2010. I remembered sitting in the surprisingly chilly Raymond James stadium with my father sitting in disbelief as Drew Stanton led a 3-10 Lions team to a fourth quarter comeback win, ending the Lions' awful away losing streak. I remembered hugging any stranger in Honolulu blue in the concourse and the embrace forcing tears to well up in my eyes. I remember sitting in a hotel room just outside of Disneyworld that night re-watching the gif of Jim Schwartz fist-pumping for 20 minutes straight.

Then I remembered the following week, where from high atop the bleachers in Miami, I again witnessed an improbably comeback win. I remembered someone named Nathan Vasher grabbing a Chad Henne overthrow. I remember the boos; the all-too-familiar boos. But never had the boos been as satisfying as they were on that windy afternoon.

Then I remembered last year. With the leftover optimism from 2010's four game win streak, and the return of Matthew Stafford, every Lions fan's cup runneth over with Kool-aide. I tried to slow my imagination from exploring the true ceiling for this team, allowing "The Fear" to slide it's way in again, but when the Lions jumped to a 5-0 record, even the most caution Lions fan couldn't be contained.

Then literally hundreds of highlights flooded my mind. Tony Scheffler swashbuckling on opening weekend. Cliff Avril levitating in mid-air, grasping the pigskin from the heavens, and trudging into the endzone and the playoffs. The dismantling of Tim Tebow. Megatron doing everything physically possible, and most things impossible.

But then I remembered the bumps in the road last year. The bad starts to games. The embarrassment on Soldier Field. The disasters against the Packers and Saints. The fear. But throughout all the turbulence, the Lions managed to improve by four games, make the playoffs for the first time in over a decade and complete the most entertaining season of my lifetime. Up until a few days ago, I thought all of this progression and improvement lead to last year's amazing run. I don't believe that anymore.

The Lions story is not done. They have been building for too long, overcoming all adversity they've faced to let a poor offseason derail this train. Whether it has been a separated shoulder, a 20-point deficit, a decade-long winless streak, or a depleted roster, the Lions have persevered. Experts (and my own doubt) be damned, this team's arrow is still pointing up, and this year, there is no limit to their potential.

Go Lions.

Tuesday, September 4, 2012

Detroit Lions 2012: Is Regression Coming?

The 2011 Detroit Lions season was something special. The Lions made the playoffs for the first time 1999, and only four years removed from that year. Matthew Stafford and Calvin Johnson broke all sorts of franchise records. The Lions won for the first time in Minnesota since 1997. They were featured on a Monday Night Football game after a ten year absence and made their debut on NBC's Sunday Night Football.

And the games. Man the games. Comebacks, blowouts, upsets, comebacks, more comebacks. And the plays. Man the plays. Bombs, pick-sixes, game-winning drives, blocked field goals, Calvin Johnson, Calvin Johnson and more Calvin Johnson. When creating the top 50 plays of the 2011 season, the trouble was not finding 50 moments, but rather cutting down to 50.

But now its 2012, and though the 2011 season will never be forgotten, we find ourselves in much different times now. The postseason is not the golden, shiny reward at the end of the journey, but the expectation. The Lions aren't the surprise contenders, but a decent team that is expected to play well on a weekly basis or they are a failure.

However, the common motif surrounding 2012 previews is that Lions were a good story last year and great for the city, but, ultimately, they had their time to shine and what lies ahead is the dire reality of mediocrity similar to the Lions of the 90s. The Lions don't rank in the top ten of most preseason power rankings, and are as low as 18 in some. Perhaps the most damning piece on the fate of the 2012 Lions is a study done by National Football Post, which found an interesting, but disturbing trend in the NFL.
Since 2002, there’s an 89.6% chance that a team who bounces back from a losing season to post ten or more wins the following fall is headed for a step in the wrong direction come year three.
The sample size of 29 teams is obviously a bit small, but the statistics are strikingly strong. Even more alarming is the 26 teams that "regressed" in the study lost an average of nearly four more games the following season. However, this study included teams that won more than ten games; teams that had more room to fall than the Lions.

I wanted to narrow this study a bit, so that it was more applicable to the Lions' situation. I looked at the past ten years and found every 10-6 team. Of the 33 teams that went 10-6, nine of them (27.3%) improved the next year, 22 regressed (66.7%), and two went 10-6 again the following season. On average, these 33 teams won 7.9 games the following season.

But this doesn't really capture the essence of the Lions. The Lions are a team that has been improving for the last few years, and these 10-6 teams in the study come from all varieties. So from those 33 ten-win teams, I picked out the teams that had done worse in the previous season and improved to 10 wins. I'll call these teams "improving teams."

Over the past ten year, there have been 24 improving 10-6 teams. Those improving teams continued to improve after their 10-6 season only 20.1% of the time (five of 24), averaging a total of just 7.4 wins the following season.

The numbers aren't quite as pessimistic as the ones in the linked study, but they don't exactly give Lions fans a reason to get excited. Still, it's clear that it is possible for teams to continue success. So instead of accepting our doom, let's examine the what factors contribute to sustained success versus ones that cause teams to fall back to irrelevancy.

The 2010 Tampa Bay Buccaneers is one of the most striking examples (and the most recent) of a team that saw extreme improvement, only to see it all dissipate the following season. The Bucs jumped from 3-13 all the way to 10-6 in 2010, just missing out on the playoffs. With a young team and an emerging quarterback, the Bucs were expected to again compete for the NFC South. But in reality, the team struggled drastically and finished a meager 4-12.

At the opposite end of the spectrum, the 2008 Minnesota Vikings jumped from 8-8 to 10-6, but didn't stop there. After adding Bret Favre, the Vikings finished the 2009 season with a record of 12-4 and made it to the conference championship (only to lose in an awesomely hilarious fashion).

On the surface, it appears the Lions most resemble the 2010 Bucs team: a young team looking for their players to improve the next season, rather than the Vikings, who seemingly improved by adding a much-needed veteran quarterback. However, looking at four key aspects of these teams, it becomes clear what makes an improving team better and what causes a team to stunt their growth.

Roster Changes
Stability is key to success in the NFL. A stable roster develops thorough knowledge of the playbook, creates chemistry between players, and makes a coach's job easier. After the Bucs' 10-6 season, Tampa Bay returned only 13 of 22 starters. [For clarification purposes, a "starter" is defined as the player who started the most games at that position throughout the season. So if a projected starter was injured and did not play the majority of games at his position that year, he is not considered a "starter" in this study] The Vikings, on the other hand, returned 16 of 22 starters.

The Lions are projected to start 21 of 22 starters from last year, with the only exception being cornerback Aaron Berry (although, it is very possible Mikel Leshoure replacing Kevin Smith will be another). If these 21 players can stay healthy for the majority of the season, the Lions' stability will only help maintain their success.

Roster Age
Age is a fickle thing in the NFL. Teams strive to keep their youth, but gather a team full of inexperienced youngsters, and you are doomed to inconsistency and mistakes. The 2010 Bucs starters were considerably young, averaging a birthday of 6/11/1984, or around 26 years old. In 2011, their average age was only two months older.

The 2009 Vikings, on the other hand, were around 29 years old on average, and were exactly four days older in 2010. So where do the Lions land? Last year, the Lions average birthday was 4/30/1984 (feel young yet?), or a bit older than 27. This year, with nearly the exact same lineup, they are unsurprisingly almost an exact year older. So the Lions are getting older, gaining experience and hoping to rid themselves of the inconsistencies and mistakes that plagued last year. Of course, it's worth noting that some of the Lions' best players are still young and therefore still prone to mistakes.

Quality of Wins (and losses)
In the NFL, the bottom line is always wins vs. losses. But rarely does that tell the entire story about a team. Did they blow out every team they beat and just barely lose against good teams? Was every game a nail-biter? Were there any warning signs that this team wasn't as good as their record implied? It is reasonable to conclude that if a team struggled mightily to get to ten wins, they may not be able to sustain their success next year.

With the Tampa Bay Bucs, you see exactly that. Though they won by an average of 9.3 points per victory, they only outscored their opponent by 23 total points at the end of the season. Also, the Bucs had a couple of weeks where there were clear warning signs. They were blown out by two different teams, losing both games by 25 points each. And five of their wins were by three points or less. Small margins of victory plus large margins of defeat (11.7 on average) equals danger.

The Vikings were in almost every game they played in 2008. Their biggest loss was by 13, and every other defeat was by seven or less. At the end of the season they had outscored their opponent by exactly double of what the Bucs did (46 for the math-impaired). Still, six of their wins were by seven points or less.

The Lions, as we all know, had some very close calls as well. They had five wins by seven points or less, but had the highest margin of victory of the three teams (Lions - 15.4, Bucs - 9.3, Vikings 8.7). They also outscored their opponent by 87, more than the Bucs and Vikings combined. However the Lions, too, had some warning signs. They lost by 24 to the Bears, 14 to the Saints and 12 to the Packers. They also fell behind big in games quite frequently and though they came back in most of those, that sort of thing is not sustainable for multiple seasons.

Overall, it's pretty clear the Lions were above the lower-level teams in the NFL, but their play against above average and elite teams was inconsistent at best. They competed with the NFL's best, but failed to record a win against a playoff team outside of the 8-8 Broncos.

Turnover Margin
Sometimes an oddity in record can be explained by plain luck. Turnover margin is often key to victories, but countless studies have proved its randomness. It is possible then, that a 10-6 record may be the result of mostly good fortune and that a regression is more likely if the team experienced a high turnover margin during their ten win season.

For the 2008 Vikings, this was not the case. They actually lost the turnover margin for the season, averaging 0.4 more giveaways than takeaways per game. They won games without the benefit of winning the turnover battle, a great sign for future success.

Looking at the 2010 Bucs, it's not too surprising to see that they ranked sixth in turnover margin, forcing 0.6 more takeaways than giveaways. Lo and behold, in 2011, when they ranked dead last in turnover margin (-16 for the season), they regressed considerably.

The 2011 Lions ranked fourth in turnover margin, also forcing 0.6 more turnovers than takeaways per game. This doesn't mean that the Lions are doomed next year. In fact, assuming that the Lions will lose the turnover battle in 2012 is the exact wrong way to interpret this data. That is akin to believing that a coin is more likely to land heads after landing tails five times in a row (the odds are still 50/50). The Lions are just as likely to win the turnover battle as they are to lose it in 2012. What this data does tell us is that the Lions were aided significantly by the luck of turnovers last year, and if they don't receive the same fortunes in 2012, they may not see the same success.

While history is stacked against the Lions, the 2011 team had many positive traits that may contribute to the teams' continued progression. Their roster is nearly the same as it was last year, giving the team stability and chemistry. Their players are also a good mix of young and old; players in their physical prime and veterans with valuable experience. Last year, they dominated a few teams and were in nearly every game they played.

But there are some warning signs as well. They Lions were clearly aided by turnovers last season, and without that benefit, they may not have reached the postseason. Also, they failed to beat a very good team last year, and were clearly over-matched against Green Bay and New Orleans.

In the end, I don't expect a huge regression. The 2010 Bucs season seemed completely random. Their jump from 3-13 to 10-6 was a wild jump in the standings largely aided by turnovers and winning games by the skin of their teeth. The Lions, however, have slowly and steadily been improving their team. The past three years have been an improvement from the season before, and because it has been a gradual improvement it is likely more sustainable than the wild seven-game improvement that the Bucs experienced. If the Lions are to regress this year, it will be no worse than an 8-8 season.

Special thanks to http://www.jt-sw.com/football/pro/ and http://www.teamrankings.com for their extensive historical data.

Monday, September 3, 2012

Previewing the Green Bay Packers with Packers Blogger Andy Tisdel

Over the course of last season, Andy Tisdel of Oak Creek Patch had done a Q&A with me on a couple of occasions. This year, we have agreed to do it again. Last week, Andy posted my answers to his questions about the Detroit Lions. This week, I post his answers regarding the Green Bay Packers, the NFC North, and expectations for 2012. This is our story:

1) What in your opinion went wrong last year? Obviously, it's hard to complain about a 15-1 season, but no one in Green Bay was looking for a regular season championship. Was this a case of the Packers not playing their best football when they needed to, or was there something truly wrong with the team?

Andy Tisdel: Yeah, give me the Stanley Cup over the President's Cup any day. One thing that I think went wrong--and this was the case back in 2007 as well when the Packers went to the NFC Championship--was that the quality of play slipped a lot over the second half of the season, especially when the division title and so forth were in the bag. There was the loss to Kansas City. There was what was really a sloppy game against Oakland, even though it was a blowout win. There was that Week 16 game where we let the Bears' third- and fourth-string RBs roll up something like 200 yards rushing on us. In hindsight, there were a lot of ways that the Packers were kind of slowing down during the second half of the season, and they all came out against the Giants. There's been an ongoing debate over whether the Packers gave the game away or just got beat by a better team, played out among NY and GB fans and in the media; in my opinion, the Giants played a great game, but no sane person who watched the game thinks they beat the Packers on their best day. But at the same time, the playoffs are about showing up when you've gotta show up, and the Packers did not.

As far as something wrong with the team... I think there was a problem with handling the Super Bowl victory, and I think it was mostly on the defensive side of the ball. (This is mostly just my theory, so treat it as such.) The Packers are one of those teams with a head coach that mostly involves himself with one side of the ball. Mike McCarthy leads and speaks to and motivates the whole team, but he's heavily involved with offensive game-planning and scheming in a way that he isn't on defense, i.e. he interacts with the offensive players a lot more. McCarthy mostly leaves the defense to Dom Capers, our DC. And while Capers has a reputation for being a really good defensive schemer, I don't think leadership and inspiration and motivation are really his strong suits. This is all just speculation by me, since I'm not inside the building, but last year the offense was phenomenal and the defense was a plane crash. A lot of defensive players--B.J. Raji, Sam Shields, Morgan Burnett, A.J. Hawk, etc. had down years or didn't play to their 2010 form, while the offense as a whole was even better in '11 than '10. Injuries were a factor in the defensive collapse, but it's my guess--one more emphasis on guess--that that organizational problem was a factor as well.

2) There has been a lot of talk about the NFC North and whether the Bears or Lions have closed the gap between themselves and the Packers. How do you see the North playing out this year, and who do you see as the Packers biggest threat?

That is a tough question. I would say the Lions--swear I'm not pandering--because they have had that extra year to build off of their successes, to build chemistry as an offensive unit. As far as I know, all of the offensive players that were essential to last year's success are returning. The Bears have some more uncertainty. Even with the offense tailored to Cutler and Marshall, Marshall is still a newcomer and adjusting is going to take time. Same with Hester and trying to make him into a WR again. Same with their perennial shuffles on the offensive line. It just looks from here like the Lions have had that much more continuity and opportunities to grow without new things to get used to. I don't see the Packers, Bears and Lions being separated in the final standings this year by more than two games total. I still think the Packers should be the favorites for a second straight division title, but they aren't going to run away with it like last year.

3) How worried should Packers fans be about their backup quarterback situation? With Matt Flynn gone and Graham Harrell struggling, do you see the Packers going after a new backup, like the recently released Vince Young? Are the Packers completely done if Aaron Rodgers goes down?

I would say fairly worried. I'm personally hoping we manage to trade for or claim Matt Moore off of waivers, but I think the issue has been kind of overblown. With basically any top-10 quarterback--Brady, either Manning, Brees, Romo, Vick, whoever--if they go down for the year, you're done. Season over. It's such a QB-driven league that even if you can make a playoff push, like the Patriots did in '08 after Brady went down, the odds are you're not going to go very far. (See: the 2011 Texans.) In that respect, whether it's Graham Harrell or Moore or almost any backup QB... maybe not completely done, but our Super Bowl hopes would go from 'well within the realm of possibility' to 'maybe an outside chance'. I don't see the Packers going after Young for any number of reasons--ours is an extremely complicated offense and he hasn't had success with those, he's got a reputation as a loudmouth, etc., but I would not be surprised to see us claim a decent veteran. (Also, not to pick on Young, but if you're released by Buffalo... I'm just saying, that's an indication he doesn't have much left.)

4) The Packers spent almost all of their draft picks trying to improve the defense. Do you expect to see a big improvement in the defense this year? Many believe the defense took a big step back last year, do you see it that way? Any rookie looking like they'll have a big impact this year?

To "did the defense take a step back", there's no question whatsoever. Like I was saying up above, a lot of players had bad years from an individual standpoint, but the combination of that + injuries to/release of key players/ + possible lack of attention from head coach was just a toxic one. It was one of the worst collapses from year to year that I've ever seen.

Having said all that, I do believe the defense will jump back to at least adequate this year for two big reasons. One is that Tramon Williams' shoulder is healthy, and that just opens up the defense so much for Capers. Williams is one of the best cover corners in football when he can play press coverage, which he couldn't do last year because of nerve damage suffered in Week 1. I think Capers can be a lot more creative with his coverages and blitzes, knowing that.

The other is that we finally, finally, finally have a legitimate pass-rush threat opposite Clay Matthews. This is something that the D has been missing since 2009. Last year, the Packers couldn't generate pressure from multiple angles; they just had Matthews moving around but no other credible threats. This year they should have at least two or three players who can rush the QB consistently. This goes back to your question about the rookies. Perry has a lot to learn about being an OLB (he was a collegiate DE), but he's shown a ton of athletic ability and raw power. Jerel Worthy is excitable and hasn't shown a lot of gap discipline as yet, but he also has potential. For both of them and for the other rookies, they have the potential to have a big impact, but the best thing they can do is create opportunities for the Packers' existing stars. Put another way, Perry will likely create more sacks for Matthews then he will create on his own... and he will benefit as well from Matthews' presence. For me at least, that's the biggest reason for optimism.

5) What is the biggest obstacle the Packers face on their journey to a second championship in three years? Lastly, what's your prediction for the year?

The Packers' biggest obstacle is going to be injuries. We've already lost one Pro Bowl-level player for the year in Desmond Bishop. Luckily, we're deep at inside linebacker, but there's an uncomfortably large number of positions where we aren't--offensive tackle, safety, quarterback and running back spring to mind. The 2010 Packers could absorb ridiculous numbers of injuries because they had good players ready to go and good coaches using them correctly. The 2012 Packers will need to stay healthy at those positions to capture another title.
They're also going to need to get it together when it counts. I think I can safely predict that the Packers will make the playoffs somehow if Rodgers stays healthy; they're just too good and too talented not to, despite all the Lions and Bears can throw at them (and it's going to be close). It's what happens once they're there that concerns me. Green Bay responded amazingly to adversity in 2010; as a privileged No. 1 seed in 2011, they collapsed. It's up to the coaching staff to coax the best out of the team when the time comes, and up to the players to give it. If they can do that--and I think they can--then Aaron Rodgers will get his second ring come February.


Andy Tisdel is the Packers blogger for Oak Creek Patch, and also runs his own site at  http://tisdelstirades.blogspot.com/ Check them out!