Tuesday, December 28, 2010

These Are More Fun To Do When The Lions Win

Well, here we are again, old friend. It's been a long season, but we're still here. We're still here.

A little bit of a mixed bag this week, but I got the big one right, which is that the Lions beat the Dolphins. It feels good to put your nuts on the table week after week and not have them be smashed into a pulp by some maniac with a giant sledgehammer who looks like a methed out version of Gallagher, which I guess isn’t that much different than the actual Gallagher now that I think about it. How did I end up talking about Gallagher in only the second sentence of this thing? Jesus, that might be a new record: Quickest Devolution into Weird Gibberish. Also, I’m not sure why “I put my nuts on the table” has become my standard way of saying “Oh yeah, I predicted that.” It’s a disturbing image and I apologize. I mean, I don’t make a habit of teabagging random tables although I did make love to a fine mahogany dining room table on a hot summer’s day once. It was the sort of day when everything is sticky and I could just smell the wood and it smelled so sweet and I knew it was calling to me and so I took a deep breath and I . . . where am I? What’s going on? Oh well, enough gibberish. Let’s just get to the breakdown of this week’s predictions and I promise not to mention the name Drew Stanton. Oh shit . . . too late I guess. Okay, okay, I promise not to talk about tables anymore. I’m pretty sure I can keep that promise. Wait . . . it is the table that was the disturbing part of that story, right? I was just a victim, led on by that sultry villain, and . . . great, now tonight I am going to dream about Gallagher making hot, sweaty love to Drew Stanton on top of a mahogany dining table, their flesh slapping and sticking in the humidity of a late August day while I stand, lonely and confused with my nuts on some lowly plastic coffee table, watching, watching, watching . . .

The most horrible thing I’ve written here at Armchair Linebacker? Maybe. Maybe. But these are strange and terrible times and . . . okay, fine, I’ll just get on with it.

PREDICTION THE FIRST: Hill starts and is a little rusty, but not nearly as rusty as he was against the Bills. He completes 25 of 37 passes for 265 yards, with 2 touchdowns and 1 interception.

WHAT ACTUALLY HAPPENED: As Scott Stapp would say, Welllllllllllllllll (insert sound of a donkey braying), I was sorta right? Hill completed 14-26 passes for 222 yards with 2 touchdowns and perhaps most importantly, 0 interceptions. He was a little rusty, but he wasn’t as bad as he was in the game against Buffalo and the result was . . . just enough.

Yes, just enough. Hill wasn’t actively good or anything but he wasn’t bad either. Aside from a couple of misplaced balls, he managed to find his receivers much of the day. He was hurt by a couple of drops (Hey, Brian Clark? Yeah, you can collect your things outside of the locker room. They’re in that box right over there. Those guards? They’re just here to make sure you get to your car safely. After all, this is Detroit.), and a couple of idiot plays by his receivers – most notably the one in the 4th quarter that saw Brandon Pettigrew just quit on a play – and had they made those plays, Hill’s numbers would look downright good.

It is telling that I can come away feeling somewhat disappointed, though, by Hill’s game because if his name was Drew Stanton everyone would probably be raving about how he’s a gamer and about how he Gritted his way to a Lions victory. The expectations for Hill are a bit higher than for Stanton and really, that’s the point. An average, or a slightly subpar day for him, is the equivalent to a revelatory game from Stanton. Hill was not particularly good against the Dolphins and yet his performance was pretty much right in line with what Stanton did against the Buccaneers last week.

Indeed, when it looked like the Lions were going to lose the game against Miami, I was already dreading the cascade of dumb THIS NEVER WOULDA HAPPENED IF THEY STARTED STANTON bullshit gibberish that was going to flow down from every corner of the fanbase. I was already prepared to point out how the difference in the games was not the play of the quarterback but the play of the defense and the running game. In fact, I was all prepared to point out that Hill’s game was actually more impressive than Stanton’s Bucs game because he had to play without the benefit of a functional running game. This meant that he was forced to make plays with his arm and throw the ball when the Dolphins knew that he was going to throw. Given those same conditions, I almost guarantee Stanton would have imploded.

Man, I’m sorry. I am self-aware enough to realize that I am behaving shamefully and that Stanton has become my white whale. It seems like all I do these days is chase him down with a harpoon in my hand, foaming at the mouth, and it is unseemly and vaguely pathetic. It’s just that every time I think I’m done with him, I hear or read some gibberish about how he gives the Lions the best chance to win and about how we need him to stay in Detroit and I become unhinged and I reach for my harpoon and it’s back to the open seas, boys and everyone groans and thinks “Jesus, not again,” but I am wild eyed and unreasonable because this is what Drew Stanton does to me. I cannot help myself. I just want him to go away. Make it stop, make it stop, make it stop!

Okay. Okay. Shaun Hill. Let’s talk more about him. Hill played okay. He wasn’t good, but he wasn’t bad either. The most impressive play I thought he made all day actually came on an incompletion on third down in the 4th quarter. The Lions were driving, they were in Miami territory, they were ten points down and they absolutely needed to make something happen or the game was as good as over. Hill dropped back to pass on third down and immediately, he was under siege. There were Dolphins everywhere. The play was doomed, he was going to get sacked and oh well, at least we won two in a row, but then Hill spun out of trouble, looked down field, scrambled and then tossed up a floater to an open part of the field. There was no one there. Not a Lion, not a Dolphin, no one. But Hill saw Brandon Pettigrew and when he threw that ball, he did so believing that Pettigrew would keep running and would go out and get it. It was a beautiful play by Hill at the most crucial point in the game. All Pettigrew had to do was keep running. But he didn’t, the ball dropped to the ground and the Lions punted. People will forget this play. They will remember the Lions furious comeback and all they will remember will be the interceptions and the implosion of Chad Henne. But what I’ll remember is that when the Lions desperately needed a play, Shaun Hill made something happen out of nothing. That play was dead, crushed, finished. But he MacGyvered his way out and he saw something that requires vision and foresight and all those things that a quarterback needs to be successful mentally. He saw possibility and if Brandon Pettigrew would have just kept running, the Lions would have converted a crucial third down. Shaun Hill doesn’t have the arm or the physical tools to be a big time NFL quarterback. In this, he and Stanton (Oh, Jesus, here we go again. . .) are very similar. But that one play highlighted the difference between the two. Hill can see possibilities. He gets the mental part of the game. I don’t think Drew Stanton does. He runs around and he leaves trails of grit behind him as he goes, but for all his furious scrambling and Pluck and OH MAN HE’S JUST A PLAYMAKER, there’s nothing really there. It ends up looking like panic, like he’s running around and scrambling and tossing random bags of grit because he doesn’t know what else to do. It doesn’t look like he’s making plays. It looks like he doesn’t see where the play is to be made. That’s a key distinction, and it’s that that is the biggest difference between Hill and Stanton. Hill is in control and when he scrambles, it’s to open up possibilities. When Stanton scrambles, it’s all just a bunch of noise signifying nothing. That’s right, I’m going to quote Shakespeare here. I’ve lost my mind and I can’t stop and even though I said this was about Hill it has once again turned into a vicious harpooning of Stanton and Goddammit, I’m gonna get me that whale!

I say this every week – hell, lately, every day – but this is the last thing I’m going to say about Stanton. I am going to use Shakespeare against him. I think it sums up both Stanton and my own toxic hate boner for him and what he represents. It is a condemnation of us both. Here it is, and damn it all, I mean it this time.

Drew Stanton: a tale

Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury,

Signifying nothing.

PREDICTION THE SECOND: The Lions again manage to run the ball fairly effectively, picking up 150 yards total. Again, no one ball carrier will exceed 15 carries and Maurice Morris will lead the way with 75 yards.

WHAT ACTUALLY HAPPENED: In the words of that noted sage, Al Bundy . . . uh, no, Peg. The Lions ran for a grand total of 67 yards on 21 carries, reverting back to the parade of rancid shit which was the running game for much of the season before that little three week oasis in the middle of our desert of despair where we actually had a thriving running game. Was that oasis just a mirage? I don’t know. It’s hard to say whether those games were all just fluky or whether the Lions had found a way to run the ball creatively, which caught their opponents off balance but which has now been caught onto by the rest of the league or whether the Dolphins have just a really, really good run defense. Perhaps it’s a combination of all of the above. I think that’s the most likely answer.

You can’t deny that the Lions were able to run the ball there for a few weeks. That can’t be entirely a fluke. One game, yes, maybe, but three is a trend. But it’s not like the Lions were just lining up and running the ball down people’s throats either. The offensive line wasn’t exactly blowing defenses off the ball or anything. Instead, the Lions got creative – really creative – and that caused defenses to become unbalanced enough that there was always just enough of a crack for a ball carrier to run through. Everybody was running the ball in those few weeks – Maurice Morris, Jahvid Best, St. Calvin, Nate Burleson, Stefan Logan – and defenses could never just sit back and key on one guy. Hell, Stanton even ran the option a couple of times. That’s all great and Scott Linehan deserves a pat on the back for making it happen. But the NFL is loaded with athletes capable of making plays all over the field and so all it takes is a little adjustment here, a little adjustment there, and whatever advantages gained by that imbalance can be neutralized much, much easier than they can at the college or high school levels, in which entire offenses are built around the concepts of misdirection and spreading the defense out. And when that imbalance is corrected by a coach who’s on the ball – like Mike Nolan, the Dolphins defensive coordinator – it comes down to execution and brute strength and that’s where the Lions can’t quite get it done.

The Lions want to have a power rushing attack. Right now they lack the offensive linemen to do that. Everyone bitches about the offensive line because of Stafford’s injuries and most people want to lynch Jeff Backus but the reality is that the line has done an admirable job in pass protection this season. The Lions quarterbacks have not had to eat too many sacks and that's helped keep them in games even though those quarterbacks have been backups. They can be successful as long as they’re not asked to win the games on their own and make ridiculous plays in long yardage situations. Because the Lions offensive line has kept them clean, they have been able to play within themselves and make safe throws on 2nd and 6 or 3rd and 4 rather than chucking the ball up for grabs on 2nd and 17 or 3rd and 22. The line hasn’t gotten nearly the credit they deserve for that this season, Backus especially.

But . . . and you knew there was a but here, the Lions offensive line has utterly failed in the running game this season. One of the biggest reasons why Scott Linehan had to put on his wizard hat is because the line was opening zero holes in the conventional run game. When it comes down to just bearing down and driving the other team off the ball, Dominic Raiola and company have been just awful. I mentioned Raiola specifically because he’s the biggest culprit here. For a dude who likes to bitch everyone out from the fans to his own teammates and pretend like he’s some sort of He-Man warrior, Raiola consistently gets his ass kicked in the running game. He’s a finesse player, and that’s fine if that’s what you’re trying to do offensively, but he’s not big enough or, at least in my opinion, tough enough to take on defensive tackles in the run game. Scouts love him because he’s agile and he barks a lot and he gives off the aura of a dude who’s playing tough and he comes to work every day but he can’t hold up at the point of attack in the run game and really, that makes everything else irrelevant.

The irony is that for all the shit Backus gets, he’s probably the Lions best run blocker. That’s not really saying much given the absolute putrescence of Gosder Cherilus on the other side of the line, Raiola’s inability to hold up in the middle and the staggering mediocrity of Stephen Peterman and Rob Sims, but what the hell, that doesn’t make it any less true. The reality is that the Lions run game will likely continue to struggle – absent the occasional wizardry by Linehan anyway – without an upgrade at several positions along the line. Raiola needs to be replaced. So do Cherilus and Peterman. I think you can live with Backus and Sims but they’re not exactly going to cover the rest of the line’s ass, you know?

The running backs are good enough, I think. All they need is a combination of good health and good blocking and they’ll be fine – better than fine if Jahvid Best manages to get that combination. Best is the explosive runner capable of taking it to the house every time he touches the ball. We saw that against Miami, and while it wasn’t a run, it was a little swing pass that still required him to make a play in the open field. It was a play that didn’t require a lot of blocking and therefore served as an effective glimpse of what Best can do with blocking. By that, I mean that as long as he’s given room to move – either in the open field or via good blocking – he can end up in the end zone on virtually any play. Meanwhile, Maurice Morris has shown throughout his career and again this season that he can be a dependable move the chains kind of running back when given the opportunity. Sure, he only gained 22 yards on 12 carries against Miami (For the record, his 12 carries led the team, while Best’s 24 yards were tops.), but again, I blame that more on the subpar blocking and the Dolphins ability to make the Lions running attack fairly one dimensional. Add in Kevin Smith’s return next year and the Lions have a stable of running backs who have proven that they can be highly effective given adequate help.

PREDICTION THE THIRD: St. Calvin will catch 6 passes for 95 yards and 1 touchdown. Just another day at the office. (Jesus, did I really just type the phrase “Just another day at the office”? The next thing you know, I’ll be gibbering about “Having a case of the Mondays” or some such bullshit. I’m so, so sorry.

WHAT ACTUALLY HAPPENED: In the words of . . . fuck this, I’m not doing a dumb cutesy quote for each one of these. St. Calvin caught 4 passes for 52 yards and failed to score a touchdown.

There’s not a lot to say here. St. Calvin didn’t really break out at all, but when the Lions needed him, he came through, particularly on the Lions second touchdown drive of the game, when they trailed by seven and needed to make something happen. The Lions leaned on St. Calvin again and again on third down and he came down with the ball every time. Should they have looked for him more throughout the game? Probably, but I didn’t really have a problem with the Lions game plan. For the most part, the receivers Shaun Hill did look for were in position to catch the damn ball and keep the drive moving. Sometimes they did and sometimes they maddeningly dropped the ball. I’d rather the Lions target open receivers – receivers who are made open by the over reaction of the defense to St. Calvin and their subsequent double and triple teaming of him by the way – than ask their backup quarterbacks to try to force the ball into a covered St. Calvin. Again, even when he’s not catching the ball, he’s affecting the game.

Further, St. Calvin’s numbers were depressed by the fact that he sat out the end of the game after being martyred. Had he played, the Lions almost surely would have gone to him, just like they did on that critical drive earlier in the game. But he didn’t and the result is 4 catches for 52 yards. Really, there’s not a whole lot else to say and thank God for that because these things are getting longer and longer every week.

PREDICTION THE FOURTH: Chad Henne will complete 27 of 42 passes for 270 yards with 1 touchdown and 2 interceptions. He’ll be sacked 5 times.

WHAT ACTUALLY HAPPENED: In the words of Socrates . . . BOOM, MOTHERFUCKER! Henne completed 29 of 44 passes for 278 yards with 1 touchdown and 2 interceptions. Even Nostradamus is high-fiving me because I nailed that shit so epically. Of course, Henne was only sacked twice instead of the 5 times I predicted but we’ll let that slide even if that was kinda the meat of the prediction. Okay? Just give me this, damn it.

Henne was able to find receivers open much of the day because the Lions were playing with the functional equivalent of a narcoleptic goat and a broken toaster in the secondary thanks to the hilarious cavalcade of stupid injuries which have taken all of our defensive backs this season. Hell, at this point, Nathan Vasher is probably like one of those retarded degenerate kids in those Final Destination movies. He sees death everywhere and he’s talking to mystics and creepy Tony Todd looking motherfuckers trying to come up with a way to escape his fate.

So yeah, Chad Henne was able to find open receivers against the Lions. This also managed to allow him to avoid sacks for much of the day because he was able to just drop back and throw, drop back and throw, over and over and over again. I mean, you don’t have to sit in the pocket for too long when Brandon Marshall is 8 yards away from Vasher, you know? I said in the preview that the Dolphins would likely be able to move the ball through the air by going to a lot of short, quick passes which would neutralize the Lions pass rush. This is exactly what they did on their first drive. I also said that the field would then compress and they would lose much of the advantages that were gained by quick throws. This is also what happened for the most part and Henne’s numbers bear this out. I said this would be an example of a team being forced to play a bend but don’t break defense and, well . . . yeah. Eventually, Henne hanged himself with the rope he was given by the Lions defense.

I still thought the Lions defensive line would get to Henne more than they did, but that is where Vasher getting fooled over and over and over again by Marshall came into play. But, late in the game, Vasher tightened up his coverage. This was how he managed to pick Henne off. After getting fooled over and over again by Marshall, Vasher learned his lesson and nearly came up with a pick six in the fourth quarter. Later, he did pick off a pass. This tightening in coverage made all the difference as Henne became rattled and was forced to take an extra second or two every time he dropped back to pass. This didn’t result in any sacks, but it did result in the Lions flushing Henne out of the pocket several times and dragging him down after a one or two yard wounded buffalo scramble. That then caused Henne to get rid of the ball earlier, and try to force some things which led to his meltdown, Vasher’s interception, DeAndre Levy’s pick six, and . . . ballgame.

PREDICTION THE FIFTH: The Dolphins will run for a combined 110 yards, but neither Ronnie Brown nor Ricky Williams will look all that effective. One of them will break one frustrating run which sees busted tackles and poor tackling angles by the Lions secondary. Louis Delmas won’t play.

WHAT ACTUALLY HAPPENED: The Dolphins ran for a combined 154 yards, but honestly, neither Ronnie Brown nor Ricky Williams looked all that effective. Williams looked the best, running for 71 yards on 14 carries, but one of those was a 28 yarder, a frustrating run out of the Wildcat which saw a couple of missed arm tackles and a generally frustrating effort by the Lions linebackers and safeties. Take that run away and Williams would have only run for 43 yards on 13 carries. Brown, meanwhile, ran for only 37 yards on 12 carries. So, aside from that one Wildcat run, the Dolphins two stud running backs ran for 80 yards on 25 carries. So, honestly, I think I kinda got this one right.

I also was right about Delmas not playing. His absence was felt in both the run and the pass defense. He was replaced in the lineup at free safety by C.C. Brown and since C.C.’s nickname is “Can’t Cover”, well . . . yeah. Meanwhile, Brown’s 28 yard scamper, which at that point felt like a dagger since it came late in the game and set the Dolphins up for a critical score, probably wouldn’t have been so bad with Delmas in the lineup. Fortunately, that was really the only one really bad run the Lions gave up – well, other than a 16 yard reverse to Marlon Moore, but shit, those things happen – and I think that’s because the coaches knew that they couldn’t get away with John Wendling in the starting lineup. He was the culprit on several of Tampa Bay’s biggest runs last week. This week, like I said, the Lions went with C.C. Brown at free safety. C.C. might not be able to cover but he generally does pretty well against the run. Amari Spievey played strong safety, much like he has for much of the second half of the season and so that was the one position in the secondary where we got the standard performance. It was probably a tandem that hurt the pass defense a bit, but for the most part it was the right call because it was more effective against the run than a Wendling and either Brown or Spievey tandem would have been.

In looking at this, it’s actually kind of amazing that the Lions didn’t just get run out of the stadium with the collection of retreads they were forced to throw out there in the secondary against the Dolphins. At the end of the game, they were down to Vasher as their number one cornerback, and let’s not forget that for much of the season he was behind Jonathan fucking Wade on the depth chart. Aside from him, the options were Tye Hill, the recently resurrected Eric King, Prince Miller and Ernie Sims’ monkey. I would have loved to seen Monkey Sims finally get his opportunity, but Vasher and Hill held it together just enough to force Chad Henne to self-immolate and the result was a 34-27 Lions win. I’m not sure who’s going to be back there next season but what this recent run has taught me is that Gunther Cunningham and Jim Schwartz could coach the shit out of a rusty can if they needed to. I’m confident that with a healthy Delmas, maybe a key free agent signing and a decent draft pick, the Lions secondary can at least be good enough to give the defensive line time to consume souls and gnaw on the bones of the wicked. And maybe, just maybe, they can actually be pretty damn good. If that happens, then this defense – and this team, with a healthy Matthew Stafford and Jahvid Best – can do anything.




JP said...

Indeed, the coaching staff has been absolutely fantastic this year, and that includes before this little win streak began.

It's almost staggering the leap that the defense has made this year. I think it's important for people to remember just how bad things were just a year ago. The pass rush was so bad that we made Brady Quinn look like a future hall of famer. Opposing QB's regularly had 6-7 seconds of throwing time, which is just rediculous.

I wonder where all of the asshats that were saying that Old Man Ford needed to sack Schwartz and Co. went to? My guess is probably back under their bridge to jack off to Plucky's highlights.

Neil said...

Even when things weren't going well, the signs of progress were evident on both sides of the ball. With the ridiculous amount of injuries we have had to deal with, the Lions coaching staff should be given medals or at least given a discount on blowjobs from the local prostitutes. Either way.

AutospeedConcepts said...

The defense has played lights out....especially up front. I'd say the back 7 has performed better than all of our expectations....which were more than likely, very low.

Add in injuries across the board, back-ups coming in and doing their jobs in very good ways....can't ask for much more.

Offense. Has produced points despite inconsistency, injuries and the like. I'd venture to say that this team....along with another solid draft/FA signings and time to heal...come together as a team....will be feared both on offense/defense and special teams.

They are almost complete. When was the last time we as Lions fans have been able to even think about that?

Good job on the mngmt. Coaching. Players. This team IS better than their record wold suggest. Now lets get a push going next season and dare I say.....hopefully playoffs...???

Congrats to Megatron and Suh. Logan, Delmas, Wendling and Pettigrew....at this stage, honorable mention is better than nothing.

Neil said...

Yeah, that's the thing. Even the areas that need to be improved have for the most part been better than most of us expected. That's a sign of both good coaching and better times to come.

Jeffrey said...

I think you are way too harsh about the Hill pass to Pettigrew that was all Hill, Pettigrew was open by ten yards and it was a horrible overthrow no matter what Hill's reaction was. Check out Killer on Mlive for his tape review.

Neil said...

I've looked at all of Killer's tape reviews from the Miami game and can't find the one where he discusses that play. Can you give me a link?

My take is that Hill horrifically overthrew the ball because Pettigrew stopped running. You hear all the time now about QB's "throwing the receiver open", meaning they don't throw the ball to the receiver but to an open part of the field and trust the receiver to go get it. It was a play that required vision. Hill had it and Pettigrew just didn't see it. The result is something that looks like a horrific overthrow. If Pettigrew recognizes the possibility of the play, he's running before the ball is even released and then it's not an overthrow but a completion - or at least a potential completion. It was the only play that Hill had to make and I think he did his part. He and Pettigrew just weren't in sync. Maybe I'm wrong, but I feel pretty okay with this one.

Jeffrey said...

I was confused with Killer on WDFN, he said that Pettigrew didn't give up on it he turned around to see who it was thrown to and that Hill admited as much after the game. Sorry for confusion, I really enjoy your site

Neil said...

Oh, okay, thanks. The one thing we all know for sure about the play is that it was an incompletion and somebody messed up, which, sadly, we are all too used to as Lions fans.

In any event, thanks for taking the time to chime in, Jeffrey. Sometimes I'm right, sometimes I'm wrong, and when I am wrong, I don't mind somebody telling me that I fucked up. Thanks for reading, my dude and thanks for the insight.