Thursday, September 20, 2012

Let's Talk Game Plans

Whenever a team – any team – loses a game, its fanbase loses its goddamn mind.  Even when it knows better, even when beforehand it warns each other that things probably aren’t going to go well, and even when it stands before the old gods and the new and proclaims that it won’t behave like a coked out ape on Spring Break if things don’t go well, it still goes berserk.   It doesn’t matter.  As soon as that game is over and as soon as that fanbase sees that its team is the one trailing on the scoreboard with the clock reading nothing but zeroes, the pitchforks come out, the lynch mobs are formed and pretty soon the streets run red with the blood of those too slow or too foolish to get out of the way.  Happens every time.

One of the most popular targets of the lynch mob – and hell, I’ve lynched a few in my day – are the coaches and their game plans.  I think you can see where I’m going with this.

Almost by its definition, a game plan is a failure if your team doesn’t win the game.  I mean, that’s why it’s called a game plan.  It’s the plan the coaches have to win the game.  So, if you lose, well, then shit, guess what, the plan didn’t work. That sounds almost hilariously stupid and simpleminded but it’s true.  That’s why it’s so easy to pick it apart after the game and call the coaches morons and shitheads and demand their blood.  Most of the time, the game plan could be exactly the same but if the team had won then everyone would be blowing their genius coaches and building monuments to their glory that would last a thousand years.  It’s overly harsh, but the truth is this: the success or failure of a game plan – at least in the eyes of most fans – is determined by one thing and one thing only: whether the team won or lost.  That’s it.  That’s the big secret.

It’s all too easy to attack the coaches for what didn’t work after a loss because, well, obviously something didn’t work.  Point to one lost game – just one – in which the fanbase felt perfectly satisfied afterward.  You can’t do it.  That’s because the idea is ludicrous. 

The predictability of all this can lead one to become a bitter crank (Hello!) and it can make for a hellish week in which everyone bitches and moans and tears their shirts, beats at their breasts and beseeches the gods for a lightning bolt to come down and smite their idiot coaches and players.  During this week, the fanbase turns on one another like vicious curs, and by Friday little Vietnamese children are photographed staggering out of their villages, sobbing with Agent Orange melted skin dripping away into a terrible wasteland of the soul.  Terrible, terrible . . .

And then the next game happens and everyone forgets what happened the week before.

It happens every week, every season, every year, and we all are slightly poorer and dumber for the experience.  With all that said, I feel compelled to rise from my perch and say some things about the game against the 49ers, if only because this shit isn’t going away fast enough and people seem to care what I think about such things.

I’ll preface this with the following: I am not a football coach.  I have never been a football coach, beyond weird games involving midgets, beer and mud anyway, and I don’t watch any film or obsessively pore over each and every play looking for answers from the almighty.  I’m just a dude who watches the games once, sees what he sees and then talks about it sometimes.  That’s it.  There will be no picture pages or anything like that, just me telling you what I saw – or what I thought I saw.  I might be wrong.  I might be right.  Feel free to call me a worthless cocksucker in the comments if you don’t agree with me.  That’s cool.

Okay, with all that said, here’s what I saw.

Everyone is shitting all over Scott Linehan and calling him a worthless cocksucker and throwing flaming bags of poop at his door because he made the terrible, unconscionable mistake of trying to run the ball even though the Lions run game consists largely of sorrow and unicorn wishes.  This seemed especially dumb considering the Lions were playing the 49ers, a team capable of shutting even good running teams down cold.  It seemed heinously, grotesquely stupid, the kind of stupid that makes people wonder if Linehan needs a special shunt in his head to drain away all the fluid that is surely collecting on his encephalitic brain, considering that the Lions have a dude in Matthew “Snake” Stafford who threw for over 5,000 yards last season and a wide receiver capable of jumping to Jupiter with Golden Retrievers for hands.

That’s all well and good and goddammit you have a point but the thing is, well, the thing is that Scott Linehan didn’t really have much of a choice.  GRUMBLE GRUMBLE HARRUMPH HARRUMPH HARRUMPH

Settle down, I hear you.  Just listen to me for a minute, okay.  Great defensive teams – and there really aren’t that many – force you to stray from your game plan.  I know, I know, good offensive teams should be able to force their game plan down that defense’s throat.  But honestly?  That’s some rah rah He-Man bullshit, caveman gibberish that is utterly meaningless other than as a worthless platitude, dumb chest thumping that only makes you look insecure, afraid to acknowledge reality in favor of worshipping a Fear based idiot’s dream.  Real life is a little more complicated than that.  Sure, the Lions and Linehan would like to impose their will on a defense – any defense – but the problem with that when it came to the game against the 49ers is this: the 49ers have one of those truly great defenses and in order to beat it, you’re gonna have to prove that you can do more than the one thing that you’re really, really good at. 

I’ll admit, part of this feels wrong to me, even as I write it.  Trust me, I want to say fuck it, start thumping my chest and say that all that bullshit that I just wrote is the lament of a coward and that if you go into a game playing by the other team’s rules, then hell, you’ve already lost.  And I think there probably is something to that.  But here’s the thing: that’s what makes a team like the 49ers great.  They don’t give you a choice.  Let me that say that again: THEY DON’T GIVE YOU A CHOICE.

It sucks but that’s the stark and terrible reality of it.  If you want to be upset about something, be pissed about that.  Rage against simple Truth.  It won’t get you anywhere but, hey, feel free.  It’s a hard thing to accept.  I know it is because I’m struggling with it the same as you are.  I don’t want that to be reality but, well, here we are.  The Lions and Linehan didn’t come out throwing the ball all over the field because of one simple reason: the 49ers didn’t give them a choice.

The whole game the 49ers kept two deep safeties back.  I don’t care who you are, who you have at quarterback, or how explosive your offense is, if a team with really, really good safeties and corners, which the 49ers have, decide to drop all of those guys into coverage you’re not going to be able to throw the ball with any sort of consistency.  You just aren’t.  Sure, you might make a few plays but you’re going to get burned a few times too.  To make matters worse, the Lions couldn’t really pick apart the middle of the field with their tight ends because the 49ers have two of the best cover linebackers in the league in Patrick Willis and Navarro Bowman.  The 49ers game plan was rock solid, fundamentally designed to take away the passing game that the Lions love so much.  Hell, if you don’t believe me, just look at their game against the Packers.  They did the exact same thing to them, and Aaron Rodgers – MVP Aaron Rodgers remember – looked just as shitty against them as the Lions and Stafford did.

So, unfortunately, the only way to attack that defense, to soften it up so that you can pass, is through the running game.  Normally, that type of defense is fundamentally flawed.  Because the safeties stay deep and because cover linebackers are usually more finesse players who struggle against a power running game, teams can run the ball at will, eventually forcing the safeties to come up and for the cover linebackers to be replaced with stouter stuff the run type players.  Once this happens, then an offense can rain down hell and fire from above.  That’s great.  The only problem is this: the 49ers defense is a freak defense.  Its awesome cover linebackers are ever better against the run than they are in coverage.  Meanwhile, the ferocious defensive line, led by the Smiths – Aldon and Justin, not Morrissey - combined with those awesome linebackers are able to stop just about any running game cold without the safeties having to come up to provide much in the way of help.  It sucks but, honestly, against that type of defense, what in the hell are you supposed to do?

It’s a defense that takes everything but the run game away and then dares you to run.  The problem is that, well, it can stop the run too.  Once that happens, what’s left?  You tell me.

So I don’t really blame Linehan for taking what the 49ers defense gave him.  That’s what you’re supposed to do.  If he didn’t, chances are Stafford – especially given the fact that he was possessed with a depressed Dan Orlovsky with mono – would have thrown seven interceptions and everyone would be killing Linehan this week for being stubborn and/or not recognizing that throwing into the 49ers defense was a fool’s game.  Instead of beating Linehan up what we should really be concerned with is the fact that when it’s basically given to them the Lions can’t run the ball well enough to soften a defense like that up.  The good thing is that I think there are very few defenses in the league that can replicate what the 49ers do so it shouldn’t really be an issue going forward.  This is not something that is likely to replicate itself week after week.  The problem, of course, is that it means that we’re in trouble whenever we do play the 49ers and, well, right now it looks like the road to the Super Bowl goes through San Francisco.  If we’re going to get where we ultimately want to go, we’re probably going to have to beat these assholes at some point.

Really, the reason why people are upset - even if they don’t really understand that this is the reason -  has nothing really to do with Linehan and more to do with the fact that their team – our team – is fundamentally flawed.  Sorry.  I hate to have to tell you that but it’s true.  It’s what I mean when I say – as I’ve been saying since before the game – that the 49ers are just better than the Lions right now.

Still, there comes a point when I think you just have to say fuck it and throw it up to a triple covered Calvin Johnson.  Let’s not pretend like that isn’t an option.  We’ve seen that dude do ridiculous things on a football field and so when nothing else works – and it wasn’t working against the 49ers – just tear up the game plan and start heaving that son of a bitch up and hope St. Calvin sanctifies that shit.  Where I disagree with some people is in saying that should have been the game plan all along.  I think that’s kinda suicidal and ultimately, unsustainable.  Sure, he’s great and amazing and all that shit but I just have a hard time with reducing our game plan to Chuck It Up To Calvin And Pray.  That just feels fake somehow, like we’d be getting by on the transcendent greatness of one player and not on the overall strength of the team, and dudes and lady dudes, let me tell you, we’ve done that before.  It was called the Barry Sanders era and for as fun as that time was, it was never really a time of team greatness, was it?  I want more than that this time.  I want more than just relying on one player to carry you because everyone else is inept.  So I’m not going to kill Scott Linehan for at least trying to find an offense that works without the need for miracles and saints and all that shit.  Still, at some point you need to just THROW CALVIN THE GODDAMN BALL, even if he is triple covered.  When nothing else works, well, miracles it is.

There has also been some grumbling about the defense, about Gun and the boys, and honestly?  I think people have a point there.  It’s great that the Lions have a philosophy that they’re committed to but haven’t we seen enough to realize that, well, it’s kinda flawed?  Yes, yes, rush the quarterback at all costs.  Kill him and force turnovers.  That’s great when it works.  When it doesn’t, you’re fucked.  It just seems too one dimensional and while I am board with it as a primary game plan, if it’s not working it’s not working and banging your head against the wall until it’s just a bloody pile of mush and brains isn’t going to help much, you know? 

Let me say it again: as a primary game plan, the idea is a good one.  Disrupt the passing game, take the ball away and live with the occasional big play on the ground due to over-aggressiveness.  I like it and it plays well in today’s bombs away, pass happy NFL.  The problem, as we have seen the last couple of years is that when it’s not working, well, you’re in trouble.  It doesn’t help that the Lions defensive backfield at this point consists of a ball of twine, a crippled goat and Kid Rock smoking a blunt.  If the defensive line isn’t getting to the quarterback with almost superhuman speed then things might get ugly.  Right now, for all the talent along the defensive line, the Lions defense is just too one-dimensional.  By reducing all of that talent to sack artists, like Bruce Irvin or one of those dudes they bring in on third down just to rush the passer, only on every single down, you negate the talent advantage those dudes give you.  Look, no one should be able to run on the middle of a defense consisting of Ndamukong Suh, Sammie Hill and Corey Williams with a known run stuffer like Stephen Tulloch roaming behind them.  It just shouldn’t happen.  Part of that needs to be put on the players themselves, especially Suh, who seems to get taken out of the game way too easily with misdirection plays and wham blocks and all that shit.  He needs to play smarter, savvier, understand that is going to happen and then adjust for it.

But part of that needs to be put on the coaching and on the game plan too, right?  I mean, a big part of the reason Suh and the boys look like out of control idiots, falling for the same bullshit time after time after time, is because that’s what they’re being told to do.  They’re being told “Hey, don’t worry about that shit, just go find the quarterback, break his back and make him humble.”  (I so want that to be an exact quote.  I can picture Gun barking that.)  And like I said, hey, that’s great for a primary game plan but things change, teams adjust and it’s up to you to follow suit.  What I’ve been most disturbed by the last couple of seasons is that when teams do adjust, the Lions don’t.  They just stubbornly slam ahead with their system, like slavish acolytes, more in love with proving the supremacy of their precious philosophy than with doing whatever it takes to win the damn game.

That said, it’s not as simple as all that.  I understand that.  You simply can’t coach – and teach – dudes to do one thing and then turn around and tell them to do something totally different.  I think people need to understand that.  You can’t just throw out the playbook because it isn’t working and start calling plays that the guys have no experience running.  Still, I think the Lions would be better served if they started implementing some different packages and approaches in packages and then slowly working them into the game plan so that when you do have to adjust, you’ll be ready.

I will say one thing – and I talked about this with my boy, the noble Mountain Hebrew, in the comment section of my last piece – the Lions run defense has been noticeably better this season.  In the first game against the Rams, Steven Jackson was basically completely stuffed, which is even more impressive when you remember him running wild against this same defense in the past.  And then in the game against the 49ers, while the run defense certainly wasn’t great – hell, it wasn’t even good if you want to be honest about it – giving up over 5 yards per carry, 29 of that came on a reverse to Mario Manningham.  You take that out and the 49ers ran for 119 yards on 26 carries.  That’s still more than you’d like to see, and the yards per carry still isn’t that great – just a hair under 5 yards – but Frank Gore didn’t get to 100 yards and the 49ers never broke the big runs like they did in last year’s miserable game.  And when you consider that the 49ers offense is built around that run game, well, then it’s not that bad.  Again, it’s not good, but it was good enough, I think, to give the Lions a legitimate shot to win the game had the offense showed up with Matthew Stafford at quarterback and not Dan Orlovsky. 

So . . . I don’t know, maybe the defense has made all the necessary adjustments already and I just wasted a billion words ranting and raving unnecessarily.  It wouldn’t be the first time.  Frankly, I hope that’s the case.  I think my fears regarding the defense are based more on last year – which, let’s be honest, from a defensive standpoint was pretty disappointing, even leaving aside those last couple of apocalyptic games when they were treated like cheap whores in Patrick Bateman’s apartment – than on anything that has happened this year.  If anything, I might even say I’m slightly encouraged by what I’ve seen out of the defense so far, but I still see enough maddening shit to make me worried that things can go to butt town in a hurry.  Maybe that doesn’t make a whole lot of sense, or hell, maybe it does.  I don’t know.  I’m just gibbering like an idiot at this point.  I didn’t quite mean for this to be so long but sometimes when I get going I get just a tad carried away.  After all, as my doctor said when he had his hand shoved my ass, it’s important to be thorough.  And on that ridiculous note, let’s just get the hell out of here.


UpHere said...

Good post. I got nothing.

Bubbalouuey said...

Makes a lot of sense. I think Little Snake's problems are with magnets. ie the "Power Balance" wrist band he wears everywhere even in the ESPN commercial I asked one of the Mlive guys and he thought I was nuts but I know that you are brighter than that, They don't have him on the website anymore but there are still utubes online of it.

JP said...

I simply have the gut feeling that the Lions played that game with the expectation that they will make the playoffs, regardless of outcome, and that they'd save Snake Stafford and their wide outs and T.E's and from the punishment over the middle. And by god, they were going to get punished over the middle against the Niners. I'm not here to argue over how good the Niners are.

You talk about truths, but the truth is that as long as this coaching staff has been in place, and yes I'm even talking about when Hill and Stanton were playing, we have never been a 50/50 type offence. Our strength's lie in the passing game, from our O line, to our TE's to our Wide outs, and even our running backs. We are a pass first offence.

It just seems like we were "living to play another day". Playing to preserve our lineup for next week, but shit, that's a surefire way to a early fucking holiday, just ask the Tigers. Fuck, I don't know where I'm heading with this, and more than likely it's going nowhere anyhow. Perhaps I'm reading more into this than I should.

As I've mentioned before, I hope that we play the Niners again in a single elimination match come January. Win or lose, I would be damn surprised if the Lions called a game like they did on this past Sunday.

P.S. Hoegaarden is a hell of a beer

Neil said...

I would agree with all that but our strength was negated. That was kinda my whole point. I think the coaches would have gladly aired it out all day long but it was taken away by what San Francisco was doing.

In short (and I know that's a hilarious phrase coming from me) the Lions didn't come out desiring to run the ball. They ran the ball because throwing on every down would have been suicide. It simply wasn't there.

We are a pass first offense. Absolutely. You know this, I know this and most importantly, the coaches know this. But the 49ers defense was designed to take that away and it did. The Lions weren't running the ball because they wanted to establish a 50/50 balanced offense but because the 49ers took away the passing game and left the Lions no choice but to try to run. That's what the 49ers defense does. That's its beauty. Now, you can say that the Lions should have tried to pass against it anyway - and hell, they probably should have taken a few more risks - but that would be like storming the castle walls naked even though there are 10,000 men defending it with arrows and buckets filled with hot oil. Sure, it's noble and yeah, it proves your faith in your strength, but goddammit, it doesn't change the fact that you're still gonna die.

People need to give the 49ers more credit and discredit the Lions coaches less. The offense's struggles had more to do with what the defense was doing than what the offense wasn't doing. That's all I'm saying.

Neil said...

"Makes a lot of sense. I think Little Snake's problems are with magnets. ie the "Power Balance" wrist band he wears everywhere even in the ESPN commercial I asked one of the Mlive guys and he thought I was nuts but I know that you are brighter than that, They don't have him on the website anymore but there are still utubes online of it."

This theory is completely nuts and fits this blog like a goddamn glove. Seriously, it's perfect and obviously it's true. I'm just ashamed I didn't think of it. Bravo, noble Bubbalouuey. Bravo!

Mr. Radon said...

"It’s a defense that takes everything but the run game away and then dares you to run. The problem is that, well, it can stop the run too. Once that happens, what’s left? You tell me."

Fake punts? I mean, if you bring your punt unit on the field on 2nd down, you're pretty much begging the other team to call a timeout just to figure out what's going on. That takes away their clock management.

I worry about Ben Graham throwing it through the uprights or however you play Aussie-rules, but trust me - promise that man a barrel of gasoline and some vegemite and he will find a spiked-shoulder-padded, spear-through-the-neck, glittery-Tina-Turner, that's-not-a-knife way to do it.

Neil said...

I'm all about putting The Great Willie Young in the game at fullback and seeing what happens but your fake punt idea has merit too. Time to think outside the box.

Marc said...

Fuck it. Just put Suh in at fullback and let him drag 3 or 4 49r's defenders with his paws while carryin' the rock and lets see how that works out....???

*just sayin'....*

SandyC said...

I like the creativity being shown in the comments. Maybe bringing on the punt unit on 2nd down is a SLIGHT stretch, but hell, we saw how the element of surprise worked with the Packers fake field goal vs. a strength of the Bears - Special Teams - for a TD. It could be that the more surprising the play call, the more effective it will be against a stout Niners D.

Here's what I would like to see that I didn't too much last Sunday: variety in the running game. Use the running backs as pass catchers, do some bubble screens, reverses, even maybe a quarterback draw. I know, you're laughing about Stafford being a part of the running game. The thing is, it would be surprising as hell, and therefore potentially effective.

Like JP said, it seemed like we were living to play another day. It was almost like we thought it was the preseason and kept the playbook locked past page 5 of the intro.

The single biggest play by the Lions offense came on a short pass to Joique Bell. Unexpected and effective with 40+ YAC.

I hope that Broyles watches the tape on this game as a daily ritual until January. I think he could make the Niners get away from their game plan by moving the chains on 8-12 yard pick-ups in the slot. I hope we don't use him until after the bye, and then only sparingly until the postseason.

Oh, and Neil, you are a worthless cocksucker.

Neil said...

I was just waiting for someone to say it.

Also, I like the idea that we should have been more creative in the run game. That has a lot of merit, especially since we've seen the Lions move the ball that way in the past. The only thing is that I think they tried that and it didn't really work. One of the first plays of the game was a reverse to Burleson that was eaten up after, like, a yard. In fact, one of my impressions from the game while I was watching it was that for as good as the 49ers are conventionally, they might be even better at protecting the edge on defense. I really think they were just that good. I know, I know, it kinda sounds like I'm in love with the 49ers and I guess I kinda am. Well, I'm that impressed I should say. I still hate them and want them to be sodomized by a gang of mutant werewolves with chainsaws for penises but still, I'm just giving credit where credit is due.

TuffLynx said...

You are my hero Neil! You have managed to sum up, in a couple thousand words, exactly what I thought.

Hell, I have been fighting off the barbarian hordes on Pride of Detroit that have been dancing around the campfire while they burn Schwartz and Linehan in effigy. OK. it is really only one barbarian, but he is really big.

All I know is, when the Lions lose, it is like some designer hallucinogen is taken in large doses by part of the fanbase. The next day it is like you are fighting off the freaking zombie apocalypse or some crazy shit like that.

Neil said...

Yeah, whenever they lose it's like awww shit, here we go and then I have to put on a helmet and start beating people with a stick.