Monday, August 27, 2012

Two Days Late Preseason "Live" Blog: Lions at Raiders

Today I "live" blog the Lions' third preseason game against the Oakland Raiders. I will only be blogging the first half, as I saw and commented on the second half on twitter. For my thoughts on the second half, head to my twitter timeline (hint: there was CAPSLOCK PANIC aplenty).

First Quarter

14:50 - Tully with the coverage, Suh with the sack. This is how things are supposed to go.

14:30 - That is not how things are supposed to go. This is a very well-blocked run by Raiders, but Corey Williams makes the mistake they needed. Williams tries to sidestep his blocker. Problem is: this blocker has no interest in Williams and heads to the second level. This hesitation by Williams gets him behind in the play and as a result, he also gets in Suh's way. Willie Young ALMOST gets a hand on him in the backfield but he was the only chance before this run was headed for the first down chains.

14:00 - Neato formation alert!

The Lions bring a safety into the box (John Wendling in this case) and put him on the end. The rest of the line shifts to the right. The Lions did this a lot on Saturday, and it's likely something we'll see against run-heavy teams.

12:30 - Defensive ends continue to get sucked in by misdirection plays, and safeties continue to bail them out with great positioning and tackling.

11:00 - Lions bring two linebackers to blitz on third and short and neither get there. It puzzles me how poor this team is at blitzing. Same story last year.

8:40 - Kind of shocking to type these words, but the secondary bailed out the rest of the defense on the first drive. Very solid tackling from the back four.

8:20 - Kevin Smith starts the game. I KNEW Leshoure didn't really exist.


7:05 - Great bubble screen set up for Burleson. Unfortunately, both Pettigrew and Peterman decide not to block anybody.


4:30 - So the story of the offensive line for the 20th year in a row is going to be: above average in pass protection, completely absent in run blocking. Great.


1:50 - Our kicker is better than yours.

End of first quarter: So our defense holds tight, and gets a three-and-out. Our offense drives pretty far down the field and gets some points. This game is going pretty well. We'll probably just cruise through the rest of the game. Yup. Nothing bad is going to happen the rest of the game.


Not only does Backus fail to seal the edge, but he's driven literally FIVE YARDS into the backfield. Another bad day for him (at least in terms of run blocking).

13:13 - Scheffler doesn't sell the run well enough on 3rd and short, and is completely covered. Stafford tries to fit the ball in a small window to Titus, but it's low. Nothing more frustrating than 3rd and short failures.

Oh, apparently something else important happened on this play. Leshoure hilariously whiffs on a block and things get considerably less hilarious when we find out the guy he missed broke a blood vessel in Stafford's left hand. BAD LESHOURE. SIT IN A CORNER AND THINK ABOUT WHAT YOU'VE DONE (It's so hard to yell at the little guy. You can see in his eyes he didn't mean to do it. But you gotta give him tough love or he'll think he's the alpha male.)

13:00 - Levy missed tackle. Drink.

11:30 - This is a great example of how the replacement refs' incompetency could cause serious injury. The Lions clearly jump offsides and encroach. The play should be blown dead, since Tulloch is in the backfield and has a free shot at anyone. Luckily, Tulloch assumes the play is going to be blown dead and gives up on the play. If Tully had played assuming there was no whistle, he could have seriously hurt someone not expecting to get hit before the play even started.

10:33 - Unreal catch by Heyward-Bay. I want to get mad at Justin Miller, but he got a hand in there and almost made a good play on a clear mismatch.

8:39 - Laughably bad pass interference call on Erik Coleman.

6:29 - I know they ended up ceding a touchdown, but it's good to know the Lions defense still excels in short-yardage situations. By the way, touchdown was the correct call on the McFadden run.

6:12 - Raiders announcers freaking out that Janikowski is injured, but HAVE FAILED TO MENTION THAT STAFFORD IS INJURED.

3:00 - Just a terrible outing by the offense after the Willie Young pick. First play, Backus fails to completely pull and block the streaking linebacker. Loss of one. Second play, Raiola gets pushed five yards back into Shaun Hill's grill, forcing a quick incompletion. Third play, low throw by Hill forces Megatron to fall and get no yards after the catch. Fourth down: another bad thrown by Hill on a gimme touchdown to Calvin.

Pretty disappointing to see Hill given two opportunities with great field position and turn them into three measly points. While the first drive wasn't really on him (badly missed illegal contact penalty), the second was. Field goals aren't going to cut it with this defense.

1:30 - Missed tackle by Justin Miller could have gotten the Lions off the field on third down. Can't have plays like that when the roster cuts ax is so near.

Overall Thoughts:
That wasn't nearly as bad as I thought. The defense held up fairly well, caused two turnovers, and didn't get burned for a big play outside of the ridiculous catch by Heyward-Bay. The biggest disappointments were the offensive line's run blocking and Shaun Hill's inaccuracies.

However, the secondary continues to make me NOT panic and is tackling well in run coverage. Stafford still moved the ball efficiently, and special teams looked much better. If Stafford would've been in the game, I have full confidence that the Lions would've led at halftime and there wouldn't have been any panic.

In the end, this game didn't teach me much I already didn't know. The run game will still struggle, the defense will bend but will be hard to break, the offense is reliant on Matthew Stafford. The only thing I really DID learn is that Mikel Leshoure exists...and that he gives me a #Leshouregasm

Monday, August 20, 2012

Three Days Late Preseason "Live" Blog!

I was out of town Friday when the Lions faced the Ravens and was only able to watch the first half from afar on an off-brand 32" flat screen in a small New Mexican burger joint. The following is my thoughts upon rewatching the game in the comfort of my own home via DVR technology this morning.

First Quarter:
15:00 - Man, that NFL on FOX theme song is delicious. The following commentary on off-season issues...not so much. I guess we better get used to both.

10 minutes into my DVR and still no football played. Better get used to this, too, I guess.

14:56 - Spievey gets pancaked on opening kickoff after the whistle and doesn't go into rage mode. Progress.

14:56 - *offsides penalty* Nevermind.

12:43 - Avril. Flashes of the San Diego game. Great early recognition of the quick pass.

12:37 - Jacob Lacey does a good job disrupting the route, but a better receiver makes the catch on that third down play.

12:22 - Love how FOX focuses on Ray Lewis, followed by the Lions running right at him and gaining eight. Good seal by Raiola.

11:47 - I thought the panic over the replacement refs was overblown. I was wrong. Ugly stuff with the ball positioning. Was clearly a full yard short.

10:24 - Peterman with a BIG whiff, causing a 4 yard loss. The running game worries: they linger.

9:57 - Awful job the the offensive line on this third and long. Ravens blitz up the A-gap and neither Peterman nor Raiola recognize it. Meanwhile, Peterman whiffs again on the guy he is blocking. Not a good series for him.

8:44 - Flashes of Fairley dominance on this 2nd and short. He athletically swims past his guy and meets Ray Rice four yards into the backfield. Levy does a good job evading his block and cleaning up the mess.

8:02 - Crap call on Fairley. Once again, Lions' strength makes hit look more violent than they are. Hit was barely late.

6:40 - Corey Williams destroyed. Doesn't recognize the counter run, finds himself flat-footed, then thoroughly pancaked. Don't expect to see him around next year.

5:52 - Chris Houston with his second endzone breakup this drive.

5:32 - Helluva breakup by Wendling. If only that cleared my anxieties about secondary depth. If only.

3:05 - Combination of bad read by Stafford and Pettigrew getting out-physicalled on the near pick. Stafford had Burleson early for an easy first down, while Pettigrew couldn't break free of the linebacker.

2:07 - Detroit's defense gets fooled by misdirection plays twice in a row, completely erasing Phil Donahue's beautiful punt.

1:22 - Wow. Just brilliant job by Thom Brennaman to subtly suggest that Fairley's offseason antics caused him to line up offsides. "Looks like Nick Fairley lined up in the neutral zone. I'll tell ya what...Nick Fairley...arrested twice during the offseason...he's facing a pair of trials in his home state of Alabama." *REF CALLS OFFSIDES PENALTY ON DEANDRE LEVY* "Uh..that could've gone against Fairley or the guy it was called on DeAndre Levy." Good cover-up. (to be fair, the penalty should've been on Fairley, but still. Brennaman's a dick.)

1:00 - Levy. Another missed tackle. Has to be his third of the quarter.

Second Quarter

14:48 - Erik Coleman, great run-stopping angle and tackle. Very Delmas-esque. Wendling follows it up with a 3rd down sack. Safeties: stop trying to make me comfortable with you.

13:32 - Titus getting manhandled on a designed play to him. Schwartz getting hot.

12:50 - Logan. Drop. I just don't see his worth on offense. And given how little he ever gets to return kickoffs with new kickoff rule, I really don't see his worth on the team going forward.

12:20 - Just a meager 96-yard drive gained almost completely by Calvin. He's the only receiver I know that can embarrass a DB so bad that it draws an offensive pass interference penalty.

12:13 - Raven's offensive twos are in, while Lions stay with their ones. However, Bentley takes over the two-corner spot for Lacey.

12:08 - Refs are ALL-OVER illegal man down field rulings.

8:31 - Say what you will about the Lions running backs, but I love all of their vision. Always finding the hole...assuming one exists.

7:51 - Great play all around on the Titus TD. It looks as if Backus makes a mistake by leaving an unblocked player on the edge, but, in reality, he did the right thing. Baltimore sends more guys than they can block, so Backus takes the inside blitzer, giving Stafford just the extra second he needs. Matt does a great job getting rid of the ball quickly and in the face of a defender and Titus does the rest.

6:42 - Lions depth beyond the front four on defense looking awful. Ashlee Palmer with a couple mistakes, Tahir Whitehead with a missed tackle,

5:00 - Hey there, Ryan Broyles. Nice to meet you.

3:29 - Andre Fluellen with a great play. First, he squeezes through the line causing the quarterback out of the pocket. Then gets rewarded with a free, blind-side shot at him and takes full advantage.

2:51 - Reiff getting work on the right side (Fox on left). Struggling a bit. First, gives the end the outside free, where Shaun Hill happens to be scrambling, then lets an end come through unblocked on the next play (unsure whether that was his fault).

0:34 - Ashlee Palmer missed tackle. Drink!

Third Quarter

I don't care if I'm not in it, this is my new Christmas card.
13:56 - Not sure what's going on but Gerberry and Reiff not on the same page. Continually letting one man through unblocked.

8:54 - How many "Fire Stan Kwan" tweets did I miss?

6:25 - Just made an audible gasp when someone rolled up on Reiff's ankle. Wasn't aware he was made of pure rubber. By the way, he settled in nicely. Good drive here.

4:27 - Not going to waste a lot of time on Kellen Moore. Just know this: if he's playing, the Lions' season is over.

Fourth Quarter:

15:00 - Willie Young vs. third team special teamers. Not. Fair.

13:57 -
Jim Schwartz smiles. There is now photogenic evidence of this happening. He looks like he's straining his entire body to do so. I'm sure his face is still sore for stretching those muscles that clearly haven't been used in years.

13:18 - Lions fail to do the one thing I want to see them do: pick up a third and short on the ground. Of course, the scab refs blow it and give them the first down anyway.

12:50 - Joique Bell: how to look simultaneous awesome and terrible on a play.

12:00 - Not sure what Young is still doing in, but the Lions should be protecting their future golden goose. He disrupted nearly every play in this drive.

7:56 - DVR mercifully gives out in the middle of the most awkward-looking Kellen Moore drive.

Overall thoughts:

  • Lions offense still hasn't really found its rhythm outside of throwing the ball to Calvin. But I'm not exactly worried.
  • Defensive backfield held up pretty well. Good to see Houston make some plays.
  • Defensive depth behind first stringers...a bit worrisome. Lot of missed tackles by linebackers.
  • Reiff looked decent but hesitant. Still very much a rookie. 

Wednesday, August 8, 2012

Decision 2012: Lions or Bears?

Asking around, you'll be hard pressed to find someone who doesn't view the Green Bay Packers as the NFC North's clear favorite going into the 2012 season. But ask someone who will be creeping in the Packers' shadow in second place, and you'll find yourself in an all-out warpath of bickering, condemning and hatred.

Mlive's latest version of "Ask Anwar" begins with two Lions fans complaining about the Bears getting too much hype in the offseason. ESPN's NFC North blogger Kevin Seifert's weekly chats have been dominated by smack talk between Detroit and Chicago. Lions fans are offended by the media's infatuation with the 2012 Bears. Bears fans are sickened by the pompous Lions fans who are way too excited over their one playoff berth.

At the crux of this debate are two key issues: which team was better in 2011, and which team improved most in the offseason? So let's answer those questions.

Which team was better in 2011?
To most Lions fans, the answer seems obvious. The Lions finished with two more wins, a postseason berth and scored over 100 points more than the Bears. Advantage Lions. But the answer is far more complicated. 

One way we can analyze which team was better is by looking at the head-to-head games between the two. In the first game, the two met in Detroit for the Lions' first home Monday Night Football game since 2001. The game was tight for the entire duration, with the Lions coming out on top after two big offensive plays. Both teams played incredibly well (especially Jay Cutler, who was running for his life the entire game). However, the Lions were aided by a wildly enthusiastic crowd who helped force NINE false start penalties. The Lions still looked like the better team that day, but hardly in a decisive manner.

The other head-to-head matchup came in week 10. The Lions were thoroughly mauled by the Bears, 37-13. In what was a seemingly essential game, it was surprising to see the Lions drop a game so decisively. Of course, the main defense by Lions fans was that Matthew Stafford had recently suffered a broken finger, and his play clearly showed he had not fully recovered. This point, however, was clearly refuted by Stafford himself. The truth is likely somewhere in between. Stafford's four interceptions cannot all be blamed on his finger, but at the same time, he wasn't playing like the kid who had only previously thrown four total interception all season. The Bears were clearly the better team that day, if for no other reason than the fact that they made fewer mistakes. 

Head-to-head matchups don't really seem to give us a clear conclusion. When both teams are playing their best, the Lions came out on top. But they also had a clear home-field advantage. We also saw that the Lions were probably much more prone to making mistakes, but an injured Stafford exacerbated that issue. Since the Lions finished with a better record, we can use that as a tie-breaker, right? Well, not exactly.

After the second matchup between the two, both teams stood at 6-3 and with nearly identical records in the tie-breakers. So here's a closer look at the two teams as they stood after week 10.

Lions: Points For: 252; Points Allowed: 184
Bears: Points For: 237; Points Allowed: 187

At the time, Football Outsiders had the Bears at 9th in DVOA while the Lions ranked 14th.

Any way you slice it, the teams were just about dead even. Then the rest of the season happened. The two teams clearly diverged.

The Lions went 4-3 down the stretch, while the Bears stumbled, finishing 2-5. It's impossible to ignore the fact that Jay Cutler was lost for the season in week 11 with a broken wrist. From there, the Bears lost to the Raiders by five, the Chiefs by seven, and the Broncos by three (in OT). With Cutler healthy, it is hard to imagine the Bears dropping all three of those games.

In fact, looking closer, we can see the exact impact losing Cutler (and Matt Forte later in the season) had on the team. Before Cutler went down, the Bears averaged 26.8 points a game. After he went down, the Bears averaged 14.2(!!). In none of those six remaining games did they ever reach the average amount of points a Cutler-led offense scored. Still not convinced? Well, the Bears were averaging 332.9 yards per game with Cutler under center. With him on the sidelines? 283. 

Meanwhile, the Lions squeaked out miracle games against the Vikings and Raiders. 

What I'm getting at is the Lions were much closer to a 9-7 team than they were an 11-5 team. Of their six losses, only two felt truly winnable: at home against the 49ers, where the Lions were a few inches short of stopping the Niners on a game-deciding fourth down conversion and the season finale against a second-string Packers team. However, the Lions could have easily lost games against the Cowboys, Vikings (twice), Raiders, and Panthers. 

And the Bears were a much better team than their 8-8 record suggests. Had Cutler not gone down, there's no way Chicago drops five of their final six games. Injuries are obviously a part of the game, but if Lions fans are going to use the broken finger excuse for the second Bears game, they have to admit that losing Cutler probably cost the Bears at least 1-2 game, likely more. And if Bears fans are going to complain about losing Cutler, they, too, have to admit that Stafford's injury hurt the Lions' chances that day in Soldier Field.

Now I'm not going to make any definitive statements about which team was better last year, because it's impossible to prove. But it's clear that both sides of the debate have valid points, and it's too close to say unequivocally.

Which team improved most in the offseason?

Again, the answer seems obvious when looking at things from the outside. The Bears made headlines in the offseason for their acquisition of star wide receiver Brandon Marshall and solid depth running back Michael Bush. The Lions made headlines in the offseason for all the wrong reasons. Countless arrests resulted in public embarrassment and the loss of a starting cornerback. 

Of course, the answer isn't as simple as that.

Both teams have glaring issues that were not addressed this offseason. The Bears had a lot of pass protection issues last year. Last season, they were sacked 49 times last year (fifth most). The positive spin the Bears have put on this issue is that they have improved their pass protection through addition by subtraction. Dropping offensive coordinator Mike Martz and transitioning to a more balanced offense will mask this deficiency, so the claims go.

The Lions secondary is the black eye they are trying to cover up. Already an issue going into the offseason, matters weren't made any better when projected starter Aaron Berry found himself in trouble with the law and eventually without a job. There's no doubt that this is the one part of the Lions' roster that actually took a step back from last year, but like the Bears, Lions fans are hard at working trying to calm the storm. Enter: Bill Bentley. Word out of camp is that Bentley is reeking havoc all over the field. That's relieving news for Lions fans, but it shouldn't calm all fears. Though they'll never admit it, Lions coaches are likely losing sleep over the fact that they may be starting a third-round rookie at cornerback week one of the 2012 season. And the depth at the corner and safety positions is terrifyingly slim.

While it appears the Bears have made a few more additions to improve this years' roster, that is not the only factor in deciding whether a team will improve or regress the following season. One of the most overlooked issues is progression of returning players.

Some of the Bears' key players are reaching the tail-end of their careers, including Brian Ulracher (age 34) and Julius Peppers (32). In fact, the average age of their projected starters* on defense is 28.5. Meanwhile, the Lions' key players on defense (Ndamukong Suh, Cliff Avril, etc.) are hitting the peaks of their careers. The average age of Lions defensive starters is 26.7. On offense, the Lions are actually a year older on average (28.5 to 27.5), but at key positions (WR, QB and RB) the Lions are younger and improving more.

So, again, the conclusion is inconclusive. The Bears have added more weapons this offseason, while the Lions spent the offseason fine-tuning the weapons they already had. Both teams are poised to make a playoff run this season, and there's no clear leader for second place in the NFC North. Lions fans feel victimized by the media because of the offseason antics, but the truth is the Lions were benefactors of an injured Cutler last year and still have some major concerns. Bears fans complain that they are being overlooked because of Cutler injuries last year, but the truth is the Lions took it to them with a healthy Cutler and the Bears still have questions on offense. Both teams are great candidates for wild card spots in the 2012 season but neither team has a clear better shot than the other.

*To determine projected starters, I used ESPN's current depth chart for both the Lions and Bears