Monday, September 23, 2013

Victory Mountains out of Molehills

A celebration worthy of a 2-1 record
Sunday, the Lions played their worst game of 2013 in Washington. They allowed the Redskins to total 120 rushing yards on 5.5 a carry. They could only muster 63 rushing yards at 2.7 a carry against a team that was giving up, on average, over 200 yards per game at 5.4 per rush. Their offense failed to score any points in the third quarter for the second straight week. And their special teams units were bad again, forcing the offense into tough situations.

This was a team they should have beat with ease, yet they need two fourth quarter breaks the seal the deal. Without the unforced Robert Griffin fumble or the "Calvin Johnson rule," I don't think the Lions win that game.

But they did win it.

They made plays when they needed to, and they got breaks when they usually were broken by them. The Lions' last true offensive drive was a thing of beauty. Up just three, the Lions of old, would have likely bled some clock, possibly tacked on a field goal, and would have watched the Redskins drive 80 yards for the game-winning score.

But Matthew Stafford, and a surprisingly aggressive coaching staff, led the Lions on a 9 play, 71 yard drive, draining 4:19 off the clock. The drive was astonishingly balanced, with six rushes and three passes. Though most of the yardage was gained on the three passes (60 yards, no incompletions), the running game bled clock and kept the defense honest.

However, the most important moment of this game occurred late in this drive. After a poor play call (and an even poorer spot by the refs), the Lions faced a 4th and inches situation.  The choice: kick a 30-yard field goal, go up by six, and let the defense hold the Redskins for the remaining five minutes, OR go for it, risking guaranteed points for a chance to go up two scores and bleed an additional minute or two off the clock.

Conventional wisdom always says, "Take the points." Force Washington to score a touchdown. The Lions defense, after all, had held up fairly well all game. But Jim Schwartz looked beyond conventionality and did a cost/benefit analysis. The risk of not making 4th and inches is much less than the reward of a potential touchdown. And not only did he make the right decision by going for it, they made the right, simple playcall of a QB sneak that I was begging for on third down. They got the first down. They aggressively went for the touchdown through the air two plays later, and they were rewarded with a win.

I want to stay away from cliches and avoid saying things like, "going for it there, and being aggressive is a 'winner's mentality.'" Too often aggressive play-calling is confused with a higher desire to win. Going for it on fourth down was the right call because it made sense mathematically, not because it was aggressive. I'm sure many of you were upset when the Lions decided to run the ball three times on their last possession, but it was the right call mathematically. It was done with the same winner's mentality that going for it on fourth down was. It was a risk/reward analysis that was calculated correctly. And it very well may have been the difference between a win and a loss.

In the NFL, almost every game is close, whether you play well or not. The key to victory is to take those little opportunities, and turn them into something bigger. So when RGIII stumble/slid and dropped the ball on the way to taking the lead, the Lions didn't just go three-and-out and give him another chance. They drove 65 yards and took the lead. And when the Lions finally got on the right side of the "Calvin Johnson rule," they didn't allow Griffin to complete the very next pass. They forced the Redskins to punt two plays later. And, most importantly, when given a chance to put the game away late, they threw conventionality to the side, and turned that 2-yard QB sneak into the game-winning touchdown.


Random thoughts:

Stafford is playing his best football right now. I plan on getting into this more later in the week, but he is showing poise in the pocket, his footwork looks better, he is reading the blitz and coverages at a veteran level and has somewhat improved his accuracy.

What a find Joique Bell was. His 9 yard pickup on the last scoring drive was huge, and just a brilliant display of his elusiveness. He also didn't drop the ball this week, which is nice.

I thought this was a pretty poor showing from the defense this week, despite only giving up 13 points. Linebackers and defensive ends were being victimized by cutbacks and play-action all game. They deserve credit for not giving up too many big plays and getting two turnovers. But the Redskins had seven drives of 30+ yards (the Lions only had five). That's not a good sign.

The Lions are 2-1, just one game behind the first-place, undefeated Chicago Bears. However, the three opponents the Lions have played are a collective 0-6 in games not against the Lions. Things may get bumpy next week against the Bears.

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