Monday, August 31, 2009

Lions 18, Colts 17.

Thoughts and Reactions to the Lions Third Preseason Game:

The Lions third preseason game against the Colts was a good one. Lions won, 18-17, thanks to a gutsy 2-point conversion late in the fourth quarter. I was actually able to watch this game from start to finish, which was great. To make my analysis more professional and thorough, I even took a few notes during the game so I wouldn’t forget all the little details. Unfortunately my notes got washed in the pockets of my shorts. That’s okay, I didn’t really need them anyway.

Let’s start with some thoughts and observations about the offense:

-Culpepper: 7-12, 67 yards and 1 TD. Played two offensive drives, both time-consuming with a good mix of run and pass. The first drive was killed by a stupid offensive penalty (more on that later), the second resulted in a TD to Bryant Johnson. Of Daunte’s 12 attempts, five went to running backs, two went to tight ends, and the rest went to Megatron, except the touchdown. Five passes to running backs tells me that Culpepper is going through his reads, not forcing anything, and also playing to the strengths of the offense and exposing the weaknesses of the defense. The Colts have always struggled against short passes, and Kevin Smith is great catching the ball out of the backfield. Culpepper understood that and made the right throws at the right time to move the ball. His accuracy was good, with the exception of one bad overthrow of Fitzsimmons, who was open deep. Daunte’s deep ball isn’t as good as it once one, and is certainly not as good as Stafford’s, but coming off an 0-16 season, the Lions shouldn’t be as worried about big plays as little plays. We just need to limit turnovers, move the ball in short chunks, and sustain drives. That’s why Daunte Culpepper should start week 1.

-Stafford: Not a bad game at all, 13-19, 160 yards, and one meaningless pick with 20 seconds left in the half. Stafford played four drives, and produced only a field goal. Matt also was able to sustain drives and dominate time of possession, but he had more luck that Culpepper did. The Lions also ran the ball a lot more when Stafford was in, especially early. The 37-yard strike to Calvin on 3rd down was the best throw I’ve seen Matt make yet. But not being able to punch the ball in the end zone, after 1st and goal from the 4? That’s terrible. You have a 6’5’’ receiver with amazing hands and unparalleled leaping ability. Score a touchdown.
Other thoughts on Stafford:
-He’s a gunslinger. He trusts his arm more than any Lions QB I’ve seen in a long, long time and tries to squeeze the ball into tight coverage. That’s an okay thing if you’re a smart quarterback, but if the defense can read your mind like an open book, you’re going to throw a ton of picks. If Stafford starts from week 1, it’s going to be close to a 20 INT season.
-He’s a rookie. He looks and plays like a rookie. His pocket presence is very unnatural. He doesn’t read defenses well or go through his options before passing. He doesn’t look the safety off. He looks a bit overwhelmed by the speed of the defense. It’s okay to be a rookie, but Stafford is definitely a rookie.
-He’s a brat. Twice I saw him berate teammates on the open field for dropping balls or running the wrong routes. Maybe it was their fault, maybe not. Either way, you don’t act like that. Show some leadership and confidence in your teammates. Just because you have $72 million dollars doesn’t mean you don’t make mistakes. Not cool.

-Drew Henson played another great game, but he’s the #3 quarterback, so I’m not really excited or concerned. As for the rest of the offense …

-Scott Linehan likes to call a lot of play-action. With the running game actually somewhat effective, the play-action was working. I noticed that Culpepper ran it better than Stafford; he looked more natural, more believable on the fake and more composed in a less steady pocket. Stafford’s fake handoff looks like a mini-seizure. Did you see the one play where he fake handed-off to his right, while Morris stood to his left, looking at him like “You idiot, what are you doing!” That was super funny. Except for the 15 yard sack.

-What can be said about the offensive line? They created a pocket and gave all three quarterbacks time to pass. They were great! Superb in the screen passing game, picking up blitzes, and they even had a push in the running game. It should be noted that the Colts defensive line isn’t great, but still, progress is progress. Except for a few idiotic penalties, namely by against Cherilus and Rameriz, the offensive line played a near flawless game.

-Calvin Johnson is simply amazing. Amazing, amazing, amazing.

-Pettigrew! He finally played, and he didn’t disappoint me at all. He only caught 2 passes for 24 yards, but I loved watching him block. He’s huge and strong and overpowering. Hall of Fame tight end Charlie Sanders talked about Pettigrew’s play from the sideline during the telecast, and sounded sincerely impressed. He said that Pettigrew has the natural, unteachable feel-for-the-game and makes the right moves after he catches the ball. True. But mostly, I loved watching him block. He’s a beast.

-Bryant Johnson, the Lions #2 receiver behind Calvin, only caught the one pass for the TD. A bunch of other dodo WRs caught passes here and there, but the impressive guy was rookie Derrick Williams. He’s fast and elusive (hence, he’s a kick returner), but he also showed good hands and smart route running. I don’t know why Dennis Northcutt hasn’t played yet or what he’s waiting for, but he may have some competition for the #3/slot role. Williams is faster and has a better chance of breaking a big play. But Northcutt has NFL experience and crisper route running ability. We’ll see what happens.

-As for the rest of the WRs, some guys will need to be cut. Between Jennings, Standeford, Colbert, Boldin, Looker and Gronkowski, only one or two will make the team as receivers. Looker and Jennings have been the two most deserving in my estimation, but I’d like to keep D.J. Boldin around (Anquan’s little brother) just to see what he can do. Colbert must be cut - he's horrible. Not sure where any of these guys factor into special teams.

-Tight ends and running backs will also need to be cut soon. Maurice Morris will be the #2 RB, even though he played slow and boring compared to lightning-fast rookie Aaron Brown, who is so fun to watch. While Morris will probably spell Kevin Smith and see around 20% of the carries, Brown will be the “change-of-pace” back who tries to bust a big play with his speed. That guy is seriously FAST. Sort of a Jerious Norwood or Leon Washington type of player. Avion Cason and Brian Calhoun are old news and I wish them well on their job search in the coming weeks. As for tight ends, I don’t know who will be after Pettigrew, but it really won’t matter unless Brandon suffers an injury. Personally, I’d prefer to cut Fitzsimmons and anyone else who reminds me of going 0-16.

-What’s up with all the jumbo packages? Desmond Howard wouldn’t stop talking about how much he loved the jumbo package. In case you’re wondering, what I’m referring to is when two fullbacks –namely, Jermone Felton and Terrelle Smith- are lined up in the backfield. The Lions love Felton’s running ability, and for good reason. He was sweet against the Browns and for the early part of the Colts game. But then we got down to the 9 yard line and gave Felton the ball four times in a row. No touchdown. No touchdown. No gain. No gain. If a fullback can’t punch the ball into the end zone from the 9 yard line on four attempts, then he becomes simply a blocker. The jumbo package may be officially dead after that failure.

-Speaking of that sequence of plays, yes, I liked the risk by Coach Schwartz to go for it on 4th and 1. But do you know what the clinical definition of “idiot” is? Quote: “Someone who repeats a course of action but expects different results.” I’m not making that up. Give the ball to Felton FOUR PLAYS in a row, and get stuffed FOUR TIMES. Come on Coach, how about some play-action? A QB-rollout, a jump ball, or at least a pitch? Lack of creativity has always been a mainstay of Lions coaches. Not sure if that was Schwartz or Linehan’s decision, but either way, it was idiotic. Literally.

-I haven’t said enough about Kevin Smith yet. He played well, his best game of the preseason for sure. He was only on the field for two drives (perhaps an inclination that Culpepper is closing in on the starting job?), but he made the most of his time with 8 carries and 3 receptions for a total of 83 yards. Smith looked terrific on some plays and anemic on others. He was no where near as bad as last week. The thing about Kevin Smith is this: he has very specific strengths and weaknesses. He’s not good up the middle. He’s good in the open field. He’s good at following blockers. He’s not good at creating his own play. He’s not very fast. He’s difficult to tackle in the open field. He’s easy to tackle in the backfield. He’s a great receiver on screens. He’s not good at going between the guards. Do you see the pattern? He’s an ideal fit for a zone-blocking scheme, but that’s about it. The million-dollar question is: will Scott Linehan stick with the zone-blocking scheme, even though it sucked last year, or are they going to try to force Smith to be something he’s not? Will they tailor the play-calling to his strengths, or delude themselves into believing that he has no weaknesses? I hope they are smart, but it seems more typical of Lions’ coaching staff to be prideful and ignorant. My fear is that we’re going to see Kevin Smith up the middle 15 times a game, all season long, and fans are going to start saying things like “Smith sucks, he just gets tackled by the first guy every time” and “Why does he have to run right into the line and fall down like that?” but really, it’s going to be Linehan’s fault. Smith needs to run counter plays and draws, he needs a pulling guard and a lead fullback and he works really well in the short passing game. Plunge and smash plays aren’t going to work with him. He’s not Adrian Peterson, he’s Kevin Smith. That’s why he wasn’t drafted until the third round. He’s a certain kind of running back who needs to play a certain style. He’s kind of needy. But you know what, with the addition of Pettigrew’s blocking ability, I think the zone-blocking scheme is still worth another try. Smith looked really good on some plays Saturday. There was the 24-yard run off left-tackle, the 10-yard completion on third and 9, and the 19-yard completion a few plays later. He ran well on the outsides, and quite poorly up the middle. I like Kevin Smith, but I don’t love him.

-Considering the Colts played without their star defensive player Bob Sanders and don’t have a great defense in the first place (the only team that allowed more passing yards last season than the Colts was … you guessed it, the Lions), let’s not get too excited about the 412 total yards of offense. True, the offensive numbers look beautiful: third downs were 60% and we sustained long drives while dominating time of possession, but it was the Colts without Bob Sanders. It wasn’t the Vikings, Bears or Packers. It wasn’t even the Browns. BUT, I’ll try not to be too much of a downer, and I’ll just say this about the offense: Go Daunte!

Before I talk about the defense, how about a few words about the special teams:

Awful. Pathetic. Fire Stan Kwon. BOO!

Now, the defense…

-The first drive of the game was a nightmare. Peyton Manning had his way, marched down the field and threw a touchdown like he was bored out of his mind. HOWEVER, that 36-yard penalty on Williams James for pass interference was very questionable. In fact I might even call it bull crap. So if we allowed a touchdown to one of the best QBs of all time by virtue of a 40 yard fluke penalty, I think I’m okay with that.

-After that drive, the Lions clamped down and held #18 to nothing on the next possession. Foote and Peterson were everywhere in the first quarter, making just about every tackle. So it was fitting on 3rd and 5 when Gunther Cunningham sent Peterson on a blitz, which the Colts anticipated and picked up. But Foote trailed a step behind him, which the Colts did not expect, and Manning fell to the ground without being touched. He sacked himself. He knew he was going to be hit, so he simply laid down. That may have been the best defensive play of the game for the Lions. The perfect play-call, perfect execution and a perfect result on third down.

-I should be happy that the Lions stuffed the Colts running game to just 3 yards in the first half (Coach Schwartz certainly was), but I don’t think it was a big deal, for the following two reasons: one, Joseph Addai is terrible. He’s slow, and he stinks. And two, Peyton Manning passed the ball on almost every play. The Colts only ran the ball five times. But, five times for 3 yards – that is pretty good run defense.

-In the second half, it was more like what you would expect, with the Lions giving up 47 yards on the ground. But considering that Donald Brown, who ran 5 times for only 16 yards, is an explosive back with great speed, and the Lions didn’t surrender a 60-yard TD run, we should call that major progress. To be frankly honest, the tackling was solid on Saturday. Gunther Cunningham preached the importance of sound tackling all week in practice, and it actually seemed to pay off. The Colts gained an average of only 2.6 yards per running play. That’s terrific defense. Way to go Lions.

-To be fair, the Lions got lucky in the second quarter, when Anthony Gonzalez dropped a perfect pass on the right sideline that would have gone for a 35 or 40 yard gain, if not more. Stupid Gonzalez is on my fantasy team, so he better catch that in the regular season. Hopefully Manning will still be willing to throw to him. But I’m glad he dropped it against the Lions. But let’s be honest, that was lucky; we dodged a bullet there. It would have been 14-10 Colts at halftime instead of 10-7 Lions.

-Louis Delmas did not have the dominant performance I was hoping for. He was a step slow and looked like he was more interested in making a big hit than defending the pass. But, as a safety, Delmas’s job is to read the play quickly and react. Against Peyton Manning, that’s virtually impossible. You have to be Troy Polamalu to do that against Manning. Seriously, no other safety is smart enough to guess what Manning is going to do. Delmas will fare better against less cerebral quarterbacks, which is to say, all other NFL quarterbacks. I’m not worried about the off-night.

-Unfortunately, we face Drew Brees in week one. That’s not going to be fun for anyone on the defense.

-The Lions have never been able to stop tight ends. Dallas Clark was everywhere. Fortunately, we won’t play against a TE as good as Clark all season. In fact Chris Cooley and Greg Olsen are the only real pass-catching threats we face all year. Of course, I say that now, but Jeremy “The Biggest Ass in the World” Shockey will probably light up the Lions for 4 touchdowns.

-The defensive line didn’t do much. No pass rush. They stuffed the run pretty darn well, though, as I said earlier.

-At least Phil Buchanan didn’t get burned. The secondary actually held their own against Peyton, who probably wasn’t trying as hard as he could. Anthony Henry looked like a real cornerback. Williams James made a few great plays, but also some crappy plays. The penalty that set up the Colts first touchdown was detrimental, but I think the coaching staff will see on the tape that the call was questionable. In short, I don’t think it hurts James’s chances of making the team. I like him as a #4 CB.

-Backup safety Marquand Manuel caught a pick in the fourth quarter that bounced off some reserve receiver's hands and went fifty feet in the air. It was a pretty easy pick. Manuel also had a few tackles and seemed to gravitate toward the ball, which is a good sign for someone who plays safety. The starting job opposite Delmas is still open to competition, and while Manuel’s interception stands out on the stat sheet, his play was pretty solid throughout. But let's be honest, he ain't gonna start. It's probably gonna be Pearson. Boo.

-Cliff Avril is a stud. With Jared DeVries’s season-ending injury, Avril now has a chance to start all 16 games and rack up the sacks. Avril, similar to many other Lions players, does some things very well and other things very poorly. But rushing the passer he does well, and we need that badly.

-Speaking of studs, DeAndre Freaking Levy! Who is this guy, where did he come from? The dude is unbelievable. I couldn’t tell if that was Levy or Ernie Sims in the second half. He was everywhere, making every tackle and breaking up passes too. He’s capable of playing all three LBs positions, which shows that not only is he a physical monster but also very smart. If any of the three starting linebackers are injured, Levy is the guy I hope fills in.

-The Colts backup quarterback was a tool. So when the defense played quite well in the second half, it wasn’t a huge deal to me.

I’m getting excited for the regular season. Excited, but also very nervous. One more preseason game coming up against the Bills, and still a lot of work to do. Players to cut and decisions to make. A quarterback to choose. A team to inspire. A city to save.

Man, I didn’t mean for that to be so poetic at the end. It just kind of happened.

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