A lot of hype and hope for week one’s matchup with the high-powered Saints was met with crushing disappointment. Drew Brees threw for six touchdowns against a bewildered Lions secondary. Matt Stafford threw three interceptions and no touchdowns. Backup Mike Bell ran for 143 yards and over 5.0 yards per carry. Kevin Smith ran the ball 15 times for 20 yards. The Saints converted 70% of their third-downs; the Lions converted a measly 22%. The Lions committed eight penalties, had thirteen minutes less time-of-possession than the Saints, and were unable to punch the ball into the endzone on two drives that began in the red zone. Most shockingly of all, the one bright side of the Lions performance was, believe it or not, the special teams. They forced two fumbles, blocked a field goal and had 235 return yards (an average of 33 yards per return) thanks to Aaron Brown and Dennis Northcutt.
But alas, the game is won and lost by offense and defense, not special teams. Especially in a game as unbalanced in talent as this one was. My gut reaction is to berate the Lions defense for their clumsy performance, but how can I ignore the giant stinker that Stafford put up in his debut? It’s seems that the most honest and accurate way I can examine this game is by asking the following question: who was worse, the offense or the defense? Who is the most to blame? Not a fun question to ask, but an important question that should be explored.
Neither side of the ball should be free from blame. The announcers made far too many excuses for Stafford’s bad play throughout the game and he does not deserve a free pass through the NFL. The defense doesn’t deserve much credit either, but I’m not yet convinced that this defense is a lost cause. We know what we have with Foote and Peterson and Sims and they all played pretty well. True, there was absolutely no pass rush hurrying Drew Brees, but it wasn’t for lack of effort. I actually think Brees should be given more credit for the job he did in this game; it wasn’t as easy as it looked. His ability to manipulate the pocket, step up and buy time for himself is what makes him one of the best in the NFL. Next week we get Favre and even though the Viking’s offense line is excellent, I expect to see a much more formidable pass rush. That all being said, the defense still wasn’t good.
So how do we divide up the blame for this 45-27 loss? There’s certainly a lot to go around and a lot of deserving candidates, but I’m going to be honest and blunt and say the biggest chunk of blame rests solely of Stafford’s shoulders. Rookie or not, you have to give your team a chance to win in the NFL. It’s not an internship or an apprenticeship or an experiment, it’s a profession and you are judged by results. It always takes the Detroit media too long to recognize truly horrible players; we gave Joey four years too many and even entertained the thought of Darko being a valid NBA player for far too long. I’m not giving Stafford a long leash – not for the $72 million he’s being paid. Win or be benched Stafford. Culpepper would not have
thrown those three picks.
Stafford is not Dan Orlovsky or Charlie Batch – he actually has high expectations. He was the #1 overall choice out of hundreds of deserving players for crying out loud! I don’t want to hear words like “unflappable” and “he didn’t force anything.” That means nothing to me. I don’t want to hear all the excuses, given out amply by the coach and the media and everyone else. I want to see improvement on the field. I want to see a solid 60-minute game, not a few plays here and there. I was unpleased with Stafford in every aspect of his game, and that’s putting it mildly.
Scott Linehan and Jim Schwartz also deserve plenty of blame for the loss. I put Linehan’s name first on purpose, because he’s the playcaller. (If you can even call those rushing attempts “plays.”) Schwartz has to have the gutso to tell Linehan how to do his job, and Linehan has to be smart enough to do it. Kevin Smith is not an up-the-middle back. It’s common knowledge at this point. It just doesn’t work. Give him a lead fullback and a pulling guard or he’s not going anywhere. When you can’t run the ball, you usually can’t pass the ball. And when your quarterback sucks, he needs all the help he can get from the running game. Call the right plays, and Stafford has a much better chance to succeed. I know the Saints double teamed Calvin Johnson on every single play, but you still have to get the ball in his hands more than 3 times. All the passes to Will Heller and Casey Fitzsimmons were just embarrassing for everybody (and why the HECK was not one ball thrown to Brandon Pettigrew?). Run Calvin on reserves; it probably won’t work but at least it keeps him in tune with the game. He’s not out there to be a blocker or a decoy. Here’s a simple message for Scott Linehan for week two against Minnesota: Get. Calvin. The. Ball.
I can’t divvy out blame for this loss and not talk about the secondary. They were stupid. They were bad. They were out of position and slow and outmatched by a less-than-stellar group of receivers. They allowed two touchdowns to the insufferably annoying Jeremy Shockey. They were scared to death of Drew Brees and it showed. Phil Buchanan will be back in the lineup soon, possibly next week, but that’s not going to help much. Marquand Manuel started at safety (a bit of a surprise) and he looked lost. Not sure if Schwiegert or Pearson would have fared any better. Delmas did make the one huge play on the fumble and had a couple of hard hits, but he didn’t look great against the run or the pass. But again, Delmas is allowed to play like
a rookie. Stafford is not.
Both lines played quite poorly, but the offensive line wasn’t the sieve it typically is. Penalties are still a problem as is poor run blocking, but the pass protection was okay. Stafford was hurried more by himself than by the defense. Backus held his own against a very good defensive end and the Lions gave up only one sack on a blitz. The defensive line didn’t have any sacks, but nobody really sacks Drew Brees. The defensive line couldn’t stop Mike Bell, but nobody stops Mike Bell. Wait, what? Wasn’t that why we got Grady Jackson and the new linebackers? But, again, in their defense, if your getting beat over the top, you can’t stop the run, even against a guy like Mike Bell. Which is why the secondary deserves more blame than the D-line.
Who’d have thought than good old Stan Kwon would be the best coordinator in this game? Linehan and Cunningham both had dreary debuts, while Kwon made all the right calls as far as having Aaron Brown return kicks and Northcutt returning punts. The Reggie Bush fumble was part lucky, and partly because Reggie Bush is a flaming pile of crap disguised a football player. The blocked field goal was beautiful effort. Special teams were truly special. I would like to apologize to Stan Kwon. At least until next week.
The best thing the Lions can do is put this loss as far behind them as they can. There are lessons to be learned, but let’s not dwell on the shellacking. Move on to week two and think about having a .500 record. The season isn’t lost after one game. One terrible game, but still, only one game. Coach Schwartz said after the game that changes need to be made: roster changes, gameplan changes, and certainly changes in execution. That’s promising to hear; if this were Rod Marinelli, he would have said they would play exactly the same next week and if they lose sixteen games in a row that’s okay because I’m the coach and you’re not so shutup. Schwartz doesn’t seem as idiotic as Marinelli. Unfortunately, it seems that he isn’t the defensive genius we hoped he would be. At least not so far.
Looking ahead to the Vikings game, the obvious story is Adrian Peterson. Last year the Lions couldn’t stop the run and we certainly couldn’t stop AP. Now we have a new but not necessarily improved defensive line, but you need an entire defense to stop a running back as good as Peterson. Our secondary seems to be better at tackling than they are at coverage (especially Delmas and Henry) so that bodes pretty well for us. However, Favre might be looking to have a big game after his Viking debut was mostly unimpressive. If I know Brett as well as I think I do, I bet he’ll want to take advantage of playing the Lions and throw for 3 TDs and 300 yards. Brett loves to be in the headlines and that would certainly be a story. I don’t know, we can’t stop either guy. Throw in the speed of Berrian and Harvin and we’ve got some major matchup problems. My hunch is that the more Brett throws the better chance we have of winning, because he’s more apt to make stupid mistakes.
On the other side of the ball it doesn’t look any more promising. We aren’t going to have much success running into the Williams Wall, but running outside plays to Smith’s strengths anyway. Backus is going to be really overmatched against Jared Allen, and if the Lions are smart they’ll give him some help with a chipping fullback or a tight end. Will we see Mo Morris or Dennis Northcutt on the field next week? Will Pettigrew catch his first pass? Will Matt Stafford settle down at home and take advantage of a Vikings pass defense that isn’t great? Those are the big questions on offense. If we can avoid falling into a 14-0 hole in the first 5 minutes like we did against the Saints, perhaps we can run the offense and dictate time of possession. Keeping the ball out of AP’s hands is our only chance.
On the surface, this doesn’t seem like a winnable game. However, the Lions always play much better at home and came really close to beating the Vikings last season. Being in Ford Field should especially benefit Stafford, who will hear some friendly voices and be formally introduced to his fans. However, it could have the reverse effect and make him even more nervous, which could be disastrous. For now I’m just going to say that while I don’t expect the Lions to win, they have much better chance against the Vikings than they had in New Orleans, even though Minnesota is a better team than the Saints. That may not seem like it makes sense, but it does. Mostly because they’re at home, and partly because we’re facing a familiar division foe, and also partly because Brett Favre can win games singlehandedly as well as lose them. For now I’ll say Minnesota wins 27-20. The rest of my picks will be up later in the week. Peace out.