Thursday, September 10, 2009

Official Preview of Lions @ Saints

Official Preview of Lions @ Saints

At 1:00 PM on Sunday the 13th of September, the Detroit Lions begin a new season. And hopefully, a new era. They will attempt to do what no team in NFL history has ever done: rebound from an 0-16 season. It won’t be easy; the schedule is full of easy-to-lose games, none of which the Lions will be favored to win. But it won’t be impossible; remember, it was only two years ago that Detroit won 7 games.

The coach is new. The coordinators are both new. The management is new. And more than half of the starting players – brand spanking new. The lone holdover from last year’s catastrophe? Impotent owner William Clay Ford.

There are several reasons to be giddy this season. Calvin Johnson and Ernie Sims remain. Julian Peterson and Larry Foote have joined. Matthew Stafford is young and bubbling with promise. The coaches swear that they have whipped this new ball club into shape.

But come on. Be serious. It’s a roster full of leftovers and scraps. A makeshift secondary and a makeshift defensive line. How are they going to stop the mighty Saints offense in a game that actually matters? How are they going to even slow down the potent pass attack of Drew Brees and his impeccably accurate arm?

Every NFL fanatic, myself included, is make predictions for week one. And no one, myself included, is stupid enough to pick the Lions.

But that’s the thing about them. They are so stupid and unpredictable, that you can't bet against them. All the other NFL games I picked with relative certainty. I know the rosters and the tendencies and the intangibles and made reasonable picks. But with the Lions, I can only guess as to what could happen. Could we give up 28 first-half points? Oh yeah. But could we score on our first possession? Could we force a three-and-out on the Saints’ first drive? Could we actually keep Brees under 300 yards? You just never know.

How will Stafford play? Will we be able to run the ball? Can we sustain drives and convert on third down? Will we be killed by stupid penalties?

Lions fans have no choice but to be distrustful of their team, but we also can’t lose sight of hope. Hope: the very reason we call ourselves fans. The only purpose for watching loss after loss. Hope, that someday things will be different and the Lions will be winners.

And call me crazy, but I’m willing to believe that someday could be this coming Sunday.

I know it’s not likely. I know it’s highly improbable. But that’s the NFL – everything that happens is unlikely. Why can’t it be us this year? Are we really that wretched? Are we really that inept?

Look, I like the Saints as a team this season as much as anybody, but you can’t deny the facts: they have an awful defense. They have a sketchy running game and an injured starter at RB. And they have an incurable idiot in Jeremy Shockey. Oh, and did I mention they have an awful defense? Which leads me to …

The Lions Offense:

Even on the road, even led by Matthew Stafford, Detroit should be able to move the ball. We should be able to score some points and take advantage of Calvin Johnson. Megatron should be the target on at least a third of Stafford’s passes, and despite whatever coverage he faces will still be effective. The Saints can’t stop him. Nobody can stop him. I don’t expect much out of the other receivers, although I hope to see Pettigrew catch at least three balls in his debut.

The key to the offense will be how the tackles, Backus and Cherilus, play in pass protection. New Orleans’s only strength on defense is their pass rush - they have one of the best defensive end combos in the NFL. If Backus can’t keep Will Smith out of the backfield, Stafford’s going to have a long day. Matty just isn’t comfortable in the pocket and doesn’t have a feel for the speed of the NFL game. He’s not going to be able to keep his eyes downfield while the rush bears down on him. The only possible chance we have of outscoring the Saints is if Stafford has time to throw the ball.

As important as the passing game will be, the running game is paramount. Establishing Kevin Smith early; creating opportunities with play-action; moving the ball in short chunks; keeping Drew Brees off the field. Those are the keys. Those are the things the Lions tried to do last year and failed. For the most part, the pieces are the same on offense, which is dreary. But Smith is a year older and a year better, and so is Cherilus (hopefully). The guards should be at least a little improved, from a D- to a D+ perhaps. But the key to the running game, the one big change that has gone mostly under the radar, is the good old blocking tight end.

Brandon Pettigrew – expect him to be a monster on outside running plays and show why he was drafted in the first round. He’s huge and fast and probably a better blocker than anyone on the Lions offensive line. Maybe the announcers won’t mention his name more than once or twice, but I’ll betcha if you keep an eye out for him you’ll notice him creating some running room that Smith never had in 2008.

The key to this entire game will be time of possession. The Lions defense can’t stop Drew Brees, there’s just no way around that. But the Lions offense can stop him, if we can keep him on the sidelines. First downs are what Stafford should be focused on. Short gains, and very few incomplete passes. No stupid false starts, no dropped passes, and especially no turnovers. I know that’s asking a lot, but these are professional football players. They can’t afford mistakes like that against New Orleans, or it’s 0-1.

I wish I could sit down for just an hour, at a coffee shop or a bar or wherever, with Matthew Stafford, and just tell him what it’s like. Rooting for the Lions, suffering through the Millen era, and despising Joey Harrington with every fiber in my being for six horrible years. I want him to know what Joey did, and what Joey did not do, and why I hated Joey so much. I’m not impressed by charm or “unflappability.” (I swear, if I hear Stafford described as unflappable one more time I’m going to flip out! What the heck does that even mean!?) I want to tell Matt not to worry about his appearance or his responses with the media. I could care less that he says to reporters, or how he “handles himself.”

What I want to see is effort, determination, toughness, and competitiveness. Is that too much to ask for from a professional athlete who will make more money in one game this season than I’ll make in a decade? Show some effort Matthew, earn your psychotically big paycheck, and make me proud.

And please, don’t give me the Harrington special. Do not give me the Eli Manning or the Brady Quinn or the Ryan Leaf. You know what I mean. Don’t give me the false appearance of effort. I can see right through it. You can’t fool a true fan with your grimaces on the sideline when you know the camera is pointed towards you. After you throw a bad pass on third and 8, I don’t want to see you throw your arms up in the air and scowl. I don’t want you to look mad; I want you to actually be mad.

See, that was the problem with Joey, and all the other chumps who haven’t worked out in the NFL. It’s not about impressing the casual fans with your antics and your charm – it’s about winning. If it’s fourth and 5 and you scramble for 2 yards and go out of bounds, I’m just going to assume that you hate my guts. If you take the sack because you weren’t smart enough to move around in the pocket, don’t roll your eyes and nurse your injured shoulder out there on the field. Move on. Get ready for the next play. Learn from your mistakes (I’m sure there will be plenty of them) and make yourself a better player.

The season opener will be Stafford’s first start in a Lions uniform. But, the first of how many? 20? 50? 150? Will he prove himself or be just another loser in a long line of Lions losers? My expectations, as always, are indistinctly low, but with chances of being preposterously high.

Lions Defense:

Drew Brees is the best quarterback in the NFC, and it’s not even close. He lags behind Brady and Manning simply because he hasn’t been able to lead his team to the playoffs, but he also hasn’t had much of a supporting cast. From a purely physical standpoint, his arm and his head are on par with the greatest in the league. He doesn’t miss a throw, he doesn’t miss a read, and he came only one or two passes from breaking Dan Marino’s single-season yardage record like year. So yeah, he’s pretty good.

It’s stopping him that will be key for the Lions defense. Hmmm … so where to begin?

D-Coordinator Gunther Cunningham loves to blitz and pressure the quarterback, but a passer as smart as Brees will make you pay. But there’s no way he Lions will be able to pressure Brees with a four man rush. If you give him time to throw, he kills you. It’s sort of an impossible situation for our defense.

Fortunately, the Saints starting running back (Pierre Thomas) is unlikely to play, and his replacement, Mike Bell, is sort of terrible. Reggie Bush is unconventional, and that’s putting it kindly. He’s more like a total pansy who can’t handle being tackled. The Lions best chance of slowing down the Saints is probably to drop the linebackers into coverage and hope the Saints don’t run the ball. I’m not worried about Bush or Mike Bell too much, and if Thomas sits out, the Lions may actually have a chance.

Foote and Sims are solid in coverage. They can work the middle of the field and leave the corners to cover the out-routes, while the safeties patrol the deep middle and try to anticipate the play. This leaves Peterson to blitz and roam around while the defensive line just has to be less than anemic. I honestly don’t think the Saints are going to be able to run the ball without Thomas. Maybe I’m discrediting Mike Bell too soon, but I saw him in Denver back in the day and he wasn’t impressive to say the least.

Will we keep Brees from scoring at least two touchdowns? No way. But can we keep him from putting the game away in the first quarter? If we drop six or seven into coverage, then yeah, we honestly can. Is there any way the Lions won’t allow a 70-yard touchdown? Maybe, if the lackluster tackling is suddenly cured. If Detroit executes perfectly, and avoids the moronic penalties, and forces a key turnover or two, this game just might be competitive.

I’m not expecting it, but it doesn’t hurt to have hope.

Final Thought:

The Lions will lose 17-42. That’s what I wrote yesterday and I’m sticking to it. It’s the most likely scenario. But could the Lions win, pull off the shocker with a crazy score like 23-19? Sure. Anything could happen. That’s the nature of being a Lions fan.

PS - I hate Jeremy Shockey. GO LIONS!!!!

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