Detroit Lions 2010 Preview
Another off-season, another delusional dream for the Detroit Lions.
This year, it’s the same old story with a few different faces. Coming off a dreadful 2-14 season, the Lions’ management have once again convinced their ever-faithful fan base that they’ve made all the right moves this season and we’re right where we want to be.
The amazing thing is, some people still believe them. But sadly, I am no longer one of those people. I hated Matt Stafford as the #1 pick a year ago, and he didn’t do anything during his rookie season to make me change my mind. I just don’t think the Lions have attached the wagon to the right horse. You can’t pay a guy that much money and put an entire franchise on his shoulders until you’re absolutely sure that he can play. The jury’s still out. And this year, everything hinges on Stafford’s development, or lack thereof.
Let’s begin with the offense.
Part One: Offense
Last season, Detroit’s offense finished 26th in total yards and 27th in total points, a slight improvement from the previous year (30th, 27th) but still a terrible season offensively. We were 21st in passing and 24th in running; we gave up the most turnovers in the league, and had the 24th best 3rd down conversion percentage. By any statistical measurement, the Lions’ offense was bad once again. New faces, same result.
Section A: Quarterback
Like I said earlier, this entire season hinges of Matthew Stafford and his personal and professional development. I could write an entire book about all the reasons I’m not a huge fan of Stafford’s, but to make a long story short I’ll just say that I don’t think he’s a winner. He wasn’t a winner in college (30-9 starting record); he wasn’t the best quarterback in the 2008 draft; he isn’t focused on the game of football as much as I’d like him to be. I don’t like his body language in the huddle, his facial expressions, or the way he responds to all the media hype that surrounds him. I don’t like the way he acts entitled to stardom before he actually does anything. And I hate the fact that he was appointed “unflappable” by every broadcaster in the world.
According to dictionary.com, unflappable means: “Persistently calm, whether when facing difficulties or experiencing success; not easily upset or excited.’
Whether or not Stafford really is unflappable isn’t really the issue, I just hate the fact that everyone describes him as unflappable.
When I read that definition, the first three quarterbacks that popped into my head were Brady, Favre, and Elway. Then I did a little Googling. There are 4,440 results for “Matt Stafford unflappable.” That’s more than “Brett Favre unflappable,” more than “Tom Brady unflappable,” more than ‘John Elway unflappable.” It’s just an absurd phenomenon. The only reason Stafford is so fricking unflappable is because he really doesn’t care too much if the Lions win or lose. I’d rather have an emotional quarterback who wears his heart on his sleeve; no one’s going to call Phillip Rivers unflappable anytime soon, but I’d trade QBs with the Chargers in a hummingbird’s heartbeat.
It’s easy to be calm when you’re not emotionally invested in the outcome of the game; if all you’re thinking is, “Win or lose, I’ve got a girlfriend with surgically implanted boobs, so it’s all good,” then you’re not the guy I want leading my football team. I’m not making assumptions or judgments, that’s a true story.
And if the personal attacks aren’t your style, that’s fine. That’s understandable. But from a strictly football standpoint, I still don’t like Stafford, even more than I don’t like him from a personal standpoint.
His mechanics are beautiful; he releases the ball quickly and with a lot of power. The trouble is, he’s not very accurate, and that may be an understatement. He’s got a typical Jay Cutler arm – 97 power, 75 accuracy. He thinks he can squeeze the ball into tight gaps, like a “gunslinger” (© BRETT FAVRE), but the trick with doing that is you have to be accurate. You can’t just be gutsy just for the heck of it. That’s call being stupid, and that’s the reason why Stafford threw 20 interceptions last year. Not just 20 interceptions, but 20 interceptions in 690 snaps, compared to Sanchez who threw 20 INTs in 960 snaps. One of the reasons? Sanchez threw the ball away 16 times last year; Stafford, just 9 times. Maybe 7 of those INTs could have been avoided. Maybe two or three of those avoided INTs could have resulted in W’s instead of L’s. Just thinking out loud.
Anyway, I don’t want to go on and on about Stafford too much, when there’s 21 other starting players to get to. Let’s just say that I’m cautiously pessimistic about Stafford’s season; I don’t expect much, so I’ll be ecstatic if he produces a QB rating above 75.
One factor that may help Stafford is that he no longer has to worry about the starting gig. Daunte Culpepper is off the team, and currently the starting quarterback of the Sacramento Mountain Lions, where he is reunited with former coach Dennis Green (THEY ARE who we THOUGHT THEY WERE!!)
Drew Stanton is still on the roster as the #3 QB, and the #2 QB is a capable veteran back-up by the name of Shaun Hill. As a starting QB in the NFL, Hill has twice as many wins as loses (10-5) and played on some lousy offenses in San Francisco. He knows all about collapsing pockets and heavy pass rush and will be a great leader for the Lions when (oops, I mean if) Stafford gets injured. Although most Lions’ fans aren’t yet familiar with Shaun Hill, I’m guessing most will be by December.
Before I move on to running back, I want to give one final thought on Stafford. And it’s this: he is almost out of excuses. Last year, he wore the excuses like a cape – “I’m a rookie. I don’t know the playbook. I’m just getting used to the speed of the NFL game. My receivers are dropping all the passes! Calvin is double-teamed! That’s no fair! My running backs stink! My offensive line sucks! It’s Matt Millen’s fault!!”
I don’t care who Stafford blamed for last season’s debacle – this year, it’s all on him. The Lions spent a first round pick on a tight end in 2009 when we definitely should have drafted a defensive player, and then drafted a running back in the first round of the 2010 draft when a cornerback was a bigger need. This offseason, we added a #2 receiver, a tight end, and a pretty darn good left guard. No question about it, rebuilding and retooling the offense has been the focus since Stafford arrived. Slowly but surely, the Lions’ have taken away all his excuses.
He can blame the offensive line for last season’s terrible season all he wants, but if you really watched the Lions, the offensive line was not the problem; he can blame the receivers all he wants, but in terms of dropped passes he ranked 12th among quarterbacks, which isn’t all that terrible. This year, it’s time for Stafford to take off the cape of excuses and just win some games.
Section B: Running Backs
It’s a bit of a merry-go-round in the Lions’ backfield. Maurice Morris will begin the season as the starter, with rookie Jahvid Best seeing the field early and often. Kevin Smith returns from injury at some point in the middle of the season, and will demand his share of touches, even though he stunk up the joint last year. It’s going to be interesting. But not necessarily productive.
Since the fateful day when #20 retired, the Lions have only finished in the top 20 in the NFL in rushing yards once. That was an astounding 19th, in 2004, when Kevin Smith had an unlikely string of productive games which he hasn’t repeated since. The Lions haven’t been able to run the ball since Barry retired, and it would be ridiculous to expect that to change now that Jahvid Best is in town.
Yes, he’ll be an improvement to the running game, but this offense is still run by Scott Linehan and his vertical passing strategies. Not to mention the lingering zone-blocking schemes that float around from time to time, and don’t mesh with Best’s explosive running style. But I do reserve the right to believe in the Lions’ chances of running the ball with some effectiveness this season, largely because of the addition of left guard Rob Sims, and the health of tight end Brandon Pettigrew, both proven run-blockers.
It’s a good mix of talents at the running back position. Morris is a straight-forward, no-nonsense veteran who isn’t afraid to plunge into large piles of men and pick up 2 or 3 yards at a time. Smith is at his best on screen passes and counters, when he has the ability to follow blockers. That’s really the only strength in his game. And Best is known as a big-play guy with explosive speed and just enough power to escape tackles. Detroit only had one rush for more than 40 yards last season; Best should help in that area.
Last year, Detroit finished 24th in terms of running the ball. This season, I expect an improvement. To 23rd. Maybe even 22nd.
Section C: Wide Receivers and Tight Ends
Calvin Johnson is number one. Nate Burleson is number two. At least we have that figured out.
Who’s #3 and #4? Maybe a better question is, does it matter?
By trading linebacker Ernie Sims and acquiring tight end Tony Scheffler from the Broncos in the process, it stands to reason that Detroit plans to employ a lot of two tight-end sets this season. Either that, or they’re even stupider than I thought. It makes sense, because Scheffler is strictly a pass-catcher, while Pettigrew is a better blocker than a receiver. They complement each other well. But the problem with two TE sets is that you can only play 2 WRs at a time, which means that pans-for-hands (AKA Bryant Johnson) will have to sit most of this season out. Actually, maybe that’s not such a problem.
I said earlier that the Lions’ offseason moves have been designed to eliminate the excuses and bring out the best in Matthew Stafford; well, that’s true, but that’s only half of the story. The other half is that the Lions’ moves have been specifically designed to unleash the full potential of the beast that is Calvin Johnson, and reduce the number of plays on which he is double-teamed
The double-team is really killing Calvin’s game. The fact that he hasn’t showed the strength to play through double-teams and still be productive bothers me, but not as much as the double-teams themselves. In 2008, his stats were among the best in the league: 78 catches, 1330 yards, 12 TDs. Last year, he caught a measly 67 balls for 980 yards and 5 TDs. No matter how much attention the defense is paying to him, he’s still gotta score more than five touchdowns, but bringing in some help was certainly a good idea.
The science of the double-team is simple. It’s all about the safety. You rarely, if ever, see two cornerbacks line up opposite a receiver and chase him around in tandem. That’s crazy, and wouldn’t work. It’s all about shifting the safety over and having him shade a receiver and eliminate the deep pass. Teams continuously took the deep ball away from Calvin last season, and that can be attributed as the #1 reason why Stafford struggled, why the Lions won only two games, and why we looked every bit as bad as we looked during the 0-16 campaign.
My question for Linehan and Schwartz and the powers-that-be, is this: Will Tony Scheffler and Nate Burleson really be enough to keep that safety from paying extra attention to Calvin Johnson? Is this really going to work???
The part that the Lions management don’t want us to know is that this whole thing is really just a big experiment. Linehan has a hunch that using a two-tight end formation will be the most effective way to distract the safety and keep Calvin in single-coverage. But it’s just a hunch. And Scheffler only has one year remaining on his contract, which means that if the strategy doesn’t work, Scheffler will be elsewhere in 2011. If it does work out, they’ll be working on an extension sometime during the season.
What are my thoughts? Well, I want to say it will work out, and I can follow the train of logic in which this makes sense to Linehan and Schwartz. But I have doubts about how fast and athletic Scheffler really is. Do we really want to allow a white tight end from Denver be the linchpin of our offense? The coaches talk about lining him up in the slot and using him all over the field, like the Colts do with Dallas Clark. But the problem is, Dallas Clark is an exceptional athlete, with outstanding hands, and he’s the fastest tight end in the league. Scheffler is, well, just an average dude. He’s a little bit faster than Pettigrew, but Pettigrew is basically the slowest guy I’ve ever seen in my life. Scheffler has better hands than Pettigrew, but Pettigrew caught only about 30 balls per season in college, and was drafted as a blocker who can sometimes catch, not a catcher who might sometimes block. Scheffler is a nice complement to Pettigrew’s skill-set, but let’s get one thing straight here people – Tony Scheffler is not Dallas Clark.
What if opposing defenses attach a linebacker to Scheffler, and basically test him to see how fast he is? They bring one safety up in run support, the other safety monitors Megatron, and the corners cover CJ and Burleson, while the other two LBs patrol the middle of the field. Doesn’t this strategy effectively leave Calvin Johnson double-teamed? Basically, if Scheffler isn’t athletic enough to outrun linebackers, out offense is screwed.
And then there’s the chance that linebackers will jam Scheffler at the line, and he won’t be strong enough to break through and enter his routes. That would also render our offense inert. Basically, if Calvin continues to be double-teamed, we lose.
Another possibility for Detroit is that Jahvid Best becomes so dangerous that defenses have to pay extra attention to him, and thus the entire passing offense becomes more open and has more field to work with. If Best really emerges and make a splash in the first few weeks of the season, the play-action pass is going to open up and that’s where young quarterbacks are typically most effective. Sanchez was lousy last year, but when the Jets ran the ball well, the play-action became deadly, and the Jets went to the final four. Same thing could happen with Stafford. Not the playoffs, but the effectiveness of the play-action. Again, I’m just thinking out loud. Being hopeful. But not necessarily believing any of what I’m saying.
As important as Scheffler and Best are, Burleson is also going to be pivotal this season. We’re putting a lot of hope into a guy who is entering the first year of a five year deal, which is a euphemism for “a guy who’s statistically more likely to get injured than anyone else on the team.” If Burleson makes it past week 4 of the season, I’ll truly be surprised. You see this ALL THE TIME; guy plays a few good years, guy gets a new contract with a new team, guy spends the next few years nursing minor injuries and buying sports cars. Albert Haynesworth did it last year. Don’t be surprised is Burleson has a jammed pinky but misses 6 weeks. (PS. Burleson may also be the punt return man, which triples his chances of injury).
BUT, if Burleson plays through some minor injuries and plays 14 or more games, he’s going to be key. His strength is in running after the catch, and his versatility was coveted by Linehan, who coached Burleson in Minnesota. Linehan plans to line Burleson up all over the field: in the slot, next to CJ, opposite side as CJ, maybe even in some trips or goofy wishbone formations or something. Burleson does have a pretty adaptable skill-set, and may be able to create match-up problems for some defenses. If he’s left in single coverage, as he often will be against team’s #2 cornerbacks, he might be able to put up some pretty good numbers. If he stays healthy, and Calvin stays double-teamed, I wouldn’t be shocked if Nate goes for 1,000 yards and 8 TDs.
But this season is largely about Calvin Johnson, and what he can do against double-teams, and most of all, if he remains happy enough to consider staying a Lion for life. If we win less than 5 games this season, or CJ catches another measly 70 balls for 5 TDs, you can bet he’ll be bolting town as soon as he can. There’s no way that he’s not sitting around his house dreaming of catching passes from a guy like Brees or Romo, playing in the Super Bowl, on a national stage, where he belongs. He sees what Fitzgerald did in the last two postseasons, and he knows he could do that too. He just wants a chance, and if he can’t get that chance in Detroit, he’ll leave town, and I won’t blame him.
That’s a large part of why I’m so irked by everything about Matthew Stafford. His ho-hum attitude, and ‘unflappable’ nature, and inability to throw the ball with any semblance of accuracy are going to cause the best Lion since Barry to leave Detroit and never come back. If and when this happens, I will place all of the blame on Stafford.
The other receivers on the Lions’ roster are as follows: Dennis Northcutt, Bryant Johnson, Derrick Williams, Adam Jennings, and rookie Tim Toone (Mr. Irrelevant).At tight end, the Lions still have Will Heller, but he won’t play unless there’s an injury, and good old Casey Fitzsimmons retired. I don’t expect more than 20 catches from any of these guys, although Toone might earn the punt-return job. And if the Lions are interested in being completely futile in the punt-returning department, they could let Northcutt return kicks again.
Section D: Offensive Line
This is by far the biggest enigma of the Detroit Lions. Casual fans assume that the Lions offense line is terrible, and that’s why we always lose. Even diehard fans believe this to be true. But only enlightened, free-thinking fans like myself know the truth: the Detroit Lions offensive line is actually pretty good.
Not great. Not Pro Bowl caliber. But pretty good.
Now don’t get me wrong, I’d dump Jeff Backus in a second if a better option came along at left tackle. And I still rue the decision to draft Gosder Cherilus in the first round, when we could have drafted, among others, Jeff Otah, Mike Jenkins, DeSean Jackson, Ray Rice, Joe Flacco, or CHRIS FREAKING JOHNSON. And yeah, I’d still like to acquire a new right guard to replace Stephen Peterman.
But at center, we’ve still got one of the best in the business, Dom Raiola, who’s played his entire 9 year career in Detroit without missing a game, without ever complaining, and winning all sorts of awards for sportsmanship. He was fined for a confrontation with Lions’ fans last season, but it happened because the fans were heckling Stafford, and he took exception to them attacking his quarterback. He’s a team-first guy, a true leader and captain, and probably the second best offensive player on the Lions.
And then at left guard, we’ve got Rob Sims, who was acquired from Seattle in a trade for peanuts. According to ProFootballFocus.com (my new favorite website), Sims was the 4th best left guard in the NFL last season, and the 2nd best in pass blocking. This website is created and maintained by people who watch every play of every game and record what every player does on every play, so when it says that Sims was involved in 898 snaps, allowed just 1 sack and just 1 hit on the QB, had only 2 penalties, and was better than every guard except Steve Hutchinson at protecting the passer, I’m pretty excited about that. Granted, left guard isn’t a hugely important position in terms of pass protection, but Sims does give Backus some help against blitzes and interior rushers.
The acquisition of Sims allows the Lions to move Peterman from left guard to right guard, and take Manny Ramirez out of the starting line-up. Which is fabulous, because Ramirez allowed the 4th most QB pressures in the NFL last season with 21, and had the third worst overall rating of any guard in the NFL according to PFF.com. Peterman was actually decent, allowing just 5 pressures in 623 snaps, and surrendering just 2 sacks. He ranked as the 13th best guard in the NFL.
At tackle, the Lions will again go with a Backus/Cherilus tandem.
Backus ranked a very surprising 5th overall among left tackles, behind Joe Thomas, Jake Long, Jared Gaither, D’Brickashaw Ferguson, all of whom appeared on my recent Top Fifty Overall Players in the NFL list. This amazes, surprises, and perplexes me. If not for the whopping 8 sacks allowed (third most in the NFL), Backus may have ranked even higher. He’s listed as the 7th best LT in pass-blocking and the 9th best in run-blocking, and was on the field for every single one of the Lions’ 1,103 offensive snaps in 2009. (He also didn’t miss a single snap in 2008.) So while I’m not sold on Backus as Stafford’s primary protector, and I don’t like the fact that he’s the highest paid offensive lineman in history to never appear in a Pro Bowl, and I really, really don’t like the idea of him facing off against Julius Peppers and Jared Allen twice EACH in 2010, I’m not going to completely bash Jeff Backus and write him off as useless. He could be worse.
Amongst right tackles, Gosder Cherilus comes in at 24th, which means that there are in fact worse options at RT, such as Oakland’s Mario Henderson, who allowed an incredible 38 QB pressures and 8 sacks and finished with an overall PFF rating of -38.9, 11 points worse than any other tackle. At least we don’t have that guy. Cherilus actually finished with a pretty decent score in run-blocking, which is to be expected. In terms of pressures allowed, penalties, and pass-blocking, he ranks between 20 and 25 in each category among RTs. Not great. And his 9 sacks allowed were the second most in the NFL. That’s very bad. But again, that’s why we have Pettigrew.
Overall, as a team, the Lion’s offensive line was the 16th best last season. That’s right in the middle. This year, with the addition of Sims, and the departure of Ramirez, it could be in the top 10. Hold on to your hats.
As far as depth on the O-line, the Lions still have Ramirez at guard, and Jon Jansen at right tackle. Jansen is capable of stepping in and is a pretty good run-blocker. Corey Hilliard is the LT in case Backus ever misses a game, and Dylan Gandy is the back-up center. I know absolutely nothing about either of those guys, and I want to keep it that way.
Section E: Fullback
On 98% of offensive plays, the Lions won’t use a fullback. When they do, it’ll be Jerome Felton, who is a pretty decent short-yardage back. That's all I have to say about that.
Part Two: Defense
No matter which stats you look at, the Lions had the worst defense in the NFL last season. Yards allowed, points allowed, passing yards allowed – dead last, dead last, and dead last. Total defensive penalties – 31st. First downs allowed – 30th. Does this sound eerily reminiscent to the 0-16 season to anyone else? (Respectively, we finished 32nd, 32nd, 27th, 20th, and 32nd in those categories in 2008). Two years in a row, worst defense in the league, by far. So the question becomes: Is Ndamukong Suh the answer?!!??
Section A: Defensive Line
Last year, it was the vaunted linebacking corps that was supposed to turn the Lions’ league-worst defense around. That didn’t work. This year, it’s the revamped defensive line, spearheaded by #2 overall pick Ndamukong Suh and marquee free-agency acquisition Kyle VandenBosch.
Pardon my skepticism, but last off-season I was driving the Delusion Bus that the linebacking trio of Sims, Foote and Peterson would lead the Lions to the playoffs. It didn’t; instead, we finished with the worst defense in the NFL for a second straight year. To me, it seems clear that the problems with the Lions’ defense are in the secondary. We can’t cover anybody. Even random guys like Mohamed Massaquoi and Santana Moss destroy the Lions’ woeful cornerbacks.
But, coach Jim Schwartz and defensive coordinator Gunther Cunningham determined that fixing the defensive line was more paramount than the secondary, and the two biggest offseason moves both focused on establishing a pass rush and slowing down the run.
VandenBosch is a former Titan with a good blend of speed and power in the pass rush. He’s smart, and relentless, and has good technique. He’s an obvious improvement over Dwayne White or Jared DeVries. But I wonder, just how big of an improvement is he?
If I were to rattle off a list of the 10 best defensive ends in the NFL, VandenBosch doesn’t make the list. (Mario, Allen, Peppers, Freeney, Cole, Tuck, Dumervil, Kampman, Seymour, Mathis). I’m not so sure he would even make the top 15. So how is it that Lions’ fans are so convinced that he’s going to turn this franchise entirely around, when he’s only the third best DE in our division? The Bears added Julius Peppers – that’s a legitimate franchise-changing addition. But VandenBosch? Isn’t he just a consolation prize? Not to be mean, but really. I like the guy. I’m glad he’s a Lion. I’m just not convinced that he’s enough to make the defense any better than 30th in the NFL.
And as for Suh, the guy’s got limitless potential. I think he’ll have the best career of anyone from the 2010 draft class. But I don’t think it’ll be this season, and I don’t necessarily think he’ll be great as a Lion. He’ll be very good this season, maybe even outstanding. But to expect more than 6 or 8 sacks from a rookie DT is foolish. He’ll help us against the run, but again, he’s not a top 10 DT in the NFL. You’ve got Kevin Williams, Haynesworth, Ngata, Ratliff, Dockett, Wilfork, Stroud, Jenkins, Hampton, Pat Williams, Patterson. All those guys are better than Suh will be this season. So he’s got a bright future and I’m glad we drafted him with the #2 pick, but I don’t see him being dominant enough to turn around the Lions’ defense this season.
Because, after all, the only thing that matters is how we do in 2010. If we continue to suck, people are going to start calling Stafford a bust, and Calvin’s going to bolt to the Giants in 2 years, and Schwarz will be fired, and the rebuilding will start all over again. This season is sort of make-or-break.
And that’s a lot of pressure on Suh and VandenBosch.
Because the rest of the defensive line, which includes Corey Williams, Jason Hunter, Sammie Lee Hill, Cliff Avril, Joe Cohen, Andre Fluellen, and Turk McBride, is mediocre at best.
Last year, the Lions were 27th in terms of pass rush and 22nd at stopping the run, according to PFF. (Dead last in pass coverage, and dead last in overall defense.) None of the defensive lineman listed in the previous paragraph are even considered top 50 players in the NFL at their position based on last season. How big of improvements will Suh and KVB be compared to their predecessors, Grady Jackson (ranked the 45th best DT) and DeWayne White (ranked 31st among DEs)? It should be a pretty substantial improvement, but is it enough to offset the terrible, terrible secondary? Coach Jim Schwartz thinks so:
"The defensive line is going to help the secondary because you don't have to put an extra safety in the box to stop the run when you have guys that can win their gap, and not just their gap, but more," Schwartz said. "That's what Ndamukong and Kyle can do. They force a double-team and keep the offensive linemen off of the linebackers.
That makes the run defense better, but they also make the pass defense better," Schwartz continued. "You don't have to blitz to get pressure on the quarterback, the quarterback doesn't hold the ball as long, the corners don't have to cover as long. All that ties together and the defensive line should be a strength of our team."
I like Schwartz’s optimism. Clearly, I don’t want to hear him say: “We’re gonna stink again, let’s just face it.” But I do have to argue with a point that he made when he said this shortly after the NFL draft, that point being that Suh and KVB will force double teams. I disagree with that. They are good players, but the NFL is made of good players. A guy like Jared Allen forces a double team. Kyle VandenBosch, not so much. He just forces the offensive tackle to play well. And if KVB has a sack or two, they might chip him with the tight end. These guys aren’t going to earn double teams merely because of name recognition. They have to earn them on the field. And as much as I hope that happens, I don’t see it. Sorry guys.
And if they don’t force double teams, as I suspect they won’t on most occasions, that means the offensive lineman will be attacking the linebackers on running plays, and as usual, the Lions will give up 100 rushing yards before halftime and allow the other team to empty its bench midway through the third quarter. Déjà vu.
Sorry to be a downer, but I don’t think the Lions have done enough to improve their defense. Again, this comes back to all the steps made to surround Stafford with talent. They focused on the offense at the cost of the defense, so let’s not blindly act like the defense is loaded with talent. If I had never even heard of Corey Williams when he was on the Browns, how is he going to suddenly become good when he’s on the Lions?
The facts is, we should have drafted a defensive player instead of Pettigrew last year. Either that, or we should have drafted Aaron Curry #1 overall, as I said a million times. On, or the other. We finished 2008 with the worst defense in the history of the NFL, and with two first round picks, drafted two offensive players. Then we finished 2009 again with the worst defense in the NFL, and people were surprised? So then we draft Suh, which was great, but then drafting Best and waiting until the 3rd round to take a CB? That was a little bit baffling. I know Best is a good player, but our secondary is in freaking shambles! You can win with a bad backfield; you can’t win if you can’t stop opposing receivers.
It will be interesting to watch Suh this season. His development could be the only fun thing about 2010. Other than him though, I don’t expect anything from the defensive line other than more incompetence.
Section B: Linebackers
With Foote going back to Pittsburgh and Sims being traded to Philadelphia, it appears at first glance that the Lions are going to be a lot worse this season at the 3 linebacker positions. But things are not always as they seem at first glance.
We know that DeAndre Levy will step into the MLB position left vacant by Ernie Sims, and it appears that either Zach Follett or Landon Johnson will win the OLB spot opposite Julian Peterson. It’s probably going to be Follett. For depth, the Lions have Jordan Dizon, Caleb Campbell (that dude from the Army) and a whole bunch of dudes I’ve never heard of: Ashlee Palmer, Chris Graham, Vinny Ciurciu, and Darnell Bing. Of them, only Dizon should even be worth mentioning.
The key to the linebackers this year will be the continued progress made by Levy. Last year, he was the most pleasant surprise of the defense. As a rookie taken in the third round, Levy stepped into the starting line-up when Sims went down in week 2 and played the majority of the starts for the rest of the season. He played some snaps at LLB, some at RLB, and some at MLB. He played really well, and according to PFF (sorry to keep referencing that site, but seriously, it’s SO cool) he was a large amount better than Sims.
In fact, Sims ranked dead last, yes that’s right – DEAD LAST – among 4-3 linebackers in terms of effectiveness per snap. (The player who finished third-to-last was, interestingly enough, #3 overall pick Aaron Curry). Sims was the worst linebacker against the run, and third worst in coverage. BUT, guess who was the worst in coverage? Yeah, DeAndre Levy. Sort of a lose-lose situation there, huh?
Granted, both Levy and Sims were playing out of position last year. With Larry Foote in the middle, they were both forced to play outside linebacker, which doesn’t suit the strengths of either player – chasing and tackling the ball carrier. Both guys were left in coverage a little too often. Among linebackers, Sims allowed the highest completion percentage of anyone to players he was defending – 91% on 24 attempts. The QB rating for passes thrown in Sims’ direction was 125 – that’s almost perfect.
This year, with Foote gone, Levy will have to step in at MLB and Gunther Cunningham says he has no problem with that. Quote: “I've never seen a young linebacker like him.” Now to me, this just sounds like more hyperbole from the Lions’ coaching staff. Really Gunther, in your 40 years of coaching you’ve never seen a linebacker like the guy we drafted in the third round last year? Then why didn’t other teams draft him in the first two rounds? Really Gunther? Really, when you coached Hall of Famer Derrick Thomas – the 9 time Pro Bowler who holds the record for the most sacks in a single game – he wasn’t quite as good as DeAndre Levy when he was 23 years old? That’s funny, because according to my calculations, when Derrick Thomas was 23 years old, in 1990, he led the NFL with 20 sacks. But he wasn’t quite as good as Levy right? You expect us to believe this bull-shit Gunther?? Come on!
Sorry about the tangent, but really, how stupid do the coaches think we are? What’s next, are you going to tell me that Louis Delmas weighs 350 lbs. and is 7’3”? We’re not stupid Gunther. Yeah, I know Levy is a pretty good young player, but I also know that he isn’t going to the Pro Bowl this year, or next year, or anytime soon.
I actually think Levy is an improvement for the Lions over Sims, but that doesn’t say much, if anything. Sims was a highly unproductive player who started out good and then got progressively worse each season. He was injury-prone, terrible in coverage, and frankly, I’m glad we dumped him. I think Levy will do a nice job in his stead. But this blatant exaggeration with the sole purpose of deluding fans into believing in a false product is egregious to me and unacceptable. Either obtain great players, or tell us the truth: our current roster stinks. Stop telling us that mediocre players are great!
Julian Peterson will occupy one of the outside linebacker positions, and he’ll do what he does best: blitz the passer. Last year he only had 5 sacks and 6 QB pressures – those numbers have got to increase. He’s a good player, but he’s a one-trick pony. In coverage, Peterson stinks almost as bad as Sims – the passer rating for passes thrown in his direction in 119. Dreadful.
To combat the woes of the Lions’ pass defense, they’re going to need consistent production from the other outside linebacking position. Enter Zach Follett, who was involved in a whopping 24 defensive plays last season, all coming in the last two games of the year. He made two tackles, and pressured the quarterback once. That’s a great résumé for one of the most important players on our defense, wouldn’t you agree?
But of course, Gunther Cunningham believes in Follett. Why wouldn’t he?
Quote: "I sat down in his office and he told me that he had no doubts in his mind that I was ready to assume a starting role," Follett said
Gunther might not have any doubts. But I do. I have lots and lots of doubts. I don’t know anything about Zach Follett, except that he’s white, he went to Cal, and we drafted him in the 7th round last year. Which means that every team in the NFL passed on him 6 times. And I know that he’s a hard hitter - one of his 2 career tackles was named the hit of the week by NFL Network in week 16. But he only has 2 career tackles, so I’m not going to lose my mind with excitement just yet.
Section C: Secondary
With slow and gradual improvements to the offensive line and the defensive line over the past two years, the secondary has certainly emerged as the Lions’ Achilles heel. The weakest link. The worst unit on a very bad team full of bad units. Let’s break this into two subsections:
Subsection I: Cornerbacks
Last year, the week 1 starters were Eric King and Anthony Henry, with William James coming in as the nickel back. Phillip Buchanan became a starter week 2, bumping Henry to nickel and James to the #4 CB. This year, only one of those guys – Eric King - remains on the Lions’ roster. James, King, and Buchanan each ranked amongst the worst cornerbacks in the NFL in terms of YPA (yards per attempt) and completion percentage allowed. (The only team with a worse trio of cornerbacks was them Stellers. Which either proves how good Polamalu is, or how bad Pittsburgh’s defense is without him, or maybe both)
There was a lot of upheaval in the secondary for Detroit this season, which can’t be a bad thing considering the Lions had the worst pass defense in the NFL. But the replacements weren’t exactly Darelle Revis. Or even Dre Bly.
Instead, we acquired Chris Houston from the Falcons, and drafted Iowa’s Amari Spievey in the third round.
Houston wasn’t the best cornerback on Atlanta last season, but he wasn’t the worst. He isn’t extremely fast or athletic, but he’s a sure tackler after the catch – he allowed one of the lowest yards-after-catch averages among CBs. And he also ranked near the top of cornerbacks in terms of penalties, so he should fit right in on Detroit. He’ll probably be penciled in as a week 1 starter, barring any unforeseen turn of events.
By the way, this seems like an appropriate time to lament that fact that the Lions didn’t sign Pacman, sorry, excuse me, ADAM Jones, even though they could have for about a month straight. Now Adam is on the Bengals, where he’ll fit in well with they’re roster replete with thugs. But on Detroit, Jones would have been our best defensive back by a mile. His speed and instincts are no where to be found on Detroit’s defense. He may be an idiot, but he can defend the pass, and that’s the single biggest weakness of the 2010 Lions. In my opinion, this was a huge missed opportunity by Lions’ management.
Anyway. Amari Spievey. He was considered one of the better CBs in the 2010 draft in terms of his physicality and strength, but not necessarily his coverage skills. He’s a hard-hitter, something that both Schwartz and Cunningham covet in defensive players, and is known to give up short underneath routes and rely on his tackling skills. That may or may not be a strategy that works in the NFL, with slippery slot guys who aren’t easy to bring down. Chances are, Spievey will be a starting CB for the Lions at some point this season, but not right away. Expect King to be starting opposite Houston in the Lions’ first game, and then move back to the nickel CB spot later in the season.
As far as depth at cornerback goes, it’s an extremely bleak situation. There’s Marvin White, who played safety for Detroit last year in a few games and was disastrous; Jonathon Wade, who stunk so bad last year that the Rams didn’t want him back; Dante Wesley, who was a stunning back-up safety for Carolina last season; and Ramzee Robinson, who is the poster-boy for giving up big plays.
It sure seems the Gunther Cunningham has an obsession with hard-hitting defenders to the point where just about every cornerback on the Lions’ roster is a converted safety, and none of them know how to cover. Houston is a physical guy, great against the run, but poor in coverage. Same goes for Spievey. Same goes for King. The rest of the guys really aren’t great at anything. I hate to beat a dead horse, but this defense really could have used Pacman Jones.
As much as I want to believe in the Lions’ secondary turning things around, I just don’t see it happening. Not even close. Unless Louis Delmas can improve his coverage skills in leaps and bounds.
Subsection II: Safeties
Just like last year, the question at safety is: Delmas and, who else?
Delmas played in over 950 snaps last year for the Lions’ defense, second most on the team. He was an exceptional tackler (second on the team to Foote), an extremely hard-hitter, and a tempo-setter for the defense. He was the emotional leader and the only player on the defensive end worth getting excited about. He was also outstanding in rushing the passer. He did everything well … except, pass coverage.
PFF’s ranking of safeties had Delmas 21st overall for the 2009 season, and 9th best against the run. But in pass coverage, he was 24th, and even worse in terms of TDs allowed – 2nd most among safeties with six. How many of those six were really his fault? Probably less than half. But still, I can’t help but notice that guys like Reed and Sharper and Atogwe didn’t give up more than 2 TDs.
And it wouldn’t be a Lions’ offseason if someone didn’t guarantee or promise some outlandish, and this year, it was Delmas’ turn. 8 wins. Delmas predicted the Lions would win eight games this season. Remember, two years ago when John Kitna made the famous 10 win prediction, which became increasingly ironic during an 0-16 campaign. Then last season, Kevin Smith promised his Twitter followers that he would score 20 touchdowns and the Lions would make the playoffs. I think what he really meant was, “I’ll score 4 TDs, get hurt, and we’ll win 2 games!” What a nimrod. So this year, the false prophet is Louis Delmas, who apparently has fallen victim to falsehopeitis just like the fans. He also said the Lions would make the playoffs. But he left his prediction at 8 games. So maybe he isn’t very bright? Not sure how he expects us to earn the Wildcard with 8 wins, but that’s another story.
Unfortunately, my prediction for the Lions isn’t quite as confident as Delmas’s, but I am relatively sure that Delmas will be one of the most improved players on the roster and be pretty close to a house-hold name by the end of the season.
At the other safety spot, the Lions are in a shuffle between a whole bunch of guys that I am way less than excited about. We’ve got Ko Simpson, and Marquand Manuel, and Daniel Bullocks, and all three of those guys were so utterly terrible and undependable last year that it’s baffling how they stayed on the roster. We’ve got two super young guys I’ve never heard of - Jahi Word, and Jonathon Hefney. Hmm…
And, the Lions are rumored to still be in the hunt for free agent safety Oshiomogho Atogwe, who has a preposterous name but would be a great complement to Delmas because of his excellent ball-coverage skills. He’s one of the most underrated safeties in the NFL, and would add a much-needed element to the Lions’ defense. He’s a guy we really need. But like Pacman, it’s probably not going to happen. I hope it does, but he’s asking for a lot of money and the Lions seem to have dropped out of the chase a few weeks ago. But one report says that maybe there’s still a chance.
If we don’t add Atogwe, we’re basically a secondary with one hard-hitting safety, two hard-hitting cornerbacks who stink in coverage, and one big giant void at the other safety position.
Like I said earlier, secondary is the biggest weakness on this year’s Lions team.
Part Three: Special Teams
I don’t have much to say about this, but it should be noted that the very first move the Lions made this offseason was to fire Special Teams Coach Stan Kwon (also known as the only Asian football coach ever). Upon being fired, Kwon basically said “Yeah, I deserved it, I sucked.” It was really funny actually.
Some fellow named Danny Crossman was hired to replace Kwon; he coached in the NFL for 8 years and played college ball at Pittsburgh. So he’s probably an idiot.
Jason Hanson is the Lions’ kicker for an 18th straight season. As great a career as he has had, he’s definitely on the downslide and missed 7 FGs last year in 28 attempts, one of the worst percentages in the NFL. He doesn’t have the power he used to.
Nick Harris is back as the punter. He ranked 25th among punters in terms of net yards per kick, and had a long of 56 yards, which was the second worst long punt of any punter in 2009.
Kick returns are going to be interesting. I can’t imagine the Lions can be worse in that regard. The fumbling, stumbling, bumbling combination of rookies Derrick Williams and Aaron Brown and the inconceivably sluggish Dennis Northcutt was terrible and pathetic beyond all words. Ndamukong Suh could be kickoff return man and I’m certain it would be an improvement.
But instead, it’ll probably be either Nate Burleson, Jahvid Best, or Mr. Irrelevant, Tim Toone. For the sake of preventing injuries, the smartest move for the Lions would be to keep Burleson and Best strictly on offense, and give Toone a chance to return kicks. If he doesn’t earn that job, he more than likely won’t be on the team. At least let him go for the first few games, and if he stinks any worse than the trio from last year (which is probably not possible) than you could put Northcutt back in.
But I don’t think Toone will stink. After watching a few highlight videos of his days at Weber State, I’m pretty confident in his kick returning abilities. In fact, I'm a pretty huge Tim Toone fan right about now.
Part Four: Schedule Analysis and Predictions
In determining just how many games I think the Lions will win this year, I decided to take a quick look at the 2010 schedule.
Aside from 2 games each against our NFC North foes, we play:
AT HOME – Patriots, Jets, Eagles, Redskins, and Rams.
ON THE ROAD – Bills, Dolphins, Cowboys, Giants, and Buccaneers
First, let’s talk about the division. In my opinion, we’ve got the second or maybe third most difficult division in football, with two teams that rank in the top 10 overall. We might be able to steal 1 of the 4 games against GB/MIN, maybe, but I doubt it. Against Chicago, I’d be very happy if we didn’t get swept. But with the addition of Julius Peppers to their defense, I’m not feeling great.
Prediction: 1-5 in the division.
Best-case scenario: 2-4
In our four games against the difficult AFC East, we host the two best teams – New England and the NY Jets – and should get pummeled in both of those affairs. Just too much talent on those rosters. AT Miami, we also should have an extremely difficult time. Miami was the best 7-9 team last year by a mile, and added Brandon Marshall to an offense that needed a playmaking receiver, and added Karlos Dansby to an already pretty good defense. Jake Long will manhandle VandenBosch is this contest, leaving Suh double-teamed while the Wildcat runs amuck. This game could get very, very ugly. The one chance of capturing a victory against the AFC East comes AT Buffalo, against an opponent that actually has less talent than Detroit. I know the Lions have something like a 3-97 record in their last 100 road games, but I feel good about the Bills game. This could be a big one for Suh against the league’s worst offensive line.
Best-case scenario: 1-3
Against the also very difficult NFC East, we’ll play on the road against Romo and the ‘Boys and Eli and the G-men. Both of those seem like certain loses, but those are two teams that are known to lose to inferior opponents and sometimes lack focus. I’ll give us a 25% chance in each game, meaning we are 50/50 to win one of those. At home against Donovan’s Redskins and Kolb’s new-look Eagles, I think we’ll be in trouble. Washington is going to look to avenge last year’s loss, and I don’t think Philly’s high-flying offense is a great matchup for Detroit’s hapless defensive backs. But since these are both home games, I’ll give us the same odds as before.
Best case: 2-2
While the Lions have the misfortune of playing against the 3 toughest divisions in football, we also get to play against the league’s two worst teams in our bonus games. At home, against the Rams, early in Sam Bradford’s career, that should be a fairly easy win. Especially after losing to those idiots a year ago. And on the road in Tampa, where they have no semblance of an offense OR a defense, that game should also be a pretty easy win. We NEED to win at least one of these two, and should win both. I’m gonna go out on a limb and say we’re the better team in both games.
So overall, I’m predicting a 5-11 season, with wins over Chicago, Buffalo, St. Louis, Tampa, and one of the NFC East teams.
At the best possible case, we’ll finish 7-9, just one win short of Delmas’s prediction.
I also wouldn’t be shocked if we won fewer than 4 games. A lot will depend on the Chicago games. Those should be close contests, but if Cutler and new offensive coordinator Mike Martz (THE MAD SCIENTIST) mesh well together we might not be able to slow down that passing attack. If we get swept in the division for the third straight year, I won’t be a happy camper.
Part Five: Final Predictions
The Lions will go 5-11 this season.
Matt Stafford will throw for 3,200 yards, 21 TDs, 18 INTs, a 55% completion percentage, and a QB rating of 74.
Jahvid Best will run for 850 yards and 5 TDs, and finish in the top 5 in rookie of the year voting.
Calvin Johnson will catch 84 balls for 1100 yards, 9 TDs and play all 16 games.
Nate Burleson will be injured in week 2, and come back in week 10 only to get hurt again.
The offensive line will be good, but no one will notice.
Ndamukong Suh won’t be considered a “bust,” but he also won’t live up to massive expectations. He’ll have 3 sacks this year and just 40 tackles.
VandenBosch will be a disappointment, with only 6 sacks.
Delmas will lead the team in INTs with 5.
No Lions will make the Pro Bowl.
With the #6 pick in the 2011 Draft, the Detroit Lions will select … Gabe Carimi, left tackle from Wisconsin.
Here are a few other thoughts and predictions for this week in sports:
-The Lakers will win game 7 tonight. They're home, and with Perkins out, Gasol will take advantage. And Kobe will take over late.
-Germany wins the World Cup.
-Some dude who I've never heard of will win the US Open, Mickelson finishes top 7, Tiger finishes somewhere between 15 and 20.
-Here's one for you: The Big 10 currently has 12 teams, and the Big 12 has 10 teams. College football gets stupider by the day.
-Three of the best players in football - Darelle Revis, Chris Johnson, and Andre Johnson - are all holding out for better contracts. I don't blame any of them. They each deserve it. Pay them!
-Tigers' rookie Brennan Boesch wins Rookie of the Month for the second straight month. Not really a prediction. More of a fact.
-Stephen Strasburg is the best pitcher in the Major Leagues right now. No joke.