Sean did a great job on the write-ups for the drive-by-drive summary and game recap, so I'll just give my take on the game very informally. My hope is that I can tweak the perspective on the game just a tad. It was a very disappointing outing... no bones about it. But the comments I've read since the game, not only here, but on other major Lions blog sites have been quite disheartening to say the least. Because I think we all need a dose of positivity today, I will tackle the bad first and end with the good. Yes... there was some good.
- Let's get the 800 lbs. gorilla out of the room right away. Matt Stafford's performance was not what we'd all hoped it would be. It was a very rookie-like performance against a tough opponent under tough circumstances. He forced the ball several times trying to make big plays and got caught in the act. He will quickly learn that this is not college and that he has to do a better job in his risk-taking management. I like that he's a risk taker, but he's got to know when not to take that risk. Right know, he is clearly suffering from Jon Kitna syndrome... you know, taking the burden of a weak defense's early deficit and trying to force things to happen to narrow the opponent's lead. We all know what typically happens in that situation. He just needs to settle down when the defense turns up the heat and he'll be fine.
- Probably the most disheartening thing for me was the play of the defensive line. Not that I was surprised, but that my fears were now officially confirmed. I guess I secretly was hoping that this group - which was a bit of an unknown - would shock us all. But like my title states, they are who we thought they were. Avril and White were rendered helpless for most of the game - and this was without Jammal Brown. There was simply very little pressure on Brees and he had an absolute field day. Looking at Hill and Jackson, you would think that the run game would just clog at the line of scrimmage. Instead, they wore down quickly and by the fourth quarter, they were utterly gassed and the Saints were having their way with them completely. I'll have to watch the game again to see if there were any bright spots here, but I'm not expecting to see much.
I've seen many comments about the lack of blitzing, but I think Cunningham was right to dial it back. Blitzing is only effective if you are actually getting pressure on the passer. And in order to get pressure during a blitz, the line needs to get pressure too. I think that Cunningham realized that the Saints were easily picking up the extra defenders or Brees was simply seeing the blitz in the pre-snap reads and getting rid of it too quickly. Either way, the choice was to take your chances in coverage or take your chances with the blitz. Not very good options against the Saints' offense and I believe we were doomed in either case.
- I thought the weakness of the offense today rested with the offensive line. They were a liability in both the passing and running game and the Saints' defensive line simply got too much push. My hat's off to Gregg Williams, who executed a very good defensive strategy against the Lions. They brought pressure effectively when they needed to and got a good rush with just their four down lineman. When you can't block four, you can't block five or six. The Lions' offensive line just wasn't good enough in this game.
I think a lot of people are blaming Kevin Smith for the lack of running game, but I don't think that was the case. Far too often, the defenders were in the backfield before Smith had the ball in his hands. Some of the playcalling was questionable as well.
Yeah, there was a lot more negatives I could dwell on, but I think those were the big hitters. I think I'd like to spend more time on the "good" section below and then finally, offer up a perspective to help take us into next week's game.
- I'll start with what I think was a real positive, the return game. With respect to last year, the difference was night and day. Aaron Brown is a real find for the Lions and he is going to take a few kickoff returns to the house this year. He would have had one yesterday if not for the blazing speed of Malcolm Jenkins. It's not just the returners, though. I thought the blocking was improved as well. Again, I'll have to watch the game a second time, but for the most part I thought it was a solid outing.
- You guys are going to think I'm crazy for putting this in the good section, but here goes... Matt Stafford's first half performance. Yes, I think he got a little rattled in the second half, but in the first half he at least looked the part. I thought he was confident and in control of the offense. It's simply going to take some time for this offense to click. For his debut game, the first half was admirable. My Dad, who is a casual football fan, was watching the game with me yesterday. He knew we drafted Stafford, but didn't know much beyond that - i.e. he's not an over-analytical headcase like his son and all of his son's colleagues on POD. After the first half, he said something like "Tell you what, that kid doesn't look like a rookie. He looks calm and poised, like he's been there before". And he's right. As far as rookies go, Stafford looked ready in the first half. Most likely, the pressure and picks rattled him in the second, but did we really expect it not to? Schwartz and Linehan will calm him down and watch the tape with him. So listen to me very carefully... HE WILL BE FINE. It was his first outing and we knew it would be rough... and it was. Let's see how he rebounds next week and the week after that. That's the real test for him.
Don't make me bring historical first games for first overall draft picks into the mix here. Aikman, Manning... they've been exhausted, but they are relevant. Heck, look at Jay Cutler's game last night... even vets can struggle and throw three picks... in a single half!
- For the most part, I thought that the tackling was much improved over last year. The underlying problem is that the Saints' offense was picking up too many initial yards in the air (versus a lot of YAC) and with the run, they were getting past our front four far too easily. I thought that the linebackers and even the secondary tackled very well. I couldn't think of more than a few plays where missed tackling was a huge issue. I think this will be a strength when we play against teams with a lesser offense.
- The forced turnovers were another element to yesterday's game that hopefully signals a positive step forward in this team's progression. Although we couldn't always translate the opportunities to points, the fact is that there were opportunities there to be had. This is a big difference from last year, where those opportunities were completely absent from games. It's all about being a little better than you were the day before. So in this sense, they were.
- The coaching factor is also something that is night and day from last year. I feel immeasurably more confident having Jim Schwartz walking the sidelines versus Rod Marinelli. He looks in control and acts like a head coach. He had the passion to get after the refs when they blew a call (and there were MANY) and yet even when it was obvious we were overmatched, he remained even-keeled and poised. I didn't get to see his presser after the game, but I expect that same poised guy to come out and handle losses as well as he will handle wins. This team is in good hands. It's simply a matter of talent with this team right now and hopefully he can get more out of less and get us a few wins this year.
Look guys, I know this was a depressing opener, but did we REALLY expect it to go any differently? That's why I titled this article They Are Who We Thought They Were. Yeah, we all talked a little trash in the end and some of us were intoxicated from a week of crapulous kool-aid binging, but we all knew that this was likely to be the outcome. In the end, I thought the Lions were better in many aspects, but the questions we had about this team going in were simply confirmed. We already had a pretty strong inkling that the pass rush and defensive line was a liability, so why are we so surprised when it was established? We knew that our coverage was going to be a liability as well, so again... why the shock and awe when Brees torched us? Same with the offensive line and with our rookie quarterback. They are who we thought they were.
I am not trying to belittle anyone's discouragement with the Lions' poor performance yesterday. In actuality, I come offering solace and hope as I try to make sense of perplexing expectations. This team IS better. It's tough to see it after yesterday's loss, but they are. They will not go 0-16, yet I highly doubt they will go 10-6. Not every week will our defense be playing against Drew Brees. Not every week will our offense be down 14-0 in the first quarter. The circumstances for each game will vary. Some match-ups will play to our strengths (which we undeniably have) and some, like yesterday, will not.
The underlying problem is that this team lacks talent... a fact we all knew coming into the season. But there is now a solid group of base players to build from and each week we will progress. I do not believe for one second that Jim Schwartz will allow this team to regress... not for a single second. This team has stronger leadership from both the coaching staff and the players in comparison to last year and they will not buckle under mounting pressure to win. Our rookie quarterback is headstrong, mentally tough and more determined than any rookie that I've ever seen. He will not wither from the defensive pressure or the media fodder or even the oh-so-fickle Detroit fans. He will learn and get better each game and in time become the leader of a very potent offense. But guys... it's gonna take time. And by that, I mean more than a few preseason games and one... count it... one regular season start. We as a fanbase, must be patient and allow this team to learn and bond. Remember, we've turned over nearly two-thirds of our team and our roster is still very weak in comparison to most teams. We are building, not contending.
The thought I want to end on is that there IS progress. There were glimpses yesterday. Had we been playing a different opponent, maybe those glimpses would have been more pronounced, but I saw them. There is still a great hope for me in this base group of players, especially the young ones like Delmas, Stafford and Pettigrew that tells me in time, we will no longer be the laughing stock of the NFL. But when you've been down for so long, it's sometimes hard to see the positive in losses. It was an old familiar feeling... losing, I mean. It's tough not to say, "Same old Lions". But we just can't. We cannot simply throw in the towel as fans after one game and start the same old cynical chants of the Millen era. For me, I look to next week as a perfect opportunity. I will be at the Vikings game with my son (his first Lions game). What an ideal scenario for redemption... the home opener against a division rival and an old familiar foe in Brett Favre. Maybe they win, maybe not. For me, I just want to see an exciting game and a little progress. I just think that's where our expectations need to be.