So the Vikings killed us, or we killed ourselves, or maybe the refs slipped some poison in the Kool-Aid, or quite possibly our coach turned all of our players into lemmings and they all blindly followed him off the cliffs edge. There are a lot of heavy hearts, frustrated lovers, and bruised egos in the Detroit Lions fandom this week. 0-3 here it goes again, that is what many might be thinking. Just take a deep breath, infuse more alcohol in your Kool-aid to counteract the ref's poison, and give it time for the antidote to work.
Lets take a look at what is going on with our team and what can or will happen to help in the future.
Quarterbacks: Stafford is injured again and we are being led by the career backup Shaun Hill. While Hill shows signs of life in the two minute offense, his overall performance leaves a lot to be desired. I think at this point it is safe to say that while Hill can make some plays he also has a knack to blow it by forcing one in. Instead of being the savvy veteran that will live to play another down he is showing that he is as much of a gunslinger and gambler as Brett Favre. Unlike Favre though Hill comes out on the bad end of the gamble more often than not.
I like his toughness and you can definitely see some fire in his eyes out there when the game is on the line. While many have lost faith that he is the best backup in the league I am hard pressed to find a batter back up out there. When I look at the fact that Pittsburgh can win with Charlie Batch under center I have to give Hill some leeway due to the fact that our defense, running game, special teams, and coaching seem to be a day late and a dollar short at many points in the game also. So it is not his fault alone.
But then who expected Hill to be our savior? Everyone knows that he is a game manager type, and when you have no team or coaching to back that up there is little game left to manage other than a two minute drill. However he cannot get a full pass either since he has thrown three end zone interceptions and the majority of that is on him and no one else.
While Matthew Stafford might not have enough talent differential in his arm alone to make up the differences in losses to wins, he has other tools that will upgrade the quarterback position when he is in there too. Matt has a tendency to be very good under pressure and he was one of the smarter rookie quarterbacks at reading defenses. In 2009 Stafford had a 78.7 QB rating versus the blitz. That ranked 25th in the league which may not seem impressive at first. However when you consider that Calvin was always double covered, and many times triple covered, not to mention that the other receivers are not even worth throwing to, it is pretty decent. He did have Pettigrew there and they were developing some nice chemistry before they were both injured.
Probably the biggest asset that Stafford brings to the table is his confidence and attitude. Couple that with a serious dose of toughness and we all saw what that could do against Cleveland last year. So when you put all of the package together for a quarterback, the arm, the reads, the clutch ability, the guts and toughness, all of the intangibles, when you measure that out Stafford makes the Lions a much better team with him under center, experienced or not. The guy has a deep and pure desire to win along with an ability to make that translate and be infectious to the players around him. His effect on the offense is similar to that of KVB on the defensive line.
Runningbacks: There is Jahvid Best and there is the rest. Much like the quarterback position there is a big drop off when our lead dog is not out there on the field. Jahvid is hands down one of the most electric running backs in the league, let alone on our roster. No one on our depth charts brings his talents to the table and the perpetual threat of a home run. Jahvid showed what he is capable of against Philadelphia and because he can already perform at that high level as a rookie he creates and even bigger drop off in talent when he is not on the field.
Kevin Smith is still recovering from injury and no one really knows what he still brings to the table. Until he gets four or so games under his belt no one can really say what he is or is not. While he is more likely to lose a step, or degrade in performance, there are plenty of players out there like Wes Welker who have recovered from a similar injury and have not missed a beat.
Maurice Morris is a capable guy to have as a third option on our depth chart but he is also inconsistent when running the ball. The fact that he is seeing playing time speaks to how bad the injury bug is hitting us. While he does not have the bright future of some of our younger backs, he does do everything at an acceptable level, even if it is hard to watch after we have seen Jahvid.
Aaron Brown is the only other running back that has shown the explosion capable of taking it to the house at any given time, from any given place on the field. He struggled with the playbook last year and seems to be coming along nicely. There have been noticed improvements in his run game between the tackles and his shaky pass protection. While he is a threat after catching the ball he has shown that catching the ball is by no means a guarantee when it is thrown to him. Unfortunately he was injured against the Vikings too or I think we would have seen more of him.
Jerome Felton is the fan favorite to be our power runner and when given the opportunity he has been inconsistent. From getting stopped on several consecutive attempts inside the two yard line in preseason to having a nice 15 yard run here and there. With our backfield quickly being depleted with injuries I would not be surprised to see more of him.
If any of these injuries are serious you might even see DeDe Dorsey getting a call from the Lions to come suit up. Jahvid going on IR for the year to turf toe would be as big of a nightmare scenario for me as losing Stafford is. I was listening to Jon Jansen after the game on 97.1 The Ticket, and when questioned about Brown and Felton not getting more snaps he explained that they are not complete players yet, they are still growing, and more importantly, they are still gaining the confidence of the coaches.
Going forward we can only hope that we can get healthy and that Jahvid does not have a serious toe injury, he is our "Best" bet. A healthy Kevin Smith could provide a much needed lift to this team though and I am not writing him out yet. There is also the distinct possibility, because there are no other options, that Aaron Brown and Jerome Felton get more chances. One of them could pass the trial by fire and pleasantly surprise us, heck for all we know both of them could.
Receivers: We have to start this segment off with Calvin Johnson. I am going to say one thing only about Calvin, if he played every snap with the ferocity, intensity, and focus that I see from him late in the fourth quarter, he would simply dominate every game he played in. He simply embarrassed Chris Cook out there late in the game and pushed him around like a little girl late in the game. Now if we could just get that out of him in quarters one through three, and the first ten minutes of the fourth quarter we would be looking pretty good at wide receiver even if everyone behind him is injured or playing sub par. This man is scary good when he plays angry.
Nate Burleson so far has been a good influence off the field and in the locker room, however he has yet to make that impact on the field. Do I even need to say anything here? Is anyone seeing the pattern yet? Our number one quarterback, number one running back, and number two receiver are either injured or banged up. No wonder the offense is sputtering and Linehan is calling vanilla.
Bryant Johnson is who we thought he was. I like his effort but the guy is just not going to come up with circus catches or amazing plays for you more than once or twice a season. Pretty much what you would expect for a guy third on the depth chart.
Derrick Williams hey there was a bright spot in the Vikings game. This guy actually made a couple of nice plays and managed to catch the ball. If he keeps it up he is going to pass up Bryant on the depth charts and develop into a solid slot receiver even if he cannot return a punt. Who knows maybe some day he will even learn how to not fair catch inside of the five yard line. After all that is not a very difficult thing to learn, well one would think anyways.
Stefan Logan has a fumble or two a year. It is part of the package with a guy that tries to cheat and sneak a peek at coverage while he is catching. Hopefully he has it out of his system now but I would not be surprised to see one more during the year. Hopefully not. He was another pleasant surprise though with the reverse run and I could see him getting some special plays designed for him. Some screens and even having him in the wildcat with Best could be interesting to take advantage of his block reading and open field running. Sadly our fifth receiver is more of a return man specialist and running threat than any kind of receiver, however what he does, he does well, and there is something to be said for that.
There is little to talk about goign forward other than the possibility that Tim Toone or Mike Moore might develop into solid guys for next year. If that happens you will see Stephan Logan and Bryant Johnson on the bubble.
Tight Ends: There is not too much to say about these guys. They are performing pretty well in my book. Yes Pettigrew and Scheffler have had some errors but not anything I would not expect from a tight end. When you are in the line mauling for several downs it can be hard to go out and catch one that requires soft hands. Pettigrew will probably always have some drops because of that and it is not anything out of the ordinary for a dual threat tight end. Scheffler I am willing to give a pass on with the misrun routes since it is his first few games in the offense. That should correct itself along the way and he has more than shown his value on the field.
Offensive Line: Well the good news is that we have the best offensive line in the NFC North. The bad news is that still puts us well into the bottom third of the league overall. Hopefully we can get Peterman healthy and keep him and everyone else healthy. I am a bit nervous with Dylan Gandy in there.
So our line has been a bit inconsistent. I can give Rob Sims a pass on that since he is the new guy. I can understand it washing over to Backus and Railoa because of that communication gap and chemistry that is yet to be developed with Rob Sims. Most of the pass protection issues on the inside have been due to that, or a misread by Jahvid on the delayed linebacker blitz. Hey by the way Jahvid did a wonderful job of picking one of those up this game, which he struggled with against Chicago. So that is a plus.
What concerns me is the lack of holes begin consistently opened for the running game, and the outside pass protection. I don't think there is any fix on the run game until we get a bigger, more physical center. Our offense does a lot to try and hide Dominic Raiola there. They run a lot of traps and off tackle stuff where they actually pull Raiola or outright release him into the second level and try to have the guards pick up his slack. Sadly though it does not work more than half the time and I see Dominic as the biggest culprit to our run game issues. It is pretty hard to run the ball when the other teams defensive tackles and line backers are there as soon as, or sometimes even before the ball is handed off. Here is to hoping we draft a center next year.
Many would have liked us to pick up Jake Grove however that will not happen for two reasons. First of all Grove has injury issues. Secondly the Lions have to be diplomatic and careful of how they replace Raiola since it can effect the locker room.
I see similar issues on the outside with pass protection with both Backus and Cherilus. Neither one has the proper combination of footwork, strength, and agility in both the legs and upper body to be good pass protectors. I do not see these guys as getting any better and while they are getting by for now, to be a truly dominant offensive line they will need to be replaced eventually. Cherilus is too tall to play guard in the real world so no Madden edits here please. The guy is 6' 7" and causes passing lane issues for any quarterback that is not a stork.
Going forward we can only put our hopes into young back ups Hilliard and Fox to develop nicely or for the Lions to draft some quality starters early in the draft. I am not going to bother with names here for a couple of reasons. For one that will just open up further debate that is a but off of where I want to go with this. It also is too soon to start those debates, which will happen a plenty after the season is over.
Defensive Line: I think little is needed to be said here. Not only do we have a respectable starting group but this is one of the few positions that we have good depth at too. It is amazing and extremely encouraging to me that Mayhew and Schwartz, along with Gunny have completely turned this unit around in one year. It gives me much hope going forward to see what they might do with the rest of the defense.
Line Backers: Julian Peterson is far too inconsistent for his experience and the number of pro bowl appearances he has. The guy has some nice things he brings to the table, and he seems to be putting out a lot more effort this year than last year, however he is not exactly a long term solution on the strong side. For the money this guy is making he won't be around too much longer given his performance. In fact the only reason he has made it this far is because there has been bigger issues for the coaches to work on. Gunny benching him at the end of the Eagles game pretty much sums it up and puts the writing on the wall. He might squeak by one more year but all bets are off unless he actually starts to play to his ability.
DeAndre Levy is not only solid but shows some signs of being one of the better middle line backers in the league. Did anyone notice that AP had trouble running up the middle this game? Man what a difference one guy makes. He was not perfect in the game but the improvement was both noticeable and big. I am willing to cut him slack on the one or two errors based on him being rusty. Now this guy can start working on the nuances of the game like disguising his blitz better and getting there with it faster.
Zack Follett has been coming along slowly but I am worried about the concussion. I think he could develop into a better than average outside backer and I have been pleased with his steady improvement in the coverage game. He does need to work on picking up screens and getting off the blocks for them better though. Based on how hard this guy plays the game and the fact that he is still out there on special teams I tend to think that he will not be a long term answer for us. He will fill in admirably for us until we a replacement though. That could be anywhere from a trade, to next years draft, to years down the road when Zack is forced to retire early from battering ram style of play.
The back ups Landen Johnson, Ashlee Palmer, and Isiah Ekejuiba are nothing spectacular. Landen is the journeyman that is somewhat solid but definitely exploitable when he is out there. Ashlee and Isiah are the special teams ace types that have enough athletic ability to show you some flashes and can actually step up to make a big play now and then even if they are a bit inconsistent.
Going forward I am all right with Palmer and Ekejiuba doing what they do. That being said we need at least one more solid outside line backer if not two. While we can get by for another year with Julian I have serious concerns with him and Follett in coverage. Both would be excellent back ups and likely push Landen Johnson off the depth chart. Given Peterson's age and being on the clear downhill slide I actually can see him getting replaced before the Pain Train. Palmer will see some time while Zack heals up and he just might show enough to coaches to keep a job. He is young enough yet to invest into and just might be a nice surprise for us going forward. Don't forget our dark horse practice squad guy Caleb Campbell either. I would not be surprised to see him on this team before the year is out and I would not be surprised to see him hand on to a starting job if he gets a shot.
Corner Backs: Chris Houston was brought here to be the man and he is showing exactly why Atlanta gave up on him. While he has good speed and and effort he is pretty much the Ernie Sims version of a corner back. For all of the speed and athleticism and effort he still makes stupid mental errors that are likely to never go away. Percy Harvin's thank you note is in the mail as we speak.
Jonathan Wade has actually been a pleasant surprise for me. I see a lot of guys getting down on him and I do not quite understand it. He has yet to give up a big play for a touchdown and he has made some nice break ups along with being fairly solid in run support. Many of you are going to disagree with me here but I actually think he is fine as a number two outside corner back for us going forward.
Alphonso Smith has been another nice surprise in the secondary for me. The guy is a play maker and is only going to get better as time goes on. No I do not want to move him to the outside. I like him right where he is, playing nickle back, getting interceptions, and making tackles on Adrian Peterson behind the line of scrimmage.
Nathan Vasher was brought in as an all purpose swing type guy that can play either outside or nickle back. From what little we have seen of him I think he is going to be all right as a stop gap. I am looking forward to a healthy Aaron Berry next year in camp along with a year of maturation for Aphonso Smith to see where things shake out.
Amari Spievey while he is listed as a safety I am not writing him off yet. He certainly brings the wood when he hits and I think that he will be in the mix next year in camp along with others that may end up in an unexpected role. Long term I would love to see him add some size to his frame without losing the speed. I think this guy could be absolutely lethal next to Delmas if he can do that. With that being said I am venturing into safety talk now.
Safeties: Well we all know Delmas is a stud, no need to say more than that. Above I spoke my hopes for what Amari Spievey will become too. So that just leaves Randy Phillips and C. C. Brown.
C. C. Brown has coupled up with Chris Houston to cause the majority of big plays given up on that deep right side of our defense. The guy seems like a solid run support player and I like his effort, but he just does not have the speed or coverage skills to be an every down safety. I look forward to the day when he takes his rightful place as a short yardage and run support specialist on our depth chart.
Randy Phillips is a bit erratic to say the least. He makes some nice plays but he also was on the field to give up the big play to DeSean Jackson for the touchdown against the Eagles. He may one day be a solid starter but that time is not now. Another developmental player that might challenge for a starting spot later this year or early next year. If nothing else he makes a solid depth guy going forward.
While we may not have the answer next to Delmas just yet I think that questions will be solved before the season is over. Between Spievey and Phillips I do not think safety is something we have to worry about in the 2011 draft.
Kicking and Punting: Jason Hanson and Nick Harris are both showing signs of age. While Harris is performing slightly better currently it is probably too soon to start writing Hanson off just yet. While I think Hanson is only an average kicker now it is not because of lack of ability. It is because of the lack of consistency. I think everyone knows now why Schwartz decided to go for it on 4th and 1 in the Eagles game. He sees Jason in practice every day along with Danny Crossman and it is clear that while Jasons's leg is fine physically, he is struggling a bit mentally.
The good news for Hanson and the rest of us is that he is a consummate professional and I expect he will work out the kinks of having some rust within another week or two. While I can see us addressing the kicking game in the off season I can also see us riding it out too. Everyone has to remember that this guy is basically the Peyton Manning of kickers. He has proven himself year in and year out for a long time. He missed some camp due to surgery and he deserves a little leeway in coming back. While I am not putting him in the pro bowl, I think he is better than anything currently available and much like Backus and Raiola, the front office should tread lightly when seeking a replacement.
While many fans would be optimistic about such moves these guys will get some leeway based on their tenure and popularity in the locker room. That begin said, I have faith from the decisions made with DeWayne White, Jason Hunter, Jon Jansen, and Dre Bly that the front office will pull the trigger when the time is right.
Coaching: While I have found myself questioning the offensive play calling, and even the use of time outs in recent games I have reminded myself that I am not privy to the same information as our coaches. Linehan is clearly under more fire than Schwartz and any coach is always on the hot seat due to the hindsight factor. I was not happy with the decision of Schwartz to kick the field goal without taking one more shot at the end zone before half time in the Vikings game. However Shaun Hill did proceed to throw two interceptions in the red zone later in the game, so I can see both sides of that coin. He wanted the sure points and to change the game to a one touchdown win instead of a one touchdown tie. It is not a horrible move given the nature of our team to beat ourselves in the first three games.
For Linehan I can make few logical reasons as to his decisions. I can say that the ineffectiveness of the run game is on our offensive line and running backs a lot more than on him. And I can also say that while some coaches and players claim that the Lions can compete with back up players it is pretty clear that we can not. Simply put if we had a healthy line up those plays would have worked differently with the exception of the offensive line. While I am not overly enthused with the play calling of Linehan, I am willing to cut him some slack until he gets his starting quarterback, running back, and top four receivers (CJ, Nate, Grew, Schef) out on the field at the same time. Even then if the offensive line continues to be inconsistent it is going to be hard to put all of the blame on Linehan. I just don't see how changing the offensive coordinator is going to help any of this in any kind of meaningful way. So I definitely am not in the fire Linehan camp, yet.
Conclusion: Well I think when I look at our team going forward it certainly merits more optimism than pessimism from a player personnel standpoint. We have been wracked with injuries and we simply do not have the depth yet to handle that gracefully. Furthermore we have some interesting and promising finds in guys like Lawrence Jackson Jonathan Wade and Alphonso Smith, not to mention that guys like Aaron Brown, Derrick Williams and Zack Follett are showing steady improvement.
Looking forward on the schedule I can see the Rams, Redskins, Bills, and Buccaneers as winnable games. Furthermore I think that the Lions have the capability of beating anyone in the NFL on any given Sunday provided three things, they have healthy starters, they eliminate some of the mental mistakes, and they keep playing with the heart they have already displayed. So I think the 4-6 wins are still out there to be had. Heck we should have already beat the Bears if not for the not so wonderful NFL rule book and completely stupid competition committee. Keep in mind that all of our division games are at home now and other than the Jets, Patriots, and Cowboys the hardest part of our schedule is over. Heck even those three teams have already had their own issues this year.
If you are someone that is questioning yourself right now, and find yourself losing faith in the team you just have to keep in mind that every year, for two years in a row now, we have made it through the draft and training camp with more talent on the field and less holes and question marks in the roster. In due time this will pan out into wins, it is inevitable. We just need to stay the course and weather the storm, sunshine is on the horizon.