<!--[if gte mso 9]><xml> Normal 0 false false false EN-US X-NONE X-NONE MicrosoftInternetExplorer4 </xml><![endif]-->Like me, I'm sure you are all nervous and frustrated and confused and angry about the Lions' start to the 2012 season. This latest chapter against the Titans was a muddled mess of a game and it has me concerned about the make-up of this team and the apparent lack of identity we seem to be facing. For all intents and purposes, we HAD an identity: an explosive pass-first offense with a strong defensive line that got pressure. We thought that this would be our identity and it has been a reason for optimism and a dangling carrot to keep us hopeful for a consecutive year of playoff football. Three games into this season and we are scratching our collective heads on why we seem like such a different team this year.
I kind of feel like one of two things must be true... either we DON'T have the team and personnel we thought we did or there are multiple areas where we are simply not playing to our abilities. What is the cause of this? Let's examine, shall we? Let me first throw the disclaimer out there that I am looking for your opinion to what you think is wrong and the corrections as well as adding my own opinions. Again, I have no answers, just opinions....
So let's start with the injury to Matthew Stafford as something that is not relevant to this discussion. For one, we don't know how many games, if any, he will miss. For two, the problems existed before he limped off the field. My guess is that he plays next week, but I am an optimist, so it's just a hunch. So what's the deal with the passing offense? Here are my observations over the first three weeks....
- We continue to start slow.
- We continue to have lots of dropped passes.
- We seem to have conceded that teams can play two-deep safety, shell coverage on us and we just forget about the deep routes.
- Teams do not seem to be blitzing us much, allowing for more players in coverage.
- Stafford doesn't seem to get into a rhythm until we are behind or go into a hurry up.
- Stafford has gone somewhat conservative.
I could list ten more, but let's start with these things. Starting slow and Stafford's rhythm go hand-in-hand and this, to me at least, is where we have to start. I definitely think that LeShoure's addition to this team is going to change the offensive make-up going forward, but with a defense playing as bad as ours is, we need to bring back that explosion. After all, that IS supposed to be our identity, right? Strong armed quarterback with the best receiver in the game and weapons all around is our M.O. So what needs to happen to get this identity back? My opinion.... go no-huddle to start every game. Start setting the tone instead of allowing the opponent to dictate that tone. I thought all three opponents so far were allowed to set the tone because we were unable to sustain opening drives that put them into 0-7 deficits. This is on coaches and players alike, but the coaches need to get off this run on every first down mentality (or the notion that we NEED balance regardless of circumstance) and take shots early in the game. Go deep for Calvin on the FIRST play of the game. Go no-huddle on the FIRST series. Dictate the tempo. Put the opponent on their heels early. Most importantly, get Matt Stafford in a rhythm early. Let HIM call the plays that he likes. Let him be a gunslinger. Don't dink, dunk and run your way to an early three and out.
Stafford had a confidence build up over the course of the year last year, so maybe things will pick up with the offense soon. We have to remember he is still only 24 years old. I disagree with many comments on the site talking about lack of maturity, etc. This is the most mature 24 year old quarterback in the league with solid leadership skills. I just think he needs to play his type of game. I really think the coaching is holding him back and he is starting to get conservative. Screw the interceptions. He can throw two every game if he's exploding for five touchdown as well. If this team is going to win, we have to make up for our lack of defense by pushing our offense to the limit. When we have a team down by 17 pts in the 3rd quarter, pound LeShoure at them 20 consecutive times, I don't care, but when we start, we need to start fast and explosive.
All of this, of course, is moot if we don't shed our fear of deep safety coverage. Again, this feels like we are allowing our opponent to dictate what we can and cannot do. In the Titans' game, I felt like we were waiting and waiting and waiting for our run game to open up a deep play-action opportunity. Guess what? It's not going to happen. Teams will give us run yardage. They know we are vulnerable on defense and would love it if we play conservative and shorten the game offensively. They will choose to always play us deep because of that. Their motto will be "just don't give them the deep ball". So what... we never test the secondary? Linehan is out-thinking himself here and he is forcing that mentality on Stafford. Test them deep. Test them when Calvin is double-covered. Test them with that play-action even if it's not ideal coverage. This is the difference between last year and this year. Instead of dictating, we are simply taking what the defense is giving us and staying conservative (until we are in panic/no-huddle/down by two scores type of situations).
Oh yeah, and start CATCHING THE DAMN BALL!
Just like the offense, we are not living up to our identity. But unlike the offense, I am not so sure that it is fixable. My observations from the first three games...
- The secondary, with or without injuries, is as bad as we thought.
- The run defense appears much improved or it simply could be that they are attacking our secondary more.
- Very little pressure against the pass, with or without blitzing.
- We are a poor coverage team and space created by opposing offenses is our poison.
When you look at these consolidated points, it creates a picture of how our defense is supposed to run and why it is failing. This is no new information for most here at POD, but if you are new to the Lions or football, our defense is supposed to work this way:
- Defensive line is the strength and is meant to create pressure with only four players. This is evident by our drafting and free agency focus. This allows us to keep seven in coverage.
- The line plays a "wide 9" formation, meaning the ends play out wide of the offensive tackles. This is to get fast penetration on passing downs and keep the run plays funneled to the inside where our tackles and linebackers are focused.
Essentially, everything on our defense is built on that basic concept. Limit the amount of time the quarterback has to make decisions and that takes the stress off the secondary by not having to cover for long periods of time. If this worked well, we wouldn't need a Darrelle Revis type at corner. IF that worked well and obviously, it's not working well. The question is why isn't it? Is it the players, scheme, coaching or some sort of mixture of the three? I don't personally think that there isn't one all-encompassing answer, so it has to be some mix of the three, but I think some of the reasoning - at least to me - is becoming evident.
1) The defensive ends are not getting pressure.
It all starts here. It is the fundamental principle that this defense is founded on and it's not working. How many sacks do Kyle Vanden Bosch, Cliff Avril and Willie Young have over the first three games? Two. Yep, that's it. And it's very noticeable that they are not getting much consistent pressure either. The defensive tackles are getting decent pressure - and that's got to happen as well - but the concept is based more on the defensive ends. So is it the player or the scheme? Me personally, I believe it is the players. Cliff Avril has been overmatched thus far and Kyle Vanden Bosch is showing signs of slowing down. This lends me to believe that it's not fixable for 2012. Uh oh.
2) Our linebackers can't cover.
What happens when the line isn't getting pressure? You have to do one of two things, blitz or cover. With a weak secondary, you have to maximize the bodies that a quarterback has to look at when making his reads and that reduces your ability to effectively blitz. If we had a stronger secondary, I would say to send an extra guy 60% of the time to make up for the shortcomings of the defensive end pressure. We don't, however, so the best bet is to try to cover the best we can. Problem? Our linebackers are not good enough in coverage. Tulloch and Durant were born to play the run and they do it well. The problems start when the opposing offense spreads it out and these guys have to play in space. The first three opponents this season has given the rest of our schedule the blueprint to win. Another "uh oh".
3) Bad safety play.
Bad angles and bad reads make for big plays... and we are seeing them. Even if we get Delmas back (and PRAYING that he is the guy we saw in his rookie campaign), we still have to rely on either Spievey, Coleman or Wendling at the other spot. None of those three should be starting for an NFL team. This is our last line of defense in giving up the big play and teams are quickly finding out that ours can't stay in the right position. The run play is adequate, but coverage is bad. That's three strikes based on personnel.
So what can we do at this point? In my opinion, the scheme is fine; it's the lack of talent in key places that is attributing to a weak defense. The front office is partially to blame in over-evaluating guys like Avril (although they thankfully didn't overpay for him), Vanden Bosch, Durant, the second safety position and maybe even Tulloch. Of course, you can't simply go to the local store and buy a great player (ask Daniel Snyder), so not all the blame can be put on Mayhew. He had little to work with initially and only has so much cap space and only so many draft choices. In other words, you can't fix ALL your problems in one offseason. I like his BPA strategy and I think in the long run, it will definitely pay off. I just think the fault lies in thinking too highly of our defensive ends and in the cover ability of our linebackers and safeties - without being able to net GREAT cover corners this offseason. I have no problem with most of the players we drafted and the long-term strategy he has, but what do we do now, in this season? Aside from getting Delmas back at some point.... play better. Don't feel good about that answer? Me neither, but its reality. I think the defense is currently capped in ability and if we can't get constant pressure or cover, we are only going to be so good. Bottom line... certain players need to play better fast.
Aside from maybe a better run game if LeShoure continues to impress, we have the exact same team from last year... no real improvements and maybe even a slight defensive regression. While it is disheartening in the sense that a lot of us had hoped for improvements, which meant Super Bowl contender, no progress still means playoff contender, right? But if that's the case, to even match what we did last year, something has to change from what transpired the first three games. What is going to be the saving grace?
In short, it has to be the offense. They have to go the rest of the season by putting all the pressure on Stafford like they did last year. It's all fine and dandy that we have LeShoure back and he looks good and everything, but if your defense is leaking like a sieve, what good is running the ball and slowing the game down going to do you? Quick answer is nothing. We have to try to outscore everyone. Start fast, play fast; don't let up until the nail is firmly pounded in. Make the no-huddle our BASE offense until we are up by at least 14 pts. If we never go up by that much, we stay in no-huddle the entire game. We have a smart quarterback that can manage that style of game (and actually excels in it). We have a quarterback whose best games come when he is in a rhythm. We have a quarterback that can make the big plays consistently. Let's use that to our advantage. The coaches have to realize that our defense is not good enough to go toe-to-toe with teams that can pass or have great balance, so we must outscore everyone.
Keep in mind that while we lost to the Titans, we scored 41 pts... on offense. They scored a lot of their points in other areas (trickery, special teams, ripping the ball from a tight end with hands like feet, etc). We CAN outscore every team in the league. That's a good thing too, because we might have to do that to win more games this year. And we all need to keep in mind, we are only 1-2. The season is far from over as long as we can makes some adjustments quickly. So what are your thoughts and opinions on how the Lions should go about correcting this thing?
<!--[if gte mso 9]><xml> </xml><![endif]-->