It was always asking too much for this team to dig itself out of that big a hole. We knew the odds; we knew the folly of asking the Lions to stay perfect in the second half. Even if they had pulled off that kind of a miracle, it still might not have mattered in the end. Maybe the dream was always destined to die. Either way, I'll be damned if I didn't enjoy the hell out of walking that tightrope for the past month.
But, this season has gone as it has, and here we are. The final quarter of the 2015 campaign. The grim, inexorable march toward another January without a playoff appearance. The familiar emotional numbness of watching games carrying implications only for April, our minds plagued by thoughts of what might have been. What if DeAndre Levy had been healthy? What if the young cornerbacks had seen the field sooner? What if Jim Caldwell hadn't waited so long to get rid of Joe Lombardi?
Ultimately, these questions will weigh heaviest on Caldwell and his staff. Maybe one of those brutal losses already sealed their fates, or perhaps they'll be back next year. Who knows? Between the uncertainty of the future and the regret of the past is the reality of the present, in which the 2015 Lions have become a surprisingly decent football team: They've cracked the top half of Football Outsiders' Team Efficiency Rankings. A pass defense that was downright abysmal has vaulted out of the bottom third. Even the unthinkable has happenedâthe Lions run game has emerged from the cellar. These are cumulative statistics, remember, and this team had a lot of work to do as recently as four weeks ago.
None of this is much consolation, obviously. Even if you're one of the people cheering for the Lions to keep winning, damn it all (disclosure: I am one of those people), it may not matter for Caldwell, and more importantly, his coordinators. And, while it's fair to point to concrete changes in the staff and scheme as the reasons for the team's recent turnaround, there's also not much evidence to suggest a hot second half would mean much for the Lions' record in 2016. I'd like to believe the truest form of this Lions team is closer to the past four weeks than the first eight. I'd like to believe it doesn't all have to be blown up. But, maybe it does. I just wish we had more time. 2015 has been a weird season, and I'm still having trouble processing it. Whatever happens, we'll always have Cooter Magic.
A team that has far less uncertainty surrounding it these days is the St. Louis Rams. As Jeremy Reisman pointed out this week, the Rams have been crumbling to ash during the last month. (Hey, we know what that's like, too!) The reason for this disintegration is fairly easy to spot: the Rams can't throw the ball against anyone. The two-headed monster of Nick Foles and Case Keenum has created the passing equivalent of the Joe Lombardi run game. The gap between the Rams and 31st place is larger than that between 31st and 21st. They're laughably, astoundingly bad. But, if you follow the NFL (and if you're still reading POD in December, I assume you do), you probably don't need me to point that out. Instead, I'd like to try and figure out what's going on with the Rams defense during this skid.
In the past four weeks, the only team the Rams have held under 30 points is the Baltimore Ravens, whose roster has been annihilated like 14th-century Europe. The Arizona Cardinals and Cincinnati Bengals both put up solid numbers throwing to their top wideouts, but I reckon that has more to do with the Cardinals and Bengals than it does with the Rams, who have defended No. 1 and No. 2 WRs incredibly well for most of the season. The trend that sticks out the most is that teams have been able to consistently do damage in the passing game with running backs and tight ends, players the Rams do not defend as well. This seems fairly logical: If my team is facing the force of nature that is the Rams' front four, I probably don't want to see my quarterback sitting back in the pocket waiting to take shots downfield.
The Rams' primary defensive strategy seems to be to attack the line of scrimmage relentlessly, lay waste to whatever stands in the defense's way, and sort the bodies out afterward. They'll bring plenty of added pressure when it suits them, but either way, you better strap up, because that front four is coming after you. When this strategy works, it works pretty well. Lately, though, teams have had success exploiting that aggression and getting big chunks of yardage through quick, easy play-action passes and screens.
Watch how hard the entire front seven flows to the run action here. The entire right side of the field is vacated. All it takes is the slightest delay from first-team all-name TE Crockett Gillmore to sell the block, and he leaks out as Joe Flacco rolls to his right. It's hard to imagine an easier 20 yards.
This is less of an instance of St. Louis biting on a run fake than it is overcommitting to the (apparent) play side and failing to account for Gillmore leaking across the field on a shallow drag. Kamar Aiken comes back on the deep crossing route and makes a spectacular block to spring Gillmore for big-time yardage. But, even without Aiken's play, this is going for at least 20. I mean, no one bothers to check Gillmore here:
As long as tight ends can sell the block long enough, they tend to get open against the Rams:
This admittedly feels like a play that happens six times a week in the NFL, so maybe it's unfair to pick on the Rams for this. But, so be it. That slight delay is all it takes to get the Rams' defensive front licking its chops and charging hard to the ball. Zach Miller catches his second TD of the game, after an 87-yard catch-and-run following some terrible tackling. Zach Miller isn't even the best tight end on the team.
That play-action success against the Rams extends to running backs, as well.
The Rams are loaded up front here in a short-yardage situation. And again, no defender accounts for the pass-catcher leaking out into the flats. It almost seems as though the outside linebacker keys on the H-back coming across the formation at the snap. Perhaps it's being overly aggressive. Maybe it's just a missed assignment. Either way, it's sloppy defense, and it's been a trend in the Rams' back seven recently.
Like with the short play-action game, the screen game has successfully used the Rams' aggression against them. Langford housed an 83-yarder against them for the Bears:
Gio Bernard broke a similarly long screen for the Bengals:
Considering the Lions' roster includes Ameer Abdullah, Theo Riddick and Eric Ebron, Joique Bell being the most effective recipient of screens is kind of crazy. But, a successful screen is as much about guile and timing as it is physical ability, so maybe I shouldn't be surprised. Bell is very much the "wily veteran" of the group at this point. Watching these plays against the Rams, though, it's hard not to imagine Abdullah or maybe (just maybe), Ebron going off on Sunday. Nothing would make me happier than the latter. Ebron's selection at number 10 will always be marred by Aaron Donald's brilliance. What better way for him to get some personal vindication than by torching Donald's defense in his own house? The opportunities are there. It'd be nice to see the second-year TE break one off for a change.
The season may be effectively over, but I'd rather not see Matthew Stafford killed. The Lions don't have to put it up to Calvin Johnson and Golden Tate to win this matchup. They might not even want to. And, if the next four games are meant to serve as auditions for the coaching staff, we'll see what ol' Jim Bob has in store for Sunday.