Lions: Underachievers or frauds? We'll find out in the upcoming weeks
October 8, 2012 at 1:00 am
Allen Park — Who exactly are these Detroit Lions?
Are they a legitimate playoff contender off to an inexplicably slow start, or are they, as ESPN's Michael Wilbon called them recently, a "fraudulent" football team?
The next couple of weeks will go a long way toward answering that question. They come out of the bye week with stiff road tests at Philadelphia Sunday and at Chicago on Monday Night Football, Oct. 22.
They cannot lose both of those games and maintain any realistic playoff aspirations, not with two games remaining against Green Bay, road games at Minnesota and Arizona and home games against Houston, Atlanta and Chicago.
But are the Lions' frauds? Was their 10-6 season a year ago a fluke? You can certainly make a case for that, as many national pundits have.
Not one of those 10 wins came against a playoff team a year ago. Four of those games required near-miracle comebacks. And, since starting last season 5-0, the Lions have gone 6-10 including the playoff loss to the Saints.
They have won just one of their last seven road games.
Most of the problems that existed last season — shaky secondary play, spotty to horrid special teams play, minimal run game and an offense that is over-reliant on the big play — remain.
But I am stopping short of calling them frauds.
For one, the offensive firepower is legit. We've seen it. This two-deep shell game opposing defenses are deploying against Calvin Johnson and company won't shut this offense down forever.
Truth be told, it only worked for the 49ers and Vikings. The Lions amassed more than 40 points and 500 yards against the Titans and they moved the ball well against the Rams.Good players making bad plays
The Lions have to run better and they are capable of doing that. Nobody is asking them to run for 400 yards a game; just be efficient. Mikel Leshoure has all the tools, but he has played just two games in more than two years. He will continue to acclimate to the NFL game and his production will increase.
Jahvid Best could also be back in the mix for the Bears game. What a huge lift he could provide. Those short passes in the flat that have been going for minimal yardage with Kevin Smith, Leshoure and Joique Bell have the potential to be more explosive with Best.
If there is one offensive weapon in the Lions' arsenal that could draw those safeties up closer to the line of scrimmage, it's Best.
But, again, there are no guarantees that he will be cleared or be as productive as he was before the head injury.
With or without Best, the offense is still better than it's shown in the first quarter of the season. The playmakers are there — Matthew Stafford, Johnson, Nate Burleson, Titus Young, Brandon Pettigrew, Tony Scheffler, Leshoure.
The struggles have been self-inflicted. There have been too many miscommunications, too many missed assignments on the line, too many bad throws and bad decisions by the quarterback, too many dropped balls by the tight end and receivers.
It's been a case of good players making bad plays. It would be a completely different conversation if we were talking about bad players making mistakes.
On top of that — or maybe because of that — the game plans and the play calling have been too passive, too reactive. There have been times, especially the last two weeks, where the Lions tried to trick the defense — quick-snap handoffs on third down, faking and botching a hard-count on fourth down, etc, — instead of making the defense stop their best plays.
This is all correctible. You have to trust the body of work here.
Stafford didn't forget how to the throw the football. You have to expect him to get back into that groove he was in most of last season.
Pettigrew owns all the team's single season receiving records for tight ends. You have to expect him to shake off whatever mental demons he's dealing with and start making big catches.
Johnson is still getting his touches. Before the bye week he was leading the league in receiving yardage and was second in receptions. The Lions just need to get a little more aggressive, a little more efficient when they get into the red zone.
The offense is not fraudulent.Delmas to the rescue?
The defense? You can't call it fraudulent because the secondary was suspect coming into the season. It has been pretty much what we expected. The defensive line has been, for the most part, solid. It hasn't been as disruptive as they expect to be, but it still ranked ninth in sacks before the bye.
There haven't been many three-and-outs, but they've been stout when teams get into the red zone.
The problems here, again, are correctible: Rookie mistakes in the secondary (Bill Bentley not turning to find the ball), missed tackles and-or missed assignments leading to big plays, ill-timed penalties.
Safety Louis Delmas could be back this week. If he is, and if he can play at the level he was at before the knee injuries, it would be a huge boost. He would clean up a lot of the breakdowns in the back end that were leading to the explosive plays. He might be the most effective blitzer the Lions have. And, he would bring some long-missing swagger to the secondary.
This defense was one of the leading turnover-makers in football last season. They need to get back to that. It starts with the offense getting some early points to force opposing offenses to take more chances and be more one-dimensional, then it's a matter of the defensive line creating havoc up front which leads to mistakes by the quarterback and ultimately to turnovers.
Again, the talent is there to get that done.
As for the special teams, well, if that doesn't get fixed then there is no point in stressing over the offense and defense. There will be personnel changes on the coverage units, that much is certain.
It would be a shock if rookie Jonte Green remains as one of the gunners. It would be a shock if rookie Travis Lewis, healthy at last, did not replace Doug Hogue (or somebody else) on the kick and punt teams. It would be a shock if coach Jim Schwartz and special teams coordinator Danny Crossman didn't pull rookie Ronnell Lewis aside and remind him that he was not only drafted to lead these coverage units, his NFL future depends on his ability to do so.
Mostly though, you can expect veterans John Wendling, Kassim Osgood and Jason Hanson to pull this unit together, weed out the players who don't want to be there and get back to being, if not an excellent coverage unit, at least a competent one.Just do what you do
I don't expect the Lions to fall off the grid this season. They may not make the playoffs — I was among those who didn't think they would repeat as a playoff team this season — but it would be extremely surprising and disappointing if they didn't pick themselves up and fight their way back into contention.
This isn't like the old days when the talent was sub-par in all three phases. This isn't like the old days when the coaching staff was overwhelmed. This isn't like the old days when the locker room was being pulled apart by various negative factions.
None of that is the case with this team. It just has to start playing better football.
One of Schwartz's strengths is his ability to compartmentalize things, to keep the focus trained only on what's immediately in front of the team. He won't allow the team to get bogged down by what's happened in the past or distracted by what could happen down the road.
"The thing that is most important is that our first four are done," he said. "The only thing we can do is play our last 12. We can't even play our last 12, we'll play one. We can play Philly. That's the only thing that's on our mind.
"You can dwell too much. You can also, and I don't think we have, but you can also just sort of brush things under the rug. We haven't done either one."
The Lions don't have to change schemes or blow up the roster or fire coaches. Nobody has to play out of their mind or do things they'd never done before. They have all the resources they need to get back on track.
They just have to get back to making basic plays that professional football players are paid to make.
It really is that simple.Chris.firstname.lastname@example.org
From The Detroit News: http://www.detroitnews.com/article/2012 ... z28odkrF5F