Game Breakdown Week 1: Lions @ Raiders
Matt Millen was pacing outside of the team Hotel pondering over the latest incarnation of his team. "I think we're a better football team in many ways, but we've got to see. The waiting part is what kills you." He wondered as he was soon to find out against there first opponent, the Oakland Raiders, in Oakland's Black Hole, where they've never won before.
Matt Millen raised quite a few eyebrows this offseason with the moves he made. This was quite the departure from other heralded offseason's which resulted in the typical unbridled optimism. Granted, the moves seem to be
more in sync with the coaching staff, but most prognosticators instead of being alleviated by Marinelli's endorsement, chose to question the coach as well. After all, when Mariucci's penchant for bringing 49er rejects to Motown bit them in the rear, Marinelli was showing more of the same with the Tampa Bay connection.
Well, several hours and a 36-21 final score later, Millen and Marinelli can breathe a sigh of relief and feel validated by their work in the offseason... for now. Here's the thing though, just as much as it was the introduction of new faces, it was the addition by subtraction, the ridding the team of any cancerous elements, and the players know it.
Roy Williams said, "Coach Marinelli has changed the mind-set. That's what we've been saying all along."
"The mind-set is different," agreed linebacker Boss Bailey.
"We've got the guys we want here now. Nothing against the past, but everybody's kind of clicking right now," Dominic Raiola hinted.
"There'd be some ridicule, from guys on the sideline," Kitna said. "It would be from guys who weren't even playing, to be honest. Rod did a good job of getting rid of those guys."
So naturally, we focus on the guys who were brought in to change the mindset, and take a look at the malcontents who were weeded out. Lo and behold, it was these guys who were most telling in the outcome of this win.
Dre Bly versus Tatum Bell, George Foster
Dre Bly had an okay debut for Denver, but Tatum Bell & George Foster were part of a package that would help complete the Greatest Show on Turf puzzle. On a performance level, you don't see much. Bell had a decent showing, and Foster had fore-head slapping false-start mistakes. The biggest positive is the 2-sack count on Kitna. In particular is the play where Kitna had all day to lob the 32-yard strike to a wide open Shaun McDonald which began Detroit's furious comeback. Really this is the first time you've seen a competent offensive line in Detroit in years.
More importantly is the difference in attitude. Dre Bly was a locker room cancer whose attitude and undermining of teammates rendered his big-play ability expendable. It's not hard to imagine that Bly wasn't going to buy into Marinelli's system after the 3-13 season, and this after his adoration for Mariucci's country club preseason versus camp Marinelli. On the flip side, you have Damien Woody who completely changed his attitude and poor work ethic, to prove that you can buy into the Marinelli/Millen/Martz philosophy.
Dewayne White & Kalimba Edwards versus James Hall & Simeon Rice
This personnel choice raised the most questions. They just released their defensive captain who led all DE's in sacks last year. Then Marinelli brought in White in what looked like a 'good 'ol boy' manuever, and on top of that he was the 3rd best DE from the Bucaneer glory days. After that, they have a shot at going after the 'best' of them in Simeon Rice, but they stick to their guns, leaving the keys to opponents backfield with Kalimba Edwards. Sure it was a move last year to poor all that unearned money on his lap, but he failed to prove it last year, and so this is the year to see if retaining him was the right move.
So while this has caused the most head-scratching, the results are an overwhelming positive in whether or not it was the right move. Simeon Rice tipped a pass and had a tackle. Malcontent James Hall had a nice game recording 5 tackles, but in a disappointing loss. How did the leftovers face? Kalimba recorded 3 tackles, 2 sacks, forced 2 fumbles, and recovered the game sealing fumble as he looked very comfortable as a Tampa 2 pass rusher. It was the man who quieted all the Marinelli nay-sayers as he led the team in making the most critical plays of the game. His stat line is impressive with his 7 tackles, 1 sack, 2 forced fumbles and the game changing pick. But it was those 2 huge plays at the end that has provided early dividends on that big contract he was payed for to play for the Lions.
With a mere 4-point lead, and the Raiders still holding most of the momentum with their prior 21 point comeback, White single handedly squashed that as he dropped into coverage in the flat, and had that playmaker mentality to hold on to the ball, and then rumble down the field with his best tackle-busting Barry Sanders impression. As Shaun Rogers came barreling down like a freight train on Josh McCown, White flashed out of his blind side and forced the fumble which would be the end of any semblance of chance the Raiders had left.
Money versus Love of the Game: Kevin Curtis & Shaun McDonald
It was a match made in heaven. Reunite Curtis with Martz, who under his tutelage had his best season as a pro with his 800 yard/6 TD 2005 performance. However, Curtis was more concerned with the money and signed with the Eagles with $9.5 million guaranteed. So Millen and Martz settled for Shaun McDonald. Curtis lost in his two reception game to the Packers, while 'Ol Shaun McDonald had a field day, leading all receivers with his 6 catches, 90 yards, and the go ahead winning touchdown. This after making what could be the most important play of the game, when he converted the third down by juking out his defender behind the sticks, and then getting past the markers.
That third down was the moment of truth. The Lions momentum was completely deflated by this time since the Raiders had just hung 21 points on them and taken the lead. It was gut check time, and Shaun kept the drive alive, and then, snuck under the Raider radar and snagged the go ahead touchdown.
Joe Barry versus Donnie Henderson
No offense to former defensive coordinator Donnie Henderson, but the Detroit Defense in 2006 looked like a chicken running around without it's head. To Donnie's defense, it was a completely different philosophy which he was set up for failure. He served as the stopgap figurehead as they put Barry on layaway for the year. What a difference when you put the right head in place though. With Joe Barry you can actually see the scheme in operation. Granted this was against the worst offense in the league, but at least you could see the order, and the sense of purpose on the field.
As an unbiased observer in the know, McCown also noticed. "Defensively, they're more sound and more solid. That's the No. 1 thing. So my hat's off to Rod and Joe Barry for utilizing the players the way they did."
The real test of the Tampa 2 will come in week 3 though, since Tavarius Jackson and Minny doesn't look like an aerial threat. So look forward to the battle against Donovan McNabb, who looked like a mere mortal this weekend.
The other noticeable change through coaching is how Jim Colleto has managed to make a difference so quickly with the revamped offensive line. The run blocking hasn't shown much yet, but the pass protection is way ahead of where it was last year.
Calvin Johnson looks like he fits right in. Excellent debut with his 70 yards and a touchdown. It just as easily could have been a 74 yard 2 touchdown game had he kept his feet inbounds on that fade route to him in the endzone. Millen was smiling with his selection. Of course we can temper the optimism by recalling Charles Rogers 2 Touchdown debut.
It was a little harder to watch the other rookie who played, but it was nice to know that Gerald Alexander was able to limit the mistakes.
Luke McCown was not a cancer, he was actually the consummate team mate. He just needed to start. His performance goes to show that he might have been a gamer in Martz's offense, and again validates the choice to sign him in the first place.
Mike Williams, looks the same, bust-like, and non-existent. Amazing how his stature looks exactly Calvin Johnson-like, but the performance is on completely different levels.
Eddie Drummond validates the choice to release him. While he was a team player to the very end, he has clearly lost the moxie he once had to take the ball to the house. In fact he cost the Chiefs a possession by fumbling the ball away.
Hoping For A Play
In times past, when the Lions were in desperate need of a play, they would never fail to disappoint. How many games have you quietly hoped for a sack, a forced fumble, an interception, but the game is already over before it's over. Especially last year when they lost 10 games by a touchdown or less. But it's all part of the changing that mentality, and establishing that trust.
Roy Williams relates, "Coach Marinelli describes adversity like a tornado. You can't predict it, but it wreaks havoc and then it's gone. When we were down 21-20, all the media and Detroit fans were probably saying, 'Here we go again, I can't believe it.'
But you could sense the cohesion and trust between each unit.
Speaking of the lines responsibility to protect Kitna and for the Recievers to get open, Williams added his faith in their QB "As long as we can keep Jon clean, keep him off the dirt, he'll be the player that people don't think he's gonna be, He's gonna be the player that gets us across the water and leads us to the playoffs."
Kitna was quick to praise the Receivers and Oline in return. "No question, the receivers did a great job," he said. "But the biggest thing was the offensive line protected great all day. They knew we were throwing, and there was no pressure."
Jeff Backus summed up the teams unity, "In the past, we never would have won that game, when we hit adversity and penalties, we pushed through it. Nobody blinked."
And so when you hoped for that play, the ripped out a wave of them, whether your talking about Hanson's clutch kicking, or McDonald's or White's late game heroics. They poured it on Raiders in a way where it felt surreal for a Lions fan whose hearts have been broken time after time.
Millen has done a great job of getting rid of all the vocal locker room cancers. That dissenting voice that tears the teams resolve apart at the first sign of things going awry.
"Legitimately, last year, there would be guys on the sideline laughing, and kind of almost tearing this team down from within, to be honest," Kitna recanted. As of now though "This team had none of that. Nobody pointed fingers about the defense or offense or anything like that."
Still there's no doubt there are those who still wanted to see it before they bought into it.
Kitna knows this. "You can talk about it all you want. Rod can talk about it. We can talk about it as leaders. But until you go out on the football field and do it ... some guys aren't going to believe. And that's fine. But I think today we got a few more on the ship, a few more guys believing."
Isn't that what it's about though for Detroit? They could bring in all the talent in the world, but they weren't going to change a thing if they didn't weed out the losing culture. This year shows that, for the first time in the Millen era, it has been the character which holds a premium over the talent, or the big name, as opposed to the other way around.
The changes made have been huge. The big names like, Harrington, Bly, Charles Rogers and Mike Williams who were to be the foundation of the team for years are gone. And yet, amidst all the skepticism, the Lions pulled out a win in a way they've never won before. From behind on the road, making huge plays when it mattered.
Perhaps there may be a reason to 'believe.'
DISCUSS THE GAME: In the Jungle - Hard Hitting Lionbacker Forum.