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The Lions’ Playoff Hopes Are Not Dead Yet

I’ll start off by saying this post almost completely contradicts my last post. The Lions may not be as good as we previously thought, but they’re almost certainly not as bad as we now think. General sentiment currently revolving around the Detroit Lions is that Bill O’Brien would make a good coach. Woah, wait, what? Last I checked, the Lions led the NFC North until this past weekend. Bad may have turned to worse, but the Lions haven’t even come close to being eliminated yet. The two teams that the Lions still have to face have wins over the Eagles, Steelers, Raiders, Packers, Redskins, Bears, and each other. That’s it. The Lions have only faced one of those teams this year that they did not beat at least once (blizzards don’t count). The Lions may be faltering, but these are games that the Lions should win with ease. These games aren’t measuring stick games like the Ravens game was and the Eagles game was supposed to be. These teams are considerably worse. Obviously, the Lions could very well lose either of these games, but I’m willing to chalk those up as wins. If they don’t win them, you can go ahead with your coaching search at that point.

The Lions currently sit 1/2 game back of the Bears and Packers. Assuming the Lions win their last 2 games, the Bears and Packers just need to each lose a game for the Lions to leapfrog them. And let’s not forget that these teams play each other in week 17. One of these teams is guaranteed a loss. If the Lions win out, they’re guaranteed 2nd place in the division. This situation is no worse than both the Bears and Packers were in just one week ago. The Lions just need one loss by one of these two teams next week – we’re just not sure which one. Add to this the still uncertain situation with Aaron Rodgers. The Packers could go from a complete pushover to a complete juggernaut overnight. Switching from Matt Flynn to Aaron Rodgers between the last 2 games sounds a whole lot like a loss followed by a win to me. That alone would win the Lions the division. Count the Lions out if you’d like. It’s easy enough to do so. But I’ve seen enough 4th quarter comebacks by the Lions these past few years to hold off on changing the channel just yet.

A Game in Enemy Territory

On Monday night, the Lions took the field with everything on the line. With 3 games to go, the Detroit Lions (yes, our Detroit Lions) led the NFC North by a half game over both the Bears and Packers. That’s the same NFC North that the Lions have NEVER won before. Due to Sunday’s results, the Lions had lost the lead in the North, but they still controlled their own destiny. 3 games, 3 wins, and a home playoff game awaited. The previous few weeks had shaken their footing a bit. Losses to surging, but still mediocre teams in the Steelers and Buccaneers in back-to-back games brought up questions about this team and a blizzard in Philadelphia amplified the growing murmur about the “same old Lions.” But this game was more important than any of them. They had a chance to re-establish themselves as the leaders in the clubhouse for the NFC North crown.

But it meant more than that. It was a home game, on Monday Night Football, against the reigning Super Bowl champions who faced a similar playoff scenario. Both teams needed this win as much or more than they had needed any other win this season. This was a chance that the Lions don’t get very often. This was a chance to prove their legitimacy in front of a national audience, to quiet all of the doubters.

But still, it meant more than that. This was Jim Schwartz’s chance to save his job. In a year where the rest of the division was decimated by injuries, the Lions had finally found themselves on the lucky side of the injury bug. They had a big lead in a division where no team looked like a legitimate threat and one of the league’s easiest schedules. The suddenly collapsing Lions were looking for a scapegoat, and Jim Schwartz’s seat was getting mighty hot.

But to me, this game meant even more than that. I live in Maryland, about 30 minutes from M&T Bank Stadium, in the middle of enemy territory. When the Ravens won the Super Bowl, local stores flooded shelves with Ravens Super Bowl Champion shirts, although you still couldn’t find one because of how fast they sold. Parents fighting over Tickle Me Elmo had nothing on that madhouse. I was at the game the last time the Lions played the Ravens, an embarrassing 48-3 destruction. But it runs deeper than that. My girlfriend is a big Ravens fan. Her dad owns season tickets. In that family, the Ravens game takes priority over Thanksgiving dinner. In my own house, the walls and floors are decked out with Ravens gear. Friends, family, co-workers, everyone was rooting for the Ravens in this game. So what did I do? Invited them over to watch the game, of course. As if the game wasn’t big enough on its own, my trash talk to anyone that would listen and willingness to sit in the middle of a crowd of Ravens fans to watch the game had taken it to a new level.

And it all came crashing down. In a game the Lions had to win, a game where they were favored to win, a game I had been sure they would win, they simply refused to. The Ravens didn’t make enough plays to score even a single touchdown. With the game on the line, their best gameplan against the Lions defense was to try their hardest to get an opportunity at a 60+ yard field goal. This was no miracle comeback. There was nothing in that game that will live on in the professional history of any single non-kicker. The Ravens put up almost no fight. And the Lions offense put up even less of one. Monday night was a night that we should all have been embarrassed to be Lions fans, myself most of all. And so for a regime that I have stood behind every step of the way, despite plenty of evidence to the contrary, I will no longer be shocked, or surprised, or disappointed when (not if) they lose their jobs.

The Lions’ Winter Wonder Land

won·der (wundǝr) n.

1. rapt attention or astonishment at something awesomely mysterious or new to one’s experience

2. a feeling of doubt or uncertainty

Sunday’s game started like the first of those definitions. With the field covered with somewhere between 4 and 8 inches of snow and a blizzard still in progress, something really interesting happened. This football game turned into a game. The snowfall dropped visibility to near zero, the cold froze the hands of all of the players, the wet snow made the ball as slippery as a bar of soap, and the accumulation obscured all of the field markers and put all of those freak athletes in slow motion. It wasn’t a perfectly choreographed dance between freakish athletes with millions of dollars on the line. It was playing football in the backyard with your friends, complete with fumbled snaps, wobbly passes, plodding 10-step cuts, and a field where out of bounds is more of a suggestion than a rule. Oh, and of course no field goals. I’ll admit, it was fun to watch, and quite a few football fans on twitter agreed. The images of the game conjured memories of backyard football that just about everyone has experienced (or has seen on Wrangler commercials).

And the game itself felt magical too. Despite the Lions playing backyard football about as well as you or I could, they managed to stymie the Eagles’ offense, in all its seemingly genetically engineered, perfectly timed, blistering-paced, genius-led, error-free (enough adjectives yet?) glory. The Lions sloppy, stumbling, bumbling, fumbling offense made enough plays to put up an 8-0 lead by halftime. And having Calvin the Snowman didn’t hurt.

The way things were going, that lead seemed insurmountable. In what was supposed to be the toughest test the Lions have seen maybe all season, but at least since the Packers still had Aaron Rodgers, a game broke out. And the Lions were winning. In the 2nd half, the magic continued. Jeremy Ross returned a punt for a touchdown for the first time a Lion has done so since Eddie Drummond in 2004. After that play, I said to my dad, “I didn’t know the Lions were allowed to do that.” The game had reached its most surreal point. Jeremy Ross was celebrating by making a snow angel and the Lions were up by 2 touchdowns in the 2nd half. With offense looking scarce on both sides, it looked like the Lions had a stranglehold on this game.

And then the game started to flip. Foles completed 2 long bombs on the following drive and the Eagles scored their first touchdown. Considering how stagnant their offense had been, that drive was pretty effortless…Uh oh. Another ineffective Lions drive was followed by the two worst penalty calls I’ve seen all season and a few more Eagles’ big plays…Uh oh again. Just like that, the game was tied and LeSean McCoy would go on to rip off 148 4th quarter rushing yards against the Lions. And that doesn’t even include the yards that Bryce Brown, Chris Polk, and Nick Foles gained on the ground before it was all said and done. The way the game finished was almost just as surreal as the first half, but in a much less enjoyable way.

I just can’t get this loss out of my mind. It’s not the result of the game so much as how it happened. I knew going into this game that facing the Eagles would be the Lions’ toughest test. In many ways, this team is similar to the Lions, but without the soul-crushing instances of shooting themselves in the foot that the Lions experience every week. What bothers me is that this game wasn’t an NFL football game. Two thirds of it was a backyard slopfest and the end was just waiting to see who would gain traction first, and it turned out to be Shady McCoy. With so much on the line, including the chance for the Lions to cement their lead in the NFC North and with it the jobs of the Lions’ coaching staff, I would not have minded a straight up loss to the Philadelphia Eagles. Going into the game, frankly, I expected it. What I didn’t want was to know that LeSean McCoy is better at ice skating than anyone on the Lions defense. I didn’t want to know that Matt Stafford’s fingers turn to icicles in a blizzard. None of that tells me who was better at the game of football. It was like watching the MLB All-Star game. You see your favorite players out there doing something that resembles sports and it’s fun and amusing, but when it’s all over, you say, “Wait, you mean that counts for something?”

The wonder of the first half of the game has since turned into the post game wonder (as in the 2nd definition). This game, whatever it was, somehow has come as an indictment of the Lions’ coaching staff. As fans, we see the fumbling, bumbling, and stumbling caused by the weather and are reminded of the way the Lions have played all year. With the Bears and Packers both winning, the Lions’ division lead is essentially cut to 1/2 game over both teams. What was once a fairly secure playoff birth is now up in the air, and fans are left to wonder. What is happening to the Detroit Lions? Who is to blame? How do we fix things? And is this the coaching staff to do it? Without any way to answer those questions, Lions fans are now left walking in a winter wonder land.

Why Reggie Bush is the Lions’ Most Dangerous Offensive Weapon

I know I’m going to be in the minority here. When you have the best wide receiver in football on your team, the guy that holds the single season receiving yards record, saying he’s second fiddle to a teammate with a salary 1/4 of his is going to be controversial. I know this going in. And I’m saying it anyway. Reggie Bush is a better, more dangerous offensive weapon than Calvin Johnson, and here’s why.

1. Reggie Won’t Be Jammed at the Line of Scrimmage

Here is Calvin Johnson lining up at WR, getting jammed at the line of scrimmage, and an interception occurring because of it.

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Calvin Johnson may be physically gifted and the best WR in football, but the rules say that defenders are allowed to hit him to knock him off his rhythm within 5 yards of the line of scrimmage. When Reggie Bush comes out of the backfield, he gets a free release into his pass pattern. That’s a big advantage.

2. It’s Easier to Get Reggie the Ball

The easiest way to get Calvin Johnson the ball is on something like a quick slant, which again, lets the defender jam him at the line of scrimmage. The easiest way to get Reggie the ball is to turn around and hand it to him. While CJ tends to work the intermediate and deep areas of the field, Reggie feasts on the space underneath the coverage where he can catch the ball (or have it handed to him) and then make guys miss. If getting the ball close to the line of scrimmage put a limit on the big play ability of Reggie, then you could argue you’d rather get Calvin the ball down the field. However, Reggie Bush has made it clear that just because you get the ball in close doesn’t mean you have to stay there.

On the season, Calvin Johnson has produced 1.94 yards per route run and 8.0 yards per target. In his record-breaking 2012 season, he produced 2.55 yards per route run and 9.87 yards per target. So far this year, Reggie Bush is producing 3.44 yards per route run and 11.93 yards per target. I’d say he’s putting up big numbers.

3. Reggie Bush is a Bigger Matchup Problem

The best matchup you’re likely to get on Calvin Johnson is a cornerback that’s a few inches shorter and slightly slower. Meanwhile, the Lions have regularly gotten Reggie matched up on linebackers.

reggie

Reggie Bush holds a huge speed and agility advantage over the vast majority of linebackers (and safeties) in football. Even before he gets the ball, he can’t be covered. And if he has it in his hands, well, good luck catching him…

4. It’s Not So Easy to Double Cover a Running Back

Calvin Johnson sees double coverage all the time. Whether it’s a cornerback and a safety over the top or a linebacker and a corner, he constantly has to beat 2 guys to get the ball in his hands. Heck, sometimes they even put 2 guys straight in front of him…

When Reggie Bush runs a pass pattern from out of the backfield, it’s not so obvious how to cover him with 2 guys. He could go left or right of the offensive line, he could work the flats or turn it back up inside with an angle route. He could attack the deep sideline with a wheel route or work the short middle with a screen pass. That variety in routes creates a lot of issues in focusing on shutting him down.

So what am I saying here? Am I saying the Lions should cut bait with Calvin Johnson? Absolutely not. Reggie Bush isn’t better than Calvin Johnson in a vacuum (he wouldn’t be able to breathe in a vacuum, duhhhh). Without CJ, the defense doesn’t have to leave safeties deep to cover over the top. Basically, the Lions would end up seeing what the vikings see…

4-4-3

yes, there are 4 linebackers and 4 defensive linemen on the field

What I’m saying is that teams are forced to change their game plan to take limit Calvin Johnson’s contributions. If Reggie Bush keeps making them pay, they may not have an answer.