Monday, September 12, 2011

Matt Stafford Is a Hungry Man

Stop the presses in Detroit: Matthew Stafford's streak of consecutive starts is now longer than Peyton Manning!

Okay, I may be pushing the logic just a bit here, but it is technically true. And it isn't like I didn't have a scare in the second half of yesterday's game against Tampa Bay. Stafford fell backwards as he lobbed a touchdown pass to Calvin Johnson. As Stafford threw, he looked as though he tore or broke something in his right leg.

Everyone in Detroit took a collective groan, until we realized about a minute later it was a cramp that had resulted from playing in the 87 degree heat. One pan along the sidelines on each side told you how hot it was in Tampa Bay, with everyone sitting underneath cooling fans with wet towels over their heads. Stafford was not immune to this.

Stafford finished the day throwing for three TDs and over 300 yards with one INT. Although the Lions won 27-20, the game really wasn't that close. Detroit controlled both sides of the ball and had possession of the football for over 20 minutes of the first half.

What we saw yesterday was how much of a command of this offense (and the team maybe) that Stafford has. If not for a couple of mental mistakes by Stafford - a bad throw that was tipped and intercepted by Aqib Talib and another bad throw that went incomplete - they should have scored in the high 30s.

This game was a statement for both teams. Detroit showed that they are poised to make a run at the playoffs, but they're going to do it one game at a time. Tampa Bay, although they lost, they showed that they have a bright future with Josh Freeman, even if they take a step back this year.

The Lions weren't perfect. Stafford could have thrown more than one INT. A drop by Brandon Pettigrew cost the Lions a TD and they settled for a field goal in the first quarter. The killer miscue for the Lions came from RT Gosder Cherilus who drew a personal foul after pushing a Tampa Bay LB when the play was whistled dead. It cost the Lions a chance to burn another 40 seconds off the clock, and could have allowed the Bucs to come back and tie the score. Hopefully as the season drags on, players like Pettigrew will find their rhythm and Cherilus will find a way to play with a cooler head.

There is no question though. When Stafford is under center, this is a completely different team. Kudos to the offensive line who kept him upright and didn't give up a sack during the game.

He has the look of a man who has a lot to prove. He's now only started 14 of a possible 33 games, and there are those who still doubt he will play or even finish a whole season. While they may not be the first thing he wants to accomplish, it will stand out if he does or doesn't come January.

Sunday, September 11, 2011

On Tap: Lions at Buccaneers

Week 1 is underway in the NFL. Detroit heads to Tampa Bay to take on the Tampa Bay Buccaneers.

This game is a test for both teams who are considered on the rise. Tampa Bay went 10-6 in 2010, but missed the playoffs thanks to a late season surge by the Lions who won their final four games to go 6-10.

Tampa Bay's long-term future looks promising with 3rd year QB Josh Freeman. Freeman isn't flashy, but he makes few mistakes. RB LaGarrette Blount and WR Mike Williams were very productive rookies last year and TE Kellen Winslow is the perfect safety net for Freeman. Davin Joseph is an elite guard and will have his hands full with Ndamukong Suh.

But I suspect Tampa Bay will take a step back this year. It's not uncommon for teams in the NFL to pop up one year, fall back the next, and make a bigger splash the next year. Tampa Bay looks like one of those teams.

Detroit is back with Matt Stafford at QB. So far, Freeman has had the better career, but there's more upside to Stafford if he can avoid being upside down. Or just stay upside. Whatever. They face DT Gerald McCoy (selected right after Suh in the 2010 Draft) and CB Aqib Talib who didn't play against the Lions last December.

Detroit's running attack has been hindered with the loss of rookie Mikel Leshoure, but last year they had Maurice Morris and Jahvid Best who will both be in the game as the team's 1-2 tandem. They've also cut FB Jerome Felton as they plan on using TE Will Heller as an H-back while going with a base 2-TE offense.

The key for Detroit is the passing game. WRs Calvin Johnson and Nate Burleson are the starters and rookie WR Titus Young is the third WR. Johnson could be the best WR in the NFL, but he'll need help from his other WRs if he can get more one-on-one matchups and not be double- and triple-covered all afternoon. Young is struggling, thanks to a hamstring injury that limited almost all of training camp. But their fourth WR, Maurice Stovall, had such an outstanding training camp, that he could supplant Young before the season's out, or maybe become part of an elite receiving corps with Brandon Pettigrew and Tony Scheffler as the two TEs .

The Lions' aren't Green Bay, yet. I'm still worried about the O-Line. Jeff Backus and Dominic Raiola are entering their 11th seasons with Detroit. They aren't getting younger, but last year, Backus was finally starting to receive recognition despite having never been to a Pro Bowl. We'll have to see how RT Gosder Cherilus has recovered from his microfracture injury to his right knee and if Stephen Peterman can stay healthy. As of now, LG Rob Sims is the only sure bet on the line.

Backus received most the blame for Stafford's AC separation last year at the opener against Chicago. He allowed Julius Peppers to blow right by him and he nailed Stafford, giving him a third-degree AC Separation. If Backus and the rest of the line can protect Stafford and create holes for the RBs, this team will make some noise.

This game will be close.

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Lions 23
Bucs 20

Football Is Back

There could not be a more unfortunate date for the NFL's 2011 season to kick off than on the 10th anniversary of September 11, 2001. 9/11 reminds me of the fact that no matter how somber this commemoration is, I am thankful that I can still enjoy the things myself and millions of other Americans partake in - namely the kickoff of a new season.

My Detroit Lions are the buzz team of the 2011 season. Hopes are riding here in the mitten that the Lions will make a push for the playoffs. We're three years removed from the disastrous 0-16 season. Our team is no longer a laughing stock as evidenced by last season's performance; the games were close in most of the ten losses, but they put together a four-game winning streak at the end which included ending the 26-game road losing streak at Tampa Bay.

The lockout came and went. It ended in time for us to see that preseason will still take place, despite the cancellation of the Hall of Fame Game - a game that by all means, showcases two teams' first strings for probably no more than a couple of series while the rest of the game we watch as they simply play out the string.

I was about 90/10 in favor of the NFL Players' position in the lockout. I believe that the NFL and its owners were trying to squeeze every single nickel out of the pockets of fans and players, and they overreached. The more we got closer to the starting dates of NFL Training Camps, the more I came convinced we would have a season. $9 billion in revenue is simply too much to walk away from for either side.

And so, as a fan, I am ecstatic football is back. I am an NFL fan first and foremost. The NBA? MLB? NHL? Couldn't care that much about any of them. College football? I'm a University of Michigan fan first, a Michigan State fan second, and state-based schools third. But I don't follow college football like I do the NFL.

Detroit plays the Tampa Bay Buccaneers at Raymond James Stadium in Tampa at 1:00. Even though I get off work at 8 am, I am making it a special commitment to get to my sister's house, sleep four hours, and enjoy me some football. It's become a tradition for the last five years. My crazy work schedule makes it difficult for me to come out to enjoy the games, because I have to wake up after only 3-4 hours of sleep, and waking up is next to impossible sometimes. But now that Detroit is poised to make a serious push for the playoffs, the NFL has scheduled them their first Monday Night game since 2001, as well as a couple of 4:00 games, making it much easier for me to come out and watch.

I have high hopes for this year's squad. Matthew Stafford is back and looking sharp. He has demonstrated that he truly is the leader of this team. Ndamukong Suh is in his second year and is looking more and more like he will become the best defensive lineman in all of football. Calvin Johnson has probably never looked more forward to a season than this one.

The Lions made some major moves in the offseason. They drafted another defensive tackle in Nick Fairley in the 1st Round, along with WR Titus Young and RB Mikel Leshoure in the 2nd Rounds. One of the two weakest areas on defense, linebackers, were addressed with the free agent signings of Stephen Tulloch and Justin Durant. Tulloch, is a former Tennessee Titan who played under Coach Jim Schwartz when he was the Defensive Coordinator there while Durant was a solid LB for Jacksonville.

The team didn't do enough with its secondary, which looks to again be the weakest link of the entire team. They re-signed Chris Houston and added Eric Wright from Cleveland, and those two are expected to be the starters at cornerback. Free safety Louis Delmas, the only sure thing the Lions have in the secondary is back, while 2nd-year player Amari Spievey has made tremendous strides and won the starting job at strong safety.

I don't think the Lions are as weak in the secondary as most pundits believe. Houston is a solid No. 2 corner, while Eric Wright and Alphonso Smith (who lead the team in interceptions last year) can develop into solid No. 2s as well. the Lions are high on Aaron Berry and Brandon McDonald's development, and by year's end, they may not have a true No. 1 shutdown corner, but they could walk away with at least two solid No. 2s and two solid nickel corners. As long as the front seven can live up to their billing, that will help the back four tremendously.

It all rests on Matt Stafford's health. While they lost Mikel Leshoure for the year, which took away the 1-2 tandem of him and Jahvid Best, it is ultimately up to Stafford to run this pass-first oriented offense. He'll have an upgraded receiving corps with the addition of rookie Titus Young and Maurice Stovall. Calvin Johnson and Nate Burleson remain the starting WRs while Brandon Pettigrew is the TE.

The Lions have chosen to go without a FB, and will use a base 2-Tight End offense, with TE Will Heller playing some form of an H-back, or a hybrid fullback. They will use Tony Scheffler as the 2nd TE in passing situations, giving Stafford quite an arsenal in the passing attack.

I see their schedule as somewhat soft. They can beat the first six teams the play - at Tampa Bay, Kansas City, at Minnesota, at Dallas, Chicago (Monday Night), and at San Francisco. I can see them winning all six games there, but most predict losses at at least Dallas and at Tampa Bay. Then they play Atlanta, which I think right now is their only sure loss.

After Atlanta, it's against Denver, Chicago, and Carolina. Denver is going to be weak because they're young and building a defense, and they're not settled on a QB (Kyle Orton is a good QB, but on a bad team, and probably not in their long-term plans). Detroit can beat Chicago twice, as I suspect the Bears will take a step back from last year's team whose season ended in the NFC Title game. They've got a lot of motivation to beat Chicago since they beat them twice last year (due to the account of referee interference, both games were given to the Bears). And Carolina? Please! Cam Newton will be lucky if he last four NFL seasons.

The final six games begins and ends with Green Bay. They play the Packers on Thanksgiving, then face New Orleans, Minnesota, at Oakland, San Diego, and finally head to Lambeau. I can see them losing to the Saints, Chargers, and at the Packers, which would end the season on a somewhat sour note losing the final two games.

Most importantly, I can see them splitting the season with Green Bay, and beating both Chicago and Minnesota twice, going 5-1 in the NFC North. I expect Green Bay to once again be the NFC North Champions and Detroit to finish in second place (with Chicago in third and Minnesota last).

With all that said, it's a reasonable expectation for the Lions to win at least ten games. They can even go 11-5. 13-3 is the absolute best they can do if everything goes their way, but I won't make that prediction.

Final prediction for the season: 10-6, and a Wild Card berth.

Super Bowl: Green Bay vs. New England - Tom Brady wins his 4th Lombardi Trophy.