Monday, October 29, 2007

Answering the Detroit Lions' NFL week 8 "Burning questions"

It's the Monday after a Lions game, which means it's time for TWFE to answer Lions beat writer Mike O'Hara's burning questions. Today's topics include the Sarge's influence on the team, how important the beating the Bears will turn out to be, who was the difference maker in Sunday's victory, and the "P" word.

Let's do this Q & A!

Burning questions after the Lions' 16-7 victory over the Bears at Soldier Field on Sunday:

Q: The Lions outplayed the Bears in every area, except for one punt return by Devin Hester. They're 5-2. Why are they better than the team Rod Marinelli inherited when he became head coach last year?

O'Hara: Coaching.

Marinelli and his staff have developed young players. The previous two head coaches didn't do that. Marty Mornhinweg didn't have the experience or the tenure to do it. He was fired after five wins in two seasons. Steve Mariucci's teams started bad and stayed bad.

The players who are expected to lead the Lions are doing that -- Roy Williams, Kevin Jones, Ernie Sims, Shaun Rogers, Cory Redding, Dominic Raiola and a few others. But the young players have gotten better.

Fundamentals are stressed every day in practice, and it shows in their play. Cornerback Keith Smith had another interception Sunday. Stephen Peterman, a guard who was cut by the Cowboys and signed as a free agent, is a solid starter at right guard.

Casey FitzSimmons, Sean McHugh and Jon Bradley -- the 300-pound fullback converted from defensive tackle -- are positive role-players on offense. Gerald Alexander, a rookie starter at safety, had an interception.

Coaching -- the nitty-gritty repetition of attention to detail in practice -- is making the difference. That's why if the Lions get good, and they have a chance now, they'll stay good.

Big Al: Yesterday, I gave Mr. Pound The Rock, Rod Marinelli, the TWFE "Charles Foster Kane begrudging clap of approval." If that isn't proof that I'm beginning to buy into the Marinelli way of doing things, well, I don't know what else I can do.

I'm going to have to agree with O'Hara. More than anything else, the difference in this edition of the Detroit Lions is the coaching.

I'll give credit for the signings of Edwin Mulitalo and Dewayne White, but for the most part, the talent isn't all that much different compared to 2006. The Lions did more "Addition by subtraction" (Dre' Bly, Mike Williams) than anything else with their roster. They have their fair share of Matt Millen acquired dead weight (Damion Woody and Tatum Bell, to name two), and they are getting next no help from their 2007 draft class (Only two picks are getting any significant playing time, Calvin Johnson and Gerald Alexander).

It's obvious that the team is buying into the Sarge's "Pound the rock" philosophy. They aren't getting too high after big wins, or too low after bad losses. Mistakes are being kept to a minimum, which is refreshing to this Lions fan. It's been great watching other teams commit turnovers and silly penalties, rather than the Lions. I'm sure much of that is a result of Marinelli's mantra of "Teach, teach, teach."

The Lions have the appearance of a disciplined team for the first time in...Well, forever. Discipline has been an issue for decades. Under Darryl Rogers? Don't make me laugh. Wayne Fontes, even in his playoff seasons, couldn't keep them from making the dumbest of mistakes. Bobby Ross? The General himself couldn't keep the Lions from imploding. Marty Moronwheg? Hell, no! Mooch? Not even close, the players ran the team.

Marinelli has this Lions team, for the most part, playing smart, mistake free football. That's a major accomplishment, and the main reason the Lions are winning.

Q: How important was beating the Bears?

O'Hara: Simple math makes it important, especially in the North. The Packers are 5-1 and play in Denver tonight. The Lions are 5-2. The Bears are 3-5 and have lost twice to the Lions. The Vikings are 2-5 and have lost once to the Lions.

The Giants (6-2) are the only team in the NFC that isn't in first place with a better record than the Lions. That means the Lions would be in the playoffs if the season ended today. It doesn't end today, and there are nine games left, but the Lions are giving themselves a chance.

A year ago, they were 1-6 and didn't have a chance.

Big Al: It can't be said enough, it was a monstrous win for the Lions. They needed to win a game on the road, if only to wipe the taste of the Redskins and Eagles debacles away. It was a victory that the fanbase needed to see. It may be the signature win we've been hoping to see, giving the fans hope that the Lions are legitimate playoff contenders, and not frauds.

The fact that the win was also a divisional game against the defending NFC champions made it that much bigger. It virtually eliminated the Bears from playoff contention, and sets the Lions up nicely for the rest of the season. The season is far from over, but beating the Bears is definitely a win to build upon. They will be pissing away a ton of goodwill if they can't follow up with more good performances.

It's up to Marinelli and his staff to make sure that they do perform.

Q: Where was Sunday's game won and lost?

O'Hara: At quarterback, and up front. Jon Kitna outplayed Brian Griese of the Bears. That's not surprising. Griese doesn't have much of an arm, and the Lions broke on his throws to get four interceptions. Kitna played it safe for the most part. He didn't risk any turnovers.

Up front, the Lions won the ground game. They ran the ball better, and stopped the run better. That put the ball in the hands of the quarterbacks, and Kitna beat Griese, as he should have.

Big Al: Kitna was unquestionably better than Griese, and the Lions dominated in the trenches (Especially the Lions' D-line, they were GREAT), but the big difference, in my mind, was Kevin Jones totally outplaying Cedric Benson. It wasn't even close. Think the Bears are regretting the Thomas Jones trade more and more as the season goes on? Benson is awful, a waste of a #4 overall draft pick, while the Lions' Jones is a quality NFL back.

When the Lions have a running game, as they have over the past two games, they become a much better offensive team. That the Lions developed a solid ground attack coincided with Kevin Jones return to health was not a coincidence.

One of the biggest plays of the game was Jones' 34 yard run the 4th quarter. None of Benson's carries came close to the impact of that run. Let alone Benson couldn't catch a cold, let alone a swing pass. His dropping a pass on the Bears' first play from scrimmage spoke volumes.

Q: Calvin Johnson, the Lions' rookie receiver, aggravated a back injury on an end-around in the second quarter. He was yanked down from behind by Bears cornerback Charles Tillman. Should there have been a penalty against Tillman for a horse-collar tackle?

O'Hara: No. Tillman did not grab Johnson by the back of the jersey at the neck. His right hand was wrapped around Johnson, and he grabbed him from the front. It was a clean, legal play, no question.

Big Al: When I first saw the play, I thought that it was a horse collar tackle as well, but the replay confirmed that it was just a very high and hard tackle. I agree that it was a clean hit. Considering Megatron's massive size, I'm surprised that a cornerback could even hit him that high.

I was damn concerned immediately after the play went down, as Johnson fell awkwardly. I'm relieved to hear that he only tweaked his back, and should be fine for the Denver game. He's a playmaker, someone that the other team always has to watch closely. His remaining healthy is vital to the Lions playoff chances.

Q: The Lions are 5-2. You picked them to be 9-7. Will they make the playoffs?

O'Hara: Yes, but that's easy for me to think and easy for me to say. If the Lions start thinking and talking that way, they're in trouble. Nobody gets trophies in October. They should keep doing what they're doing -- playing one play and one game at a time. If they win enough games, they'll make the playoffs. Then they won't have to talk about it.

Big Al: Will Detroit make the playoffs? I'm not going to make any predictions, other than there will be Hell to pay from both the media and fanbase, and questions raised about Marinelli's stewardship, if they don't. The 5-2 start has raised expectations exponentially. Before the season started, I bet every one of you would have been happy with a .500 record. Now, missing the playoffs would be a HUGE disappointment.

I said yesterday that with their fast start, the Lions absolutely HAVE to make the playoffs. There's two reasons why. The NFC is weaker than TBHoS's bat, and the NFC North is already down to a two team race.

Think about it. Realistically, the Lions don't have to worry about beating out several teams to make the playoffs. They only have to beat out one, count 'em, one, team, that being Green Bay. The Vikings are lousy and don't have an NFL quality QB, and the Bears are on the verge of an implosion, and don't have an NFL quality QB. Those two teams are done. Stick a big ass fork in 'em, their seasons are over.

The Lions play the Pack twice, and just a split will have them in great shape. But if they somehow sweep the Favres? (Which will really be an accomplishment, as they haven't won in Wisconsin since the Majik Man was the Pack's QB) The Lions will win the division. I never thought I'd be saying that as little as 2 weeks ago. Christ, I never thought I'd be saying that at noon yesterday...


  1. Kevin Jones is showing us once again what he can do when he's healthy. Impressive considering Tatum Bell got us almost nothing. And even more impressive when matched against a emotionless/worthless Cedric Benson. His lack of effort on the one screen pass summed up the entire game; the Bears were simply outplayed.

  2. I don't know if it's a sign of our secondary improving or Griese just being washed-up, but I'm stunned the Bears didn't kill us with the speed at WR.

    Execept for a brief reversion to "We're going to blow this one" mode after the missed FG in the second half, I was never really worried about the win. We looked fired up and focused from the start, the Bears looked like they expected to win just by showing up.