Flagged as Contenders
A game up on the Bears and Packers, the Lions control their own destiny in the NFC North. It will all come down to their defensive line, and keeping their emotions in check ... plus, Cam Newton and Colin Kaepernick in the pocket, a preseason pick that wasn't horrendous, the A.J. Green-Joe Haden rematch and words I never expected to hear going into Week 11
The NFC North crown is there for the Lions’ taking.
With a 6-3 record, they lead by a game over the Bears, whom they swept and hold a tiebreaker over, and the Packers, who are playing without quarterback Aaron Rodgers. The next two weeks, the Lions face the Steelers (3-6) and the Buccaneers (1-8) before playing a pivotal home game against Green Bay on Thanksgiving; Rodgers could return for that matchup. (The Packers beat the Lions, 22-9, in their first meeting in Week 3.)
The Lions, winners of two straight and three of their last four, are starting to click a bit. The offense is diversified and getting great performances from quarterback Matthew Stafford, receiver Calvin Johnson, running back Reggie Bush and one of the best pass-blocking lines in the league. Defensively, they still have to shore up big-time issues in the secondary, but a lot of those can be covered up by their deep and talented defensive line—if they can avoid the stupid penalties that seem to crop up at the worst times.
That was the message the coaching staff delivered on Oct. 13, when Detroit trailed the Browns at halftime, 17-7. The Lions outscored Cleveland 24-0 in the second half en route to a 31-17 victory.
Defensive end Willie Young nearly cost the Lions a victory against the Bears last Sunday when he hit quarterback Josh McCown late on Chicago’s game-tying two-point conversion attempt. McCown’s pass fell incomplete, but the unnecessary hit gave the Bears another chance.
Fortunately for Young, they didn’t convert.
“First thing that came to my mind was this thing could have been over, been done with, but we have to play one more snap,” Young said this week. “I need to be smarter than that.”
In the game’s aftermath, Bears receiver Brandon Marshall went after the Lions on Jay Cutler’s radio show.
“I’ll say this, man. I’ll attach my name to it. When I’m looking at film today, it was kind of disgusting to see their D-line go out of their way to knock our quarterbacks down after every single play, you know?” Marshall said, via mlive.com “The ball was gone. They’re pushing him down. They’re hitting him below the knee. It was kind of disgusting.
“So it seemed like it was game-planned. But it was borderline. You can’t say it was illegal. But it was definitely one of those things where you say, ‘Hey, we’ve got to pay attention to this.’ ”
It sounds to me like Marshall had a taste of sour grapes. Not that the Lions, given their past antics, are going to have many people running to their defense.
I was very critical of the Lions, and especially Young, after their nationally televised preseason game against the Patriots in August. Their behavior was embarrassing. “All of the penalties were cheap and immature, which basically describes the Lions,” is what I wrote at the time.
Where are the Lions now?
After watching them the past couple weeks, I have to say they are playing with a growing maturity up front. All of their penalty numbers—even of the personal-foul variety—are very close to the league average. They are letting their play speak for themselves.
“Yes, I agree with that,” Young said. “Come out, keep it to yourself and just fly around. We definitely try to be cautious of the flags right now, man. Try to keep everything on a professional level always.
“If you meet me, man, I’m a guy that has a great personality. One thing I’m paid to do right now is to harass quarterbacks. Whether you like it or not, that’s my job. Never with the intent to hurt a quarterback. We’ve never talked about that or had that conversation. It’s not in the equation.
“That episode with Tom Brady in the preseason … I said nothing personal to him. I said something to Tom Brady about the offensive linemen, the guy who was holding me on the play. The way that it looked, it looked like I was coming down on him and that wasn’t even the case. Me personally, I can laugh about it. But I can see how in a regular season game how it could jeopardize the team.”
The Lions coaches have been emphasizing to players that they must play smarter, which only becomes more important down the stretch when the stress is ratcheted up and each play means even more.
“The first thing is to understand the situations that you’re in, to be a little bit more concerned with drawing a penalty, whether it be 15, 10 or 5 yards,” Young said. “I think it’s understanding the situation and knowing you need to be a little bit more focused on being smart as to where you hit a guy in certain situations—third down in particular.
“All we can do as a defense is continue to play ball and keep everything moving forward. If I get caught thinking about how not to screw up, that’s another way you can hurt your team giving up a big play, because you’re trying to play two-faced kind of, you know what I’m saying? Guys around the league know you’re not intentionally trying to hurt a guy. Unfortunately, it’s just what we all signed up to do, you know?”
The Lions, in many respects, hold their fate in their own hands. In the past, that hasn’t worked very well because they often incurred self-inflicted wounds. Have the Lions changed? We’ll find out soon enough.
Week 11 will conclude with a very good interconference matchup when the Patriots travel to Charlotte to take on the Panthers on Monday night. A very smart general manager once told me that he wished his team played the Patriots early in the season, then he’d know exactly where his team’s holes were because no one is better at targeting weaknesses than Bill Belichick. We all know the Panthers’ front seven is terrific, and that their secondary has issues. This feels like a game in which the Patriots will spread the field and, coming off their bye week, run the fast version of their no-huddle offense. The Panthers had trouble with that rapid pace in their Week 2 loss to the Bills; the Patriots are much better in this regard. Belichick knows that the Panthers’ defensive line has an advantage with their power against New England’s scuffling offensive line. Carolina has one of the heavier lines in the league across the board, so why not run the no-huddle to take some of the power out of their legs? The Patriots run most effectively out of their hurry-up offense as well. So I like the Patriots’ offense in this matchup, even though Luke Kuechly and Thomas Davis are the best cover linebackers in the game and can slow down tight end Rob Gronkowski.
… AND 10
1. As far as the Panthers’ offense against the Patriots’ defense: the matchup will hinge on the running game. Bill Belichick usually runs his 3-4 defense against run-reliant teams, so I expect to see that here. No team plays more disciplined in their pass rush against mobile quarterbacks, so Cam Newton is going to have to thrive in the pocket. Newton’s improved play of late shows that he’s throwing more decisively and in rhythm with the offense, but Belichick will likely mix pre-snap and post-snap coverage looks to give him pause. The Patriots can put doubt in his head, and I think they will. But if the Panthers can get their running game going, that will make things a lot easier. This game will be won or lost, in my opinion, based on the ground game—and it’s going to be a great battle. Whoever executes better—the Panthers’ offensive line, or the Patriots’ D-line and inside linebackers—will determine this one.
2. Huge game for the 49ers at New Orleans on Sunday. San Francisco is 6-3 and a loss would basically rule out the division and toss them into a crowded NFC wild-card chase. The 49ers have to be able to run the ball against the Saints and their mostly nickel scheme. Quarterback Colin Kaepernick is a below average pocket passer at this point, and until Michael Crabtree returns and diversifies the weaponry, I don’t see that changing. Even worse, Kaepernick has started to look at the pass rush. That’s not good. But the Saints can be run on. This is a game the 49ers’ offensive line, which has started to come on after a disappointing start, needs to own.
3. In one of my few preseason prognostications that doesn’t look idiotic now (hello, Steelers!), I picked the Chiefs to win the AFC West over the Broncos because Kansas City looked to be one of the few teams that could matchup defensively with Denver’s plethora of targets. The division won’t be decided this weekend, but I think that holds true in Sunday night’s showdown, which will turn into a bit of a defensive struggle. With the emergence of undrafted nickel cornerback Marcus Cooper, the Chiefs are large, long and strong in the secondary and can slow down Peyton Manning & Co. through the air. Defensive coordinator Bob Sutton served under Rex Ryan, so he knows how to deal with Wes Welker, and the Chiefs have a huge advantage in OLBs Justin Houston and Tamba Hali against the Broncos’ tackles. The Chiefs have been suspect against the run, and running back Knowshon Moreno could be a game-changing factor. However, this game will hinge—as many will down the stretch as the Chiefs go up against tougher competition—on quarterback Alex Smith. You can win a lot of regular season games with a plus-15 turnover margin and a great defense, but you won’t win the biggest games unless your quarterback manufactures explosive plays from the pocket. Smith has not shown that ability. So unless running back Jamaal Charles runs wild, the Broncos and Manning will make the key plays to win this one.
4. When now-Jets safety Ed Reed was asked on Thursday whether the Patriots were an option and he said yes, he wasn’t lying. The Patriots were indeed an option for Reed, according to a league source, but it didn’t get very far because Rex Ryan put on the full-court press, and there was so much comfort with the Jets’ scheme. Fans often think that a player will automatically choose the team with the best chance to win. For players who haven’t won a Super Bowl ring, that might be the case. Most often, the decision is between money and comfort for veterans. Jets likely won out in both scenarios.
5. Eagles coach Chip Kelly was asked this week about his lack of a vertical passing game at Oregon. “Have you watched us play?” he said. I’ll let the rest of his answer speak for itself. “We threw the ball down the field a ton,” Kelly said. “The interesting thing when we were at Oregon is we were up at halftime by 40 points so we ran the ball more in the second half. If you wanted me to go bombs away in the third, we could have score 100 in a couple of games, but we’re never going to do that. When you look at our statistics, did we run the ball more than we threw the ball? Yeah. Why? Because we were winning a lot. Teams that win a lot aren’t going to throw the ball as much. But I handcuffed those guys more than any defense we ever faced handcuffed those guys. And I think your numbers suffer statistically, but we threw 30 touchdowns every year I was there, and less than ten interceptions every year I was there.”
6. If the Ravens can’t move the ball well this week against an injury-ravaged Bears front that can’t stop the run or rush the passer, then there’s no hope for them. It’s a shame because the Ravens have largely played very well on defense. Elvis Dumervil has been everything they’ve hoped for and more in his transition to outside linebacker.
7. Expect Bengals receiver A.J. Green to be on a mission against Browns cornerback Joe Haden on Sunday. Haden shutdown Green (five catches for 42 yards) in the first matchup. Haden can enhance his bid for an All-Pro spot with a repeat performance. Green has to hope that quarterback Andy Dalton can perform against one of the most creative blitzing teams in the league.
8. Not many people will watch the game, but expect Jaguars defensive tackle Sen’Derrick Marks, The MMQB’s unsung interior rusher of Week 10, to have a repeat performance against a weak Cardinals offensive line. Marks has been terrific this season, and is about the only thing the Jaguars have going for them.
9. When I was covering the Packers, I never thought I’d hear the words, “Allen Barbre and Breno Giacomini could be keys for their team’s playoff fortunes.” Barbre was a disaster as the starting right tackle in 2009 for Green Bay; Giacomini couldn’t break into the starting lineup. Both were released by Green Bay. No with the Eagles, Barbre was inserted at left tackle when Jason Peters went down against, coincidentally, the Packers last week and had a great game. He’ll start against Washington’s standout OLB Brian Orakpo on Sunday. Now with the Seahawks, Giacomini, along with fellow starters Russell Okung (left tackle) and Max Unger (center), could be back this week after a knee injury in Week 3. Seattle’s offensive line has been our low-rated pass blocking unit the past month.
10. One of the great individual matchups to watch this week is Steelers right guard David DeCastro against Lions left defensive tackle Ndamukong Suh. Suh is our fourth-rated interior pass rusher for the season in Pressure Points rate. DeCastro, after having the start of his rookie season halted ACL surgery last season, has quickly become one of the top young guards in the game.