Does preseason seem like Thanksgiving morning to you?
We can smell the aromas being created in the kitchen and we sure are getting hungry for some football.
Preseason games are like stealing from the relish tray—it dampens the hunger a little bit and we get to sneak into the kitchen and check out what they are cooking. But we can't stop wondering when the main meal will be done, and if you are a Lion fan the bigger question is will it be any good?
The Lions have served us plenty of dry turkeys, and since Barry left not even the gravy has been good enough to hide the taste.
Grandpa finally fired the old cooks before last year and the new cooks at least had that Matt Stafford casserole that had some promise—especially when we mixed it with a little Calvin Johnson gravy.
Best to skip that Jello mold of a defense though.
We watched them bringing in the groceries this year, and it's obvious that Martin Mayhew does his shopping at a different store than that last guy. Mayhew might be a coupon clipper but he stays out of that unbranded aisle.
If head cook Jim Schwartz can blend these ingredients carefully maybe we are in for a full course meal that satisfies. Still plenty worried about that Jello mold, but maybe we don't have to fill up on the cornbread and Kool-Aid.
But is there a recipe Schwartz can follow that will turn these ingredients into a gourmet meal?
We sure like that offense—Stafford looks like a real pro out there and even the offensive line looks good. The Lions should be able to score often and with the depth and versatility of the weapons they have the Lions will be a real test for any defense.
We sure do love what they did with the defensive line, and Ndamukong Suh is looking like everything we could have hoped for.
But that's where it stops.
We hope Louis Delmas and DeAndre Levy are healthy, but that's not enough. If the other team can neutralize our pass rush, they will pick us apart with the passing game.
The Lions might score a lot of points and that's good for selling seats but we want championships or at least playoffs and everybody knows you do that with defense.
It's looking like a pretty good meal but we don't have enough ingredients for dessert.
Hey, after the starvation diet Lion fans have been on we'll take it. Anything over five wins would be plenty for us to chew on, and maybe Mayhew will pick up a nice cheesecake next year because all we have in that secondary now are cupcakes.
But I can't help but remember that meal we saw just last February in Miami.
It was a cook-off between the Saints and Colts, and I noticed that head cooks Sean Payton and Jim Caldwell provided their guests with a pretty good dessert.
Sure, they both had a great main course with Peyton Manning and Drew Brees, but despite having below par ingredients on defense, they were in the Super Bowl.
That's right, the Saints ranked 25th in yards allowed per game while the Colts were 18th.
The Lions were last in yards per game given up but they only gave up 34.3 yards a game more than the Saints last year.
Doesn't it seem like the upgrade at defensive line could make up that difference. One or two drive ending sacks could go a long ways towards that goal.
So how did the Saints do it?
Easy answer is Drew Brees and that offense, right?
Well, if you know me you know I'm not looking for easy answers—besides, consider the Saints' 2008 season.
In 2008, the Saints were No. 1 in offense, same as 2009. But they actually had a better defense in 2008 when they ranked 23rd and their yard differential was third in the league while their differential ranked ninth in their championship year.
So how does a team go from 8-8 to 13-3 despite giving up more yards.
Now that's easy.
In 2008 they were a net negative-4 in turnover margin while they were a positive-11 for the 2009 season.
That's pretty close to an extra possession a game and with that offense it's pretty easy to understand how they improved their scoring margin by 6.2 points a game.
I know what you are thinking—we can credit that to Darren Sharper. After all, he was responsible for 9 interceptions all by himself—that was six more interceptions than the 2008 starting free safeties.
Considering it was the extra 11 interceptions that contributed the most to their turnover margin improvement Sharper has to be considered a major piece in the puzzle.
But we don't care who did something on the Saints—the question is, do the Lions have what it takes?
After all, the Lions were the worst team in turnover margin with a negative-19 last year so how can we expect them to improve by some 30 turnovers to get to that positive 10 we need?
I hate it when you guys ask those hard questions but let's take a look.
The first thing that stands out from last years' stats are those 9 total interceptions. Instead of calling that pathetic I'm a glass half full kind of guy so let's call that an opportunity for improvement.
We know it's a totally revamped secondary so it's pretty reasonable to think Chris Houston and Jonathan Wade might do better than the two interceptions our starting corners gave us last year. It might not end up being a huge improvement but maybe we can get half a dozen out them.
Another place were we could expect to see more interceptions are from the safeties and the headliner there is Louis Delmas. He sure looks like a natural ballhawk and in this defense that free safety has to get some interceptions.
Consider the last rookie free safety Schwartz coached, 2007 first round pick Micheal Griffin in Tennessee. In his rookie year Griffin picked off 3 interceptions—in his second season he snared seven opponents' passes. It seems pretty reasonable to count on Delmas for more than the two interceptions he gave us last year.
One signing that gets overlooked a little was Dre' Bly. While his ball hawking skills should come in handy don't under estimate what his attitude will do for the young defensive backs. If he helps give Houston and Wade a little more confidence this secondary might surprise us a little.
We might even hope for a few more interceptions out of our linebackers than the two they had last year. In an earlier article I talked about how Schwartz likes to have his linebackers in pass coverage and with the new and improved D-line we can expect Julian Peterson and hopefully DeAndre Levy to spend more time in those passing lanes more this year.
Speaking of the defensive line, that pass rush has to help. With the quarterbacks having a lot less time to make decisions, the defensive backs can play a little closer and they should see some wounded ducks coming out of that collapsing pocket.
Another way the defensive line should help with turnovers are more fumbles. When the top 15 fumblers last year were quarterbacks, it points out when the offense is most vulnerable to fumbling—when the quarterback has that ball in one hand and looking down field while passing.
Add it all up and maybe we can expect the Lions to move that total turnovers from the 22 last year closer to the 35 or so we need.
Of course, turnover margin is a two-way street, so we need a little help out of the offense and considering the Lions had a league high of 41 turnovers we can see an opportunity here too.
Note: No—there is no end to the number of ways the Lions have found to be the worst.
Didn't take long for you guys to point out all those 20 interceptions Stafford threw last year, but let's look at that as the first place we can expect improvement. We have to expect Stafford to improve on that two interceptions a game average right?
Besides, Culpepper and Stanton combined had that same two interceptions a game average so maybe it wasn't all Stafford.
Jim Schwartz has pointed out how many of those interceptions Stafford had were out of desperation and I would add that six of those 20 interceptions he had were in those last two games when he was clearly injured and the Lions were pretty much out of viable receiving options.
Things are different now—Stafford should see more open receivers and he should have a better grasp of what to do with the ball.
If Stafford plays all 16 games, I would expect to see 10 fewer interceptions this year.
No, I'm not saying he will only throw 10 interceptions. Remember as a team the Lions threw 32 interceptions last year so an improvement of 10 would leave Stafford throwing 22 interceptions. That seems pretty doable to me.
So if my math is right we could see an overall improvement of turnover margin in the range of 20 (10 less and 10 more). That would leave the Lions with a positive one which puts them about average.
Not bad—probably gets them to seven or eight wins, but can they do better?
Yes—by playing to their strength.
Remember that first game last year against the Saints?
Didn't it seem like the Lions were down 10 points before the kick-off?
Okay, it's the Lions, so maybe it felt like 21 points, but Detroit wasn't the only team that felt that way playing the Saints and that's where Schwartz comes in.
The Saints play a no holds barred, all out style of football. With Brees pulling the trigger and all those weapons he had to choose from defenses had to feel pretty uncomfortable when game planning for the Saints.
And don't think the opposing offense aren't aware of the amount of points they will need if they want to hang with New Orleans.
That's exactly the feeling the Lions need to give those opposing coaches and players.
They need to come out with all guns blazing and don't stop until that final gun sounds.
We need to see Calvin Johnson deep and Jahvid Best hitting those big gains.
We need this team scoring points like an old time Chicago politician votes—early and often.
It has to be early because while the offense is capable of playing catch-up the defense sure isn't and we need often because they have to keep the pressure on the opposing quarterback.
The defense has to play the same way.
They can't sit back and wait for mistakes, they have to get up there and create mistakes.
We can't allow that other quarterback thinking he can dink and dunk his way through this game.
We don't want that quarterback thinking he can take that safe throw and punt the ball away.
We need that quarterback thinking he needs points and field goals won't do it.
We want him taking chances and we want him playing at our pace—fast, real fast.
Even the great quarterbacks can make mistakes under those circumstances—remember that interception Manning threw in the Super Bowl that sealed the deal for the Saints?
Great coaches are not immune to the pressure either—consider that 4th and 2 Belicheck went for. That was all based on his belief they couldn't give the ball back to Peyton Manning.
It's the way the game is played in the NFL now days.
Ball control and field position mean little—it's all about maximizing your possessions and figuring out how to get more possessions than the other guy.
The Lions have the talent to score with anybody—but only if the coaches dare believe it.
The Lions are built for this Arena Football style of play but it only works if they use what they have.
If Schwartz can be a gourmet chef and follow this tried and proven recipe the Lions just might serve us with that full course meal the malnourished Lion fans have craved for since—well, before I tasted my first piece of pumpkin pie.
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