Lions Fans Have Reason for Optimism, and It May Start Against the Redskins

Craig Garrison SrSenior Analyst IOctober 23, 2008

Week Eight of the 2008 NFL regular season brings the Detroit Lions and the Washington Redskins together in a matchup that, at first glance, doesn't seem overly intriguing. But as you'll see, both teams bring much to the table.

At 6'5" and 230 pounds, Lions' quarterback Dan Orlovsky is prototypical: big, athletic, and daring. Orlovsky can make plays with his feet and his arm. And now, after three years on the bench, he gets his shot by virtue of the injury to Jon Kitna. And with each game, Orlovsky gets more and more comfortable.

Here's a crazy stat: Orlovsky hasn't completed more than 13 passes in a game this season, but in his last two games, he has accomplished quarterback ratings above 90. Crazy huh?!

Orlovsky has an overall rating of only 72.9 on the season, but that really doesn't tell the whole story—much like the Detroit Lions' 0-6 record doesn't tell the whole story about their season either.

Lions' Head Coach Rod Marinelli has stayed true to who he is. A tough minded, hard-nosed former defensive-line coach, Marinelli has kept his team together through a losing streak that now stands at seven regular-season games dating back to last seasons' final game.

This is a young football team with half the roster made up of players with four years or less as a pro.

Many of these youngsters are yet to break the starting lineup, but several are having an impact. Marinelli has made it perfectly clear that young players will have to earn their playing time. No matter their draft or contract status, if they want to play, they'll have to earn it.

And many have been doing just that. Three rookies are starting on offense, Gosder Cherilus at right tackle, Jerome Fulton at fullback, and Kevin Smith at running back are all performing now, not later.

Cherilus has started three games this season after initially beating out George Foster at right tackle and wants his job back. He was benched for the second half of the Lions' Week Five loss at Minnesota. And word is he maybe getting a second chance, as rumors have Cherilus starting against the Redskins.

But Smith seems to be becoming an important key to the Lions' efforts. Marinelli entered this season wanting to create balance within the offense. That meant a retreat from the "pass first" philosophies of former Offensive Coordinator Mike Martz. Martz was out and former Baltimore Ravens' Offensive-Line Coach Jim Coletto was in.

Coletto was with the Ravens during their Super Bowl season in 2000 and knows a thing or two about what can be accomplished with a strong running game and a solid defense. These two traits are what Marinelli wants to see of his team.

That hasn't worked out the way Marinelli had hoped. Last season, the Lions only rushed 33 percent of the time. This season they havn't fared any better, again only 33 percent of their plays are runs. 

This season, however, there seems to be a different reason for this imbalance. The Lions have been outscored 54-0 in the first quarter this season. That number is a bit inflated by the last week's loss to the Texans (14 first quarter points) and the opening-day loss to the Atlanta Falcons (21 first quarter points).

There is no good way to spin the lack offensive output early in games. This offense has started out VERY slowly in every game this season. The Lions have scored 74 points in the second and third quarters, in order to stay competitive in several games this season. But their fourth-quarter numbers aren't much better than their first-quarter numbers. 

Marinelli knows he needs to find out a way to get his team come out of the gate strong and then maintain their focus and intensity through the fourth quarter. The puzzle he has been unable to decipher is, "HOW?"

He may have an opportunity this week against the visiting Washington Redskins. The Redskins have also had issues getting started, only scoring 17 total points in the first quarter this season; this could be a game that Marinelli can get his team "up" for early.

The Redskins have given up 34 first-quarter points, so the defense has not started out all that hot, either. With the weapons available to them, the Lions pose a reasonable threat. With Orlovsky's mobility, and "big play" wideout Calvin Johnson, the Lions may be tempted to simply come out swinging.

Yes, rookie Kevin Smith is averaging 4.9 yards per carry in somewhat limited action, and Rudi Johnson running well at times, it may be time to attack early.

The Redskins' defense has been outstanding overall, currently ranked seventh against the run and 12th against the pass. The Redskins are a hard hitting, physical group. They don't give up the big play often, only giving up three plays of 40 or more yards all season. These defensive statistics are particularly impressive, considering the Redskins have faced four of the league's top six offenses.

On their way to a 5-2 record, the Redskins have been impressive at times and at others, NOT SO MUCH.

In the last two weeks, the Redskins lost to the then-winless St. Louis Rams and needed a missed late-game field goal to achieve a win against the 2-3 Cleveland Browns. All this while scoring a less-than-exciting 31 total points.

The stellar play of quarterback Jason Campbell has helped provide stability and the opportunity for the NFL's leading rusher, Clinton Portis, to do what he does—pound out yardage at a FIVE YARDS per carry average. Portis also leads the league in attempts.

During the Redskins' four-game win streak, head coach and primary playcaller Jim Zorn had been able to maintain perfect run/pass ratio. Recently, however, that balance has become tipped heavily in favor of the run, and the additional wear and tear is taking it's toll on Portis.

This may be where opportunity lies for the Lions. Stop Portis at all costs. Campbell has performed well when called upon, leading the team to come-from-behind, fourth-quarter victories twice this season and a near miss against the Rams. He also hasn't thrown an interception this season, the only starting quarterback with at least 65 pass attempts who hasn't thrown at least TWO interceptions, in fact.

Redskins' wide receiver Santana Moss has also been quiet after a hot start to the season. Moss only has SIX total catches in his last THREE games and one touchdown. The starter opposite Moss, Antwaan Randle El, and starting tight end, Chris Cooley, have picked up the sack, but Moss needs to be more involved.

Defenses have been shadowing Moss constantly, doubling him often, and maintaining a safety over the top to prevent Moss from getting deep. But Zorn has been unable to find a reliable second option to create big plays, and that could play into the Lions' hands.

The Lions' primarily run a Cover Two scheme (Marinelli spent 10 years in the "Tampa 2" system under Bucs' Defensive Coordinator Monty Kiffin), which is predicated on preventing big plays and stopping the run with the front seven. If the Lions can play true to their scheme, the Redskins will be forced out of their "element," and it could spell trouble for Zorn and Campbell.

The Redskins obviously are attempting to keep their season on a positive track, improving to 6-2 would go a long way to keeping pace division leading New York Giants. They face powerhouse Pittsburgh Steelers next week before their bye week and are ailing all across the roster.

With as many as six starters sitting out practice last week and again this week, the Redskins may be hoping to rest a few players. This could mean a lack of focus and intensity this week, something that cost them in Week Six with a loss to the Rams.

The Lions are trying to turn the corner on a difficult season. Looking for their first win, the Lions have played hard and competitively in four of the six losses and hope at least to do the same this week.

The Lions haven't quit, and the Redskins would be remiss if they expect that to change this week. Both teams will leave everything they've got on the field, and this game may end up one of the more interesting games of the week.

Can the Lions get it done? Or will the Redskins keep on rolling over their opponents with the most potent running game in the league?

Tune in and find out!