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Monday, October 3, 2011
Free Head Exam: Detroit Lions

By Kevin Seifert

After the Detroit Lions' 34-30 victory Sunday at the Dallas Cowboys, here are three issues that merit further examination:
  1. Head Exam
    Following their win over the Dallas Cowboys, the Detroit Lions take a seat in the examination room.
    Last week, we introduced you to ESPN’s win probability tool, which uses 10 years of NFL play-by-play data to estimate the likelihood that a team will win at a given point in the game. The data revealed that the Lions, at their lowest point against the Minnesota Vikings, had a two percent chance of winning. If possible, their predicament against the Cowboys was worse. According to statistical analyst Alok Pattani, the Lions’ chances of winning when they fell behind 27-3 in the third quarter was one percent. That means in comparable situations over the past 10 years, NFL teams have lost at a rate of 99 times out of 100. Those figures add some statistical context to what we already know: The Lions have won consecutive games in extraordinarily rare fashion.
  2. Here’s an example of the Lions’ progress. At about this time last year, I wrote about coach Jim Schwartz’s unfounded confidence in his defense. He punted the ball away in a two-point game against the Green Bay Packers, hoping his defense would stop the Packers offense and give his team another chance to score in a two-point game. The Packers ran out the final 6 minutes, 32 seconds. Sunday, Schwartz’s confidence in his defense was rewarded. He had Jason Hanson kick a 51-yard field goal with 4 minutes, 22 seconds left, a score that still left the Lions trailing by three points. This time, the defense got the ball back in one play on linebacker Stephen Tulloch's interception. Said Schwartz: "Part of that was having confidence that Jason would make it. And part of that was knowing we had three timeouts in our pockets and we could use them to get the ball back for our offense." But it’s a moot point if the defense can't stop the Cowboys’ offense.
  3. When the NFL regular season schedule was revealed, we noted how difficult the Lions’ opening stanza would be. From that post: "The Lions would be for real if they enter their Monday night game against the Bears with a winning record." The games were all winnable on paper, but the Lions appeared particularly proud Sunday that their 4-0 start came courtesy of three victories on the road. "It was a tough first four games," quarterback Matthew Stafford said. "You look at three of four on the road. The one at home was against a playoff team last year [the Kansas City Chiefs] with tons of talent. Every game in the NFL is tough, but being 4-0, you can’t get any better than that."
And here is one issue I still don’t get:
You’ll hear a lot this week about receiver Calvin Johnson's first touchdown. Offensive coordinator Scott Linehan had drawn up the play in anticipation of favorable coverage. The Lions didn’t get it, as Johnson was double-teamed, but Johnson still gave Stafford the signal to throw him the ball. The catch was incredible, but more egregious to me was the Cowboys' decision to leave Johnson in single coverage against Terence Newman later in the game on the winning play. "To tell you the truth," Stafford said, "I was really surprised. I’m throwing it to him every time, four downs in a row, I don’t care, if they give me that coverage." I would, too. Kudos to Johnson for beating unfavorable matchups as well as capitalizing on single coverage. And phooey to the Cowboys for an inexplicable coverage decision.