Sunday, October 30, 2011
These Lions are here to stay
By Kevin Seifert
Lions receiver Calvin Johnson had six catches for 125 yards and a touchdown against Denver.
DENVER -- I hopped on radio shows in two different NFC North markets Sunday morning while awaiting kickoff here at Sports Authority Field. The identical question arose in both conversations: Had the Detroit Lions hit their ceiling for the 2011 season?
The comparisons were eerie, even if you presumed a victory over the woeful Denver Broncos.
In 2007, of course, the Lions thrashed the Broncos (44-7) to complete a 6-2 start.
Sunday, the Lions crushed the Broncos again, this time 45-10, to finish the first half of the season 6-2 and break a two-game losing streak.
In 2007, the Lions lost seven of their final eight games, sparking a horrific 5-47 tailspin.
Here in 2011, some national observers might be waiting for the bottom to drop out. It's happened before. But I really don't think this Lions team is going to collapse, in that way or any other, and I'm going to stick by the narrative we've crafted for the past few months. These Lions are a legitimate playoff contender that on Sunday displayed another trait of successful teams.
You might cast a skeptical eye on the significance of blowing out one of the NFL's worst teams. Well, I've got news for you. That's what good teams do. They take immediate control of the game and give the underdog but a glimmer of hope. The Lions just didn't win Sunday. They beat the tar out of the Broncos on their home field. They didn't play down to the Broncos' ineptitude.
"We did a great job of getting back to playing Lions football," defensive tackle Ndamukong Suh said, "and dictating the game to the other team and not having them dictate to us."
What is Lions football? No different than the identity we've been discussing for months: Explosive plays on offense, a havoc-wreaking pass rush, and a swagger that pushes the lines of sportsmanship but rarely crosses it.
All three elements contributed to Sunday's victory.
The offense had seven explosive plays, defined as runs longer than 12 yards and passes longer than 16. Among them were touchdowns of 56 yards to receiver Calvin Johnson and 41 yards to rookie wideout Titus Young.
The defense sacked Broncos quarterback Tim Tebow seven times, using a rare uptick in blitz ratios to rattle Tebow in unprecedented ways. Tebow committed two turnovers, both of which were returned for touchdowns, and had completed only seven of his 21 passes when the Lions began sitting their starters at the end of the third quarter.
"With Tebow," said defensive end Cliff Avril, "we thought blitzing a little bit more would make him pay more attention to us than downfield."
Taking advantage of a rare occasion when he was the blind-side pass rusher, Avril had two sacks and two forced fumbles. He returned one of them 24 yards for a touchdown in the third quarter, and cornerback Chris Houston returned an interception 100 yards for a score in the fourth quarter.
Overall, Lions defensive coordinator Gunther Cunningham blitzed on 55.6 percent of Tebow's dropbacks. Entering Week 8, the Lions had the second-lowest blitz percentage (17) in the NFL, according to ESPN Stats & Information.
That blitzing, and the havoc it caused on Tebow, might have been enough to pull the Lions out of a tentative funk that had contributed to consecutive home losses against the San Francisco 49ers and Atlanta Falcons.
I asked Lions quarterback Matthew Stafford to describe what it means to play "like ourselves," as he described the Lions' performance Sunday.
"I think an aggressive team," Stafford said. "I think we're trying to make big plays, through the pass game, through the running game, on defense. We got playmakers on the field. That's something we haven't always had. We have it now and we go for it. We're going to attack you."
Usually figuratively, and sometimes literally. The Lions were "disappointed," coach Jim Schwartz said, when a national web site promoted this game as "Good vs. Evil," a natural if not unfair way of previewing a contest between the respective teams of Tebow and Suh.
Suh noted that "evil prevails" and said: "Hopefully we're going to continue to keep it that way, if they want to perceive us that way."
Sunday, the Lions' biggest sin was mimicking the Tebow-generated "Tebowing" craze after a couple of big plays. "Tebowing" isn't going to make the list of what has most aggravated national observers about this Lions team, but at the midpoint of the season, I think we can accept that they're at their best when they push the envelope of aggressive play and freewheeling style.
It's carried them to where many of us thought they would be as November approached: In position to challenge for a playoff spot. Based on what we saw Sunday, there is every reason to believe they'll continue on that path.
"We have a long way to go," Schwartz said. "We need to play well in the second half of the year. You're going to have some rough spots in a season. And we did. We had two losses in a row. But to come on the road, to come on track ... I think there's a lot of positives there.
"You don't win any prizes or trophies in the first half of the season for stats or records. We have a long way to go and I think our guys know that. But it was good to come back and be ourselves a little bit."