Writers of Pro Football Prospectus 2008

28 Sep 2009

ESPN Any Given Sunday: Lions Over Redskins

by Vince Verhei

The linked article focuses on the defensive strategy the Redskins used against the Lions and Matthew Stafford, and why it was so unsuccessful. It does not discuss the controversial coaching decisions Jim Zorn made in the first quarter of the game that have some Redskins fans up in arms.

On Washington's first drive of the game, the Redskins had a fourth-and-goal from the 1-yard line. Zorn turned down the go-ahead field goal and sent his offense back on the field. A Clinton Portis run gained no yards, and Detroit took over. In hindsight, it's easy to say that Zorn should have taken the automatic points, but in reality Zorn made the correct decision. He called a safe play and asked his offense to pick up one yard; the onus for the failure is on the players, not Zorn. More importantly, "failing" on that play had a hidden benefit, as it set the Lions up with a first-and-10 at their own 1-yard line. While Zorn would doubtless have preferred a touchdown, I'm sure he was comfortable having the Lions pinned so deep. That Washington's defense promptly committed an encroachment penalty -- handing the Lions five free yards before the ball had even been snapped -- is also on the players, not Zorn.

On the ensuing drive, the Lions marched down the field, until an incomplete pass left them with a fourth-and-3 at the Washington 33-yard line. Jason Hanson would have been attempting a 50-yard field goal, but Detroit's Casey Fitzsimmons was called for offensive pass interference on the play. Zorn accepted the penalty, moving the Lions back to the 42 and out of field-goal range, but giving them another down to play with. Hanson was likely to make the kick; for his career, he is 25-of-41 (61 percent) from 50 yards or more when kicking indoors. By accepting the penalty, Zorn effectively took points off the board, while also giving his defense a favorable third-and-13 opportunity. That the Redskins allowed Matt Stafford to scramble for 21 yards is again a failure of the players, not of Zorn.

In two crucial scenarios, Zorn made two unusual decisions. Just because they did not work out does not mean the decisions were wrong.

Posted by: Vincent Verhei on 28 Sep 2009

15 comments, Last at 30 Sep 2009, 12:21pm by AG

Comments

1
by DaninPhilly (not verified) :: Mon, 09/28/2009 - 3:18pm

Please stop saying that. As the head coach, it always will come down to Zorn, even if the reason they lost was that their shoelaces were too tight. The buck stops with him, period. This is not unfair, it is reality.

Instead of saying "on the players, not Zorn" you may be able to say something like "The call was correct, but the execution was not. The failures were on Zorn's ability to coach fundamentals, or call the correct defense, or have plyers who are capable of executing his schemes, or bad luck even, but not Zorn as a playcaller."

8
by bubqr :: Mon, 09/28/2009 - 5:46pm

I thought Zorn was calling offensive plays. Greg Blache is some guy I've heard about. Plus that "teaching the fundamentals" thing is so overrated. It's not because Zorn didn't organize a tackling or backpedaling class on friday that Stafford scrambled for 21 freaking yards. I don't even think that Oklahoma drills, and form tackling drills are done to teach anything in the NFL, they serve more for intensity purpose than anything else.

2
by TracingError (not verified) :: Mon, 09/28/2009 - 3:32pm

Well, I have two quibbles. First, going for it sent a clear message that he was affected by the criticism about not scoring touchdowns, and made it seem like he wasn't sure they'd get many more chances. Wrong message.

Second, as Portis apparently said--"why an outside run?"

Third, that was the exact same run they failed on last week on fourth and goal, so a bit predicatble.

Fourth, given that one side of their line is dysfunctional at run blocking, I don't think they can run effectively in a goal line situation, since the defense doesn't really have to cover the both sides, effectively.

In other words, it was a bad call.

Still, the team sucks because it has mediocre talent (except at RT and RG, where the talent is marginal at best). That's not Zorn's fault.

7
by Sifter :: Mon, 09/28/2009 - 5:20pm

There was a video on NFL.com last week: Sounds of the NFL featuring Jim Zorn and Jason Campbell in the game vs the Rams. And after that 4th and goal sweep to the left play got stuffed, Jim says ruefully on the sidelines, "that was our best play". Why would he agree to be wired up so that any internet monkey knows that it was your best play 2 days after it failed and why would he run the same play again this week? He obviously REALLY likes the play...

3
by AnonymousA (not verified) :: Mon, 09/28/2009 - 3:34pm

PLEASE FLAG INSIDER CONTENT. Why has "ESPN Insider:" become "ESPN:"? Specifically to trick people?

4
by Bill Barnwell :: Mon, 09/28/2009 - 4:16pm

Anything tagged with "ESPN:" is Insider-only, and has been for several weeks now. If we write an article that is free on ESPN, we will make a note of it in the subject line.

5
by TracingError (not verified) :: Mon, 09/28/2009 - 4:40pm

Well, I have two quibbles. First, going for it sent a clear message that he was affected by the criticism about not scoring touchdowns, and made it seem like he wasn't sure they'd get many more chances. Wrong message.

Second, as Portis apparently said--"why an outside run?"

Third, that was the exact same run they failed on last week on fourth and goal, so a bit predicatble.

Fourth, given that one side of their line is dysfunctional at run blocking, I don't think they can run effectively in a goal line situation, since the defense doesn't really have to cover the both sides, effectively.

In other words, it was a bad call.

Still, the team sucks because it has mediocre talent (except at RT and RG, where the talent is marginal at best). That's not Zorn's fault.

6
by alexbond :: Mon, 09/28/2009 - 5:02pm

While the buck stops with the head coach, I completely agree with the call to go for it, and I believe that at the professional level, you have to expect your o-line to be able to make the push for one yard. And what other play could they call? Fade to Cooley? Sneak? You have an excellent RB, you put the ball in his hands and say "Make the play". Zorn's a great guy and I think would have been a great OC, I think it's too bad that his big chance in the NFL as a coach is going down in flames. Some team will be getting a good OC next year after Zorn gets fired.

9
by Quincy :: Tue, 09/29/2009 - 12:30am

One of the biggest differences I see in the Lions after three games is competent offensive line play. Last season they were arguably the league's worst line. After this week they should be near the top half of the league in both Adjusted Line Yards and Adjusted Sack Rate. I'm curious as to how Schwartz has fixed something so important so fast. Has Cherilous developed into a good right tackle? Is Pettigrew already helping as run-blocking tight end? Has Linehan just come up with better blocking schemes? If this continues is there any way Doug could tackle it in Cover-3?

10
by Joseph :: Tue, 09/29/2009 - 10:28am

Note: Not an Insider--commenting on comments.

Quibbles with the quibbles of comments #1 & 2. Look guys, I think what Vince is saying in the preview is this: the coaches prepare the players, show them film, draw up the plays, etc. But if the players DON'T PROPERLY EXECUTE the plays, that's the PLAYER'S FAULT, NOT THE COACHES'.
I watched Pats-Falcons early game. Brady has Moss open long TWICE, and missed him both times--badly. Another time Watson (IIRC) was open for about a 20 yd gain (plus some YAC) and the throw sailed barely over Watson's outstreched hands, even with him jumping. What I am saying is--the Pats coach(es) dialed up good plays, and in these instances Brady didn't execute them. It isn't the coaches fault that Brady isn't playing like he has in years past because he doesn't have faith in his knee yet.

11
by jimm (not verified) :: Tue, 09/29/2009 - 11:01am

It's funny how the original cost of something so heavily effects how much we are willing to pay for it in the future.

Before the internet I thought nothing of spending $1 a day to pick up the USA Today (that's what it cost in Canada) to get baseball stats. Or spending hundreds on books or football and baseball. But the notion of paying anything for information over the internet irks me.

I think FO transition is fine - dudes got to make a living - but I think this little transition FO is going through is the going to play out throughout the internet over time. Some information is worth paying for - once people get over the shock of paying for anything over the internet they will cough up real money for it.

12
by C (not verified) :: Tue, 09/29/2009 - 11:04am

I actually thought going for it early was the right call. I'm not as big of a fan on those outride runs, or pulling lineman at the goal line as much as just beating the guys in front of you for 1 yard. Why not run behind your pro bowl left tackle?

Clinton Portis has lost a step and he looks heavier than he has in the past. He just doesn't have that same break away speed that he once did. I wonder how far his longest run will be this year?

I've been Critical of Matt Stafford but that 3rd down scramble was nice ( he was faster than he looked chubby face and all). He actually didn't play bad and threw a nice fade to B. Johnson on the very next play for a TD. I still am not a believer in Stafford and especially on the road but I think the Redskins do have a legit defense and beating them was alright. It was the best I've seen him regular or Pre-season.

Stafford was very emotional after making plays. Fans love it when your QB makes a big plan and is happy, but how will he react after poor plays? If your QB drops back and throws 30 passes, 20 are completions, and 4 are horrible horrible reads and interceptions... then you aren't very good.

I actually like the Lions backup RB Aaron Brown, he shows good break away speed on that turf.

One thing that I took note of was Schwartz calling pass plays with his rookie QB when his team had the lead in the 4th quarter. He didn't curl up and play Martyball with the risk of letting another one slip away.

Rod Marinelli was one of the worst head coaches I have ever seen and the guy was in way over his head. Pretty much anybody would be an improvement but Schwartz looks alright thus far. The part about changing to olympic lifts in the gym, assigning players parking spots, and paying attention to detail in general should help. It looks like Schwartz is organized and has a chance at being an alright head coach.

The Redskins are 7 point favorites at home against Tampa next week in front of what could be a very jittery crowd.

13
by Bowl Game Anomaly :: Tue, 09/29/2009 - 2:52pm

I'm a Redskins fan, mildly homerish, and I don't understand these lines. Favored by 6 over Detroit? By 7 over Tampa? It's like nobody watches them play. Attention bettors: The Redskins play down to their competition and never seem to win convincingly. I don't have the numbers, but I think they were lousy vs the spread last year and I don't see that changing if the line-setters don't wise up.

14
by C (not verified) :: Tue, 09/29/2009 - 3:39pm

Even more interesting is all of the UNDERS the team has had.

I think the -7 over Tampa is people thinking they will bounce back ( again), and the fact that they are facing an obscure quarterback in his first NFL start on the road. Plus Tampa has been spanked ( and run on) in their games.

15
by AG (not verified) :: Wed, 09/30/2009 - 12:21pm

Quincy, the Lions O-line is vastly improved for many reasons you mentioned. Cherilous is developing nicely, as is Manny Ramirez at the LG position. Pettigrew is helping in the run game, but not as much as Will Heller. Pettigrew missed most of training camp and isn't quite up to speed yet.

The blocking schemes are absolutely improved and Linehan's talk about committing to the run game has not been hollow. One more reason for improvement is the hiring of new line coach George Yarno. The players seem to take to his approach.

This is one of the finest staffs I've seen assembled in Detroit. I think it's a credit to Schwartz to surround himself with so many experienced coaches.