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21 Dec 2012

Any Given Sunday: Cardinals Over Lions

by Rivers McCown

Unacceptable. That's the only word for it.

When your team goes up against a Cardinals offensive line that is one of the worst that we've ever recorded (one that, by J.J. Cooper's numbers, had allowed 15.5 sacks through Week 8 solely by the two tackles), and sacks much-maligned rookie quarterback Ryan Lindley just once, that is unacceptable. The most damning part thing about it is that the Lions blitzed regularly. They often sent five or six on passing downs. Time and time again, Lawrence Jackson, Kyle Vanden Bosch, and Cliff Avril would be stoned by rookie fourth-rounder Bobby Massie and rookie seventh-rounder Nate Potter, and thus, the Cardinals almost resembled an NFL offense at times in this game.

It would be silly to draw long-term concerns just based on one game, but the Lions do have some decisions to make around Ndamukong Suh and Avril. Vanden Bosch's rush effectiveness has dwindled, and while Willie Young and Jackson have had some good numbers in relief (Young would have made our top-25 prospects list in FOA2012 if he hadn't been over the age limit), it has to be seen as somewhat of a concern that they haven't been able to beat Vanden Bosch out yet. The defensive line is not the biggest issue that this team has, but schematically, it's going to be hard to run a Cover-2-based scheme if you can't even get a rush from the front four against an offensive line like this.

Detroit's secondary has been ravaged by injuries -- not that it was good on paper to begin with -- but the real surprise to me was just how bad the linebacker play was in this game. Everyone knows the Cardinals have a horrendous quarterback and offensive line situation, but they also have the 32nd-ranked rushing offense by DVOA, at -18.6%. In this game, they played all the way up to -6.2%, and it was primarily because of overpursuit and poor angles by Stephen Tulloch and Justin Durant on the second level. On Beanie Wells' first touchdown run, Tulloch found himself standing right beyond the line of scrimmage, away from the hole that Wells ran right through, and made no effort to get back.

As for what happened on offense, well, it's easy to poke holes in Matthew Stafford's game. He's a very good quarterback, but he's got so much arm talent that he hasn't always needed to have consistent mechanics. This has held him back in the NFL, at times. For instance, here is a screenshot of a (successful) Stafford screen pass to Kevin Smith. They don't teach this motion at the quarterback camps:

Ideal mechanics.
Graphics by Matt Glickman

The real issue was that the Cardinals defense (a very good unit that we've covered before), made sure that Calvin Johnson was not going to beat them. Patrick Peterson was on him when he went outside, and they doubled Johnson when he went inside to the slot. We'll get into the coverage specifics on Johnson in a second, but it needs to be noted that asides from him, Detroit's receiving corps is barren at the moment.

Nate Burleson broke his leg in Week 7, Titus Young broke his teammates' trust and was basically exiled off the team, and Ryan Broyles tore his ACL against the Colts in Week 13. Without them, the Lions are using Kris Durham as their No. 2 receiver, and the bottom three spots on their wideout depth chart: Mike Thomas, Brian Robiskie, and Kassim Osgood, were all with Jacksonville last season. That's not an offense you purposely set out to emulate. Furthermore, starting tight end Brandon Pettigrew suffered a high-ankle sprain in Week 14 against Green Bay, leaving the Lions with increased snaps for Tony Scheffler and Will Heller. Scheffler is a decent fourth option, but he's not really the sort of player you want to be targeting ten times a game unless he has a really good match-up.

Johnson often gets called a one-man show, but in this game, he literally had to be one. Even despite the absurd amount of attention the Cardinals gave Johnson, Stafford's 17 throws to him generated 60 DYAR. Stafford's other 33 attempts? -93 DYAR. That's a performance straight out of Blaine Gabbert's playbook -- and one that only makes sense when you consider the fact that Stafford was playing with all of his old receivers.

By the VOA

The Cardinals do win the VOA chase this week, but it's mostly due to their work on special teams. This game was virtually a stalemate on offense and defense.

Red Versus Blue
DET -37.4% -18.1% -8.3% -27.5%
ARI -32.0% -26.8% 19.7% 14.6%

So how extreme is the opponent adjustment for facing Arizona's offense? Detroit's -18.1% VOA on defense tumbles all the way down to a 7.7% DVOA. We must punish those who would make Arizona's offense look merely bad.

Call of the Game

There were a few fourth-down calls of some meaning, but let's be honest with ourselves: the outcome of this game was never in any real doubt after the Cardinals hit 24 points, and game theory does not thrive in one-sided affairs.

Instead, my Call of the Game is Arizona's stubborn reluctance to admit that Lindley is not ready to be an NFL quarterback. In theory, having spent only a sixth-round pick on Lindley and a fifth-rounder on John Skelton, the Cardinals should not be anywhere near as married to them as they have been. Yes, you'd like your quarterback to know the system. Yes, it would be nice to develop homegrown talent. You know what else would be nice? Not wasting Larry Fitzgerald's career.

Signing Brian Hoyer, who used to be mentioned with Kevin Kolb in the "backups who will one day be starters" camp around the turn of the decade, was a good start. The next step is to actually see if he's worth keeping around in 2013. The Cardinals should be auditioning quarterbacks to see if any of them show something worth hanging on to. That could mean signing some other prospect washout like Josh Johnson, finding some practice-squad quarterbacks worth poaching (Dennis Dixon?), or even desperately picking through the CFL to see if Travis Lulay will give it a go. Throw them all against the wall and see if any of them stick. It's a much better use of your time than giving those snaps to a pair of players that have already proven to splat on contact with said wall.

Spotlight on: Covering Calvin Johnson

Cardinals defensive coordinator Ray Horton had one goal coming into this game: to not let Calvin Johnson beat the Cardinals. So he changed a few basic tenets of his defense. Patrick Peterson, who plays on an island with some regularity, was given safety help on just about every snap he played against Johnson. However, to help free up Johnson, a typical Lions response to safety help over the top is to move Johnson into the slot.

Horton had an answer for that too: he moved two defenders right up to the line of scrimmage solely to try to halt Johnson. How's that for respecting the best receiver in the NFL? Here's how that looked and played out on tape on a couple of selected snaps:

4:50 in the first quarter, third-and-10 from the Lions 20

Detroit comes out with split backs and three receivers, with Johnson on the left slot. Will Heller is one of the backs. Johnson motions further inside and brings William Gay with him.
Kerry Rhodes, who was showing blitz at the snap, instead doubles Johnson at the line of scrimmage, getting just a slight jam on him.
Rhodes plays Johnson in trail, meaning Stafford would have to loft the ball over Rhodes to complete this pass.
Instead, it's thrown towards Johnson's outside, and Rhodes is able to tip the pass and break it up.
Graphics by Matt Glickman

6:40 in the second quarter, third-and-13 from the Lions 43

This time, Detroit has three wideouts, but just one back. Arizona is threatening a zone blitz at the snap. Johnson is clearly double-covered, again, by Rhodes and Gay.
Arizona sends five, Joique Bell is in place to pick up the blitzing linebacker. Johnson is jammed between both defensive backs.
Stafford instead tries to hit Heller in one-on-one coverage.
But Daryl Washington is in perfect position to defend this ball, and Stafford's throw is way off anyway. Johnson never got any breathing room.
Graphics by Matt Glickman

Of course, as the statistics in the opener show, that didn't actually halt Johnson's production. Offensive coordinator Scott Linehan adjusted, motioning Johnson into trips sets in the second half. Then there's the natural talent that Johnson has -- he can still get open against these kinds of defensive packages at times.

Despite Johnson's success, it was still a really interesting ploy by Horton. It might be somewhat of a "perfect storm" situation due to the Lions' lack of other options, but it also might be something worth using as a "show" package at times for other defenses.

Posted by: Rivers McCown on 21 Dec 2012

3 comments, Last at 23 Dec 2012, 6:05pm by LionInAZ


by greybeard :: Sat, 12/22/2012 - 7:19pm

" He's a very good quarterback, but he's got so much arm talent that he hasn't always needed to have consistent mechanics."

What is this arm talent that does not come with consistent mechanics? Do you mean to say arm strength.

by nath :: Sat, 12/22/2012 - 11:51pm

Arm strength is talent. Arm mechanics are a skill.

by LionInAZ :: Sun, 12/23/2012 - 6:05pm

This isn't the first time Calvin has been doubled at the LOS. I believe the Saints did it last year.