By Tom Pollin
Cold, Hard Football Facts Lions Beat Writer
The Lions cooled off the rampant Tebowmania that took hold of the football world last week with a 45-10 rout of the Broncos. As the Lions head home to reflect on a successful first half of their season here are five things we learned.
1. The Detroit coaching staff had a great game.
Head coach Jim Schwartz never panicked over the past week after the Atlanta game. On Monday he said, “We’re not talking about needing a bunch of new players or changing schemes or getting new coaches. We’re talking about fine tuning.”
If anything, Schwartz has been a steady hand as the leader of the team. He also wasn’t afraid to bring in offensive and defensive coordinators that are not just highly qualified to be in their positions but are former head coaches. There are a lot of first time head coaches that would not be so secure with their coordinator selections.
Schwartz set the tone of the Lions’ effort from the coin toss by being aggressive and deferring after winning the coin toss so the defense could set the tone from the kickoff and have the ball in the offense’s hands at the beginning of the second half.
Defensive Coordinator Gunther Cunningham , head coach of the Kansas City Chiefs in the 1999 and 2000 seasons, had his defense ready. They held Tim Tebow to a 40.22 Passer Rating and, after being sacked three times for 20 yards, a 1.31 Real Passing Yards per Attempt average in the first half.
That defensive effort gave offensive coordinator Scott Linehan, head coach of the St. Louis Rams from 2006 thru four games into 2008, and quarterback Matthew Stafford a chance to take control of the game from the first drive and never let go.
Stafford had the play called and the Lions out of the huddle and to the line quickly and completed three quick passes in Detroit’s first five plays to establish a confident, consistent rhythm to the offense that it lacked against Atlanta. On the sixth play the offensive line held and gave Stafford plenty of time to find a wide open Titus Young for the game's first touchdown.
Actually, wide open doesn’t do it justice. Think of the campfire scene in Blazing Saddles and where you would have ended up standing in relation to Hedley Lamarr’s men as they enjoyed their traditional western bean dinner. Double that distance and that’s how open Titus Young was as he caught the 41 yard touchdown pass.
Linehan also didn’t wait until halftime to make the key adjustment that allowed the Lions to break the game open in the second quarter. Through the first quarter Calvin Johnson lined up wide with Champ Bailey opposite and matching him step for step and move for move.
In the second quarter the Lions moved Johnson into the slot where rookie safety Chris Harris picked him up in coverage. Freed up from Bailey, Johnson caught four passes for 60 yards in the quarter as the Lions took control of the game. Stafford finished the half with a 129.17 Passer Rating and the Lions were ahead 24-3.
2. It’s more fun to play when you’re ahead.
As exciting as comeback victories can be and competitive as the Lions were against San Francisco, they hadn’t dominated an opponent since Week 2 when they took a 20-3 lead into the half against Kansas City on their way to a 48-3 win.
On Denver’s first drive Tim Tebow was right on target with a 14 yard pass to Eric Decker and should have had a perfectly thrown 21 yard touchdown pass if Decker had dragged his left toe instead of continuing his stride out the back of the end zone. Matt Prater finished the drive with a 39 yard field goal and Denver had a 3-0 lead.
The Lions defense made sure that this drive was the end of Denver’s highlight reel for the afternoon. In the second half the Lions stopped worrying about Denver’s ground game and began turning up the heat on Tebow in the pocket.
On Denver’s second play of the third quarter Cliff Avril sacked Tebow and knocked the ball loose, picked it up and ran it in from 24 yards out to set the tone for what Tebow would face in the second half. The Lions sacked Tebow seven times for 55 yards by the time they were finished.
The Lions’ defense closed the team’s scoring when they rushed Tebow into a pass that Chris Houston intercepted and returned 100 yards for a touchdown.
3. Tall pass catchers are an invaluable weapon.
The highlight reel catch by Tony Scheffler in the middle of the second quarter was made possible because he’s 6’ 5” tall being defended by 5’10” Chris Harris. It was a catch that is worthy of all every replay it will receive throughout the week and the rest of the season but Harris had already did everything he could to make the initial tip and was going to the ground. Scheffler was able to keep his arms extended and pull the ball in as it came down again.
The height of the Lions’ receivers gives Stafford more area he can target in the passing game. The shortest in the group is Titus Young at 5’ 11” (not counting 5’ 6” Stephan Logan who’s listed as a receiver but plays as a punt returner).
Calvin Johnson is 6’ 5”, can jump and has great hands which makes him one of, if not the, most dangerous receivers in the game. He’s also excellent after the catch and one of the reasons why Detroit went into this game with a 6.42 Real Passing Yards per Attempt average.
4. Just as Tim Tebow wasn’t as good as the impression he gave in the final five minutes against Miami, he’s not as bad as he looked against the Lions this week.
The Lions kept constant pressure on Tebow. They kept Denver’s offensive line backing up most of the game and prevented Tebow from being able to step up in the pocket or roll out effectively. Ask Matthew Stafford how easy it is to pass when the defense is chasing you around the backfield all game. Neither Kyle Orton nor Brady Quinn would have been much more successful than Tebow ended up being.
Tebow does have the problem that all young quarterbacks who can run need to deal with, they don’t realize what a double-edged sword that mobility can be. It can create havoc for a defense if they don’t close running lanes and keep that quarterback contained which Detroit did an excellent job of this week. It also keeps them trying to make a play instead of cutting their losses. Tebow needs to learn when it’s best to throw the ball away to save being sacked or forcing a pass into tight coverage.
Another trait of successful quarterbacks that Tebow needs to develop is to be comfortable in the pocket but that lesson will be impossible to learn if Denver’s line play doesn’t drastically improve.
As Tebow can’t let himself get carried away from the excessive praise like he received last week, he can’t let the critics undermine his confidence either. If they experts knew as much about what makes a successful quarterback as they believe they know, Ryan Leaf and Todd Marinovich would be in the late stages of their Hall of Fame careers right now.
5. The Lions are back in the driver’s seat for a playoff berth.
Yes, there are eight games still to play but no one else can do better than 4-3 as a wild card competitor. Seattle is second in the NFC West at 2-5. The Dallas loss to Philadelphia lines both of them up with the Redskins at 3-4 in the NFC East. Tampa Bay and Atlanta are both 4-3 in the NFC South and Atlanta could be a problem since they hold the tiebreaker advantage against Detroit.
The Lions travel to Chicago for an important rematch with the Bears after the bye week. The Bears have rebounded from their loss at Detroit to a 4-3 record and need the game to even up the end of season tiebreakers. The Lions also face Green Bay twice, a stubborn Carolina team, the Saints, Raiders and Chargers.
At this point it’s difficult to judge how challenging some of that competition will be until it comes time to play the games but the advantage the Lions have, and we learned in item No. 2, it’s more fun to play when you’re ahead and that’s where the Lions are as they prepare for the second half of their season.