It's time for our weekly Q&A session with a blogger who covers the Patriots next opponent. Up this week is The Wayne Fontes Experience, a great blog that has covered the Lions through thick and thin, and mostly the thin. The site's lead blogger, Al Beaton, is one of Bloguin's finest football minds and always comes up with some great responses for the network's weekly Blog Poll Power Rankings. I asked Al a series of questions about the Lions, and he, in turn, asked me a few about the Pats. His responses are below, followed by a link to Foxboro Blog's Q&A session on The Wayne Fontes Experience.
1. I know the Lions' season has not gone the way fans have hoped, but are there any positives you can take away from the 2010 season to this point?
At 2-8? You got to be kidding!
Seriously, there have been a few things. First and foremost, the defensive line, which was rebuilt in one off season. 2nd overall pick DT Ndamukong Suh is a beast, a lock to be the defensive rookie of the year. DE Kyle Vanden Bosch has proven to be worth his free agent contract, both from a performance and leadership point of view. Cornerback has been stabilized with the acquisitions of Alphonso Smith and Chris Houston. In his first season as the starting MLB, Deandre Levy is proving the Lions made the right decision in giving him the job after playing both OLB and MLB as a rookie in 2009.
On offense? When healthy, WR Nate Burleson has proven to be a valuable free agent pickup as a number two receiver. Shaun Hill is the Lions' first legit NFL quality backup at quarterback in...well, it's been a long time. Rob Sims has solidified one of the guard spots, which had been a revolving door for the past decade. Calvin Johnson is Calvin Johnson. When he can stay on the field, Matthew Stafford is gold.
For the second year in a row, the draft has been productive. Martin Mayhew is proving to be a good GM, even if the record has yet to show it.
After wandering in the NFL wilderness under Matt Millen,all is not lost...even though it sure feels like it most Sundays.
2. What do you make of Jim Schwartz as a head coach?
At the start of the season, Jim Schwartz's approval rating with the Lions' fanbase, if not through the roof, was quite high. He's personable, whip smart, and well thought of throughout the NFL. Any thoughts the Lions would even entertain the thought of another head coach was folly. But after literally giving away the Jets game, losing to the then winless Bills and getting blown out by the hapless Cowboys, the questions about Schwartz's ability to get this franchise over the hump are becoming more and more pointed.
What really set everyone off was the loss to the Jets. The Lions had the ball and a ten point lead with five minutes left. The combination of Schwartz butchering his clock management combined with some very odd play calling, the Lions gave the game away. After the gut-wrenching loss, the Lions proceeded to come out listless against the Bills, unable to execute against the Cowboys, fell to 2-8, and are now one of the short list of teams competing for the 1st overall draft pick in 2011.
The current Lions are undeniably more talented than the 0-16 team Schwartz inherited. No one was expected this team to compete for the playoffs, but continued improvement, to 5-6 victories, was expected. But we still see the same silly mistakes, boneheaded penalties and lackluster performances Lions fans have seen for decades.
Schwartz is in no danger in being fired. He walked into as crappy a situation as any NFL coach has in history, and Matthew Stafford's injury issues have thrown a monkey wrench into his plans. Schwartz deserves time to fix what was a decimated roster, and is going to get it. If Matt Millen was given 8+ years and a contract extension by owner William Clay Ford, it goes without question Schwartz's job is safe. But it's no longer a given. There must be visible improvement next season (if there is a 2011 season) on both the field, and more importantly, in the standings.
We're not asking for the moon, or even the playoffs. Win a game or two on the road, and put together a modest winning streak, neither of which has happened since the first half of the 2007 season, is what we'd like to see.
If we don't, next year should be Schwartz's last.
3. Matthew Stafford is out for the season with his shoulder injury. Do you think he is still the franchise quarterback for the Detroit Lions?
There's no question, at least in my mind, Stafford is the most talented QB to come through Detroit in my lifetime, and it's not even close. Mark Sanchez, taken in the same draft, who is undeniably talented and led the Jets to the playoffs as a rookie, has a better track record...but I wouldn't dream of trading Stafford for him, who has only 13 starts under his belt due to injuries. Stafford has an arm mere mortals dream of having, it's a howitzer. And his leadership ability is off the charts...even more so when compared the last QB drafted in the 1st round by the Lions, Joey Blue Skies, aka Joey Harrington.
It was the Redskins and Browns games in 2009 that convinced Lions fans Stafford is for real. The Browns win has been the crown jewel of his short career. It was the best statistical game ever by a rookie QB (5 TD’s and 422 yards passing). It was also the game where Stafford separated his throwing shoulder getting absolutely drilled into the turf while throwing a Hail Mary, then came off the sidelines, against the wishes of the Lions’ medical team, to throw the winning TD on the game’s final play. I get all misty just thinking about it…
I think this says it all about Stafford. The two games he's started this season, against the Bears and the Jets, the Lions were leading when he left the game. The Lions lost both, and I'm comfortable in saying they win if he had remained in the game. The Lions are a much better team with Matthew Stafford under center, and if that isn't the definition of a franchise quarterback, I don't know what is.
But franchise quarterbacks need to stay on the field. That's the only question we don't know the answer to yet. Injuries have been Stafford’s kryptonite. He must prove he can finish a season standing, instead of being helped off the field.
4. Is there anyway the Patriots can stop Calvin Johnson? Or can they only hope to contain him?
Who can stop Calvin Johnson? He demands you best cover corner, and even then, it requires a double team...which is why Nate Burleson has been effective. But honestly, Johnson does a better job of stopping himself than any defensive scheme could.
Megatron has the best physical makeup in a wide out this side of a young Randy Moss. With his tools alone, you'd think Johnson would regularly impose his will upon the opposition...but it doesn't happen nearly often enough. He tends to disappear for long periods during a game.
For example, Megatron went off against the Redskins, 9-101-3 TD's. Didn't matter if he was double or triple teamed, Johnson was going to go get the ball. But the next week against the Jets, Johnson had one catch for 13 yards, and it wasn't as if he was being blanketed by Darrell Revis on every down. In other words, Megatron's inconsistency has been maddening.
Calvin Johnson is on track to have his best statistical season of his career. But you're left with the nagging feeling he could have done even more.
5. How do you evaluate the Lions' two top rookie draft picks Ndamakong Suh and Jahvid Best?
Ndamukong Suh has been an out and out force on the defensive line. As I said earlier, he's a lock for NFL defensive rookie of the year. He’s been double teamed since day one, yet still leads the Lions in sacks with seven. He does need to improve against the run, and his aggressiveness tends to get the better of him, as seen in the preseason when Suh tried to, with malice in his heart, remove Jake Delhomme's head from his shoulders.
But Suh has been a true impact player, one who makes his teammates better. I’m very much looking forward to watching Suh develop into an All-Pro tackle…and he may be one already. Suh is that damn good.
As for Jahvid Best, I'm already on record saying he's already the 3rd best Lions' RB in my lifetime, behind Barry Sanders and Billy Sims. But I don't think best will put up the crazy rushing totals those two were capable of, as, well, who could?
But Best is a better receiver out of the backfield than either Sanders or Sims, and that's where he'll make hay. The Eagles game (78 yards rushing, 154 receiving, 3TD's) showed how Best is best used. I can easily see him in the Marshall Faulk mold, with 1000+ yards on the ground, and 500+ receiving.
There's one caveat with Best. Much like Stafford, Best has to prove he can stay healthy. The inability to stay on the field was why he was available to the Lions at the bottom of the 1st round. Don't expect to see the Best I just described above on Thursday. He's playing despite turf toe injuries on both feet, and even then, he's not getting many touches. Best has lost the spectacular moves we saw early in the season. He no longer explodes into the hole, or cuts on a dime, he's running very tentatively.
I don't think we'll see Best play up to his ability until he has time to let the injuries heal...which won't happen until the end of the season.
6. A lot of talk has been about the Lions not having their Thanksgiving games over the past couple of years. Do you think Detroit should get to keep its annual Thanksgiving game? Why or Why not?
YES! Let me add, YESYESYES!
In Detroit, Thanksgiving Day is our Super Bowl, our only day to shine. It's been the only game nationally televised in recent years (the Lions last appearance on Sunday or Monday night as back in 2001), a game the entire city and state points towards.
The Lions playing on Thanksgiving has been the NFL's longest lasting tradition., since 1934, You'd think that would count for something. Keep in mind Thanksgiving football is ingrained in the DNA of Detroiters, It's a guaranteed sellout, even in the Lions' worst seasons...like this one.
Bill Ford Jr, who actually has his senses, unlike his team owner father, spends the majority of his time working in the family business. He has threatened to pull company advertising from the NFL if the game is ever removed from the city. It's a threat the NFL takes seriously.
We fans in Detroit have witnessed one playoff win since 1957, and that was back in 1991. Thanksgiving is all we have, and we'd like to keep it. Please?
Think of it this way. You only have to see the Lions once a year. We get to watch them 16 times. Trust me, you're getting the far better deal.
7. Where do you put the Patriots in terms of the top teams in the NFL?
This is what I has to say about the Pats on my last Bloguin NFL BlogPoll ballot:
2. Patriots: Bill Belickick is receiving raves for his coaching job with the Pats this season, for good reason. This might not be his most talented team, but they are playing like the NFL's best.
I dream of rooting for a team like the Patriots. To use to the old cliche, under Belichick, the Pats don't rebuild, they reload.
There's a team similar to the Pats in Detroit, the Red Wings. They have a rock solid front office, a highly talented roster that has a mix of veterans and youngsters, and all make sacrifices, both in salary and in stats, for the sake of team success. They may not with the title every season, but they are always in contention.
Comparing the Pats to the Wings is the highest compliment I can give.
8. What is the one main key matchup fans should watch out for while they are eating their turkey?
The offensive line of the Patriots vs. the Lions' front four. If the Lions are to have any success, their defensive line has to pressure the quarterback. It's the only way the team can cover for the back seven, which lacks, depending upon the position, talent, depth, or both. The Lions have played their best this season when the front four punished quarterbacks. Because if given time, a decent...no, breathing, quarterback can pick the Lions' secondary apart.
Despite having a talented line, keep in mind the Lions have had trouble stopping the run, so good offensive line play is a key in winning games in Detroit. Though to be honest, just showing up is often enough to win in Detroit.
9. What is your prediction?
I've yet to pick the Lions win a game this season, and I'm not starting now.
The Pats are a Super Bowl contender, are vastly more talented, have depth to burn, are run by a Hall of Fame quarterback and head coach, and considered the NFL's model franchise. The Lions...are the Lions. They have none of those things. They haven't in decades.
Thanksgiving may not be a huge blowout (the last things this franchise needs, considering the anti-Turkey Day in Detroit faction), as the Lions have proven to be a better team at home than on the road, as their ridiculous 26 game road losing streak shows. Regardless, the game won't be in doubt much past halftime.
Patriots 35, Lions 21.