Opposition Beat: Talking Eagles-Lions with Justin Rogers of MLive.com

Opposition Beat: Talking Eagles-Lions with Justin Rogers of MLive.com

Each week during the 2012 season, we're hitting up some of the most
knowledgeable people on the Internet when it comes to the Eagles' opponent that particular Sunday. Today we are pleased to have Justin Rogers, Lions beat reporter for MLive.com, which serves the entire state of Michigan.

Kulp: There probably aren't many prognosticators who picked the Lions to be 1-3 at this point in the season -- and it very easily could have been 0-4 -- but that's where they are after three consecutive losses against San Francisco, Tennessee, and Minnesota. What would you say has been the biggest reason behind their slow start?

Justin Rogers: It's easy to point to special teams as the biggest reason for the Lions' slow start. There have been 10 touchdown returns on kickoffs and punts around the league and Detroit is responsible for four. You eliminate those and the Lions could easily be 3-1 right now. But even if you subtract the special teams blunders from the equation, something hasn't been quite right. To me, the area that is the biggest concern is the slow starts on offense.  Detroit has put together some long drives in the first halves of their four games, but are consistently stalling out before reaching the end zone. The Lions have just one first half touchdown as opposed to nine field goal attempts and four interceptions. They have been trailing at the half of each of those contests.

Clearly Calvin Johnson has become the most dominant wide receiver in the league. He's currently averaging 105 yards per game for the second year in a row, and has hauled in 12 or more touchdown catches three of the past four seasons. Having watched him play on a weekly basis, where would you rank Calvin Johnson among the most dominant players at any position in the NFL?

It's a difficult question to answer, but let's put it this way, teams design entire game plans around stopping Johnson. Look back at the film from any Lions' game this season and you'll see consistent two high safety looks, combined often with man-press coverage and linebacker help underneath.  He never sees fewer than two defenders, and often sees some combination of three, yet he still continues to produce. That is the definition of dominance.  Where he ranks compared to a Patrick Willis, J.J. Watt, Aaron Rodgers or Arian Foster, it's tough to say, but I'm comfortable saying Johnson is in the top 10.

After throwing 41 touchdowns a season ago, Matthew Stafford has just three so far in 2011 -- none to Calvin Johnson. You wrote last week that defenses have only used man coverage on five of Detroit's 296 snaps, employing a bend-don't-break strategy that forces Stafford to nickel and dime his way down the field. Given the limitations of their running game and other options at receiver, is their offense equipped for those long drives?

It's equipped to do it, and they have done it, but they're not executing the full length of the field. It's not one person's fault. On one drive it will be a missed block, on another a bad throw, another a receiver will put a ball on the ground.  The Lions have plenty of offensive weapons, but they are falling victim to the bend-don't-break style because of mental and physical mistakes.  The one area where the Lions need to be better is running the ball against six-man boxes.  If they can't keep the opposition honest by moving the ball against minimum defenders up front, they'll never be able to play to their strengths in the passing game, particularly looking for Johnson deep after a safety is forced to commit to helping stop the run.

A couple weeks back, your colleague Anwar Richardson noted that the Lions' secondary charted as one of the league's best despite rampant injuries. Following an awful performance against Tennessee in Week 3 (378 yards, two TD over 60 yards), they rebounded the next week at Minnesota (111 yards, zero TD), and Detroit still ranks 10th at 213 YPG. How have they managed, and what is the state of the secondary after their bye?

They've managed, but the stats are deceptive. The return of cornerback Chris Houston has been a big boost.  He's played very well in two games, making several key tackles and breaking up a handful of passes. On the other side, rookie Bill Bentley is being attacked by opposing quarterbacks and he's been inconsistent, particularly locating the football. He drew two pass interference calls over 20 yards in the loss to the Vikings. 

The safeties have been the biggest concern. Veteran Erik Coleman has been decent, but the absence of Louis Delmas has been devastating. He's finally practicing after his knee surgery and could be back this week after missing the first four games, the entire preseason and most of training camp, so it's unknown what kind of shape he'll be in. 

One thing is for certain, even though the group hasn't given up big yardage, opposing quarterbacks have been very efficient. A lot of that is quick, short passes, but it's been effective, so there's no reason to stop.  This group also doesn't have an interception. They're only one of two teams with that distinction.

There has been a lot of talk in Philadelphia about the wide 9 defensive front ever since Jim Washburn brought the look here last season. It's been very successful in terms of rushing the passer, producing 46 sacks from linemen alone in 2011, but often criticized for exposing linebackers, particularly in the running game. How has the wide 9 been received in Detroit?

At first, everyone was excited, because the Lions went from a team with only a handful of sacks to becoming one of the top 10 teams in the league in that department, but the criticisms are similar to those you have mentioned.  The aggressiveness of the ends, combined with the defensive tackles shooting single gaps up the middle, has allowed opposing offensive lines to control the direction of the players, opening significant running lanes. 

Last year the Lions were one of the worst teams in the league against the run, but have done a decent job this year, shutting down Steven Jackson and Chris Johnson. Neither Adrian Peterson or Frank Gore did a tremendous amount of damage, but that had more to do with a limited amount of carries as opposed to limited success.

The Lions are content as long as they don't allow any explosive runs, which they define as more than 20 yards. So far, they've done well in that department, but LeSean McCoy is on a different level and he could have a big day if the Lions' lineman and linebackers aren't sound with their assignments.

Many thanks to Justin Rogers for participating. Follow him on Twitter, and for the latest news on the Lions ahead of Sunday's game, check out MLive.com.

NBA Notes: Chris Paul to undergo surgery for torn ligament in thumb

NBA Notes: Chris Paul to undergo surgery for torn ligament in thumb

LOS ANGELES -- Chris Paul will undergo surgery on Wednesday to repair a torn ligament in his left thumb and is expected to miss six to eight weeks.

The Clippers said Tuesday that their All-Star guard will continue to undergo treatment and evaluation by the club's medical staff.

Paul was injured on a first-half play involving Oklahoma City's Russell Westbrook in Monday night's victory over the Thunder. Paul didn't return in the second half.

The Clippers are 26-9 in 36 games with Paul in the lineup this season. He is averaging 17.5 points, 9.7 assists and 5.3 rebounds, and leads the NBA with 2.25 steals per game (see full story).

Knicks: Anthony tells Jackson he wants to stay in New York
NEW YORK -- Carmelo Anthony still believes the Knicks can win and still wants to be in New York when they do.

Another January collapse makes it easier to wonder if either will happen.

The Knicks have fallen off the playoff pace, again proving they can win headlines but not games. It seems like the same old story in New York, even though Anthony still thinks they can change the ending.

"Yeah, we will," he said. "I still believe."

He reiterated that Tuesday in a meeting with Phil Jackson, telling the Knicks president of basketball operations that he wanted to remain with the team, according to a person with knowledge of the discussion.

The question is how much Jackson still wants him.

A Fanragsports.com piece by Charley Rosen last week was heavily critical of Anthony, saying his legs are "going, going, almost gone" and that "the only sure thing is that Carmelo Anthony has outlived his usefulness in New York."

Criticism of Anthony is nothing new, but this came from a longtime confidant and former assistant coach of Jackson, leading to speculation that those were the same thoughts as the Knicks executive (see full story).

Hornets: Clifford blames poor defense for Hornets' losing streak
CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- Hornets coach Steve Clifford points to one factor when explaining his team's five-game losing streak -- a lack of defense.

Charlotte went 0-5 on its recent road trip, surrendering an uncharacteristic 109.6 points per game during that span. The Hornets return home Wednesday night to face the Portland Trail Blazers, part of a stretch of five-game home stand which Clifford hopes will help turn things around.

But Charlotte's fourth-year coach said nothing will get better until the Hornets start playing better man-to-man defense.

"It starts with our ability to guard our guy," Clifford said. "When you get blown by a lot on the perimeter where you are constantly in need of help, then you are going to give up 3s -- and that's what is happening."

The Hornets raced to a 14-9 start this season and were third-best in the league in points allowed through 23 games.

Since then, things have steadily fallen apart, culminating with Charlotte giving up at least 100 points in eight straight games. The Hornets have since dropped to 12th overall in points allowed (see full story).

Kings: F Omri Casspi out for up to 2 weeks with calf injury
SACRAMENTO, Calif. -- Sacramento Kings forward Omri Casspi will miss up to two weeks with an injured right calf.

The team said Tuesday that an MRI showed Casspi strained a tendon in his calf during practice on Monday.

Casspi is averaging 5.9 points and 4.1 rebounds per game this season.

Another injury, another opportunity as Sixers' PG merry-go-round continues

Another injury, another opportunity as Sixers' PG merry-go-round continues

CAMDEN, N.J. — The camouflaged tape wrapped around T.J. McConnell’s right wrist couldn’t disguise the latest hit to the Sixers’ backcourt. 

McConnell suffered a sprain on Saturday in a play against John Wall and was in a splint on Tuesday. He did not participate in practice and is listed as doubtful for Wednesday’s game against the Raptors (see story)

“[I’m] trying to keep it stable and not move it around a lot. I should be good to go very soon,” McConnell said. “I’m leaving [when I play] up to the medical staff. I’ll just tell them how I feel. It’s getting a lot better each day.”

Add McConnell to the list of point guards who have battled injuries this season. Let’s start at training camp: Jerryd Bayless suffered a left wrist ligament injury that ended up requiring season-ending surgery. His absence bumped Sergio Rodriguez into the starting lineup, until Rodriguez sprained his left ankle in late December and missed three games.

That left McConnell as the team’s only healthy true point guard at that point. McConnell played so well as a starter while Rodriguez was sidelined that he remained in the lineup when Rodriguez returned. 

“I obviously want to get back quick, but I know me and my teammates won’t lose that cohesion together,” McConnell said.  

This time around, the Sixers are better equipped to handle the injury of a point guard. They signed Chasson Randle from the Westchester Knicks (NBA Development League) to a 10-day contract on Jan. 10. The team liked Randle for his combo skills that would allow him to play shooting guard in practices and give Gerald Henderson an opportunity to rest. Turns out, they need him at the one spot the most. 

Randle played 16 minutes off the bench in Monday’s win over the Bucks. He scored 10 points (3 for 6 from the field, 2 for 4 from three, 2 for 2 from the line) with two rebounds, an assist and five fouls. Randle took his first shot just 23 seconds after checking in for Rodriguez and made his first NBA bucket, a three. 

“He did a great job,” Rodriguez said. “He stepped up in the game, he made some shots, he got the rhythm of the team going. For us, it’s amazing … he’s just here for a few days and he’s talented and he showed [Monday].”

Now Randle could be the latest point guard to maximize an opportunity created by injury. The Sixers have been impressed by what Stanford’s all-time leading scorer can do on both sides of the court. 

“When you start looking at what we have access to, the physical measurements, his wingspan is elite,” Brett Brown said. “You sit him in a stance and he spreads out, he uncoils. He really can cover some ground with his width, his length, albeit from a point guard position. Some of the deflections he got and defensive plays he made, I thought were outstanding.”