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.

Eagles Stay or Go Part 6: Taylor Hart to Donnie Jones

Eagles Stay or Go Part 6: Taylor Hart to Donnie Jones

In the sixth of our 12-part offseason series examining the future of the Eagles, Reuben Frank and Dave Zangaro give their opinions on who will be and who won't be on the roster in 2017. We go alphabetically — part 6 is Hart to Jones.

Taylor Hart

Roob: No matter how hard the Eagles try, they just can't get rid of Taylor Hart. Chip Kelly drafted Hart in the fifth round in 2014 and then Hart began last season with Kelly in San Francisco before reappearing here later in the season. Hart is going into his fourth NFL season and has 15 games, 12 tackles and no sacks to show for it. He turns 26 next month and has never shown any signs of being a guy who can contribute in a 4-3 defense. I’m going to say he goes, but don't be surprised if he finds his way back onto the roster at some point. 

Verdict: GOES

Dave: Hart was with the Eagles last training camp but cut him on Sept. 4 and he was claimed by the 49ers and Chip Kelly. Then when the Niners cut him, the Eagles claimed him back and he spent the rest of the season watching the Eagles play football. He was inactive in all but the last game and in that one he didn’t play. Hart is a former fifth-round pick who just fits better in a 3-4. The Eagles already played undrafted rookie Destiny Vaeao over him, so it’s time to set him free. 

Verdict: GOES

Jordan Hicks
Cap hit: $796K

Roob: Whenever you blast Chip for getting rid of Shady, DeSean and Jeremy Maclin, you have to mention that he did draft Jordan Hicks in the third round. Hicks, in just 24 games, has become one of the most productive playmaking linebackers in Eagles history. With seven interceptions, he already has the 11th-most interceptions in franchise history by a linebacker, and he led all NFL linebackers with five INTs this past season. Only four linebackers in NFL history have had more interceptions in their first two seasons – Hall of Famer Jack Ham is one of them. But Hicks is more than a ballhawk. He’s a smart, heady linebacker who is stout at the point of attack and is already developing into a terrific locker room leader as well. The future is certainly bright for Hicks.

Verdict: STAYS

Dave: He just finished his second year in the NFL, but Hicks is quickly becoming one of the biggest playmaking linebackers in the league. Through the first 24 games of his career, he has seven interceptions. In his first two years, he has 7 INTs, 4 FRs, 1 FF. He’s the fifth player in NFL history to do that in his first two seasons and he’s the only linebacker. That said, Hicks needs to get better against the run and he knows it. Now that he won’t have an injury to heal from this offseason, he plans on hitting the weight room to get stronger and better at stopping the run. He looks like a cornerstone of the franchise. 

Verdict: STAYS

Malcolm Jenkins
Cap hit: $7.5M

Roob: Jenkins had another good year in his third season with the Eagles, although not quite up to his Pro Bowl level of 2015. Jenkins, who turns 30 late next season, is on the books for another four years with some pretty high cap figures — $7.5 million in 2017, then $10 million, $9.75 million and $9.25 million. But as long as Jenkins continues to play at a high level, I don’t see him going anywhere until after the 2018 season at the earliest, when he would count just $3 million in dead money if he’s released. But Jenkins is a guy you'd like to see finish his career in Philly. Hope that happens. 

Verdict: STAYS

Dave: It’s hard to quantify just how much Jenkins means to the Eagles or how much he’s worth. But it’s a lot. The last two seasons have been the best of his career and he’s shown no signs of slowing down. The best Jenkins stat is this: He’s missed just eight defensive snaps since arriving in 2013. Unreal. If the Eagles chose to play him at cornerback last year, he would have probably been their best one. 

Verdict: STAYS

Lane Johnson
Cap hit: $10M

Roob: If he goes, it’ll be because of a third positive drug test. Johnson’s play in the six games he was available to the Eagles was at an All-Pro level. But after two positive tests for banned substances and suspensions of four games in 2014 and 10 games in 2016, he’s now one positive test away from a two-year ban that would essentially end his Eagles career. My gut feeling is Johnson has learned his lesson and won’t take any more chances. That he understands what’s at stake here and isn’t going to risk his career by taking a supplement that hasn’t been pre-tested and cleared. Obviously there are other reasons the Eagles were 5-1 when Johnson played. Those five wins included games against the hapless Browns and Bears and a win against a Cowboys team that wasn’t trying to win. But that said, Johnson’s value is clear. He's a beast. It’s up to Johnson whether he becomes a Pro Bowl offensive tackle or a casualty of the NFL’s substance abuse regulations. I can’t imagine he’ll make the same mistake again.

Verdict: STAYS

Dave: A lot was made about Johnson’s suspension voiding the guaranteed portion of his contract. And for a week or so, a bunch of fans were calling into talk radio saying the Eagles should cut him. That was laughable. Johnson is still the Eagles’ best offensive player and as long as he stays on the field and plays the way he did in 2016, he’s going to make most of the money in his contract. He obviously deserves plenty of blame for the way last season went, but he’s a big piece of the future. One more suspension and his career is basically over, so the Eagles just have to hope he doesn’t ruin everything.  

Verdict: STAYS

Marcus Johnson

Roob: Johnson is an interesting guy. Ran a 4.37 so he has wheels, but he didn’t have much of a career at Texas. Then again, Texas didn’t have a legit quarterback while he was there so maybe there’s a lot of untapped potential. The Eagles are so desperate for help at wide receiver they’ll take a good long look at everybody on the roster, even a guy who bounced off and on the practice squad last year. This Longhorn is a longshot to make the roster, but then again, if he catches the football consistently in training camp he’ll give himself a fighting chance.

Verdict: GOES

Dave: The receiver was with the Eagles during training camp and flashed some before getting hurt. He joined the practice squad during the season and was there at season’s end. He’ll be brought to camp but is a longshot to make the roster. 

Verdict: GOES

Donnie Jones
Cap hit: $1.25M

Roob: At 36 years old, the greatest punter in Eagles history (sorry Mat McBriar) showed no signs of slowing down. In his 13th NFL season, Jones averaged 45.8 yards per punt with a 40.7 net – both above his career highs. The most amazing thing about Jones is his knack for dropping punts inside the 20 without hitting very many touchbacks. He had 21 inside the 20 this year with just six touchbacks, and in four seasons with the Eagles he has 117 inside the 20 with just 26 touchbacks. When you don’t have an explosive offense, field position is critical, and Jones is a human field position flipping machine. The Eagles signed him to a three-year extension this year, and he’s now under contract through 2019.

Verdict: STAYS

Dave: At times during the last two seasons, Jones has looked like the offense’s best weapon. That’s not a good sign for the offense, but it is for Jones. He’s already the best punter in team history. He’ll be 37 by the time the 2017 season starts, but he just signed a contract and will be the team’s punter for at least a couple more years if everything goes to plan. 

Verdict: STAYS