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.

Phillies look to 'keep grinding' after latest rough loss to Rockies

Phillies look to 'keep grinding' after latest rough loss to Rockies

BOX SCORE

The Phillies have scored just two runs in 13 innings against a pair of rookie starting pitchers and the eventual outcome has been two losses to the Colorado Rockies the last couple of nights. The latest was an 8-2 setback on Tuesday night (see Instant Replay). That followed an 8-1 loss on Monday night.

What's happening right now at Citizens Bank Park is ugly. The Phillies are in the midst of a freefall that has seen them lose 19 of their last 23 games. They have been outscored 134-91 over that span.

Now, before we completely lose perspective here, the Phillies remain a building team and they were not expected to contend this season. But they weren't supposed to be this bad, either, and right now they are embarrassingly bad at 15-28.

John Middleton, the team's fiery managing partner, watched several innings of Tuesday night's debacle sitting beside Andy MacPhail in the club president's box. Oh, to have been a fly on that wall. Middleton is committed to a patient rebuild from the ground up, but he's also a man who has made it no secret that he likes to win a little. The show that the Phillies are putting on out on the field these days can't sit well with him. Surely it's not sitting well with the fans. Tuesday night's attendance was just 17,109, the lowest of the season, and many in that group headed home after Gerardo Parra's sixth-inning homer gave the Rockies an 8-1 lead.

"We're just in a big rut right now," manager Pete Mackanin said.

Shortstop Freddy Galvis added that he couldn't remember going through anything this bad.

"We have to keep grinding," he said. "Keep grinding, man. It’s pretty tough right now."

Tuesday night's loss offered a tale of two young pitchers. Zach Eflin, the Phillies' 23-year-old right-hander and a veteran of just 18 big-league starts, was hit hard. Meanwhile, German Marquez, the Rockies' 22-year-old rookie, was impressive. He held the Phillies to one run over six innings. He twice faced bases-loaded jams and gave up just one run when he walked a batter.

On Monday night, the Phils were held to one run over seven innings by another rookie, Jeff Hoffman.

Rookie pitchers are often good medicine for struggling teams.

"That’s the way I look at it," Mackanin said. "Unfortunately it hasn't happened.

"I know we're better than this. I think the team knows they're better than this. I can't fault the hustle. Someone might say there's no energy. Well, when you don’t get any hits there's no energy."

The Phillies have scored just three runs in the last three games.

The scarcity of runs gives the pitching very little room for error. But in this game, Eflin simply did not keep it close. He gave up 10 hits and eight runs over six innings of work. Phillies killer Charlie Blackmon torched Eflin for a pair of two-run homers and Parra got him for a solo shot.

"A poor outing," Mackanin said of Eflin's work. "He couldn't locate. The ball was up in the zone. He's struggling to keep the ball down.

"When he struck out Blackmon in the first inning, it was a two-seamer with great movement, I thought we’re in for a good outing here. But then he couldn't keep the ball down. You have to pitch down or you're going to get hurt."

Eflin has given up 21 hits and 15 runs in his last two starts.

"It’s frustrating, but it happens. It’s baseball," he said. "There are going to be a lot of times in my career where I give up a lot of hits and a lot of runs. But I’m really not worried about it right now. I know that I’m going to continue to work hard and go out every fifth day and, you know, put up a line of winning baseball."

Blackmon has seven home runs in his last five games at Citizens Bank Park. He has three multi-homer games in Philadelphia.

"He seems to like hitting here," Eflin said. "But I just have to execute pitches. There’s no excuse. I just have to be on top of my game."

Right now, the Phillies are at the bottom of their game.

"We have to stay together as a team and keep fighting, try to get out of what's happening right now," Galvis said. "It's a really tough situation, but we have keep playing hard."

NHL Playoffs Senators battle past Penguins to force Game 7

NHL Playoffs Senators battle past Penguins to force Game 7

BOX SCORE

OTTAWA, Ontario -- Mike Hoffman scored the tiebreaking goal early in the third period to give the Ottawa Senators a 2-1 victory over the Pittsburgh Penguins on Tuesday night and force a decisive Game 7 in the Eastern Conference Finals.

Hoffman fired a slap shot through traffic off a pass from Fredrik Claesson to put the Senators ahead at 1:34 of the third.

Bobby Ryan also scored a rare power-play goal for Ottawa and Craig Anderson stopped 45 shots, including 22 in the second period.

Evgeni Malkin gave Pittsburgh, vying for its second straight trip to the Stanley Cup Final, the lead early in the second period and Matt Murray finished with 28 saves.

Game 7 is Thursday night in Pittsburgh, with the winner advancing to face the Nashville Predators for the championship.

The Senators managed to quickly forget a 7-0 loss two days earlier in Game 5 and extend their season for one more shoot at a return to the Stanley Cup Final for the first time in 10 years. and land one more shot at a first Stanley Cup final appearance in 10 years.

Ottawa was primarily looking for a return to structure in Game 6, beginning with a smoother start -- which they got. Notable in a scoreless opening period were two effective penalty kills, one of which saw Viktor Stalberg get the best opportunity short-handed.

Pittsburgh had four shots with the man advantage, but Anderson stopped them all. The 35-year-old struggled through Games 4 and 5 -- allowing seven goals -- but it was evident early that he had his game back in this one. He stopped Nick Bonino off a rebound in transition, Scott Wilson off a deflected shot by Phil Kessel, and Bonino again when Kyle Turris gave the puck away.

Murray was also sharp. The 22-year-old, who replaced Marc-Andre Fleury after Game 3, made maybe his finest save of the first on Derick Brassard, who found an open lane down the middle of the ice following a pass from Ryan.

The Penguins appeared to have opened the scoring just over three minutes into the second, but Trevor Daley was deemed to have interfered with Anderson following an Ottawa challenge.

Less than two minutes later though, Pittsburgh took the 1-0 lead anyway off a few moments of brilliance from Malkin. The playoff scoring leading (24 points) bounced off a check from Zack Smith behind the goal and after being stopped on his drive to the net, followed up with a nifty backhand rebound to beat Anderson.

It was the 153rd career playoff point in 142 games for Malkin -- three back of Sidney Crosby for second among active players behind Jaromir Jagr -- who had been jarring with Hoffman a few minutes earlier.

The Senators had little going until a lengthy 5-on-3 advantage for 1:24 just past the midway point of the period. The Ottawa power play, which had gone 0 for 29 in the previous 10 games, came through with Ryan ultimately wiring a one-timer short-side to tie the score.

It was the sixth goal and 15th point of the playoffs for Ryan, who is second on the Senators behind captain Erik Karlsson (16 points).