"Creeping" defenses stifling Lions offense

Anyone who was opposed to the idea of the Detroit Lions drafting Joey Harrington with the 3rd overall pick in the 2001 draft has more ammunition than ever to say "I told you so."  Lions' insider Mike Fowler examines Harrington's struggles, and how opposing defenses have adapted to his style of play.

“Creeping” defenses stifling Lions offense
With lack of serious run threat, defenses taking away more and more of short passing game
By Mike Fowler

(ALLEN PARK) – Anyone who was opposed to the idea of the Detroit Lions drafting Joey Harrington with the 3rd overall pick in the 2001 draft has more ammunition than ever to say “I told you so.”  Harrington is now the 31st rated quarterback in the NFL. After his abysmal 7.1 passer rating in the 38-7 debacle Sunday vs. the Dallas Cowboys, Harrington, has seen his numbers drop below fellow second-year quarterbacks like Patrick Ramsey (Tulane) of Washington and David Carr of (Fresno State) Houston.

Now, Harrington, who started the year as the NFC’s offensive player of the week, is in danger of being benched for the foreseeable future.  Whether or not that actually takes places, fans are wondering what is wrong with “Joey Ballgame?”  The kid who was the engineer of numerous fourth quarter comebacks at Oregon seems clueless as to how to complete the most elementary of pass attempts.

Here’s the deal.  

When Harrington made his first appearance, he threw the ball deep, something that opposing defenses didn’t expect.  In his first start, a 37-31 loss to Green Bay, Harrington threw four interceptions, but he also threw two long touchdown passes, one to Lamont Warren for 39 yards and one to James Stewart for 52 yards.

The following week when Detroit upset the New Orleans Saints for one of their three wins, Harrington hit another long one, a 38-yard sideline route to Bill Schroeder for a touchdown.

The trend continued in the loss to Minnesota, Harrington hit Mikhael Ricks with a 41-yard strike and Az-Zahir Hakim for a 20-yard TD.

However, thing began to change the following week in the infamous “take the wind” loss to Chicago.  The Bears saw the rookie’s success throwing the ball deep and went into a common two-deep zone which emphasized stopping Harrington from throwing the ball deep and forcing him to settle for the underneath stuff.

It worked, and other teams took notice and suddenly there was a “book” on Detroit’s rookie quarterback.

The deep touchdown balls began coming less often.  Harrington hit one early in the Green Bay loss to Hakim and one to Schroeder in the Jets game, but when Chicago came into Detroit the “book” on Harrington had been perfected.  Keep everything in front of you, don’t let him go deep.

Since that time Harrington has only been able to connect on a touchdown pass longer than 20 yards in the Denver loss.  Teams have steadfastly refused to allow second-year signal caller to beat them deep.

Compounding matters, the loss of Charles Rogers took away the lone deep threat Detroit could realistically mount. With Hakim and Schroeder struggling to get open against jams at the line of scrimmage, coach Mariucci admitted that teams are taking away even the intermediate routes.

“They are, we’re getting, at least Dallas, are played more bump-and-run in your face kind of technique.  The reason for that could be a lot of things.  They feel their corners can run with our guys.  It’s a game of matchups; we too on defense have to find a way to match up.  With that said, we have to scheme accordingly.”

“We have to create some matchups.  We have to be able to work guys open.  We have to be able to beat the ‘man’ coverage.  When it’s zone we have to be patient enough to check it down when it’s not there down the field.  It’s all about design of your scheme.  

It’s decision making and accuracy on the throw. We can’t have a throw [behind the receiver], we’ve got to have it [in stride with the receiver] and when it is [behind the receiver] make the tough catch.  Some of those sort of things, it’s a game of inches; you’ve got to catch this one right here.  The teams that make those plays are the ones that move the sticks and we’ve got to do that.”

With the Lions receivers unable to get off the ball and get separation from the opposing defenders, Harrington has been forced to check down to backs that can’t get to the corner or force the ball into coverage.  That has resulted in a series of a fourth down punt or a worse, a costly interception.

With Harrington befuddled as to what to do in these situations, this makes the case for Mike McMahon, a young, speedy quarterback who can run around until a receiver gets separation or who can add another dimension to the Lions offense with his legs.

This week Detroit returns to the place where that book on Harrington was formed, Chicago. It would be a great time to throw a new page into that book by unleashing a run/pass threat quarterback and force the Bears to throw the ‘book’ out the window.

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