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Matty’s Monday Morning Mailbag: Defining the detriment of Saturday’s special teams’ strategy

September 7, 2009

Every Monday, I’ll take a minute to respond to you — Lions’ Nation — answering questions and offering my predictions and insight surrounding the team’s 2009 campaign. Here’s this week’s installment of Matty’s Monday Morning Mailbag.

Saturday’s victory against Buffalo State told a vivid story about this Lions squad–plenty more than the numbers alone might suggest. I’ll try my best to help make better sense of what has already happened, and what’s to come moving forward.

  • Matty, the defense definitely stepped it up a notch in the second half, but how can you rave about a unit that allowed 31 points? Aren’t you concerned at all–especially considering what happened last year against TCNJ’s next opponent, FDU-Florham?

I’ll give you that the defense’s performance last year against Fairleigh Dickinson was atrocious. But that was last year–if I’ve learned nothing else already in one week of the season, this isn’t the same Lions team that it was in 2008.

At first glance, as you mentioned, 31 points allowed isn’t normally anything to write home about–especially considering 24 of those points were surrendered in the first 30 minutes of play. In the hopes of seeing the forest through the trees, allow me to offer analysis to better explain the root of Buffalo State’s early “success”–if you can even call it that.

One of the first, most glaring statistics that jumps out after watching the game and skimming the box score is Buffalo State’s starting field position during the first half. You can march the best starting-11 in the country onto the field, but if they’re backed into a quarter at the beginning of a drive, there’s too little room for error to stave off any kind of formidable opponent. The team plays too stressed, opening the door for mental mistakes (of which there was plenty Saturday) and the coordinator’s game plan can become a non-factor.

Early in the afternoon, the Lions’ special teams coaches instructed kicker Marc Zucconi use a squib kick–a low line-drive delivery that doesn’t have the same range as a normal approach, though its much more difficult to handle for the first two lines on the return team. This strategy was likely an effort to keep the ball away from Bengals’ running back Willie Horge during kickoffs–hoping to prevent an 82-yard touchdown return, kind of like the one ripped by Scott Mathurin in the first quarter. As a result, the Bengals started most of its first-half drives a few yards away from Lions’ territory, creating a handicap, in a sense, against the Lions’ D.

On all of its first-half scoring possessions, the Bengals averaged only 51.7 yards per drive, the longest of which–a mere 58 yards. Once Zucconi was given free reign to blast his kicks as far as he’d like–two of which soared out of the end zone–the Bengals’ offense couldn’t replicate its earlier success when it found itself in the red zone after only a few plays. Three-and-outs, turnovers–even a safety after it committed a holding penalty in the end zone–soon replaced the big plays and quick scores that characterized the Bengals’ earlier “dominance.”

  • Considering that the game got out of hand a little later in the second half, we saw a fair amount of reserve players enter the game Saturday. Was there anyone that we should be looking out for as the season moves on?

There were certainly a few Lions that–between brief appearances this weekend and from their performance throughout training camp–should make an impact before season’s end.

Kevin Allgood is a guy that defensive coordinator Matt Hamilton has utilized as both an outside linebacker and a defensive end. Depending on the package, Allgood’s size allows him to go toe-to-toe with beefy Division III tackles, but his explosiveness and quickness coming off the edge is a force that Hamilton should be excited to implement in future contests.

Though he wasn’t able to record a sack, Allgood’s unremitting pressure manifested in the form of several incompletions by Bengals’ quarterback Kenny Murphy late in the game. This tenacity and determination on his pass rushes forced errant throws and disrupted the brief rhythm that the Bengals’ offense enjoyed–especially Murphy’s, who was quickly frustrated after being tossed around like a doll.

While the defensive line didn’t perform poorly, particularly after Hamilton’s adjustments, adding Allgood to a rotation at defensive end during obvious passing situations should enhance the unit’s ability to pressure the quarterback. Especially after we’ve spent so much talking about the youth in the defensive secondary, the team can’t afford to bring the heat if it can’t expect to at least disrupt timing between the quarterback and his receivers–though it would like to see him on his back.

  • The Lions have a bye coming up this week. Do you think that this might diminish some of the momentum the team established in Week One?

In a word–no. And I’ll apologize in advance for the use of such a tired cliche, but a week off may be just what the doctor ordered.

The Lions only major concern thus far has been its injuries, as a few notables that we’ve talked about are still banged up from training camp. Time off only means time to get healthy–something the team will undoubtedly benefit from.

A mental break after this weekend’s early first-half struggles isn’t going to stir any complaints either. It’s hard to sustain such an emotional high for any prolonged period for a football team, especially one looking to take the conference by surprise. The team needs to maintain as steady a morale as possible if its going to be competitive down the stretch.

***

That’s it for this week’s edition of 4M.

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