MONDAY COUNTDOWN: "Days of our Lions"? Burleson says NFL is a soap opera

Posted Sep 23, 2013

Columnist Mike O'Hara takes a look at the Lions' 27-20 win at Washington, poses the question of whether the fans will be as rowdy Week 4 vs. the Bears as they were in 2011 and more

Nate Burleson is living in a pretty good world these days, with more grins than grimaces. He no longer looks like the odd receiver out in the Lions' offense, or the one who needs to be replaced sooner rather than later to provide a worthwhile complement opposite Calvin Johnson.

A comedy would seem to be appropriate if Nate's World were a reality TV show. But that's not the way Burleson sees life in the NFL as he views it through his personal lens.

"Football is the biggest soap opera in sports," Burleson declared in the locker room after the Lions' 27-20 road victory over Washington Sunday.

"Storylines" are what Burleson said make the NFL the king of the sports world's soaps.

Give it any title you want – "Days of Our Lions" and "As the Lions Turn" to suggest a couple – the first three weeks of the season indicate that the Lions are churning out another 17-week drama. Of course, that includes the bye week in the 16-game schedule. The NFL never sleeps, even on a week off.

In this week's Monday Countdown, the big storyline for the Lions was winning on the road against Washington for the first time after 21 losses. It wasn't all Matthew Stafford's passes and his receivers' catches.

But Sunday's game was the intro for what is coming – Sunday's home game against the Bears at Ford Field.

In what is known as "Over-reaction Monday" around the NFL, this week we look ahead to a meaningful early game in the NFC North against two old rivals. The Bears are 3-0 after a 40-23 rout at Pittsburgh Sunday night.

The matchup I'm most interested in: the Lions' crowd at Ford Field vs. the Bears, and whether it can rattle their offense the way it did in a Monday Night TV match-up in 2011.

There is a look back at Sunday's battle in the trenches between the Lions and Washington and how two rookies on opposite sides of the ball – guard Larry Warford and defensive end Ziggy Ansah -- held their own, and the good and bad of the Lions in Game 3.

There's also a reason why everything Coach Jim Schwartz says at his press conferences should not be taken at face value, the struggles of coaching in the NFL compared to college, and the best and worst of the NFL after three weeks.

We start with next Sunday at Ford Field:

1. Lions-Bears remix: We have all week to analyze how the Lions and Bears will go at each other on offense, defense, special teams and coaching strategy.

What I want to know is what the atmosphere will be like at Ford Field, and if the fans can come close to working themselves into the frenzy level they reached in 2011.

Circumstances were different three years ago. The Lions were 4-0, and it was their first game on Monday night since a 2001 stink-out against the Rams at the old Pontiac Silverdome.

A Monday night atmosphere is different than kickoff at 1 p.m. on Sunday. Fans get an extra seven hours to adjust their attitudes.

However they got ready, it was the best home-field atmosphere since the Lions moved to Ford Field in 2002. Crowd noise forced the Bears into nine false start penalties. The Lions responded with a 24-13 victory that got them to 5-0.

This year it's the Bears who are unbeaten at 3-0, while the Lions are 2-1.

It's different than two years ago, but how different remains to be seen.

2. Game prep: For the teams, not the fans. Spend the week with endless loops of the MC5's "Thunder Express," or AC/DC's "Live at River Plate."

3. On the line: The Lions won up front on both sides against Washington.

As Stafford said after the game, Washington's defense gave the Lions looks that they hadn't seen on film.

"It was totally different," he said.

Washington played man coverage instead of zone on blitzes, and played a five-man line called the "Bear" defense. Their linemen were lined up head on against the five offensive linemen. It meant Washington thought Detroit couldn't block its pass-rushers.


Stafford was sacked on the first play of the game, but not by a lineman. Inside linebacker London Fletcher blitzed through a gap between center Dominic Raiola and left guard Rob Sims and dropped Stafford for a seven-yard loss.

After that, Stafford dropped back 42 times without being sacked or forced to scramble. He completed 25 of 42 passes for 385 yards, two TDs and one interception.

The Lions' won that battle up front.

4. Hog heaven: Larry Warford, the Lions' rookie guard, had no idea who the famed Hogs were but took it as a compliment that he would have fit in with one of the most famous offensive lines in NFL history.

Washington's Hogs had a run from 1982 through the early 1990s, and they protected quarterbacks and opened holes for runners to lead Washington to three Super Bowl championships.

Guard Russ Grimm is one Hog who was voted to the Pro Football Hall of Fame.

Warford fit in immediately after the Lions' drafted him in the third round. No part of pro football has rattled him. At 6-3 and 333 pounds, Warford is powerful with a strong base. The jump from playing at Kentucky in the SEC to the NFL hasn't fazed him.

"I don't think it really hit me like it's supposed to." He said. "I go out there, I have offensive linemen with me. I'm doing the same job I've been doing the last six years. I'm just dealing with a different group. I haven't been too surprised."

5. Rush to judgment: The knock on the Lions when they drafted defensive end Ziggy Ansah fifth overall was that he lacked football experience from growing up in Ghana before moving to America and playing three years of football at Brigham Young.

If Ansah really is facing a steep learning curve, then the Lions drafted an all-galaxy player. He had two sacks Sunday, officially giving him 2.5 for the season. He had two others wiped out in the first two games by penalties, and both caused fumbles.

Bill Polian, best known for his days as GM of the Bills and Colts, said after the draft that he was impressed with how Ansah converted speed to power.

Ansah's probably converting doubters, too.

6. What to like about the Lions vs. Washington: Stafford kept throwing and connecting after the early pick; Nate Burleson going over 100 yards receiving, and the offensive line protecting Stafford; steady play by Joique Bell in place of Reggie Bush; the front four stayed after RGIII all game. And Calvin Johnson was Calvin Johnson – seven catches, 115 yards and a TD on a laser throw from Stafford.

7. What not to like about the Lions vs. Washington: Sam Martin's kickoff out of bounds and two penalties accepted against special teams; the offense going 0-for-6 on third downs in the second half; settling for field goals twice in the red zone, with Stafford 0-for-6 on those two possessions. However, his throws were safe. One would have been a TD if rookie tight end Joseph Fauria would have turned around.

8. Chip Kelly, Eagles: It looked like the former Oregon coach really would revolutionize the NFL when the Eagles had a 33-7 lead at Washington in his first game. That turned into a 33-27 squeaker, and the Eagles have lost the last two games at home to the Chargers and Chiefs. College coaches with better resumes than Kelly have tried the NFL and failed, from Bud Wilkinson to Nick Saban to Kelly. Others, such as Jimmy Johnson, succeeded.

The pro game is different, as Kelly must have found out in three games.

9. Beware: Jim Schwartz has said mostly good things about tight end Brandon Pettigrew and rookie cornerback Darius Slay in his press conferences. Both had their struggles in the first two games.

After starting the first two games and being relieved in both by veteran Rashean Mathis, Slay lost his starting job to Mathis against Washington and barely played.

Pettigrew, who's been bothered by drops and failing to catch balls in traffic, started but was used primarily as a blocker. After being targeted 10 times, with five catches, in the first two games, he was targeted only twice on Sunday.

In passing situations, Pettigrew often was replaced by either Tony Scheffler or Fauria.

In other words, just because Schwartz doesn't criticize players in public doesn't mean they aren't being dealt with behind closed doors.

10. Target -- The Undrafteds: It's not a soap opera, but undrafted players have scored five of the Lions' offensive TDs in the first three games. Bell has three and Fauria two.

11. The NFL's best:

1. Broncos (2-0): Should get to 3-0 vs. Raiders Monday night.
2. Seahawks (3-0): Four TD passes for Russell Wilson in rout of Jaguars.
3. Chiefs (3-0): Decisive win in Andy Reid's return to Philly.
4. Dolphins (3-0): Solid win over Atlanta. Ryan Tannehill is a winning QB.
5. Bears (3-0): Two more return TDs for their defense in Sunday's win at Pittsburgh. That's three for the season.
6. Saints (3-0): Sixth in the league with 38 points allowed. Saints winning with defense?
7. Patriots (3-0): Handled the Bucs better than the first two teams did who beat them.
8. Colts (2-1): Traded to get Trent Richardson, then won at San Francisco. Big week, big win.
9. Cowboys (2-1): Six sacks by the defense, 3 TD passes from Tony Romo in rout of Rams.
10. Bengals (2-1): Down 30-14 and rallied to beat Packers.

12. The NFL's worst:

5. Bucs (0-3): Two tight losses, then blowout to Pats. Players don't seem to like the coach.
4. Steelers (0-3): Only 42 points scored, and Ben Roethlisberger isn't protecting the ball.
3. Washington (0-3): Defense is terrible, offense coming around – slowly.
2. Giants (0-3): Can't protect the passer, and defensive line has faded.
1. Jaguars (0-3): You'll find them in this spot every week.