Both franchises spent a decade spinning their wheels in a ditch. Both are finally winning, but not without controversy. Opponents have accused the Texans of many dirty tactics, including dangerous cut blocks. The Lions have roughed up so many quarterbacks that defender Ndamukong Suh had a special meeting with the commissioner to clarify the difference between an exciting sack and an act of thuggery.
Do the Texans and Lions deserve their "dirty" reputations, or is this all a matter of loose talk, isolated incidents, and sour grapes? It's time to look past the rhetoric and examine both the stats and the game tape.
The Cut Blockers
The Texans like to cut block. They do it constantly. Watch any running play, and you will see defenders hopping, leaping or tripping over blockers who flopped to the ground in front of them. I watched both the Jaguars and Browns games and saw so many cut blocks that it made no sense to count them: if it was a running play or play-action pass, chances are a Texans lineman was cut-blocking someone.
But there is nothing wrong with that. Cut blocking is legal. It's chop blocking that is illegal, and only in certain circumstances.
Some diagrams may help illustrate the difference.
So what is an illegal chop block? A blocker cannot hit a defender low who is engaged with another blocker, when coming from behind the play and is more than one position away from the other blocker.
The Texans have not been penalized for an illegal chop block all year. The one "low block" infraction they did occur took place after a fumble, when all heck broke loose. There have been just 15 chop-block, low-block and clipping penalties in the league this season. That low total may partially be a result of officials not specifically looking for the fouls: referees are only human, and when the league spends six months emphasizing shots to the head, it is easy for forget to enforce shots to the knee. But a bigger reason there are so few called fouls is that the rules for chop blocks are more restrictive than fans, announcers or even defenders think they are.
That's the key to understanding what the Texans are doing. It is not something that is necessarily illegal, but it is something defenders hate. And when players hate something, they complain about it. The Texans have been guilty of some chippy play and shoving matches over the past month, but so have 31 other clubs. (Jeremy Mincey's claims a Texans player stepped on his head, but there is no video evidence, nor is there a suspect). Opposing defenders need to spend more time working on "protect the legs" drills in practice before Texans games and less time complaining to reporters.
We are the Goon Squad
So what about the Lions? Commissioner Roger Goodell didn't have a heart-to-heart with Ndamukong Suh to talk about car commercials. One of the league's brightest young stars has acquired a dirty reputation, and the commissioner's involvement is evidence that there is some smoke with the fire, right?
Let's run some data. Suh has been penalized four times, once for a benign neutral zone infraction. The other flags were roughing the passer, unsportsmanlike conduct and a facemask. Three "dirty play" penalties in eight weeks is a lot, but it is not exactly a reign of terror. Much of Suh's reputation comes from last season, and from a few rough plays in the preseason.
It appears that the Lions' overall reputation for rough play has been honestly earned. I added up all of the roughing-the-passer, unnecessary roughness, facemask, unsportsmanlike conduct, low block/clipping and unspecified personal fouls for each team, then divided them by games played. The result is a Goon Index: a rate of rough penalties (as opposed to false starts or holds) per game.
Here are the top five teams in the league when it comes to overall naughtiness:
The Texans rank 11th. The cleanest team in the league, shockingly, is the Jets, with a Goon Index of 0.38. (Monday night's stats are not included.)
The raw data for the Lions includes four roughing-the-passer calls, four facemask calls, two low blocks, four roughness fouls, one case of unsportsmanlike conduct and two personal fouls that did not fit any of those broad categories. But how many of these "goon" fouls were fully earned? Again, referees are human, and once a team gets a reputation, officials may start seeing penalties that are not there. So I decided to look back at all of the Lions' "dirty" plays on tape and see which were flagrant, which were borderline and which were tacky:
Roughing the Passer: Suh slammed Tony Romo in the helmet pretty hard, which counts as a "flagrant" hit by today's standards. After that, we have a small shove of Donovan McNabb by Sammie Lee Hill, a barely late shot on Matt Ryan by Kyle Vanden Bosch and an obvious dive by Jay Cutler when Willie Young wraps him up. (Cutler takes more dives these days than a performer at Sea World). Let's say one flagrant fouls, two borderline, one tacky penalty.
Facemask: All of these fouls were clearly legit, including one against punter Ryan Donahue. The only one that would have been a 15-yarder back in the old days would have been Suh's attempt to twist Ryan's neck like a soda cap during a sack.
Unnecessary Roughness: Four flagrant fouls, three of them by offensive or special teams players. Early in the year, Lions blockers had a habit of nailing defenders about two seconds after the whistle.
Personal Fouls: One was flagrant, with Corey Williams coming across the line of scrimmage before the snap and shoving Ryan to the ground (this entire exercise came across like a Matt Ryan snuff film). The other was tacky: D'Andre Levy throwing some tough, legal blocks after an interception, then getting involved in an off-camera shoving match.
Chop Blocks: One, on Brandon Pettigrew, was really a clip, and a flagrant one. The other was tacky: Jahvid Best going low on an otherwise unblocked defender. It was a fine example of how even the referees are not clear on the rules.
Unsportsmanlike conduct: Suh shouted "hut, hut!" to get the Buccaneers to snap the ball early before a field goal. The fiend.
What does it all mean? First of all, the Lions are guilty of some mischief, particularly in the Falcons and Buccaneers games. Suh really does come in too high when sacking quarterbacks. Secondly, many of these flags are just the residue of having a great pass rush. Roughing the passer calls come with the territory when you record a lot of sacks.
Finally, little of this has anything to do with Suh, whose only really injurious move this season has been his Ryan neck twist. And about half of these penalties would have been legal, or five-yard fouls, 25 years ago. The Lions don't pick up quarterbacks and throw them to the turf or spear ball carriers with their helmets from 10 yards away.
But what of allegations by the Falcons that Suh and others were trash talking when Ryan was hurt? Talk is just that. There may be a little too much of it on the field, but there is way too much off the field. The Lions got flagged for the things they did. We don't really care about the things they said.
The Lions are not really dirty: "over-enthusiastic" might be a better word. The Texans are not dirty at all. They play a rough game extra rough. Opponents need to stop crying foul and do something to stop them.
Mike Tanier writes for NBCSports.com and Rotoworld.com and is a senior writer for Football Outsiders.