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Lions vs Chargers Preview

Week 16 of the NFL season will feature plenty of scoreboard watching for fans to keep up with the potential playoff scenarios.  However, Lions fans need not worry about those games because the Lions actually control their own fate.  So fans can place all their attention on the Lions and Chargers.  As welcome as holding their own playoff destiny is, the Lions face a huge challenge with the Chargers coming to town playing their best football of the season.

Offense:

The Lions have been plagued by lopsided play calling and predictability all season long, which has been responsible for all their slow starts.  It is imperative that Scott Linehan finds a way to take pressure off of Stafford early with short passes, screens and lots of protection because the Chargers’ pass rush decimated a very good Ravens offensive line last week.  Stafford has taken a beating this year and it has gotten into his head at times, he gets antsy in the pocket and takes his eyes off the coverage and starts watching for pass rushers.  Since the Lions have been completely incapable of running the ball, also due to terrible play calling, they end up in a lot of obvious passing situations.  Complicating matters is the Chargers use of a 3-4 defense, which Stafford has had difficulty against this year.

The 3-4 brings pressure from different places and uses a lot of mixed coverages making it much harder to determine where to go with the football before the ball is snapped.  That means Stafford will need a little extra time to scan the field to make sure everything is playing out as expected.  It also means the Lions will use a lot of shotgun formations to allow Stafford that extra time to read the defense.  The benefits of that may be outweighed by the inability to run consistently from the shotgun, which will let the defense tee off against the pass.

Kevin Smith is reported to be healthier than last week, which would be a boost, since he lacked any explosiveness last week against Oakland. The run game faces an uphill battle regardless of Smith’s health.  The Chargers shut down one of the most potent rushing teams in the league last week and the Lions insistence on running everything out of the shotgun only puts them at a bigger disadvantage.

Calvin Johnson burst back onto the scene last week, but my expectations of him are tempered this week because of the Chargers’ pass rush and their physical secondary.  The Raiders made a huge mistake trying to sit back in coverage against Johnson and allow Stafford time to throw.  CJ can’t be covered for long, so the extra time Stafford had in the pocket let Johnson shake free against the coverage.  The best defense for Calvin Johnson is not letting Stafford have time to throw, so again, I fully expect the Chargers to bring a ton of heat to get after Stafford.

Defense:

San Diego boasts the biggest receiving corps in the league with the 6’5″ 240 lb Vincent Jackson, 6’5″ 225 lb Malcolm Floyd and the 6’4″ 260 lb Antonio Gates.  The best way to neutralize the Chargers’ receivers is good tackling and strong safety play.  Unfortunately, the Lions have had neither of those since Louis Delmas has been out.  The Chargers love to throw the deep jump ball, sounds familiar, and the best way to counter it is with deep safety help to give Philip Rivers a smaller window to throw the ball to.  The Chargers also like to throw quick slants to their big receivers and let them pick up easy run after the catch yards, so sound tackling will be a must for the Lions.

The Chargers also pack a great 1-2 punch at running back with Ryan Mathews and Mike Tolbert.  The Lions have done pretty well with the bigger running backs this year, so Tolbert shouldn’t be a huge threat, but Mathews does have some game breaking speed and the Lions have been gashed time and time again by faster backs.  The struggles in the running game are largely a result of the wide 9 technique that the Lions play.  The technique, when played right, is actually a very solid defense against the run.  However, the margin for error is much more slim than in a more traditional alignment.

The defensive line is spread so wide that it leaves huge gaps in between them.  They are aggressively heading upfield after the snap so if the running back gets through that first wave it’s up to the linebackers to clean up.   If a linebacker fills the wrong hole, or can’t get off a block it is up to the safeties to take proper angles to the ball and make open field tackles.  The Lions have been burned by periodic break downs that allow huge chunks of yards and then they become far more susceptible to play action.  The Chargers’ offense is predicated on a strong running game and play action passes, so the Lions will need to be stout against the run to keep the Chargers out of those portions of the playbook.

The Brute Squad actually matches up pretty well against an injury depleted offensive line for San Diego, so the onus will be on them to disrupt the line of scrimmage.  Philip Rivers generally gets the ball out quickly, but he has a low delivery so getting pressure in his face is a little more disruptive than usual and  can lead to batted or tipped balls.

Wild Card:

The Lions desperately need the home field advantage against San Diego this week.  Momentum will be a huge factor in this game and the Lions need to get off to a fast start.  The Chargers are most dangerous when they have a balanced offensive attack and can keep a defense on their toes.  If the Lions get off to a fast start and get the crowd whipped into a frenzy it will make it much harder for the Chargers to stay balanced.  If the Chargers take an early lead and take the crowd out of the game, the Lions will have a much harder time keeping pace with one of the hottest offenses in the league.

Prediction:

I honestly believe the Lions are the better team in this game and would normally pick them to win, however I just don’t see it this week.  The Lions almost blew a huge lead against the Vikings and the Raiders gave the game away last week.  They haven’t played a complete game since Denver, and they mentally melted down in their last two games with high stakes (Thanksgiving and Sunday Night Football against the Saints.)  The Chargers are on enough of a roll to make the Lions pay for any mistakes, rather than make bigger mistakes to let the Lions off the hook.  I still think a Lions win is likely, but I just have a nagging doubt that they can handle the pressure of controlling their playoff fate.


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