So the Lions have gotten over the first hurdle and earned a playoff berth, but now the real measuring stick is before them. How good are the Lions? They struggled against good teams this year, got embarrassed on national television two weeks in a row and saw their most high profile player damage his public image. Despite those facts, they kept most games close and honestly speaking, the Lions only played their best in a handful of games.
The Chiefs, Bears and Chargers games were the only times the Lions really came out and played well in all three phases of the game. They didn’t have foolish penalties, boneheaded plays and really just stayed out of their own way. As far as sheer talent is concerned, the Lions are probably the most talented team in the NFC, but look no further than Tom Brady and JaMarcus Russell. On pure talent, Russell wins in a landslide, but Brady is the better player by far. The Lions need to rely on their talent less, and play smarter if they want to take the next step. The Lions look like they have the foundation to compete for playoff berths for the next 10 years, but remember how quickly things can change. 2010 looked promising for the Lions too, until one play robbed them of Matthew Stafford for the year (basically.) The Lions need to take advantage of this opportunity because who knows how often they will get another one.
When the Lions faced the Saints the first time, they were without Ndamukong Suh, Chris Houston and Louis Delmas, as Lions fans have been reminded many times this week. However, they were also without Matthew Stafford at 100%. Stafford was still feeling the effects of his broken finger and his confidence was rattled by his rough three game nine interception performance.
Stafford returns completely healthy and playing at a higher level than almost any quarterback in the league. Stafford has 1,284 yards and 12 touchdowns in his last three games and more importantly has click with Calvin Johnson again. The duo has hooked up 24 times for 560 yards and four touchdowns in the last three games, an average of 8 catches for 187 yards and 1.3 touchdowns per game. Stafford and Johnson are the most dangerous combination in the entire playoff field when they are clicking.
When the Lions played the Saints about a month ago, the Saints blanketed CJ and forced Stafford to rely on other receivers, however, the Saints also knew Stafford wasn’t as comfortable throwing deep with his broken finger, so they rolled a ton of coverage toward Johnson to play of Stafford’s lack of confidence in his accuracy. Calvin can battle past double and triple coverage, he does it all the time, but if Stafford didn’t trust himself to put the ball where he wanted to, blindly heaving it up was a risk not worth taking.
The Saints took full advantage of that fact in the first game and the Lions couldn’t move the ball until the Saints eased up with a 24-7 lead. The Lions also lost Kevin Smith early in the first game as well, who is clearly still dealing with the high ankle sprain, but he’s closer to 100% than he has been in weeks.
The Lions need Brandon Pettigrew to step up in this game, and definitely not melt down like he did last time. The Saints love to blitz and a quarterback’s best friend is a hot receiver against the blitz. Pettigrew is Stafford’s safety valve and he matches up well against the Saints’ linebackers.
The Lions’ running game has been awful all year, but New Orleans is vulnerable to the run and the Lions did a ton of damage to the Panthers’ porous run defense with a healthy Kevin Smith. I expect the Lions to come out throwing early and often, even though that’s not the best strategy against the Saints at home. However, if Kevin Smith can be efficient and help move the chains here and there, it will get the Lions’ time of possession up and help take some of the air out of the Super-Noisy-Dome.
The Lions’ offense is in a much better place than it was in the first meeting, and I don’t think you can under estimate the value of that. Titus Young and Brandon Pettigrew both had terrible games in New Orleans, but it was a wakeup call to both as they have played extremely well ever since.
Here’s a word association puzzle for you. Ray Lewis: Baltimore Ravens, Charles Woodson: Green Bay Packers and Louis Delmas: Detroit Lions. What is the common thread? They are the heart and soul of their respective defenses. Sure Suh and the Brute Squad get the headlines for the Lions, but Delmas is what makes the defense click.
The Lions’ pass defense was one of the league’s best until Delmas got hurt and Chris Harris has been brutal as a replacement. I saw at least six plays against the Packers that Harris was targeted and three resulted in touchdowns. Delmas’ return won’t bolster the whole defense, though, the Brute Squad needs to pick u their play as well.
The most effective way to knock Drew Brees off his game is to bring pressure up the middle. Brees is 6’0″ and has to rely on deep drops and huge passing lanes to see down field. If he is feeling pressure from the defensive tackles, he can’t step up in the pocket and he has to alter his delivery to throw around them rather than being tall enough to throw over the top. The Saints’ blocking scheme is designed for Brees to take a seven step drop, the tackles push the defensive ends outside and up the field and Brees steps up in the pocket and makes his throws through the gaps between the defensive lineman. The Lions’ Wide 9 technique only makes that easier if they aren’t getting a good push up the middle. So the Lions’ chances on defense start with Suh, Corey Williams, Nick Fairley and Sammie Hill.
Drew Brees is an elite quarterback and he’s definitely longer on strengths than weaknesses, but when he’s pressured Brees has a tendency to turn the ball over. He’s especially prone to fumbles. Cliff Avril led the NFL in forced fumbles, so that needs to be a weakness the Lions take advantage of.
As good as Drew Brees, Jimmy Graham, and that whole receiving corps are, the player the Lions need to be most concerned with is Darren Sproles. Sproles quietly set the NFL record for all purpose yardage this season and scored 10 touchdowns. Sproles chewed up yardage on draw plays, screens and dump off passes, which are all plays the Lions have struggled to defend this season. Combine his offensive contributions with how dangerous he is on returns and the Lions will have a handful dealing with him.
The Lions are finally healthy on defense, which they weren’t last time they played the Saints and that will help. However, the pass rush has been lacking for a few weeks and the injured players returning haven’t contributed much in almost a month. How quickly they get back up to speed will play a large part in this game.
Wild Card Wild Card:
The wild card in this game is the Lions mental state. The Superdome is one of the NFL’s biggest home field advantages, the Lions haven’t performed well this season when they’ve been in the spotlight and the coaching staff’s inability to get the team to play at a high level in the first half have all been major obstacles this season. They all must be overcome if the Lions want to pull the upset of the week. The Lions can’t get in obvious passing situations and go three and out very often, otherwise the crowd will take over the game. The Lions can’t come out all jacked up and play like a bunch of mindless barbarians again. Scott Linehan has to commit to the running game or some type of offensive game plan to keep the Saints’ defense off balance. I mentioned earlier that the Lions have not played a complete game very often this season, but when they have they were unstoppable. That will be the difference tomorrow.
I see this game going two ways for the Lions. They will start slow and get eaten alive in the bright lights of prime time, or they come out strong, build confidence, take the crowd out early and keep the game close enough to win at the end.
This is not the same Lions team that played in New Orleans a month ago and the homefield advantage is not as big an obstacle to overcome the second time they face it. When I think about it logically, I think the Saints will win because they have the playoff experience, they fell victim to a huge upset last season in the playoffs, they have been unstoppable at home and the Lions have psyched themselves out of almost every big game this year.
When I go with my gut feeling, I see the Lions winning though. There is always one huge upset in the Wild Card round, the Lions will have Suh, Fairley, Williams and Delmas back, they are such big underdogs and most importantly Stafford and Calvin Johnson are playing some of the best football the NFL has ever seen.
Everything tells me to pick the Saints here, but I’m going with the Lions to finally put all the pieces together and shock the league tomorrow night. It’s been 20 years since the Lions won a playoff game and it just seems like this is the time to end that streak.