Posted by Eye on Football Analyst Andy Benoit
The Lions were that Feel Good team of 2011. Then they started shoving coaches after the game, hitting quarterbacks after the throw, fighting opponents after the play, stomping linemen after the whistle and meekly apologizing for it all after the fact. Thus, they’re now the team everybody wants to see get its comeuppance.
In some ways, they’re like the Chargers – a team that, over the years, has mastered the art of irritating casual onlookers. They haven’t done it with reckless hostility, but rather, perplexing underachievement. If the NFL were like college basketball, where Final Four appearances and division titles mattered, the Chargers would be a dynasty.
Instead, they’re the club that always falls on its face but somehow manages to sneak into the postseason…only to fall on its face again. At least during the regular season they get hot at the right time – this year looking like no exception.
Let’s breakdown these two irritating clubs.
The Chargers offense is perhaps the best in football at using presnap motion to dissect a defense and create favorable matchups. Lions offensive coordinator Scott Linehan recently took a page out of Norv Turner’s playbook.
After operating out of static formations virtually all season, the Lions created glaring mismatches by motioning Calvin Johnson into the slot against the Raiders last week. The results were extraordinary: Johnson, often working against Oakland’s backup safeties, had a career-high 214 yards receiving. Matthew Stafford threw for 391, with four touchdowns and no turnovers.
It might reason that the Lions will use more presnap motions this week, but that’s not a sure thing. If creating big-play opportunities were as simple as putting players in motion, Linehan would have had his players doing that long ago. But when you change your formation, the defense changes. When the defense is playing man, the changes are easy to read. But when the defense is playing zone, things become more complex.
With an inexperienced quarterback (Stafford will be making only his 28th start Sunday), fairly young tight end (Brandon Pettigrew), rookie wide receiver (Titus Young) and athletic but somewhat unrefined superstar (Johnson), Linehan may once again prefer to keep the Chargers defense – which usually plays to the situation, meaning zone on early downs and man on third down – as static as possible. The drawback with a static offense is it’s obviously easier for the defense to decipher, as there are fewer complexities in route combinations.
2. The running backs
Ryan Mathews has improved throughout his second season. He has the quickness, lateral agility and tempo-changing ability to create his own space or turn the corner. Physicality, down-to-down consistency, ball security and durability remain issues. In a pinch, the Chargers know they can fall back on the powerful, surprisingly versatile Mike Tolbert.
The Lions’ run game became an afterthought when rookie Mikel Leshoure’s Achilles tore in August. Statistically, things actually picked up on the ground for Detroit after receiving-oriented Jahvid Best went out with a concussion.
When healthy, Best’s replacement, Kevin Smith, has shown some suddenness and shiftiness, which makes him a good fit for this shotgun system. But overall, Detroit is unquestionably a pass-first team (28th in rushing yards, 31st in rushing attempts). That’s fine – as their 28 points per game (fourth best in NFL) attest.
3. Chargers O-line vs. Lions D-line
Figure San Diego must score 30 points to beat Detroit. That would have been dicey a few weeks ago when left tackle Marcus McNeill and left guard Kris Dielman first went down with injuries. But with left tackle Jared Gaither coming aboard and relieving helpless backup Brandyn Dombrowski, the front five has stabilized. Dielman’s replacement, Tyronne Green, has settled down in pass protection, and center Nick Hardwick has looked like his former Pro Bowl self.
Philip Rivers is arguably the best in the business at stepping into throws with defenders bearing down. He doesn’t need a clean pocket – just protection that can hold up for a seven-stop drop. The Chargers are up to the task, even if they’re facing the Lions’ high-octane front four. Last week, that front four was actually neutralized by a middle-tier Raiders bunch that had struggled mightily in prior weeks.
4. Rivers and his receivers
If Rivers is not under duress, he’ll throw for at least 325 yards Sunday. The Lions play some of the most basic Cover 2 and Cover 3 zones in football and simply don’t have the personnel to stay with Vincent Jackson or Malcom Floyd – especially with starting free safety Louis Delmas out.
Lions corners Chris Houston and Eric Wright are at their best playing off-coverage, where they can see a route develop in front of them and drive on the ball. The vertical nature of San Diego’s passing game, which is heavy on double moves, can be anathema to that brand of cornerbacking.
Inside, though Detroit’s linebackers can run, and though middle ‘backer Stephen Tulloch can play with depth in zone coverage, the Antonio Gates factor is still a major plus for the Boltz. Gates looks healthier than he has all season.
5. Screen game
Last week the Raiders became the latest team to successfully attack the Lions with screen passes. Because the Lions’ front seven defenders all play with their ears pinned back, offenses frequently use delay and misdirection tactics to coax them out of position. The faster a defender reacts in the wrong direction, the more daunting his recovery task.
San Diego regularly incorporates its running backs in the passing game (Tolbert and Mathews each have 47 receptions on the season). Expect several of the running back’s passes to be screens this week, especially early in the game when the Lions will, as always, will be amped up.
So who will win? Check our NFL expert picks for all Week 8 games.
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