This wild card contest, featuring the NFL’s No. 1 and No. 5 offenses, might play out more like a college bowl game, with a back-and-forth barrage of points and yards. Unlike a bowl game, however, we can be sure that the barrage is a product of great quarterbacking and not mistakes from shaky underclassmen defenders.
Oh, also, unlike a bowl game, the outcome actually matters in the bigger picture, as the winner will still be in contention for a title.
1. Any hope of stopping the Saints’ offense?
Not really. The Lions gave up 31 points and 438 yards when these teams squared off in Week 13. They were without starting corner Chris Houston and starting free safety Louis Delmas that night, but attributing the loss to those players’ absence would be like attributing The Simpsons early-2000s popularity dip to the death of Maude Flanders.
The last team to slow Sean Payton’s offensive juggernaut was – believe it or not – St. Louis. They did it with a feisty four-man rush, press-man coverage outside and zone coverage inside. But that was 10 weeks ago – before Saints left tackle Jermon Bushrod found his groove in pass protection (the first-time Pro Bowler has improved tremendously after being a major pass-blocking liability his first 4 ½ years).
Of course, the Lions will still have an effective pass-rush even if Bushrod can contain the relentless Kyle Vanden Bosch. And they have linebackers and safeties who have the speed to be rangy in coverage. And their corners, while primarily off-coverage zone defenders, have actually been impressive at times in man-to-man on third down this season.
But in the end, this is still a vanilla Cover 2 defense that would be nothing more than a house of straw if it got away from its foundation against Drew Brees. Not that Brees and the Saints can’t exploit Cover 2:
|Something the Saints do as well as any team in football is create favorable matchups for wide receivers by aligning them in tight splits. This is easy to do against a Cover 2 defense like Detroit’s. In this shot, Devery Henderson is aligned tight, and Marques Colston (New Orleans’ top slot weapon) is even tighter. Because Cover 2 defenses always keep their outside corners on opposite sides of the field, the nature of this offensive alignment dictates that either Colston or Henderson can run an inside route against a linebacker or safety. In this case, we show you the option for Colston.|
2. A crazy idea…
The Lions should do what all Cover 2 teams essentially do: commit to bend-but-don’t-break defense. Only in this case, they actually can break – as long as they bend a lot first. The Saints thrive on fast tempo and big plays – especially at home. If they have the ball, they’re going to score.
The Lions should try to make those scores come after 10 or 12 plays, rather than four or five. Coaxing an offense into long drives may sound insane, but think about: The more plays the Saints run, the more chances there are for a freak turnover. Also, the more chances for a red zone stop. Most important, long drives eat clock and shorten the game. That could keep the contest artificially close down the stretch.
Of course, this extreme bend-but-don’t-break idea is based on Detroit’s offense being able to dominate New Orleans’ defense ... which didn’t happen in Week 13.
3. Recapping the last meeting
A lot of Matthew Stafford’s 408 yards passing in the last meeting were empty, as the Saints held the Lions to just 17 points. Defensive coordinator Gregg Williams took an uncharacteristically cautious approach, often rushing only three or four and focusing on double-and triple-team tactics against Calvin Johnson.
Williams often had his best corner, Jabari Greer, shadow Megatron, with plenty of help over the top and inside. Because Johnson devours man coverage, the Saints stayed mostly in zone (though they did match up man-to-man a bit when Detroit went to base personnel).
This formula held Johnson to 69 yards on six catches, though the numbers would have been much different if Stafford hadn’t underthrown him on what would have been a 53-yard touchdown in the third quarter. The rest of the Lions receiving targets took advantage of their opportunities against the Johnson-intensive coverage.
TE Tony Scheffler had 41 yards receiving; RB Kevin Smith had 46; Nate Burleson posted 93 (though his performance was overshadowed by three offensive pass interference flags); second-round rookie Titus Young had 90 yards (though he too overshadowed his performance with mistakes – mainly a boneheaded personal foul after the whistle).
In the end, though, it was the lack of big plays from Johnson that stood out.
4. Forecasting this meeting
Gregg Williams may go conservative again. His defense aims to create turnovers and chaos through fervid six-man blitzes, but that aggression is part of the reason the Saints’ yielded a league-high 14 passes of 40-plus yards this season. Against a top-notch aerial attacks like Detroit’s, a high-risk/high-reward approach is unlikely to go in your favor.
But Williams also knows that when Detroit has struggled, it’s been due to Stafford’s waffling accuracy and decision-making. Those issues calmed down considerably over the season’s final month, but there’s no telling how the 23-year-old might respond under the pressure of dueling with Brees in Detroit’s first playoff game since 1999. Williams will want to find out.
Stafford isn’t the easiest quarterback to blitz, though. He has a strong arm, quick release and the willingness to make stick throws with defenders racing at him. The Lions don’t have elite pass-blockers, but because they operate almost exclusively out of the shotgun, Stafford can be tough for defenders to reach.
Williams might find a happy-medium by playing coverage but giving his back seven defenders extra freedom in moving around and disguising their looks before the snap. That would get Stafford’s mental gears grinding. The Lions don’t like motile defensive presnap looks – that’s why they rarely use presnap motion themselves.
5. The X-factors
Figure Williams is going to do all he can to make someone other than Calvin Johnson beat him. The guys who must step up are tight ends Brandon Pettigrew and Tony Scheffler.
They both give the Lions formation versatility from base personnel by lining up along the front line, in the slot or split out wide. This is often done to create mismatches for, but on Saturday it will create mismatches for THEM.
If the Saints blitz, the tight ends are logical quick-strike outlets. If the Saints play coverage, one of the tight ends will draw a favorable matchup against strong safety Roman Harper (who got destroyed in coverage at Seattle in last year’s wild card).
So who will win? Check our NFL expert picks for all wild-card games.
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