Glancing back at the 2011 NFL Draft, a majority of fans and analysts alike felt that the Detroit Lions were the clear winners. Nick Fairley fell to them at the thirteenth slot in the first round, to be paired alongside Ndamukong Suh, giving them arguably the best young defensive tackle duo in the NFL. And that's not counting Corey Williams, who's coincidentally having his best season thus far, according to Jim Schwartz.
In the second round, they grabbed Titus Young to complement Calvin Johnson, Nate Burleson, and their tight ends. Then they traded back into round two to solve their running back problems with highly-regarded Mikel Leshoure, giving them that complete back to take the majority of the load while they sprinkle in Jahvid Best in the same fashion the Saints use Darren Sproles.
Detroit followed up the draft by adding quality veterans to their defense in free agency when the lockout ended, addressing the linebacker position with the likes of Stephen Tulloch (whom I really wished the Saints had made a play for), Justin Durant, and Bobby Carpenter (who has rejuvenated his career). In a secondary under construction, Eric Wright was added at cornerback to go along with the previous year's acquisitions of Alphonso Smith and Chris Houston. The biggest question mark remaining was two-fold: can the offensive line protect the quarterback and can Matthew Stafford stay healthy? The Lions looked to be well on their way to becoming a Super Bowl contender in Schwartz's third year.
Before the season began, their great off-season took a bad turn on the injury front. They lost Leshoure for the year with a torn achilles, which was a huge blow because they had not tendered a contract to injury-prone former rising star RB Kevin Smith in the spring and Best had concussion issues going back to his playing days in Cal (which caused many teams to remove him from their draft board). Fairley suffered a foot injury that would keep him out of training camp and cause him to miss the first month of the regular season, which is critical because the rookies needed as much camp as possible to learn in this abbreviated offseason. Young then sustained a hamstring injury which negated his chances of getting up to speed learning the offense, coverages, and building rapport with Stafford.
Despite these injury woes that dampened the excitement and hope of Lions fans, Detroit got off to a blazing start, putting up near 40 points a game to go 5-0, looking like a lock for the post-season. Yet even at that start, cracks began to show. While that great trio of defensive tackles along with a solid trio of defensive ends - Kyle Vanden Bosch (6 sacks), Cliff Avril (7 sacks), and Lawrence Jackson (4.5 sacks) - looked to be the best defensive line in the NFL, Detroit's secondary hadn't played consistently with the benefit of great pressure. In addition, their offensive line, specifically right tackle, became an exploitable weakness that had Lions fans cursing while holding their breath - now that's a trick! The running game wasn't dependable, and the Lions had to overcome a couple of three-score deficits.
Nearly three quarters of the way through the season, it looks like this damaged pride of lions may miss the post-season. Matthew Stafford is still recovering from a fractured index finger on his throwing hand. This is very significant because that is the last finger to leave the football when a quarterback snaps his wrist while completing his throwing motion. Stafford claims it hasn't affected his touch or accuracy, but he's thrown 9 interceptions since the injury occurred (three games ago), so you can be the judge of that.
In addition to Leshoure being lost for the season, Jahvid Best was recently placed on injured reserve for concussions. Teams realize they don't have to respect Detroit's rushing attack, and they really don't have to send much pressure on Stafford. Detroit has to throw and Stafford's accuracy is in question. A decent front four can get pressure without the aid of a blitz against the leaky Lions offensive line while the coverage waits on a bad throw.
Taking a look at the Saints defense, while keeping in mind Gregg William's affinity for the blitz (he's sent the blitz more than anyone else this year), where are the Saints vulnerable? The best thing Detroit can do with their passing attack is to continue utilizing their two-TE set with Brandon Pettigrew and Tony Scheffler (who they've been playing at full back), in addition to Maurice Morris as a target out of the backfield, which was pretty much their 2010 strategy.
If the Lions can exploit a blitz or two with a quick pass, they'll likely get a big gain from the slot WR or a TE in the seam. Those TEs will get a favorable matchup with a linebacker or Roman Harper. When Pettigrew and Scheffler become an issue, it will be easier to hit a single-covered Burleson or Young because you know all the attention will be on Calvin Johnson. Kevin Smith is dealing with a high ankle sprain, and the combo of Keiland Williams and Morris may have surprising success IF Detroit can complete the short, high-percentage passes on schedule.
On offense, the Saints offensive line needs to play exactly as they did on Monday night. Even without Suh, Avril, Vanden Bosch, Jackson, Williams, and Fairley can still bring pressure of their own accord. Tulloch has had success with his blitzing, and Houston has taken a couple of interceptions back for TDs. The most telling statistic about Detroit's defense is their third down percentage-they've only allowed 28% to be converted. Well, that's about to change.
While Jim Schwartz is known for having a top defensive mind, Mike McCarthy gave the Saints a nice blueprint for exploitation of Detroit with the passing attack. John Harbaugh showed everyone how to beat the Lions with the rushing attack and a good TE. The Saints have the ability and personnel to use the best of both plans. I worry less about the Saints offensive line when they play a great defensive line because frankly, they play to the competition.
The pride of Detroit may be damaged, as well as the Lions' pride, but they are still a dangerous team. They've had a long week to simmer over an embarrassing Thanksgiving loss to Green Bay and build a game plan against the Saints who will be playing on a short turnaround after a Monday night blowout of the Giants. That scares me for two reasons - the last time the Saints had a large margin victory, they laid an egg against the Rams, and the Lions have had four more days to heal and prepare than the Saints did.
The above factors all favor Detroit, but the Saints have perhaps the biggest advantages: Drew Brees, a healthy roster, the threat of balance with a viable rushing attack, a coach and team who act and play more disciplined, and the best Dome-field advantage in the NFL.
While the Lions offer matchup problems with the towering and speedy Calvin Johnson against our 6-foot and under cornerbacks, their tight ends being defended by the Saints linebackers and Harper, and a defensive line playing good football, the Saints can counter with a healthy stable of able running backs, a good-n-nasty guard duo, a quick and accurate release from Drew, a freaky good tight end who plays with swag, and a defensive coordinator who popped Stafford's cherry. Detroit was surprisingly competitive in that 2009 opener and I believe just as the 2011 Giants game would follow an eerily reminiscent script as the 2009 contest, the 2011 matchup with Detroit will also resemble the 2009 game with Detroit.
Last week I wrote this concerning the Giants:
I do not believe Eli and his passing offense can keep pace with Drew Brees. The combination of the Giants pass rush and the Saints pass defense will keep this game close until the Saints figure out the Giants blocking scheme, at which point the Giants will fall behind. How quickly this occurs depends solely on how soon New Orleans can win the battle at the point of attack on both sides of the ball. I believe the Saints will win by a double digit margin, 38 to 24.
I think this game will follow the same script. The Lions may get pressure, but their secondary can be had, especially their erratic safeties, and that's not counting the possible absence of Chris Houston who missed practice today with a knee problem. I think the Lions can keep pace early by limiting Drew and beating a couple of Gregg Williams blitzes - much the same way they (and the Giants) kept last week's games close for most of the first half. Yet I believe Drew and his quick release, along with the Saints ability to run will nullify any pass rush. By the third quarter the Saints should be ahead by multiple scores, and the Lions body language may resemble the Giants' on Monday night. It may happen quicker if Stafford's finger causes a few first half interceptions.
Bottom line: the Saints come into the game balanced and harder to defend, while the Lions are as one-dimensional as the Giants. Stafford won't be able to keep pace with Brees, though the Lions will be able to move the ball and score - just not as often as New Orleans. A healthy Stafford will look as well as Eli did with his 21 consecutive completions. A banged-up Stafford will resemble the rookie Stafford in 2009's contest with multiple interceptions while still moving the ball against the Saints back seven.
Detroit needs this win far more than the Saints, and they'll be playing with a lot of pride on the line. They will be fighting hard, but without a viable rushing threat, they won't land many body blows. I'll take the Saints ability to convert on third and short (or long) over the Lions. I'll take the Saints to continue their winning streak as they get hot at the perfect time. I'll take the Saints to play like a contender rising to the occasion, despite the scheduling disadvantage. I'll take the same score as the Giants prediction, Saints 38, Lions 24.
1. Saints - 32.9 Points per game, 450 yards per game, 6.5 yards per play, 54% 3rd down conversion rate, 31:44 Time of Possession, -3 turnover margin
9. Lions - 28.7 ppg, 378 ypg, 5.7 ypp, 31% conversion on 3rd down, 29:44 TOP, +6 turnovers
1. Saints - 324 ypg, 8.0 yards per attempt, 70.3% completion, 27 TDs, 11 INTs, (46) 20+ yard pass completions, 19 sacks allowed, 103.7 QB rating
6. Lions - 272 ypg, 7.1 ypa, 62.3% completion, 26 TDs, 13 INTs, (34) 20+ yard pass completions, 21 sacks given up, 90.8 QB rating
8. Saints - 126 ypg, 4.8 yards per carry, 12 TDs, 2 Fumbles, (10) 20+ yard runs
22. Lions - 104 ypg, 4.5 ypc, 7 TDs, 6 Fumbles, (7) 20+ yard runs
10. Lions - 22.4 ppg, 330 ypg, 5.1 ypp, 28% 3rd down conversions allowed, 18 forced fumbles, 8 fumble recoveries
25. Saints - 22.9 ppg, 371 ypg, 5.8 ypp, 36% 3rd downs allowed, 18 forced fumbles, 5 fumble recoveries
6. Lions - 202 ypg, 6.2 ypa, 61% completion, 12 TDs, 15 INTs, (28) 20+ yard completions allowed, 29 sacks recorded, 73.1 opposing QB rating
27. Saints - 254 ypg, 6.9 ypa, 57% completion, 18 TDs, 6 INTs, (32) 20+yard completions allowed, 22 sacks recorded, 86.7 opposing QB rating
17. Saints - 117 ypg, 5.0 ypc, 8 TD, 7 forced fumbles (on RBs), (11) 20+ yard runs allowed
23. Lions - 127 ypg, 4.8 ypc, 7 TD, 3 forced fumbles (on RBs), (12) 20+ yard runs allowed
Overall Statistical Comparison: Both teams look very similar on paper. The Saints have more explosive plays and a much better third down conversion rate on offense, while the Lions give up much less passing yards, have more sacks and a very low number of third downs allowed defensively. Aside from those glaring differences, not much stands out. If each team had everyone healthy, this game would be a shootout that would look like Week One versus Green Bay. It still may, but only for a half or so.