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Five Lions-Saints questions with guest Derek Paige

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It’s important to consider a different perspective, so I’ve turned to one of the smartest Lions fans I know.

NEW ORLEANS:  Detroit Lions quarterback Matthew Stafford (9) surveys the field while New Orleans Saints defensive tackle Nick Fairley (90) pushes the pocket at the Mercedes-Benz Superdome.
NEW ORLEANS: Detroit Lions quarterback Matthew Stafford (9) surveys the field while New Orleans Saints defensive tackle Nick Fairley (90) pushes the pocket at the Mercedes-Benz Superdome.
Crystal LoGiudice-USA TODAY Sports

In case you’re late to hear, Twitter is leading the arms race among social networks for sports coverage. The opportunity for immediate contact shared between fans, reporters, and professional athletes you find in tweets is unmatched.

So naturally, who you follow shapes your experience. One good tweeter I’d like to highlight is Derek Paige, who owns one of the greatest Twitter handles with @steeztabor. Derek is an avid fan of the Detroit Lions and sharp football mind, so you would do well to better your timeline and give him a follow.

I hit Derek with five questions concerning this week’s game, and he responded with some detailed perspectives from the other side. My questions are in bold, and Derek’s answers follow them:

The Saints have had success targeting Alvin Kamara and Mark Ingram, would LB Jarrad Davis, SS Miles Killebrew, or someone else be a problem for them in coverage? How have the Lions approached defending pass catching RB’s?

The 2016 Lions defense was most notable for being gashed underneath by receiving backs, slot receivers, and tight ends, mostly as a result of our weak linebacking corps. Drafting Jarrad Davis to play MIKE upgraded two positions at once by shifting Tahir Whitehead back to WILL, where he is having the best year of his career. While their exact usage is gameplan-dependent, I'd expect defensive coordinator Teryl Austin to dial up quite a bit of man coverage, rushing four and dropping seven into coverage, with a high percentage of Big Nickel personnel, leaving Davis and Whitehead to cover the New Orleans running backs on a majority of plays. Killebrew and fellow SS Tavon Wilson will be dropped into the box to cover the RBs (particularly Kamara) on occasion. This will be a great matchup to watch, as I expect each party to win their fair share of reps.

DETROIT:  Atlanta Falcons defensive back Brian Poole (34) can’t cover Detroit Lions wide receiver Golden Tate (15) on a catch late in the fourth quarter at Ford Field.
DETROIT: Atlanta Falcons defensive back Brian Poole (34) can’t cover Detroit Lions wide receiver Golden Tate (15) on a catch late in the fourth quarter at Ford Field.
Raj Mehta-USA TODAY Sports

Who is the lead receiving threat between Golden Tate and Marvin Jones? Are the Lions still living and dying with Matthew Stafford’s deep ball, or has the passing attack evolved since Saints fans last saw it?

Since I have to pick someone, it would be Golden Tate. To be frank, aside from the second half of Detroit's Week 1 game against the Arizona Cardinals, the Lions offense has been largely anemic. Tate is the Lions' leading receiver through five weeks, averaging 5.8 catches and 53.4 yards per game. Not great. Look for offensive coordinator Jim Bob Cooter to pepper Tate with targets early in the game in an effort to get his offense, and his most reliable playmaker, in a rhythm.

Stylistically, there haven't been many changes in the Lions passing attack. It's still a yards-after-catch based offense built upon screens and timing routes with the occasional deep shot. While it should be noted that two of the past three weeks, the Lions have faced the 6th and 8th best defenses in yards-per-attempt allowed (Carolina and Atlanta, respectively), there is plenty of room for improvement to go around from poor execution by skill position players, to play calling, to inadequate protection, which is an excellent segue into your next question:

How has the Lions offensive line looked? The Saints are pressuring quarterbacks more effectively than last year so far and LT Greg Robinson doesn’t have a great reputation as the fill-in left tackle with LT Taylor Decker still rehabbing an off-season injury.

Once again, I'm not going to beat around the bush: it's been bad:

  • PerJustin Rogers of the Detroit News: 31% of Lions running plays are stopped for no gain or a loss of yardage.
  • Brett Whitefield of PFF adds that Lions runners are averaging 0.61 yards before contact.
  • From NFL Network's Matt Harmon: the pressure rate allowed from the right side is 21.5% (6.6% above league average), manned by marquee free agents RG T.J. Lang and RT Rick Wagner.
DETROIT:  Carolina Panthers defensive back Captain Munnerlyn (41) smothers Detroit Lions quarterback Matthew Stafford (9) during the fourth quarter at Ford Field.
DETROIT: Carolina Panthers defensive back Captain Munnerlyn (41) smothers Detroit Lions quarterback Matthew Stafford (9) during the fourth quarter at Ford Field.
Tim Fuller-USA TODAY Sports

It's easy to blame Robinson, given his four holding penalties on the year and the precipitous drop-off in talent from Decker, but it's been bad across the board. It all came to a head last week against the Carolina Panthers, when Matthew Stafford had his thigh and ankle taped after two separate hits, and cameras caught him bleeding from two spots on his hand. If New Orleans is able to push the pocket from the middle, I'm not sure Stafford will be able to use his mobility to extend plays as effectively as usual.

Lions nose tackle Haloti Ngata was lost this week to a biceps injury. He carries plenty of name recognition but how impactful is his loss for Detroit? Are the Lions suddenly vulnerable up the middle, or is this more in-line with the Saints not losing much by trading Adrian Peterson when they had better/younger, though not as well-known options?

While no longer a game wrecker from the interior of the defensive line, rumors of Ngata's demise had been greatly exaggerated. Check out this play from just last week, with Ngata lined up at 0-Tech, putting C Tyler Larsen on skates so fast that RG Trai Turner doesn't have time to hit him on the double team:

That being said, I have faith in DT A'shawn Robinson's (2016 second-round pick from Alabama) ability to play the 0/1T role, and 3Ts Akeem Spence (free agent from Tampa Bay) and Jeremiah Ledbetter (sixth-round rookie from Arkansas) have shown a well-rounded game, making plays against the pass and run. There will be a slight drop off without Ngata on the field, as you can't replace 11 years of experience playing at a high level in the NFL, but this will give the aforementioned unheralded studs a chance to shine.

RB Ameer Abdullah and TE Eric Ebron feel like the wild cards in this game. They’ve both been compared to former Saints playmakers Darren Sproles and Jimmy Graham, respectively, but how much of those comparisons has been proven during their young careers?

Ameer is languishing behind sub-par blocking, and it's showing in his statistics and his film. While some of his new-found tentative play can be attributed to the lingering rust while coming back from a Lisfranc injury that caused him to miss the final 14 games of the 2016 season, it's also plainly obvious that quite often, he's waiting for his offensive line to give him an opening that never comes. However: I think that we can both agree that the defensive lines of NYG, MIN, and CAR are among the most menacing in the league (Grady Jarrett and Dontari Poe in ATL are no slouches either), so it's definitely within the realm of possibility that this week is his "get right game." In fact, Fantasy Football Twitter has had this matchup marked on their calendars for a while:

Given a chance to get past the line of scrimmage, I'd say it's a good bet for Ameer to return to form this year, making second level defenders grasping at air as he racks up chunks of yardage.

As for Ebron, it's fair to say that he hasn't lived up to the "next Jimmy Graham" label placed on him after he was drafted 10th overall out of UNC. Peak New Orleans Graham was virtually unguardable, playing bigger than his already tremendous size. Watching Ebron, I feel the opposite is true: He plays like an average-sized WR. He relies on his speed to make plays as though he's still matching up against ACC talent, as opposed to using his 6'4", 250 lb frame to bully much smaller defensive backs.

This style of play, although not matching what we thought he could be after watching him make spectacular leaping grabs at the college level, was still serviceable up until this season. Since a dominant Week 2 performance on Monday Night Football against the New York Giants, Ebron has gotten a devastating case of the yips, culminating last week in deafening boos from the Ford Field crowd after letting a tight window bullet pass from Stafford bounce off of his chest for a missed touchdown. While I do think that he could still be a good Move TE, it's extremely disappointing to see this level of inconsistency from a guy who was a top 10 TE in production last year, whom the Detroit fanbase expected to take one final step forward and become one of the elite players at his position.

MINNEAPOLIS:  Detroit Lions quarterback Matthew Stafford (9) hands the ball off to running back Ameer Abdullah (21) in the third quarter against the Minnesota Vikings at U.S. Bank Stadium.
MINNEAPOLIS: Detroit Lions quarterback Matthew Stafford (9) hands the ball off to running back Ameer Abdullah (21) in the third quarter against the Minnesota Vikings at U.S. Bank Stadium.
Brad Rempel-USA TODAY Sports

Prediction: With Stafford's mobility compromised, and his lackluster protection, I could see this game featuring lots of plays designed to get the ball out of his hands quickly. That means a heavy dosage of Ameer Abdullah rushing, screens and slants to Ebron, Tate, and RB Theo Riddick. The X-Factor here would be Kenny Golladay. A third-round rookie WR out of Northern Illinois, he started the year with a flashy two TD performance against Arizona in Week 1. If he returns from his hamstring injury this week, he has the talent to single-handedly open up the offense vertically and take advantage of a defense that will be keying in on more accomplished playmakers like Tate, Marvin Jones, or Riddick.

On defense, I'd expect to see loads of T-E stunts, using the athleticism of DE’s Ziggy Ansah, Anthony Zettel, and Cornelius Washington with 3-tech DT’s Spence and Ledbetter to confuse and attack a Saints offensive line that has undergone a lot of shuffling and rearranging due to injuries. Also, the Lions top CB, Darius Slay, has been following opposing teams' WR1 more frequently than last year. Look for Teryl Austin to give WR Michael Thomas the star treatment by having Slay shadow him, as he did in their 2016 meeting (Thomas finished the game with four catches for 42 yards on five targets.)

I'm trusting the Lions here (famous last words) to resume their hot streak to start the year, winning the turnover battle handily. DET 30, NO 24


Some national analysts are pegging this game to be a lopsided Saints win, but I feel like Derek is in the right to consider things more evenly-matched. I’ll bring more good takes from fans and writers around the NFL Twitter community as the season goes on, but how do you feel about this game? Are the Saints headed for a misstep against the Lions, or is this gonna be a breeze?