This Sunday, the New Orleans Saints will duke it out with one of the best teams in the NFC, the Detroit Lions. Ryan Mathews, not the former running back, joins us to preview this weekend's matchup in this week's segment of interview with the enemy.
LH: The first question isn’t really about the game, but just how does it feel to have the Lions be great? It’s been a long time coming and I think a lot of people around the country are excited to see Detroit succeed, so as a writer who covers the team, how much fun has it been this season?
RM: Relatively speaking, yes, at 8-3, the Lions are in a great position right now to make the playoffs and win their first division title in over 30 years, but I’m not so sure they’re a great team just yet. They still need some talent in spots on defense, and they need to make ball security a priority on offense to join that pantheon of the NFL’s elite. But ultimately, it does feel very satisfying to see the patience and commitment this organization has shown this current regime get rewarded with the best start to a season since 1962.
For as long as I’ve been covering this football team (2015), only the 2016 season rivals how much fun this year has been. Even then, the 2016 team didn’t have the loftiest of expectations after the early retirement of Calvin Johnson the year prior, so that 9-7 season was just a wild ride–complete with Matthew Stafford leading the league with eight game-winning drives. This season, by contrast, came with a bunch of attention from national media types and a whole lot of expectations considering the landscape of the NFC North, so it’s been equal parts nerve wracking and euphoric.
LH: Alright, now to the game. David Montgomery and Jahmyr Gibbs have been an electric 1-2 punch with both backs averaging 4.9+ yards per carry. The Saints have struggled to defend the run this season, so what do you expect to see from the Lions running back duo this weekend?
RM: If I could venture to guess, Detroit wants to get back to being the team that imposes its will up front and wins through their ground game. Over the past two weeks, turnovers have caused a bit of an identity crisis on offense: they’ve had to throw the ball more than they’d like to, and they haven’t been able to dictate the pace and physicality of the game like they would prefer to do with their rushing attack.
I’d expect a heavy dose of touches between Montgomery and Gibbs, especially if Detroit can avoid committing those costly turnovers they’ve made recently. If New Orleans can’t knock the Lions off course early, it’s going to be that much tougher of a matchup for the Saints.
LH: Amon-Ra St. Brown had his breakout season last year and has really been a nice piece for this Lions offense. What is it about him that makes him such an elite receiver despite being undersized? And with Marshon Lattimore on IR, how do you think he’ll fare against the rest of the secondary?
RM: St. Brown has really shown up in a big way this season and his play, in my opinion, has put him into a healthy conversation for being a top-five wide receiver. His strength and concentration at the catch point is ridiculous. If there’s a contested catch up for grabs, and St. Brown can get his mitts on it, there’s a great chance he’s coming away with it. He has the highest contested catch rate (68.4%) of any pass-catcher with at least 15 contested targets in the NFL. Considering Detroit loves to run the football (29.8 carries per game, 7th in the NFL), another great measure of St. Brown is his efficiency in the pass game: through 11 games, St. Brown has posted a 2.62 yards per route run, which puts him fifth among pass-catchers with at least 53 targets.
Depending on how the Saints have been able to cover the intermediate stuff, including drags across the field where St. Brown can pick up yards after the catch, it could be a big day for St. Brown against a secondary that’s missing their top cornerback.
LH: While Detroit’s defense still isn’t necessarily elite, they’ve taken big strides this season. What has been working for them this year compared to last? Also give me your Defensive Player of the Year and someone who’s kind of slid under the radar but has been playing really good ball for the Lions on that end.
Detroit’s defense showed some promise to start the season, so much so that it tricked a lot of us into thinking the Lions were on track for one of the biggest single-season turnarounds in NFL history. Alas, that group has come crashing back to Earth, and it’s hard to see how Detroit can get things turned around down the stretch. The pass rush is fugazi, the coverage on the backend is uneven, and it seems like the run defense–which is legit really good–is almost coming to the detriment of the unit’s ability to stop the pass.
With that being said, there have been some highlights, and one of them has been a familiar face for Saints fans in Alex Anzalone. As the elder statesman of the defense, Anzalone has developed into quite the linebacker, capable of being just as effective against the run and pass, so he’d be my pick for Defensive Player of the Year.
Anzalone would also be the first guy that comes to mind when thinking about guys who have sort of slid under the radar, but another name is Brian Branch. And I know, it’s kind of hard to slide under the radar when you record a pick-six against Patrick Mahomes at Arrowhead in your NFL debut, but he’s arguably been not only the best player in Detroit’s secondary, but one of the best players at any level of the Lions defense as a rookie.
LH: The Lions are four-point favorites heading into this matchup against a Saints team that has been struggling. Do you think the Lions can cover the spread this weekend? And are there any player props or any other bets you like for this game?
If the Saints are struggling as much as it seems like from the responses I got from you, yeah, Detroit has a real shot at getting back on track and covering this spread. But the reality of the situation is this: New Orleans has forced 20 turnovers, tied for the fourth-best mark in the NFL, and that’s bad news for Jared Goff after he’s turned over the football six times in the past two games.
Depending on the line, I’d entertain Goff’s over on interceptions and the over on St. Brown’s receiving yards.
Thank you again to Ryan, for joining us this week! You can check out his work here.
Odds/lines subject to change. T&Cs apply. See draftkings.com/sportsbook for details.