Here are 10 things to know about how the Eagles’ defense matches up with the Lions’ offense:
1. The Lions enter Sunday’s game averaging 25 points per game, tied for 11th in the NFL. Last year, this group averaged 29.6. Football Outsiders has Detroit’s offense ranked sixth overall – eighth in passing and 10th in rushing. Matthew Stafford stayed healthy for the first time in 2011 and lit it up with 41 touchdowns and 16 interceptions. The Lions can be one-dimensional, but when their passing game is clicking, they are tough to stop. Meanwhile, the Eagles’ defense has held opposing quarterbacks to just 53.6 percent completions, the second-best mark in the league. And opponents are averaging just 6.1 yards per attempt, tied for third-best.
2. While Stafford is completing an impressive 65.9 percent of his passes, the Lions are not picking up chunks of yardage through the air like they did last year. He’s averaging 6.8 yards per attempt, down from 7.6 in 2011. Stafford’s average pass length is 7.49 yards, which ranks 27th in the NFL. His average pass completion has gone 5.25 yards (29th). And according to Pro Football Focus, only 7.5 percent of Stafford’s pass attempts have traveled 20 yards or more downfield (30th). The point is that the Lions have not taken a lot of shots downfield through their first four games. It’s pretty much been Calvin Johnson or bust. On the flip side, last week against the Steelers, the Eagles allowed just one play of 20 yards or more, and it came on the final drive in the fourth quarter.
3. Megatron is obviously worth spending some time on in this space. The sixth-year receiver is coming off a monster season in which he set career highs with 96 catches, 1,681 yards, 16 touchdowns and 17.5 yards per catch. This year, he’s been targeted 43 times through four games and has nine catches of 20+ yards, second-most in the NFL. Johnson is averaging 105.8 yards per game, which ranks third. He’s scored 29 touchdowns in his last 35 games. A couple numbers are down for Johnson. He’s averaging 14.6 yards per catch, which is off of last year’s pace (17.5). And he’s averaging 3.2 YAC, down from 5.5 last year. Overall, he’s arguably the most dangerous receiver in the game.
4. Last year, Johnson led the league with 32 catches of 20+ yards and 10 catches of 40+ yards. As a result, you can expect defenses to play their safeties in another zip code against the Lions. The Vikings did that for much of the game a couple weeks ago. On the surface, it looks like they contained Johnson. He finished with five catches for 54 yards. But throw in the fact that he drew two pass interference penalties for 60 yards, and clearly Johnson had an impact. One thing the Lions have done this year is move Johnson to the slot. According to Pro Football Focus, Johnson has spent 38.7 percent of his offensive snaps in the slot this year, compared to just 18.9 percent last year. That will be a key on Sunday. The Cardinals moved Larry Fitzgerald all around the formation, and the Eagles played him straight up. They got burned in the process. What will Juan Castillo and Todd Bowles decide on against Johnson? He’d have a huge size advantage (eight inches) against rookie Brandon Boykin. Then again, Nnamdi Asomugha and Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie both struggled playing inside last year. Asomugha told T-Mac that the Birds won’t have a generic game plan. While they will clearly pay extra attention to Johnson, what exactly Asomugha means is unclear.
“I don’t want to give away what we’re going to do,” Castillo said Thursday. “Hopefully we can talk about it after the game, and you can say, ‘Juan, that was a good game plan that you all had.'”
5. Here’s a look at the problems Johnson can pose in the slot.
The Vikings are in zone, and the linebackers bite on a play-fake. Johnson fights off a jam from the slot corner at the line of scrimmage and finds space in front of the safety. Stafford delivers the ball on time, and the Lions pick up 19.
A similar play later in the game – this time in the red zone
Again, Johnson finds the hole in the zone, and Stafford throws the ball high so that he can use his size and go up and get it.
The Vikings safeties close here and sandwich Johnson with a big hit. He can’t hold on to the ball, and the Lions have to settle for a field goal two plays later. But you get the point.
6. Of course, to hit on big plays to Johnson, the Lions need to protect Stafford. Their offensive line is old, but experienced. The same five guys have played every snap together so far this season At left tackle, Jeff Backus will match up against Trent Cole. Backus has started every game for Detroit since the start of the 2001 season, an incredible streak of 180 in a row. Last year, he was called for seven holding penalties, tied for third-most in the NFL, according to Football Outsiders. Cole, meanwhile, is coming off a quiet game against the Steelers. He has 1.5 sacks in five games, but leads the team with 19 hurries. At left guard, Rob Sims has started every game for the Lions since the start of 2010. Dominic Raiola, the center, has started all but four games for Detroit since 2002. And right guard Stephen Peterman has been with Detroit for seven seasons, having started every game since 2010. Other than Cullen Jenkins, the Eagles’ defensive tackles were a non-factor last week. They’ll need to generate more of an interior pass rush this week. At right tackle, Gosder Cherilus, a former first-round pick (2008), will match up against Jason Babin. Babin has 2.5 sacks and 18 hurries on the season. Brandon Graham, who led the team with five hurries last week, will also see time at left defensive end. As a group, the Lions have only been called for four holding penalties this season, second-fewest in the league. No Detroit offensive lineman has been flagged more than once all year.
7. The Lions have not gotten much from their run game. Mikel Leshoure, Kevin Smith and Joique Bell will likely all see action. Leshoure is averaging just 3.2 yards per carry; Smith 4.0; and Bell 3.1. Leshoure fumbled after a 14-yard run against the Vikings. The Lions have zero runs of 20+ yards on the season. The Eagles’ run defense had been good until last week, when Rashard Mendenhall averaged 5.8 yards per carry against them. This week, it looks like Akeem Jordan will return to the starting lineup, replacing Jamar Chaney. The truth is, when the passing game is clicking, the Lions don’t have a lot of interest in running the ball. They called passes 67 percent of the time last season, tops in the league, according to Football Outsiders. If the running game’s not working, look for the Lions to rely on shorter, high-percentage throws instead, including ones to the backs. Bell, specifically, has looked good in that aspect with 12 receptions for 175 yards, including a nice 23-yarder against the Vikings.
8. Other than Johnson, the Eagles will have to account for Nate Burleson and tight end Brandon Pettigrew, who has been a limited practice participant with a knee injury. Pettigrew is second on the team in targets (35) and has 23 catches for 223 yards, but he’s also dropped five balls, according to Pro Football Focus. One of those drops came in the end zone against the Vikings a couple weeks ago. As a team, the Lions have dropped six balls on passes that have gone 10+ yards downfield, according to ESPN. Overall, the Eagles rank fifth in the league against tight ends and seventh against running backs, according to Football Outsiders. Meanwhile, Burleson has 22 catches for 200 yards. He’s lined up in the slot 46.8 percent of the time, according to PFF. And don’t be surprised to see an end around or reverse to Burleson. He has six rushes for 26 yards on the season.
9. The Lions went with an empty backfield 10 percent of the time last year, according to Football Outsiders, fourth-most in the league. But that doesn’t mean they will leave themselves vulnerable in pass protection against the Eagles. Take a look at this set-up from the Vikings game.
The tight end and running back line up next to the tackles and chip the defensive ends before going out into their pass routes. I’d guess Cole and Babin will have to deal with this look on more than one occasion.
10. Leftovers: Stafford’s thrown 20 interceptions in his last 20 starts, including four in four games this season. Two of those have been in the red zone. …Johnson is averaging a career-high 7.3 catches per game. …The Lions used a single back 81 percent of the time last year, second-most in the league. …They used three receivers or more 61 percent of the time, third-most.
Follow Sheil Kapadia on Twitter and e-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org.