Saturday, January 07, 2012

On Tap: Lions at Saints

I would be remiss I didn't at least blog about tonight's game at 8:00 pm, would I?

The Detroit Lions play the New Orleans Saints at the Super Dome in NOLA. This is the first playoff appearance for the Lions since 1999. Among the other firsts for the Detroit, it is the first playoff appearance for players such as Jeff Backus and Dominic Raiola, both drafted by former Lions' President and GM Matt Millen, Matthew Stafford and Ndamukong Suh, both drafted after Millen was fired in 2008, the first for Lions current GM Martin Mayhew, and Head Coach Jim Schwartz.

Even though the game is taking place in New Orleans, it's a big night in Detroit. The odds are stacked against the Lions, but I don't think a win is impossible, just unlikely.

First, the Saints have a dynamic offense led by QB Drew Brees, who just surpassed Dan Marino's record of 5,084 passing yards in a season (interestingly enough, Stafford was within fifty yards of the same record). Brees has one of the most balanced offenses, ever. The Saints running game is led by rookie Mark Ingram and Darren Sproles is used as a 3rd down, change of pace type back.

But the bread and butter of this offense is its receiving, complete with four quality wide receivers led by Marques Colston, and followed by Lance Moore, Devery Henderson, and Robert Meachem. Added to that, is the emergence of second year tight end Jimmy Graham, who had ninety nine receptions and eleven touchdowns this year.

This game is expected to be a shootout. The Lions' offense can almost go toe-to-toe with the Saints, except in one area: the running game. Prior to the season, Mayhew drafted halfback Mikel Leshoure and his "ground and pound game" to complement Jahvid Best's speed on the outside and his pass catching, play making abilities. But both were lost to injury for the year, with Leshoure blowing his achilles' tendon the first week of training camp, and Best suffering another concussion, which may possibly spell the end of his career.

The Lions were lucky enough to find former third round pick Kevin Smith available after not offering him another contract at the end of the 2010 season. Smith showed promise at the start, but a high ankle sprain has limited his productivity ever since. If all three can come back next year, the Lions may be able to have one of the most prolific running attacks to go along with their passing attack.

The passing game is the strength of this offense, led by QB Matthew Stafford who just set team records in passing yardage and touchdowns. Stafford has one of the strongest arms...ever. After being able to stay healthy an entire season, the second biggest concern for the Lions' franchise QB was his accuracy, and he has improved on that in each of his first three seasons.

The Lions have a receiving corps that can match the Saints, led by Calvin Johnson, perhaps the best in the game today. Johnson is complemented by veteran Nate Burleson, who started off sluggish earlier in the year, but has come on strong as of late. Rookie Titus Young was drafted in the second round, and despite some mental lapses, he has shown tremendous promise and looks to be a fixture for years to come.

Tight ends Brandon Pettigrew and Tony Scheffler complete the receiving corps. Pettigrew is still improving, but he still drops passes at critical moments. Scheffler has shown himself to be a dangerous threat in the slot, but at times disappears from the offense altogether.

The biggest question for Detroit is, can the defense contain enough of the Saints' offense in order to allow their offense a chance to pull off an upset? The last time these teams met was on December 4 at the Super Dome for Sunday Night Football. The Saints took the game, 31-17. Depending on who you ask, it was either a "blowout" or it was "close."

I do not think it was a blowout, per se, but the Lions committed a lot of egregious penalties - eleven - that cost them 107 yards of field position. This was a nationally televised game coming off a previously nationally televised game where Lions' DT Suh stomped on a Green Bay Packers O-lineman, causing a two-game suspension. Suh wasn't there in New Orleans, but rookie Nick Fairley was. For a quarter.

If Suh shows up, and Fairley plays like he did a month ago, the front four may create enough disruption to help a porous secondary that can't stop elite QBs like Brees on their own. The last time these teams played, the Lions came within seven points, before the Saints pulled away in the fourth quarter.

The Lions can't allow the Saints to get in their heads. They are emotional, but sometimes those emotions spill over, causing them to be thrown off their game (or out in the case of Suh).

Detroit gets free safety Louis Delmas back, who they need desperately. This team lacks a No. 1 cornerback, and any help from Delmas is a huge plus.

But I think the key difference here will be the Saints' offense over Detroit's. They've been tested and they have a ring. What distinguishes the Saints' passing game over Detroit's is their offensive line. Carl Nicks and Jahri Evans are the best offensive guard tandems in the NFL, and Jermon Bushrod is a very capable tackle.

I suspect this game will go to the fourth quarter, with the Saints' home field edge and experience winning the day on a late turnover.


Lions 28
Saints 38

Update at 2300 hours on 1/8/2012: I was not aware going into the game that Saints' RB Mark Ingram was out. My bad. But they still did damage with Darren Sproles and Pierre Thomas.

No comments: