Detroit Lions vs. New Orleans Saints Key Matchups: Wildcard Edition


Detroit 11 vs. Drew Brees
The Detroit Lions will travel to New Orleans to square off against the Saints this Saturday night in the NFC wildcard round. The last time the Lions traveled to the Big Easy it was far from pretty. Detroit embarrassed themselves with thoughtless plays and mindless penalties, and threw away a competitive chance with selfishness and a lack of discipline. And it happened on national television.
There is no secret to what Detroit must do if they hope to secure only the second playoff victory in franchise history. Make Drew Brees look human again. Since a midseason loss to the lowly St. Louis Rams, the record setting quarterback has looked superhuman, shattering records along the way. Stopping Drew Brees is nearly impossible, but if the Lions can simply contain him, they will have a chance.
Accomplishing this task will take more than a shutdown performance by the Detroit secondary. It will take more than the presence of Louis Delmas and Chris Houston, who both missed the previous matchup along with the suspended Ndamukong Suh. Slowing down Brees will take a true team effort, and all eleven players on the field must do their part. New Orleans has no “go to” wide receiver that can simply be blanketed to shut down the passing attack. Drew Brees distributes his passes to whichever receiver has the best matchup, which is most often tight end Jimmy Graham. Graham is a mis-match for most defenses, as he is too athletic for most linebackers, and too big for most safeties to cover. Brees’ recognition of this led to a dominant performance against the Lions en route to the most prolific receiving season for a tight end in NFL history.
The most effective way to slow down Graham is to disrupt him at the line of scrimmage. Detroit’s defensive ends and linebackers will have to jam the tight end upon his release, and attempt to get him off of his route. This is easier said than done, given his size, but if accomplished should allow time for two things to happen. One, it will slow Graham down, and throw him off of his route, giving safety Louis Delmas assistance in coverage, and more time to recognize the offense’s play. The second, and most important result, is that it will force Drew Brees to spend more time holding the ball in the pocket. Graham is often Brees’ first read as he goes through his progression, so if the timing is thrown off, the quarterback will be forced to wait, or to progress to his second and third reads. Either way, this should allow more time for the Lion pass rush to  put pressure on Brees and force some errors, which the record setting quarterback does have a history of.
Matthew Stafford vs. Gregg Williams 
Gregg Williams is one of the most aggressive defensive play callers in the NFL, blitzing on over 51 percent of opponents’ passing plays. Matthew Stafford, on the other hand, was the least blitzed starting quarterback in the league throughout the regular season, with extra rushers coming on only 24 percent of his drop backs. Considering the relatively small sampling due to the infrequency of blitzes against Stafford, he has not performed well when under pressure this season. Six of Stafford’s 16 interceptions came during that 24 percent.
In only his first full year as a starter Stafford has shown tremendous growth, and has proven that he is able to read defenses and take advantage of certain situations. If the Lion offensive line can slow down the blitz, Stafford should be able to find the hole in the coverage and take advantage. The 23-year old has also been making more accurate pre-snap reads and adjusting at the line of scrimmage. The ability to identify blitz schemes and coverages is paramount to success for any NFL quarterback, and if Stafford can continue his growth in these areas, the Lions just may be able to score with the Saints.
Other Matchups to watch
In their previous meeting this season, Detroit’s Nick Fairley showed glimpses of his capability, and why he was selected with the Lions’ first overall pick in 2011. Unfortunately for Jim Schwartz and Gunther Cunningham, it only lasted one quarter as the rookie re-aggravated his nagging foot injury. During that stretch, Fairley looked dominant in the interior of the line, using his size, strength, and quickness to penetrate and get in the face of Drew Brees. It was effective while it lasted, as Brees was off kilter in the early going of the game.
Although not 100 percent, the combination of Fairley, and the explosive capability of Suh, are Detroit’s best chance of getting pressure on Brees. The quarterback’s keen awareness and athleticism allow him to move in the pocket enough to avoid edge pass rushers. Interior pressure can greatly affect the undersized quarterback, and lead to turnovers. If Detroit hopes to leave the Superdome with their second playoff victory in franchise history, giving extra possessions to Stafford is their best chance.

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