One team is coming off breaking all sorts of passing records, the other wondering just how they gave up six touchdowns and 480 yards to a backup quarterback. On the surface of things, this is a rematch of the Week 13 encounter that saw the New Orleans Saints hammer the Detroit Lions which doesn’t hold much appeal here. After all, the numbers suggest the Lions secondary are likely to be on the wrong end of a Drew Brees-inspired beatdown.
However, we’re in the postseason now, and you don’t need to tell the Saints about how the playoffs can play host to shocks and surprises. It was a year ago the no-hope Seahawks ended New Orleans’ dreams of repeating with a certain running back entering Beast Mode. So why can’t the Lions cause the upset? Why can’t Matthew Stafford and Calvin Johnson decimate the Saints secondary? Why can’t this be where Drew Brees has an off day?
Let’s look at what the Lions will need to do to shock the world, and what the Saints will have to do to stop them.
After something of a midseason lull, the combination of Matthew Stafford (+7.9 passing) and Calvin Johnson (+27.0 receiving) has been practically unstoppable to close out the regular season. Johnson, who finished the year as our top-ranked wide receiver by a distance, picked up an astonishing 558 yards over the final three weeks of 2011 as he became a cornerbacks worst nightmare. It didn’t matter if you put your top cornerback on him as the Packers tried, or if you double teamed him, Megatron was simply too much too handle. What made him all the more effective was that after a season of uneven displays, his quarterback Stafford started to cash in on the immense talent he obviously has. Gone are the performances filled with bad decisions and throws that more than balance out the good, and in is a player finding the gaps in coverage with ease to move the chains. How can the Saints stop this? Well they were able to limit Johnson to 69 yards by not letting him get behind them, forcing Stafford into a situation where 84.1% of aimed passes he attempted were less than 9 yards in the air. Can they do this again with the Stafford/Johnson combo at their peak? If they can ,it’s hard to see just how the Lions can expect to beat New Orleans.
Time for Suh to Step Up?
While it seems the cool thing to be down on the play/discipline/attitude of Ndamukong Suh (+8.6 pass rushing), it does seem like people are overdoing it a bit. While Suh and his sack numbers got more credit than they warranted in his rookie year, he’s not a million miles away from being the productive performer he was last year, scoring a 5.5 PRP rating in 2011 after picking up a 6.2 score in 2010 (PRP measures how much pressure a player picks up relative to how many times they rush the passer). If the Lions want to disrupt Brees, they’re going to need their DLT to go to work on the impressive Jahri Evans (+10.6 overall) who, as good as he is, has had some problems in pass protection this year. The Saints’ right guard has given up 30 combined sacks, hits, and hurries; the third highest of all right guards. Some of this is brought on by the Saints throwing the ball so much, but it’s an area that can be exploited in their playstyle. If you can pressure Brees–particularly up the gut–then his completion percentage drops from 74.9% when not pressured, to 58.3% when pressured. Suh didn’t play in Week 13; can he be the difference-maker this time?
Speaking of …
Right now there isn’t a hotter quarterback in the league than Drew Brees (+60.2 overall) who has been slicing and dicing NFL defenses as if he’s going up against the scout team in practice. It’s near impossible to go toe-to-toe with him, so you need to find some way to slow him down; something much easier said that done. We’ve mentioned how his completion percentage drops when pressured, but getting pressure on him just isn’t that easy. In fact, of all quarterbacks, Brees has faced the fifth-lowest percentage of pressure on his dropbacks (25.1%). The speed with which he gets rid of the ball means the Lions will need their coverage unit to step it up, but with Chris Houston being the only positively-graded starter in the secondary (+3.7), it won’t be that easy. It’s also not like they’ll be able to commit to defending the pass with the Saints capable of killing you with screens and draws. With the way he’s playing right now, if Brees turns up, it may be beyond the Lions to stop them.