Everyone loves a good offensive battle and when you have Drew Brees and Calvin Johnson in the same game you know you’ll get just that. And, to add substance to the expected fireworks, we have two teams that are fighting for playoff position.
After an embarrassing loss to the Rams a month ago, the Saints have put things back together by defeating two NFC playoff contenders and a division rival. They became just the 12th team to log 500 yards total offense in a Monday Night Football game since 1989 when they beat the Giants.
Detroit started the season strong, flashing on everyone’s radar. They have recently shown, however, that they are not quite ready to compete with the best that the NFC has to offer. In recent weeks they’ve lost to San Francisco, Atlanta, Chicago, and Green Bay. In order for the Lions to make the playoffs they’ll need to string some wins together and, in order for New Orleans to have a shot for a first round bye (the 49ers own the No. 2 seed right now), they need the wins too. Ready or not, it’s playoff scenario season.
Jeff Backus vs. Will Smith
Most signs here point to Matthew Stafford (+12.9) having all day to throw the ball. The Lions as a team have a +4.4 pass block rating, ranking them 11th, while the Saints pass rush has an overall rating of -34.2 which puts them dead last. The one thing that could change that is the matchup between Jeff Backus (-14.3) and Will Smith (+8.2).
In recent weeks Backus hasn’t played as bad as his overall rating suggests. Over the first seven games of the season, he allowed 4.1 pressures per game, while over the last four games he’s averaged just 2.0. Smith has lined up on the right side of the field for every snap he’s seen this season, so chances are good that there will be plenty of plays where Backus will be responsible for controlling him. Backus isn’t the only one who looks better than his PFF rating, as Smith averaged 3.0 pressures per game for most of the season, but in the past two weeks has had five pressures in each game. This matchup is the one spot that New Orleans has a shot to get pressure on Stafford. The only question now is how big of a game can Smith have?
Saints Interior Offensive Linemen vs. Lions Interior Defensive Linemen
In recent years no guard duo has been better than Jahri Evans (+7.3) and Carl Nicks (+20.3). They are joined by Brian De La Puente (+3.2) who has started seven straight at center for the Saints after Olin Kreutz opted to retire early in the season. The trio has allowed Drew Brees to be hit or sacked just eight times all year (though some of this is due to Brees’ quick release). Eight individual interior linemen have allowed at least that many combined hits/sacks. In addition, the trio are excellent at run blocking, which has brought their total run blocking rating to +7.8. They are one of four teams in the NFL with a positive rating in that category right now.
Having Ndamukong Suh (+5.9) absent in this game will make the day much easier for the Saints’ linemen when it comes to protecting Brees. However, might make it more difficult when it comes to run blocking. Even though Corey Williams (+5.7 run defense) is on the wrong side of 30, he is one of 11 defensive players on the Lions with at least 14 stops. Stepping up in Suh’s absence will be first-round pick Nick Fairley (+7.7) who has seen every one of his tackles qualify as a stop since getting healthy from a preseason foot injury. Backup Sammie Lee Hill (+2.4) will also see extended playing time here. He has had four pressures on 31 pass rushes over the past three weeks, as well as a +2.2 run defense rating over that time. It will be a classic battle of strength vs. strength that will be hard to ignore.
Drew Brees vs. Lions Secondary
I hope it won’t take much convincing to tell you that Drew Brees (+60.4) is one of the best quarterbacks in the league. In case you need a reminder, he has a PFF rating of +12.0 when he’s under pressure – that’s better than the total numbers for 15 other quarterbacks, pressured or not. He goes up against a Lions secondary which has played surprisingly well so far this year but might be due for problems in this game. The Lions have success stories like Aaron Berry (+3.1) who has four passes defended and has yet to allow a pass longer than 31 yards. However, other success stories like Chris Houston (+4.4 coverage) and Louis Delmas (+4.7 coverage) suffered injuries against the Packers and might not take the field. Any team would need to be at full strength to stop the Saints’ high-powered passing attack, so missing key pieces would be a major concern for Detroit.