3TFO: Falcons @ Lions, Week 16
It’s the start of the holiday season and the NFL is breaking out the first game of the full week’s schedule on Saturday night, and it’s a game that looked a lot better on paper early this year.
The Falcons had been winning games but somehow failing to earn everybody’s respect, until taking down the Giants last week. The Lions, on the other hand, have been losing the games everybody expected them to win, and are now only playing for pride, statistics and records, with Calvin Johnson chasing down the single-season receiving yardage record held by Jerry Rice.
But that passing attack and pursuit of records throws up some interesting matchups for us to examine.
John Abraham vs. Jeff Backus
Both of these players may be getting up there in years but they can still play at a pretty high level. Abraham will move from one side of the line to the other, so will spend some time battling against right tackles Gosder Cherilus and Riley Reiff. But the most interesting battle is with fellow elder statesman Jeff Backus. There have been sections of the Detroit fanbase that have been asking all season why the Lions don’t sit Backus and give Reiff, the team’s top draft pick, a chance at left tackle. When Backus went down hurt Reiff got a chance, but the coaches aren’t ready to close the book on the Backus career just yet, because he is still getting it done as a pass protector, and the team passes a lot.
Backus has allowed just a single sack this season, and that came in Week 1 against the Rams. Since then he has been beaten for a total of just 33 pressures, which, though not quite elite, is still impressive given how much the Lions sling the football around. Abraham for his part is similarly still bringing the heat, and provides a really stern test for any pass protector. This will be an interesting one to watch.
Megatron vs. Falcons CBs
The Lions smartly move Johnson around to get the best possible matchup in a game, and unless a team has a player like Darrelle Revis, who will follow him wherever he lines up, they can essentially dictate the matchup he receives. Atlanta has an interesting set of corners to contend with. By far their most instinctive and accomplished cover corner is Asante Samuel, but Dunta Robinson on the other side is markedly more physical and will give Johnson a completely different kind of coverage. The under-the-radar star of the group, however, is Robert McClain, now the team’s nickel corner and the guy likely to draw Johnson when he moves to the slot.
McClain has allowed 35 catches this year, but they have gone for an average of just 7.5 yards and he has yet to allow a touchdown catch in his coverage. He has intercepted one pass, against Peyton Manning, and has broken up another half dozen. Passers throwing into his and Samuel’s coverage have QB ratings in the 60s, but when attacking Robinson that number jumps to 100. Johnson will likely get yards in this game, but against which player?
Battle of the Elusiveless
Much has been made about the decline of Michael Turner’s running this year, and in truth he fails to find yards when the Falcons can’t open up running lanes for him. When he gets a head of steam he is still a total nightmare for defenders to bring down, and he will rumble his way through tackles. This is evidenced by the 36 missed tackles he has forced this season, one of the better marks in the league. That mark helps him to rank eighth in our Elusive Rating that attempts to isolate the effect of a running back from his blockers.
By contrast, Detroit’s top runner, Mikel Leshore, has forced just eight missed tackles and currently ranks as the least elusive back in football. He is averaging less than 2 yards per carry after contact, which is less than half of Adrian Peterson’s league-leading mark in that category. For a player that was supposed to be a top-tier running back, Leshore has so far been a disappointment. And with both teams leaning ever more on their passing game, these running backs have fewer opportunities than ever to actually make plays and generate more yardage than the blockers are making for them.
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