3TFO: Lions @ Eagles, Week 14
At 7-5 both the Lions and Eagles are right in the thick of the NFC playoff race. Both are currently in first place with Detroit clinging to a one game lead over Chicago and Philadelphia deadlocked with Dallas. While the loser of this contest will do damage to their playoff hopes, the winner will double last year’s win total and improve their chances of earning a division title.
After two losses to inferior teams the Lions righted the ship in a big way on Thanksgiving by blowing out the rival Packers to remain on top of the NFC North. Despite the up and down season, Detroit is still the favorite to win the North and once in the playoffs they are capable of beating anyone. The Eagles have also experienced a roller coaster type season, but are currently riding the high of a four game winning streak. After losing ten in a row at home, Philadelphia has won two straight at Lincoln Financial Field, a trend that will only continue if the Eagles perform well in these pivotal matchups.
Stephen Tulloch vs. LeSean McCoy
Stephen Tulloch has been a real bright spot for the Lions’ defense and emerged as a reliable player in the middle of the unit. Now in his third season with Detroit, Tulloch has had just two negatively graded games all season and zero since Week 5. He is the second highest graded inside linebacker in the NFL, behind only Patrick Willis and his Run Stop Percentage of 12.3 is fourth best in the league. As great as Tulloch has been, he has quite a daunting task ahead of him this week. Philadelphia has begun to utilize running back, LeSean McCoy in multiple ways that will surely put a strain on the Lions’ defense and especially Tulloch. In recent weeks the Eagles have attempted to isolate McCoy on linebackers in the passing game, something that most defenses can’t handle, but Tulloch and the Lions might. Tulloch has the fourth highest coverage grade of all inside linebackers in the NFL and allows a reception every 12.5 snaps that he is in coverage for. If he can contain McCoy out of the backfield that would be a huge bonus for the Lions defense and take a major weapon away from Philadelphia.
A concern for the Lions is that Tulloch has missed eight tackles on the season and while his tackle efficiency of 13.4 ranks him in the middle of the pack among inside linebackers; it is a number that McCoy will surely test this week. McCoy has forced 54 missed tackles this season and ranks seventh in our running back Elusive Rating. His ability to stop and start is second to none and will put a lot of pressure on the Lions to gang tackle and flow to McCoy each time he touches the ball. McCoy has elevated his play again this season and his number one ranking at the running back position is a testament to his strong play and Chip Kelly’s offense putting him in positions to succeed. Detroit will surely score some points on offense so the Eagles will need McCoy to be special to help them keep pace and come away with a win, but Tulloch and the Lions linebackers will try to keep him contained.
Calvin Johnson vs. Eagles Defense
As boring as it may be to include Calvin Johnson in a game preview, he is too important to the Lions’ success to completely leave off. He leads the NFL with 127 passes thrown his way and has a league high 1,299 yards. Johnson is clearly quarterback, Mathew Stafford’s favorite receiver as no other receiver has more than 67 targets. The problem with that is opposing defenses also know to key on Johnson, which is why Stafford has been intercepted nine times on passes intended for Johnson, the most of any receiver in the NFL. Even with the nine interceptions, Stafford’s QB rating when throwing to Johnson is 93.9 because of the league high 12 touchdowns and 1,299 yards.
Most weeks the matchup against Megatron would feature a cornerback or at least a team’s secondary, but coming off a week where the Eagles used nine different defenders as the primary cover man on Arizona’s Larry Fitzgerald, it seems likely that a similar strategy will be utilized, Philadelphia held Fitzgerald to 72 yards, 43 of which came on a spectacular catch and run for a touchdown, by mixing coverages and using linebackers at times to disrupt Fitzgerald’s routes. Johnson will pose an even larger threat to the Eagles’ defense so once again they will need a total team effort. Despite needing help from all eleven defenders, much of the onus to contain Johnson will fall on Eagles cornerbacks, Bradley Fletcher and Cary Williams. Both have been steady, but not amazing this year. Fletcher ranks 40th among cornerbacks allowing a reception every 10.4 snaps he is in coverage for and Williams ranks 47th on the same list allowing a catch every 10.0 snaps. Both will need to do their part in covering Johnson this week and not allowing him to take over the contest.
Sticking with the Lions’ passing game, other than covering Johnson, the next most important thing to slowing down the potent Lions’ offense is putting pressure on Stafford. Not many teams have been able to consistently pressure Stafford this year and he has faced pressure on just 28.5% of his dropbacks, the third lowest frequency in the NFL. The ability to get pressure on Stafford, while difficult to do is paramount in slowing down the Detroit offense. Stafford’s rating drops from 100.7 when not under pressure, to 58.0 when under pressure. His completion percentage drops from 63.8 to 46.2 and he throws an interception every 26 passes that he is under pressure on, compared to every 41 passes when not under pressure. Pressuring Stafford is a great idea, but executing it is a different story. As a team the Lions offensive line is the third most efficient pass blocking unit, allowing just 126 total pressures and a league low seven sacks.
To try and crack the Lions’ line and get after Stafford, Philadelphia will need big days from a few of their pass rushers. Defensive end, Fletcher Cox who ranks seventh in Pass Rusher Productivity (PRP) among 3-4 defensive ends with 47 pressures and three sacks on 427 pass rushing opportunities will need to provide an inside push and help out the edge rushers. Outside linebacker, Trent Cole has successfully converted to stand up linebacker from 4-3 defensive end and will hope to build on his two sack game a week ago. Along with seldom used, Brandon Graham the Eagles have some threats to get after Stafford. Graham is seventh among 3-4 outside linebackers in PRP 20 pressures and three sacks on just 120 pass rushing snaps. This might be the week that Philadelphia has to increase his workload knowing the importance of making Stafford uncomfortable.
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