Re-Focused: Lions @ Saints, Wild Card Round
Re-Focused: Lions @ Saints, Wild Card Round
The Detroit Lions will surely look back on this game with a mixture of frustration and disappointment as a mad five minutes in the fourth quarter saw them throw away their opportunity to hand the New Orleans Saints another Wild Card playoff upset. It was far from a surefire thing as their defense had hemorrhaged yards and points in the second half, but they were in the game and with Calvin Johnson firing on all cylinders once again, anything was possible. When the Saints picked up two touchdowns and a turnover in the space of just over two minutes, the game turned finally to the Saints. Missed opportunities were the key for this inexperienced Detroit team and they should come back next season hungry to better their first playoff game in more than a decade.
For the Saints. the offensive juggernaut just keeps on rolling. The Lions did their best to limit the output of some key Saints in spots, but they simply couldn’t match up with everything New Orleans had to offer and some crucial mental errors ended up costing them once and for all. The Saints took full advantage and now roll in to San Francisco next Saturday to face something that they haven’t faced very often this season, a truly top quality defense. How will they fare against the 49ers? That’s a discussion for later in the week, for now let’s take a look back at some interesting and pivotal performances in their wildcard win over Detroit.
Detroit – Three Performances of Note
Johnson Continues to Rise
From a neutral’s perspective it is a shame that the astonishing run of Calvin Johnson (+7.2) has come to an end now. Johnson closed out with an postseason debutant record for receiving yards , so it’s some way for him to go out but he could have been the postseason MVP and off of the back of one game has a great shot at making the “All-Playoff Team”. In the first meeting between these two, the Saints devoted double coverage to Johnson on a number of plays and the Lions didn’t go his way. This time again the Saints were focusing on Johnson but this time Matthew Stafford continued his recent ways and went after Calvin Johnson respectively. And why not when Johnson comes up with play after play, whether it be beating coverage downfield or his 17-yard gain at 6:22 in the fourth where he broke two tackles off of a short catch. It’s against the rules to play defense in the Pro Bowl, Johnson’s last game of the season, Johnson’s been giving us a preview of what that looks like for the last month by making it look like opposing defenses aren’t there.
Stafford Plays his Part
For much of the season, Matthew Stafford (+5.4) was being carried by Calvin Johnson, but as the Lions moved up a gear in the last month so did Stafford, and this passing offense moved into hyper-drive. The difference in this game and between the two quarterbacks was simply that Stafford got no free plays given to him by the Saints’ secondary and his mistakes were punished. Stafford threw two bad passes that were intercepted, one of which an irrelevant desperation play, while Brees had two passes put on the ground by Lion defenders. The Lions’ defense left receivers wide open for two crucial scores, the Saints coverage was poor but they never gave away anything for free. Lions fans should be encouraged by the steps Stafford has taken in the last month and this game was a fitting culmination of that for his individual performance. If he is to be able to match teams like the Saints in games like this in the future he needs a more reliable, consistent second target to complement Calvin Johnson. A running game wouldn’t hurt either.
Not Very Safe-ty
Many commented prior to this game that the return of Louis Delmas (-6.5) to the Detroit lineup would be a positive for the Lions. The Lions getting back a safety who knows the system, an active safety who will cover acres during the course of the game to give Detroit a chance of keeping up with the Saints’ skill position players. What the Lions got was an out of control performance from Delmas that was his worst of what had been a relatively solid season. Of course his most noteworthy play of the game will be his busted coverage, where he bit on Drew Brees’ pump fake, with Alphonso Smith on Robert Meachem’s touchdown pass that essentially put an end to the contest. However, beyond that, Delmas was shown to be out of his depth against the Saints’ athletes. He missed a tackle each on Pierre Thomas and Christopher Ivory and took a bad angle on Darren Sproles’ touchdown run as well. Along with yet another poor game from Amari Spievey the Lions safeties were found wanting at a spot where you just want a safe pair of hands.
New Orleans – Three Performances of Note
How do you Slow These Guys Down?
It is approaching the point of being unfair now, how is any team in these days of anemic defenses supposed to match up across the board with everything they can throw at you? The Lions knew that even though getting into a shootout was ill advised it was their only chance of victory here as their defense was never going to matchup across the board with the Saints. That proved to be just the case and when the Lions gave them two free scores that just put it over the top. Sproles (+2.0) was again the X-factor with 85 all-purpose yards and a deadly burst on his touchdown scamper, Brees (+6.6) made a couple of mistakes but was clinical when he wasn’t made to pay for those errors. The most concerning thing for upcoming opponents has to be how good Thomas (+3.9) looks and how fresh he is. Only eight carries last night, but a fairly devastating impact on those carries breaking four tackles, he is just waiting for a larger part of the offense when teams overcommit to slowing down Brees and his plethora of receivers.
Smith Delivers in the Crunch
This was far from a dominant performance from Will Smith (+1.4), but he exhibited exactly what a defender and a defense needs to do with an explosive offense like the Saints have. Come up with a couple of crucial stops in the second half to put some cushion between your team and your opponent. Smith came up with two quality individual plays that set the table for his teammates to pick up the pieces. On the first of those his defense didn’t pick him up, on the second they did and crucially so. The first big play came on a quarterback sneak at the goal line at 1:57 in the third quarter as he drove inside of Lions’ LG Rob Sims to stop the QB sneak short of the endzone. The Saints allowed Stafford in on a scramble the very next play, opportunity missed. The next play he came up with the Saints’ secondary matched him coming up with a rare positive play for themselves. Sims was again the culprit letting Smith inside of him as the Saints’ defensive end got in Stafford’s face and hit him after he threw. Saints’ LCB Jabari Greer beat Titus Young back to the air ball and the rest is history. If the Saints continue to come up with 40 points per game plays like this may be all they need for a second Superbowl in three seasons.
Jenkins Delivers… but not What He Might Have Wanted
It would seem that the theme of Wildcard Saturday this season was shoddy safety play. The only team to get away without some dreadful play from their safeties was the Houston Texans. Malcolm Jenkins (-4.8) and Roman Harper (-3.0) both struggled but Jenkins in particular was simply found wanting in coverage having to provide help for Calvin Johnson who was in no mood to be beaten by double coverage. Jenkins was beaten for one of Johnson’s touchdowns and but for an underthrown pass he would have given up a second on a play he stopped at the New Orleans two. Add in a pair of missed tackles on Calvin Johnson and this was a long day for Jenkins. How will he match up with a physical opponent like Vernon Davis next week? He certainly doesn’t get a week off in the playoffs to recover from that game against Johnson.
– Calvin Johnson was targeted in the coverage of six different Saints defenders. Only Jabari Greer and Roman Harper saw an incompletion on those passes.
– The nine snaps Corey Hilliard recorded in relief of the injured Jeff Backus were his first snaps since the Lions week five victory over the Chicago Bears.
– The Saints continue to be aggressive but ineffective rushing the passer. Defensive coordinator Gregg Williams had 12 different defenders rush the passer on five or more of the Saints’ 55 defensive snaps, only five of those defenders recorded pressure and only two of those on more than one occasion.
PFF Game Ball
Any time you break a record set by Raymond Berry you’re doing something very special. The special night of Calvin Johnson wasn’t enough to carry the Lions to victory but once again he simply dominated a defensive backfield throwing everything they had at him.
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Ben Stockwell | Director of Analysis
Ben joined Pro Football Focus in 2007, and has since been in charge of the company’s analysis process. He also contributes to PFF’s weekly NFL podcast.