Detroit Lions: Nick Foles

It took three quarters, but Philadelphia finally began going to its zone-read rushes in the fourth quarter on Sunday during the Eagles’ 34-20 win against Detroit.

And it changed the game.

Perhaps no play shifted things more than LeSean McCoy's 57-yard run in the fourth quarter, a touchdown where Detroit’s once-stout run defense fell completely apart, part of a fourth quarter when the Lions couldn’t stop anything or any rusher the Eagles used.

[+] EnlargeLeSean McCoy
AP Photo/Michael PerezLeSean McCoy ran past Detroit's Louis Delmas, 26, on his way to a 57-yard TD in the fourth quarter.
It was the second big touchdown rush of the game for Philadelphia, and was the last time the Lions had the lead Sunday.

Everything Detroit tried to do on the play essentially failed.

The Eagles lined up in shotgun with 13:24 left in the fourth quarter and the Lions up, 20-14. They had McCoy to the right of quarterback Nick Foles and three receivers to the left side, the side McCoy would eventually try to run to.

Detroit had its nickel package on the field, including two defensive backs playing within two yards of the line of scrimmage. Foles snapped the ball and used a zone-read to eventually give the ball to McCoy moving forward behind the left side of his offensive line.

At the time the ball was snapped, the Eagles' offensive line also had a good jump on the Detroit defensive front. Nick Fairley was blocked wide to open the hole for McCoy, and he was also blocked into linebacker DeAndre Levy, essentially taking him out of the play as well.

This was only the start of Detroit’s issues on the play.

“It was just a missed run fit, somebody was in the wrong gap and they split us,” Levy said.

This opened up a hole for McCoy, who was already at the second level and almost the third level of the defense. This was what he did much more effectively in the fourth quarter -- he essentially made one cut and then accelerated forward.

Meanwhile, the Lions were struggling with assignments and tackles.

“They lost gap integrity a couple times,” Philadelphia center Jason Kelce said. “That’s when you saw Shady (McCoy) get those big runs.”

Once McCoy got past the initial line, Stephen Tulloch was slow on his read of the run, taking him out of the play. Ndamukong Suh appeared to be held early on the play as well, but he likely wasn’t going to be able to get there fast enough to make the play at the line.

What turned this particular run into a touchdown was receiver Jason Avant. The veteran was downfield and had Detroit nickel back Bill Bentley blocked well. What sealed the touchdown was the angle safety Louis Delmas took to the ball.

It appeared Delmas was heading the opposite direction of McCoy anyway, but then Avant blocked Bentley into Delmas, knocking him off track as well. Delmas then tried to catch McCoy, as did Willie Young from the back side of the run on the line, but neither could catch him.

“Missed tackles, missed tackles,” Delmas said. “You’ve got to find a way to get the ball on the ground. You’ve got to grab cloth or pick up a snowball and hit him in the back of the head with it.

“But you’ve got to find a way and we didn’t.”

Young actually ended up being the closest player to McCoy when he reached the end zone. Delmas dove for him after the mistake and missed, and Rashean Mathis couldn’t catch up with him, either.

It was just part of what Detroit coach Jim Schwartz said were 180 yards after missed tackles Sunday. And part of what was a record-setting day from McCoy.

“The guys up front gave me opportunities one-on-one by blowing those guys off the ball,” McCoy said about his running game in general. “I think everybody was so intimidated and scared up front, but I thought the big guys on my team took the challenge and stepped up.

“The whole week they talked about just running the ball and giving me different matchups one-on-one. Not only myself, but with the backs that we have, I think in one-on-one opportunities, we’re going to win. (Sunday), that’s what happened.”
This could get very interesting.

Philadelphia has the fastest offense in the NFL, a group that prefers to run if it can but will pass when it must. Detroit has one of the most aggressive defensive lines in football, a run defense that has been impossible to penetrate over the past two months of the season, and an offense that can keep pace with the Eagles.

Fairley
Plus, these are two teams fighting for berths in the playoffs. For Philadelphia, a win would at the very least allow the Eagles to keep pace with Dallas in the NFC East race, if not move into first place entirely. For Detroit, a win puts the Lions closer to its first-ever NFC North title.

So how do the Lions move closer? Here are four keys.

Work the right side of the line: The right side of Philadelphia’s offensive line has struggled in pass protection. The Eagles’ center, Jason Kelce, is a little bit undersized. This bodes well for Detroit’s front four, specifically defensive tackles Nick Fairley and Ndamukong Suh. The entirety of the defensive line is coming off its best game of the season against Green Bay, remains fairly healthy, and has a mission of showing it can be more consistent over the final month of the season, an issue over the first three months of the season.

If Philadelphia focuses too much on Fairley and Suh, it will leave potential rush lanes for Ziggy Ansah, Willie Young and Devin Taylor, who have all shown glimpses of strong production throughout the season.

Get the ball to Calvin Johnson: This is obviously part of Detroit’s strategy on a weekly basis, but Philadelphia gives up more passing yards per game than any other team in the league. The Eagles' secondary has struggled against receivers this season -- Michael Floyd had five receptions for 99 yards and Larry Fitzgerald had five catches for 72 yards last Sunday -- and Johnson is the best in the game. Consider this: The team with the second-worst pass defense in the league is Dallas, and Johnson caught 14 passes for 329 yards against the Cowboys -- the second-best receiving game in NFL history. Also, 72 percent of the yards the Eagles have allowed this season have been passing yards.

Reach the 10-yard line: The Lions are the best team in the league in converting goal-to-go scenarios, scoring touchdowns on 83.3 percent of those trips. It also helps that perhaps more than any other team, Detroit is built to score close to the end zone. They have two massive red-zone targets in Johnson and tight end Joseph Fauria, along with both a downhill back in Joique Bell and a make-you-miss back in Reggie Bush. Being able to convert more often than not in those scenarios are what good teams are able to do.

Don’t stress inside the red zone: The Lions have been quite good inside the red zone this season -- ranked third in the NFL in red-zone defense with a 38.7 percent conversion rate. Meanwhile, Philadelphia, for all its speed and quickness and having LeSean McCoy in its backfield, is only 29th in red-zone efficiency offense, converting 46.2 percent of the its opportunities. That’s a good place for the Lions to be successful.
ALLEN PARK, Mich. -- The plays look fairly similar, but the innovation in Chip Kelly’s offense with Philadelphia comes not necessarily through what those plays are designed to do, but through two other things.

The difference is the pacing and tempo, the speed at which the Eagles run their plays compared to most of the other teams in the NFL.

This is where Kelly is hoping to have that advantage in Philadelphia, why his Eagles are 7-5 and in a tight NFC East race with Dallas. It’s not the plays, see, it’s everything that happens once the ball is actually snapped.

[+] EnlargeNdamukong Suh
Harry How/Getty ImagesNdamukong Suh and the Lions' defensive line is preparing to play at a faster pace against the Philadelphia Eagles' up-tempo attack.
“We don’t do anything different than anybody else in the NFL,” Kelly said. “Everybody else runs open sets with three receivers on one side and one on the other, and one back sets. That’s kind of what everybody else in the league is doing, and what everybody at every level is doing.

“It’s nothing revolutionary.”

No, it isn’t, although not every team in the NFL runs sets and packages like Philadelphia and Kelly.

But the Lions, who will see the Eagles on Sunday, understand the main difference in all of it. It is that speed and how Philadelphia will try to spread out the Lions.

“They spread you out, obviously,” safety Glover Quin said. “So when you’re spread out, you have to do a good job in space. You got to do a good job in tackling. You’ve got to do a good job covering 1-on-1’s, things like that.

“It’s going to be a bunch of space, and they are going to spread you out and they have a bunch of options on every play, and so everybody is going to be on top of their game.”

To prep for Philadelphia, Detroit defensive coordinator Gunther Cunningham said he went back and watched some film of Oregon along with tape of the Eagles. Kelly, though, said his offense is different now than what he did in college.

There are elements, sure, but his offense is more of a combination of what he ran at Oregon and New Hampshire, along with some of what Pat Shurmur did in Cleveland. There are both elements of college and NFL offenses in the Philadelphia offense, much of which causes them to look a little different.

And one thing Detroit is going to be paying attention to is what happens when the Eagles fake handing the ball off to running back LeSean McCoy.

“The primary thing is they fake the run and throw what we call a bubble screen to (DeSean Jackson), who is sitting right behind the offensive tackle,” Cunningham said. “So he’s doing a lot of things like that. [The] issue for the defensive coaches is the work, the preparation work for the game and to let your players know to stay patient, let’s do what we do and let’s get the ball back for the offense. That’s the approach I think teams need to take.”

Prepping for Philadelphia is two-fold. First is McCoy. The Eagles' lead back already has 1,088 yards and five touchdowns this season, but has only rushed for more than 100 yards in a game once in the second half of the season -- a 155-yard game against Green Bay in Week 10. In 12 games this season, Philadelphia has run the ball more than it has passed it seven times, passed more four times, and had perfect balance between run and pass once -- last week against Arizona.

Having McCoy able to run the ball has opened things up for quarterback Nick Foles, who has 19 touchdown passes and no interceptions this season. Foles has been the key for a more balanced attack in Philadelphia during its four-game winning streak.

“Our whole offense is based on what the defense can give us,” Kelly said. “I’ll throw it a thousand times a game, I’ll run it a thousand times a game. Depends on what the situation is.”

Considering Detroit’s run defense this season, perhaps expect more pass. The Lions have yet to allow a 100-yard rusher this season. Over the past month, they have not allowed a team to average more than two yards a carry.

Scoring on the ground? Forget it. Detroit hasn’t allowed a rushing touchdown since September.

Much of that has to do with Detroit’s front four, the group that could be most affected by the pace Philadelphia plays with. So the mantra this week for the Lions has been simple, even as they deal with the Eagles' offense.

Three-and-outs would mean a less tired Detroit defense.

“The quicker they run the plays, the quicker we can get them off the field,” Quin said. “The quicker they run, the quicker we get them off the field and get the ball to our offense.”
Fairley/FolesGetty ImagesNick Fairley and the Lions' defense will have their hands full slowing down Eagles QB Nick Foles.
The Philadelphia Eagles have exceeded expectations so far in coach Chip Kelly's first season. The Detroit Lions have arguably fallen a little short of expectations in coach Jim Schwartz's fifth season.

When the two 7-5 teams meet in Philadelphia, it won't matter how they got there. The Eagles and Lions are both in position to win their division titles, and a win Sunday will be a major step toward achieving that goal.

The game will feature two potent but very different offenses. Nick Foles may not be the bona fide franchise quarterback that Matthew Stafford is, but he is the hottest quarterback in the league over the past five weeks. The Eagles' defense may lack stars like Ndamukong Suh, but it is playing better every week as a group. Stafford, Calvin Johnson and Reggie Bush will provide its toughest test since the Denver disaster back in September.

ESPN.com reporters Michael Rothstein, who covers the Lions, and Phil Sheridan, who covers the Eagles, took a look at some key issues in a game with major playoff implications.

Sheridan: The NFC North race has been deeply affected by quarterback injuries, with Chicago's Jay Cutler and Green Bay's Aaron Rodgers out of the picture lately. Despite a healthy and productive Stafford, the Lions haven't been able to separate from the rest. What are some key reasons for that?

Rothstein: It starts with turnovers and inconsistency. The Lions' defensive line, the same group that dominated on Thanksgiving, largely disappeared in some earlier games. Turnovers are a major issue, too. The Lions have three or more turnovers in four of their past five games. Against Tampa Bay and Pittsburgh, that was a key factor in those losses. Detroit is a very talented team that continues to feel like a group still finding out exactly how it wants to play. But it does start with those turnovers. A couple of the Lions' players even told me after Thursday's game -- by far the Lions' best performance this season -- that turnovers were still a major issue. And Detroit committed four of them and still scored 40 points. If they do that Sunday, the Lions will be leaving with a loss.

Speaking of turnovers, Foles appears allergic to mistakes, especially turnovers, this season. Is it all fitting in with Chip Kelly's system? Maturation? Magic? Something different? What has turned him into this quarterback this season?

Sheridan: There is almost certainly an element of magic involved. By that I mean that Foles has had a bit of luck on his side. He threw two would-be interceptions to Patrick Peterson Sunday, for instance. DeSean Jackson batted one away and a penalty negated the other. But there is no doubt that Foles has played extremely well and with remarkable poise and confidence. He has fully embraced and absorbed Kelly's offense, which includes sound pass protection and a great running game -- two of every quarterback's best friends. Foles has been accurate and unafraid to trust his receivers to make plays on the ball. If you make good decisions and sharp throws in a well-designed offense, it turns out pretty much like what we've seen from Foles the past two months.

The Eagles felt pretty good about running their offense effectively against good Tampa Bay and Arizona defenses. The Lions seem like a new challenge with that front of theirs. Was the Thanksgiving game a sign the Lions have gotten it going on defense or are they just as likely to disappear in the face of Kelly's uptempo, unorthodox offense?

Rothstein: It's tough to say because the Lions haven't really seen this type of offense before, although I'm guessing the three younger guys on the line -- tackle Nick Fairley and ends Ziggy Ansah and Devin Taylor -- are somewhat familiar from their recent college days. Getting pressure with the front four -- and, at least last week, well-timed blitzes from linebackers and safeties -- is still going to be the key for any Detroit defensive success. And doing it for one week doesn't make it a guarantee that it'll continue. Even though he doesn't have huge stats, Suh has been a consistent force up front and if he and Fairley can get going early, it opens things up for Ansah on the outside.

The pressure key, though, is more important for Detroit's cornerbacks. The Lions have been very inconsistent there this season, but they were able to take the first read away from Green Bay's Matt Flynn a lot. By doing that, it gave the defensive line an extra second to get to Flynn so it all worked together. But it has been a matter of consistency, which the Lions have not had there this season.

Since we were talking about the Detroit defensive line, the Lions have been extremely good against the run. They haven't allowed a rushing touchdown in two months and have gone six straight games holding teams under 70 yards rushing total. Some of this is the proliferation of passing in the NFL, but considering LeSean McCoy's numbers this season, how much do the Eagles try running before sticking with Foles and his arm?

Sheridan: One of the most striking differences between Kelly and Andy Reid, a guy I covered for 14 years and respect a lot, is that Kelly is very committed to the run. He sticks with it almost no matter what, with the belief that it will eventually wear a defense down. Reid would abandon the run game after two or three unsuccessful plays. Early in the season, McCoy was on pace to break the NFL record for rushing attempts in a season. He is now on pace for 100 fewer carries than that, about 310. That's because Foles' success in the passing game has allowed Kelly to be more balanced. A few teams -- the Giants and Cowboys, especially -- were able to shut the Eagles' running game down. Arizona did a good job of it in the second half. But Kelly hasn't completely abandoned it in any of those games. If that changes Sunday, it will mean he really thinks the Lions' defense is invulnerable to it.

The Eagles were moderately successful keeping Larry Fitzgerald from going off last week. Johnson is another matter. Has anyone been really effective in stopping Megatron and, if so, how did they go about it? Does it take an elite corner or an elite scheme? A drone strike?

Rothstein: The team that has been most successful in limiting Johnson this season has been ... the Detroit Lions. There have been times during games this season when the Lions have seemed to go away from the best receiver in football, most notably in the second half against Pittsburgh, when he had no catches. Darrelle Revis has been pretty good on Johnson as well, but for the most part, it takes a really good scheme to keep the ball out of his hands. Unless you have a corner like Revis, usually some sort of bracketing of Johnson can be effective. But the Lions are OK with that happening because it opens up the field for Bush and Nate Burleson. That was a big reason the Lions got Bush -- just for that.

This kind of leads into my last question. Philadelphia's pass defense has been both poor and porous this season. Do they have any sort of manpower to match up with Johnson -- and to a lesser extent Burleson, Brandon Pettigrew, Kris Durham and Bush -- or could this be another game like he had against the Cowboys or Bengals?

Sheridan: Before getting to the answer (spoiler alert: It's no, the Eagles can't match up with Johnson), let me clarify a bit. It's true that the numbers show the Eagles to be terrible as far as yards allowed. They really have given up vast chunks of yardage. But they are keeping teams out of the end zone, and that is giving the offense breathing room to function.

While insisting the Eagles' defense is better than its stats, I have to say this matchup could be the one that breaks some of those trends. Stafford is better than Carson Palmer and Johnson is better than anyone, so this may be the week the yards translate into more points. The Eagles' strength right now is their front seven, and if they can get pressure on Stafford and force him into some of the mistakes he is prone to making, that will go a long way toward covering up the mismatches on the back end.

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