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Wednesday, January 4, 2012
Lions-Saints: How to win a shootout

By Kevin Seifert

Jordy Nelson
In Week 17, Jordy Nelson and the Packers lit up a Detroit defense that struggled down the stretch.

I'm charging my laptop batteries, packing extra notebooks, carbo-loading and hydrating. I hope you are as well. In three days, the Detroit Lions will visit the Superdome for what could go down as one of the wildest playoff games in recent NFL history.

It was only a few years ago when NFC North fans watched the Green Bay Packers and Arizona Cardinals combine for an NFL-record 96 points in a wild-card playoff game at University of Phoenix Stadium. Saturday night's matchup between the Lions and New Orleans Saints has the same kind of feel, forcing us to re-calibrate our usual pregame questions. It's not worth discussing whether one of the defenses can stop the opposing offense. No, the issue is which defense has a better chance to slow down the scoring.

After all, the Saints (34.2 points per game) and the Lions (29.6) are two of the NFL's four highest-scoring teams. The starting quarterbacks, Drew Brees for the Saints and the Lions' Matthew Stafford, combined to throw for 10,514 yards this season, the highest collective total for a playoff matchup in league history. And for what it's worth, the 59-point over/under for this game as established in Las Vegas is the highest in NFL playoff history, according to R.J. Bell via ESPN's sports gambling blog.

Players on both teams have downplayed the possibility of a shootout, motivated by humility or pride, depending on the circumstance. Brees said: "It seems like, typically, when you get weeks like this where everybody's hyping up one side of the ball or the other, and kind of predicting it to be a shoot-out or whatever, the defenses are off kind of quietly in the corner making sure they come out with their best performance and they take that as motivation."

Lions defensive tackle Ndamukong Suh agreed. "I don't plan on anybody shooting our defense out," he told reporters in Detroit.

Convenient or otherwise, Lions coach Jim Schwartz probably best captured the essence of this matchup.

"I think that the best defenses allow one less point than their offense scores," Schwartz said. "I think we need to take more of a chess approach. Nobody cares in chess how many pawns you give up or if you sacrifice your queen. They care about if you win the game, whether you get checkmate or not. And I think that's the only thing that’s important, not stats."

So from our perspective, the question is whether the Lions can win a shootout at the Superdome. We've already discussed the Saints' options for slowing down Stafford. Now it's fair to ask to what extent the Lions defense can check Brees, who has led the Saints to a frightening average of 41.1 points and 492.6 yards in their eight home games this season.

The Lions "limited" the Saints to 31 points in the teams' Week 13 matchup, which was actually the Saints' second-lowest point total of the season at home. And three defensive starters who missed that game -- Suh, cornerback Chris Houston and safety Louis Delmas -- are expected to be in the lineup Saturday night.

Those factors give the Lions some reason for optimism. But let's also acknowledge that their defense started a second-half slip even before Suh's two-game suspension and the knee injuries to Houston and Delmas on Thanksgiving Day. Since Week 10, as the first chart shows, the Lions have given up more points and yards than all but two teams.

We can surely attribute some of that production to their fluid personnel situation, but at the very least we must note that the Lions defense is trending the wrong way as it enters the playoffs. With that said, there are at least two areas where the Lions could make some headway against Brees: With an overwhelming four-man pass rush and by creating turnovers. Let's look at each.

As we've discussed many times, the Lions relied heavily on standard pass rushes this season. They sent an extra rusher on only 21.1 percent of opponents' dropbacks, the fourth-lowest rate in the NFL, according to ESPN Stats & Information. That strategy makes perfect sense with a defensive line that includes Suh, Cliff Avril (11 sacks), Kyle Vanden Bosch (eight), Lawrence Jackson (4.5) and even rookie Nick Fairley (one).

The Lions stayed with that strategy against the Saints last month, even with Suh and Jackson sidelined and after Fairley departed early because of a foot injury. As the second chart shows, Brees torched the Lions' standard pass rush in that game and he has done the same when other opponents have tried to stop him with maximum coverage as well. In fact, according to ESPN Stats & Information, the Lions had Brees under duress on only three of his 38 dropbacks, as defined by forcing the quarterback to move or alter his throwing motion because of pressure.

But most NFL teams don't have the frontline the Lions will boast Saturday; in addition to Suh, Jackson and Fairley are also expected to be available. It's reasonable to think the Lions are capable of putting more pressure on Brees than he has seen from most four-man pass rushes this season.

If that's the case, the Lions' pressure could dovetail to our second point. Brees committed 15 turnovers this season, 14 via interception to go with one fumble. Five of those turnovers came in losses to the Tampa Bay Buccaneers and St. Louis Rams.

Despite their second-half defensive struggles, the Lions forced 34 turnovers this season -- a figure higher than all but two NFL teams. In a back-and-forth shootout, even one takeaway could make a dramatic difference by stopping a Saints drive and giving the Lions offense an extra possession.

The Saints have the NFL's most prolific quarterback and have been unbeatable at the Superdome this season. There's a reason the Lions are 11-point underdogs in this game. It might not be likely or realistic, but there is a path the Lions could follow to victory Saturday night. It's narrow and would require a reversal of some extended trends. But in a shootout, anything can happen.