Tough sledding: The Detroit Lions have had two weeks to prepare for a tough matchup against the Philadelphia Eagles, knowing they'll need a victory to avoid starting the season with an unmanageable 1-4 record. This game appeared tough even before the Lions' slow start, and it will take by far the Lions' best performance of the season to pull it off. The Lions are 1-5 on the road since running off a six-game winning streak away from Ford Field, and they've won in the city of Philadelphia only once (1986) since 1965. The expected return of safety Louis Delmas, whose playmaking helped the Lions force 34 turnovers last season, provides some optimism. So does the Eagles' recent history of self-inflicted mistakes. As a result of 14 turnovers, their offense is averaging only 16 points per game, the second-worst mark in the NFL.
Adjustments expected: It will be fascinating to see what, if any, offensive adjustments coach Jim Schwartz and offensive coordinator Scott Linehan came up with during the bye week to counter the near-exclusive zone coverages their downfield passing game has faced this season. As we noted Thursday, the Eagles play more man-to-man coverage than most teams but they have still had the best downfield defense in the NFL. Will the Lions change the type of routes and passing plays they use? Will they find a more effective way to run the ball against pass-oriented schemes? Or did they spend the bye working on better execution rather than schematic changes?
A commitment to running the ball could help the Packers take some heat off of QB Aaron Rodgers.
Protecting Aaron Rodgers: The root of our week-long discussion of the Green Bay Packers' play-calling/running game is the 21 sacks Rodgers has taken in five games. As we discussed, since the start of the 2010 season, the Packers have lost 10 of the 12 games in which they failed to run the ball on at least 30 percent of their snaps. They are 29-3 in all other games, a testament to the importance of forcing defenses to at least consider the possibility of regular running plays. It will be especially important Sunday night against the Houston Texans, who have one of the NFL's top pass rushes. The Texans have recorded one sack for every 9.1 dropbacks this season when using their standard pass rush, the best mark in the NFL. The Packers, meanwhile, are giving up one sack for every 11.9 dropbacks against standard pass rushes, the second-worst mark in the league. The Packers can help their offensive line by establishing a commitment to the more-than-occasional running play early Sunday night, even if those plays aren't overly effective given the loss of tailback Cedric Benson. Sometimes, quantity of running plays is just as important as quality.
Early stages: The Packers, of course, will find it more difficult to run if they fall behind against a Texans team that has outscored opponents 93-28 in the first half of this season. That's an NFL-high margin of 65 points; the next-best team has a 39-point margin in the first half. The Packers have been slow starters for most of this season and have a total of 14 first-quarter points. (They've scored 48 points in the second quarter.) In the end, however, the Packers probably don't want to find out what would happen if they fall behind and shift to a pass-only mode against the Texans' pass rush.