NFL Nation: Lawrence Jackson
Cornerback Antoine Winfield was the latest addition to the "Minnesota West" roster in Seattle.
"Ever since we controversially signed Steve Hutchinson from them," Aaron writes, "it has seemed as though the Seahawks go out of their way to snatch whatever Vikings they can to stick it to us. It started with them signing Nate Burleson, then Sidney Rice and Heath Farwell, Darell Bevell and Tarvaris Jackson (for whatever reason). They even outbid us for T.J. Houshmanzadeh a few years back. They signed Ryan Longwell at the end of this past season. Obviously, it has continued with Percy Harvin and now Winfield."
Sando: It's a remarkable pattern, but there's likely no revenge factor. The people running the Seahawks during the Hutchinson controversy are long gone from the organization. They were involved in adding Burleson and Houshmandzadeh, but they had nothing to do with the Seahawks' more recent deals for Rice, Farwell, Bevell, Jackson, Harvin or Winfield.
Bevell's hiring as the Seahawks' offensive coordinator stands out as a factor behind the team's decisions to sign Rice and trade for Harvin.
John Schneider's presence as the Seahawks' general manager since 2010 provides a strong link to the NFC North in general. Schneider, after spending much of his career with the Green Bay Packers, played a role in Seattle adding former NFC North players such as Breno Giacomini, Will Blackmon, Cliff Avril, Steven Hauschka, Brett Swain, Frank Omiyale and others. Also, Schneider and Bevell were together in Green Bay. However, Seattle has added many more players without ties to the Vikings or the NFC North.
For a while, the Detroit Lions signed or otherwise acquired a long list of players with Seahawks ties. There were some connections between the organizations -- former Lions coach Rod Marinelli and former Seahawks GM Tim Ruskell shared a history with Tampa Bay, for instance -- but some of the overlap defied explanation.
Tyler Polumbus, Burleson, Will Heller, Rob Sims, Lawrence Jackson, Maurice Morris, Julian Peterson, Trevor Canfield, Marquand Manuel, Kole Heckendorf, Kevin Hobbs, Logan Payne, Chuck Darby, Keary Colbert, Billy McMullen, Travis Fisher, Cory Redding, John Owens, Joel Filani, T.J. Duckett, Kevin Kasper, Etric Pruitt and Mike Williams were among the players to play for both organizations.
Avril agreed to terms on a two-year, $15 million deal with the Seattle Seahawks, according to ESPN's Adam Schefter, and was en route to the team's headquarters Wednesday night. Further terms were not immediately available, but as NFC West colleague Mike Sando notes, it appears Avril agreed to a shorter team deal to give himself another chance in free agency in 2015, the year he turns 29.
Avril has 29 sacks in his past three seasons, numbers that you would have thought might earn a bigger payday. He played last season on a $10.6 million franchise tag after turning down a three-year deal reportedly worth $30 million.
The Lions had interest in bringing Avril back, from what I understand, and must now decide how to replace both of their starting defensive ends following Avril's departure and the release of Kyle Vanden Bosch. Willie Young is one option; the Lions placed a second-round tender on him as a restricted free agent. Another is newcomer Jason Jones, whom coach Jim Schwartz would said Wednesday would mostly play end. Free agent Lawrence Jackson also has not re-signed, and Tampa Bay Buccaneers free agent Michael Bennett is available as well.
William Hayes collected seven of them while playing on a one-year deal worth $900,000. That was a bargain by NFL standards.
The Rams rewarded Hayes on Tuesday with a three-year contract worth $10.5 million, ESPN.com's John Clayton reported. So, while other NFC West teams seek pass-rush help, the Rams can generally feel good about their abilities in that critical area.
Hayes, who played 34 percent of the defensive snaps last season, returns to a group already featuring 2008 first-round draft choice Chris Long and 2011 first-rounder Robert Quinn.
Long has 42 career sacks, more than any player from the 2008 draft class. Cliff Avril (39.5), Calais Campbell (27.5), Lawrence Jackson (19.5) and Jason Jones (18.5) are next on that list. Hayes, a fourth-round choice in Tennessee that year, ranks eighth on the list with 15 sacks. Rams teammate Kendall Langford is 10th with 9.5 sacks since 2008.
Quinn's 15.5 sacks in two seasons rank fifth on the list of 2011 draft choices. San Francisco's Aldon Smith tops that list with 33.5 sacks. Von Miller (30), J.J. Watt (26) and Ryan Kerrigan (16) also outrank Quinn.
Quinn's 10.5 sacks last season ranked fourth among 2011 draft choices.
Cap Status: The Bears have a modest amount of cap space after using $8.45 million for the franchise tag on defensive tackle Henry Melton. Over the weekend, they were projected to have between $6 million and $10 million available to them.
Strategy: Conventional wisdom suggests the Bears will seek improvement at offensive line and tight end this offseason, and free agency offers the first avenue. At the moment, the Bears' best offensive lineman is right guard Lance Louis, who is still recovering from ACL surgery and is a pending free agent himself. You wonder if the Bears have enough firepower to sign left tackle Jake Long, but New York Jets guard Brandon Moore could be a reasonably priced option. At tight end, everyone loves the Tennessee Titans' Jared Cook, but he will be costly. Incumbent Kellen Davis is signed for 2013 but had a disappointing season last year as a pass-catcher.
Cap Status: The Lions won't have much cap space to work with unless they can renegotiate/extend one of the two huge contracts on their books: quarterback Matthew Stafford ($20.8 million cap figure) and defensive tackle Ndamukong Suh ($18.2 million). According to the Detroit Free Press, the Lions are projected to have $6 million in space at the moment.
Strategy: There are plenty of needs to squeeze into that small amount of cap space. The Lions would love to find a speedy tailback to fill the role once envisioned for Jahvid Best, a profile that seems to fit veteran Reggie Bush. But with only two of their 23 projected free agents now under contract, the Lions could have needs for two safeties, two defensive ends, two cornerbacks and one outside linebacker. That's because defensive ends Cliff Avril, Lawrence Jackson and Willie Young are all pending free agents. The same goes for cornerbacks Chris Houston and Jacob Lacey and safeties Louis Delmas and Amari Spievey. A weekend flooding of the cornerback/safety markets could drive down prices.
Cap Status: The Packers are projected to have about $20 million in space, a number that could increase depending on whether they renegotiate the contract of tight end Jermichael Finley.
Strategy: Thompson signaled at least some participation in free agency by hosting a visit for defensive lineman Chris Canty last week; Canty had been released by the New York Giants. The Packers know they need to improve their defensive line, whether it is with veterans, drafted players or a combination of both. There is also plenty of fan support for the Packers to pursue running back Steven Jackson, who has said he would take a role as a "counterpuncher" on a passing offense if necessary. But to this point, there has been no indication the Packers are interested. Much of their cap space is likely to be devoted, one day, to contract extensions for quarterback Aaron Rodgers and linebacker Clay Matthews.
Cap Status: They will have a moderate amount of cap space, about $15 million, if nothing changes between now and Tuesday.
Strategy: There is no doubt the Vikings need to improve their receiving corps, but to this point there has been no indication they are interested in the pre-eminent receiver on the market: Mike Wallace. Multiple reports suggest Wallace is most likely to end up with the Miami Dolphins. Monday's trade of Percy Harvin means the Vikings could get into the Wallace mix or perhaps Greg Jennings or Brandon Gibson. Meanwhile, it's quite possible the Vikings could seek a safety on the free-agent market, and they'll have to decide what to do at strongside linebacker and middle linebacker. The incumbent starters, Erin Henderson and Jasper Brinkley, are both free agents.
Doucet struggled with drops and lost playing time last season, after all. Those were negatives, but the bigger picture looks upon his Cardinals tenure more favorably.
Consider that Doucet's departure from the Cardinals leaves NFC West teams with four players from the 28 they selected in their 2008 NFL draft classes.
Chris Long (St. Louis), Calais Campbell (Arizona), Red Bryant (Seattle) and Larry Grant (San Francisco) comprise that short list. Grant played three seasons with St. Louis before re-signing with San Francisco. That places Doucet on a shorter list of 2008 picks lasting five years with the teams that drafted them.
NFC West teams drafted Long, Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie, Lawrence Jackson, Kentwan Balmer, Donnie Avery, John Carlson, Chilo Rachal, Campbell, John Greco and Reggie Smith before the Cardinals selected Doucet.
Doucet never became a regular starter, but Fitzgerald and Boldin were well-established as franchise cornerstones when he arrived. And after Arizona traded Boldin in 2010, the team used a third-round choice for Andre Roberts.
Doucet was scheduled to earn $2 million in salary and workout bonus in 2013. He is 27 years old and could help a team as a slot receiver, in my view.
Doucet has 1,213 yards receiving from the slot since 2008, third on the Cardinals behind Boldin (1,352) and Fitzgerald (1,221) over that span, according to ESPN Stats & Information. He also has 14 drops on those plays, matching the total for Boldin (eight) and Fitzgerald (six).
Best choice: Russell Wilson, QB, 2012 third round. Wilson went from springtime curiosity to surprise opening-day starter to Pro Bowl quarterback in eight months. Seattle has hit big on some other draft choices during the Pete Carroll-John Schneider era, but Wilson stands apart from the rest. No rookie in the 36-year history of the organization has impacted the team as dramatically as Wilson did in 2012. That is a bold statement, but one that required about 30 seconds of verification. Wilson is the first QB draft choice in Seahawks history to succeed with the team. None of the other 15 came close (Mike Teel, David Greene, Seneca Wallace, Jeff Kelly, Josh Booty, Brock Huard, Rick Mirer, Dan McGwire, John Gromos, Sammy Garza, David Norrie, John Conner, Sam Adkins, Steve Myer and Chris Rowland). The 26 touchdown passes Wilson threw during the regular season exceed the Seattle career totals for every one of those other 15 drafted QBs except Mirer, who had 41 touchdowns over four seasons with the team.
Worst choice: Aaron Curry, LB, 2009 first round. The Seahawks thought they were making the surest choice of the 2009 draft when they made Curry the fourth overall choice. Instead, a franchise that had used top-10 picks for defensive stars Cortez Kennedy and Kenny Easley got an all-time bust. Curry had 5.5 sacks, 12 passes defensed and four forced fumbles while starting 28 of 30 games for the Seahawks over two seasons. Something wasn't right, however, and by Curry's third season, the team had seen enough. Seattle essentially bought out Curry's expensive rookie contract to facilitate a trade to Oakland. Lawrence Jackson was a distant second for this distinction.
Verdict pending: James Carpenter, OL, 2011 first round. Wilson's selection in 2012 offsets lingering regrets from the Seahawks' decision to draft Carpenter over Andy Dalton a year earlier. Still, Seattle cannot feel good about how Carpenter's career has unfolded. Carpenter was struggling in pass protection at right tackle before a severe knee injury convinced Seattle that Carpenter's future would be at left guard, next to tackle Russell Okung. The conversion did not go well last season because the knee injury continued to limit Carpenter's mobility. The coming season appears pivotal for Carpenter.
Related: 2011 draft rewind.
Much of the Lions' defensive nucleus is made up of pending free agents, and you wonder how many Mayhew wants to bring back after reading some of Mayhew's quotes. He admitted it's "quite possible" he misjudged the defense's talent level entering the season, and said it needs more playmakers.
"We need guys that can impact the game," he added. "We've got a lot of guys that are good guys. They line up right, they know what their job is, but they don't impact the game. We need interceptors. We need guys that sack the quarterback. We need guys that cause fumbles, guys that make plays on third down. Those are the kind of guys that can change the game for us."
What's amazing is that even the most amateur observers have been questioning the Lions' secondary for years. It's true that safety Louis Delmas is a difference-maker when healthy, but for the most part it appears Mayhew went into the season counting on players to do things they had never or rarely done before.
Who did Mayhew expect to be his interceptors? Cornerback Chris Houston had five in 2011, but has never had more than two in any of his other five NFL seasons. Cornerback Jacob Lacey had five interceptions in three previous seasons with the Indianapolis Colts. Safety Amari Spievey had five in two previous seasons. Cornerback Bill Bentley was a rookie, and thus his production was impossible to project.
Mayhew said the only defensive player who improved from 2011 was defensive tackle Ndamukong Suh, a warning shot for everyone who is eligible for free agency and a few others as well. (I assume he skipped over defensive tackle Nick Fairley, because he was injured for most of last season.)
The free agent list includes defensive linemen Cliff Avril, Corey Williams, Willie Young and Lawrence Jackson. Linebackers Justin Durant and DeAndre Levy are on it, as are Houston, Delmas, Lacey and Spievey. Given Mayhew's comments, you would think that many of them will be looking for work elsewhere this spring.
Of course, Mayhew's search for "playmakers" is no different than what every other team is looking for. He won't find playmakers at every position, but in 2012, the Lions were pretty thin across the board. Most fans directed their ire at the Lions' inconsistent offense, but it rarely got help from the defense. The Lions recovered the NFL's sixth-fewest fumbles (six), had only 11 interceptions (No. 23) and ranked No. 22 in sacks per opposing dropback (5.6), according to ESPN Stats & Information.
Again, I appreciate Mayhew's honesty. There is not much to criticize here that he did not already acknowledge. The Lions stood pat last offseason and paid for it. That doesn't appear to be a possibility in 2013.
This week, Bears defensive tackle Henry Melton and Lions center Dominic Raiola exchanged public words -- "dirty" and "clown" were the key ones -- and on Sunday morning, Lions defensive end Lawrence Jackson left little doubt about his mindset.
Via Twitter, Jackson said:
About three hours to go. ...
Chicago Bears: Linebacker Brian Urlacher (hamstring) was officially ruled out of Sunday's game against the Minnesota Vikings. Four players sat out of practice because of injuries: receiver Earl Bennett (concussion), running back Michael Bush (ribs), cornerback Tim Jennings (shoulder) and nose tackle Stephen Paea (foot). Bennett and Jennings might have a hard time getting back for the Vikings game. Receivers Devin Hester (concussion) and Alshon Jeffery (knee) were limited participants in practice.
Detroit Lions: Offensive lineman Gosder Cherilus (knees), safety Louis Delmas (knee), cornerback Chris Houston (ankle), defensive end Lawrence Jackson (concussion), cornerback Jacob Lacey (foot/Achilles) and defensive tackle Corey Williams (knee) all missed practice. … The Lions signed receiver Lance Long to fill out their 53-man roster.
Green Bay Packers: Offensive lineman T.J. Lang (ankle), linebacker Clay Matthews (hamstring), defensive end Mike Neal (shoulder), receiver Jordy Nelson (hamstring), running back James Starks (knee) and defensive end C.J. Wilson (knee) all missed practice. Cornerback Charles Woodson (collarbone) was a limited participant but it's not clear if he'll be ready for Sunday night's game against the Lions.
Minnesota Vikings: Defensive end Jared Allen (shoulder/back) and receiver Percy Harvin (ankle) were the only players who didn't practice. Allen is expected to be ready for Sunday's game against the Bears. … Quarterback Christian Ponder confirmed he got engaged this week to ESPN reporter Samantha Steele. "Obviously, the rumors are true, but we're focused on the Bears this week," he said.
It seems like at least once a game, Matt Schaub drops back, fakes a handoff, turns, and rolls out. He sets himself with plenty of time and throws back across, usually to Andre Johnson running deep, hitting him for a big play.
The Texans make it look easy. But considering there is no lack of film of this play, should it be so hard to stop? Why does this Texans' deep bootleg throwback play create so many big gains?
“When they do put the ball out there and fake the handoff on the play-action, automatically a lot of the linebackers and safeties and corners and all step up and play the run,” said Titans cornerback Jason McCourty, who will help defend against it Sunday at Nashville’s LP Field. “Off that, they run a heck of a lot of boot and they are able to make plays off the boot.
“They give you the same exact action as the boot and make one cut off of the boot and that’s kind of what screws everybody up. You see it and you’re like, ‘OK, I read the boot, I’m going to go make the play.’ And he turns up and goes the opposite direction. With a player as dynamic as Andre Johnson, you put the ball up in the air, as a DB you take one wrong step and he’s going to make you pay for it.
Johnson sees it pretty simply: “I don’t know how they set it up. It’s something that just works.”
Defenses come into the game wary of the Texans’ run game and wary of those play-action bootleg rollouts. They are aware of how often Schaub throws to a target moving the same direction he's going, which is the natural way for it to work.
The frequency of those runs and rollouts can lull a defense into a predictive play. A throw against the grain in such situations is almost counterintuitive. And the change-up can not only produce a big play, but alter what a defense does going forward for fear of getting burned by it again.
It can work against man coverage and it can work against zone. The key is a single high safety.
“The only way to really stop it is to play tight man to man coverage, and that opens up a lot of other cans of worms,” Detroit coach Jim Schwartz said. “It’s a zone defense killer. It’s a lot like a 3-pointer against a packed zone in basketball.”
On Thanksgiving at Ford Field, the Texans had the ball first-and-10 at their own 26-yard line working from the right hash mark. Let’s look at how it worked in that situation.
The Texans lined up with three receivers bunched left, tight to the left tackle, with Johnson between Kevin Walter and Lestar Jean. Tight end Owen Daniels was in a three-point stance beside right tackle Ryan Harris. Running back Arian Foster was directly behind Schaub, who was under center.
Schaub took the snap, turned to his right and met up with Foster, faking the handoff wide of the right hash mark, with Foster angling off right tackle.
Cornerback Drayton Florence, one of the defenders lined up to cover the bunch of receivers, blitzed, bought the fake and ran down the line of scrimmage after Foster, rendering himself irrelevant in defending the play.
Walter tried to take out defensive end Lawrence Jackson with a low block and pretty much missed, but slowed down Jackson's pursuit. Then Walter got up and positioned himself as a short target on the right hash.
Jean started to move right as if he’d be participating in backside run-blocking, then turned and ran a short route to the left sideline.
Daniels ran from the right side across the field, turning to face Schaub about 12 yards deep between Jean on the sideline and Walter in the middle of the field. The three targets form a triangle.
Meanwhile Johnson ran down the left hash and after about 15 yards he faked left, suggesting he too would move with Schaub. Safety Louis Delmas was five yards deeper and turned to go toward the sideline behind Johnson.
The other safety, Eric Coleman, lined up like an off-corner on the left, and moved forward five yards when he thought Foster took the handoff. That gave the Texans Johnson against Delmas as that single-high safety they want on this play. Corner Jonte Green was up near the line of scrimmage on the same side, and looked to be ready to set an edge that would have forced Foster back inside. Outside linebacker DeAndre Levy took five steps forward playing the run before he wheeled to chase downfield.
Johnson cut back and was crossing the field at the Detroit 45 yard line. He was well behind Coleman, Green and Levy as they chased to catch up, and well in front of Delmas who was playing catch-up coming across and also bumped into back judge Greg Yette.
Had Schaub led Johnson more, it could have gone for more than 37 yards. Johnson slowed up to catch it, and Coleman caught up to make the tackle. Even so, it qualified as the big play on a 74-yard touchdown drive.
And if Schaub throws an accurate ball to Johnson against guys who have changed direction three times, the odds of success are pretty good. On this play, he was nearly at the left hash when he threw it, and Johnson was nearly at the right numbers when he caught it.
“We work on those things quite a bit so that it all times out and meshes together,” Schaub said.
And the play can influence a game well beyond one big gain.
“If you hit one or two of those a game, it creates thoughts for a defense and they start to go to coverages that are a little softer,” Schaub said. “Then that allows for the run game to be open and creates more options underneath for catch-and-run opportunities.”
McCourty and the Titans secondary will be on high alert for it Sunday, but that doesn’t mean they can’t be caught by surprise.
You see the same thing off bootlegs over and over and you can start to think you know what’s coming, and that’s just what the Texans are looking for -- to hit a defense with a big play on the throwback like the one in Detroit.
“When he steps back and resets his feet and throws the boot throwback, that’s one of the toughest routes to cover,” McCourty said. “You’ve always got to have in the back of your mind when you are covering the boot that they can pick it back up and throw a boot throwback…”
“You have to have your eyes in the right places. They’ll be hitting you with the stretch play, hitting you with the stretch play, coming back with the boot, coming back with the boot. Then that one time in the middle of the game or late in the game, they hit you with the boot throwback. It’s tough to prepare for because they kind of lull you to sleep.”
- The Vikings had already ruled out linebacker Erin Henderson (concussion), who will be replaced by veteran Marvin Mitchell. They also deactivated receiver Jarius Wright, who appeared to have recovered from a sprained ankle that sidelined him for the first two games of the season. I'm guessing that was a special teams-related decision. Wright probably wouldn't have provided an immediate impact there, even if the Vikings could use him on offense.
- The Detroit Lions will have cornerback Jacob Lacey, who turned up on the injury report Friday because of a toe injury. Tight end Tony Scheffler is inactive, as is safety Louis Delmas and defensive end Lawrence Jackson. The Jackson deactivation was a bit of a surprise. He wasn't listed on the injury report this week. The Lions also announced running back Mikel Leshoure will start in his NFL regular-season debut.
- The Chicago Bears will face St. Louis Rams running back Steven Jackson, who didn't practice this week because of a groin injury but apparently will give it a go.
Detroit Lions: Cornerback Chris Houston (ankle) was a limited participant in practice for a third consecutive day, but was listed as doubtful on the injury report. I was assuming Houston would play in some role Sunday night after a two-week layoff, but that might not be the case. Fellow starter Bill Bentley (concussion) was ruled out, so the Lions might be left to rely on some combination of Jacob Lacey, Drayton Florence, Jonte Green and Kevin Barnes against the 49ers. If that's the case, all four of the Lions' starting defensive backs Sunday will be players who opened training either on another roster or as backups. Meanwhile, defensive tackle Corey Williams (knee) did not practice and is questionable, as is backup defensive end Lawrence Jackson.
Minnesota Vikings: Linebacker Marvin Mitchell (ankle) and receiver Jarius Wright (ankle) are questionable. All other players will be available for Sunday's game against the Indianapolis Colts.
Most significant move: The Lions showed their commitment to fixing the secondary by keeping four new cornerbacks -- Kevin Barnes, Jacob Lacey and draft choices Bill Bentley and Jonte Green. They left themselves thin at safety, though. The Lions retained five safeties from last year -- Louis Delmas, Amari Spievey, Erik Coleman, John Wendling and Ricardo Silva -- but not adding a new safety is a little surprising considering the knee problems Delmas has dealt with. At corner, though, the Lions have a nice mixture of veterans and youth. Lacey is at least a solid third corner, Barnes came over from the Redskins in a trade, and Chris Houston is a solid starter. The Lions released Alphonso Smith, Justin Miller and Ross Weaver, who fell behind in the cornerback race.
Onward and upward: Defensive end Everette Brown and defensive tackle Andre Fluellen had decent camps and could be picked up by other teams. Brown was particularly solid as a pass-rusher during the preseason. Still, it was going to be hard for Brown to crack the top four at defensive end with Kyle Vanden Bosch, Cliff Avril, Lawrence Jackson and Willie Young ahead of him. Brown’s only hope was beating out fourth-round choice Ronnell Young, but the Lions wisely made a commitment to their draft board by keeping seven draft choices.
What next: The Lions need to start thinking about locking up some of their defensive starters. Avril, Corey Williams, Justin Durant, DeAndre Levy, Houston and Delmas are unrestricted free agents. Spievey is a restricted free agent. That won’t be easy. The Lions have less than $2.5 million of cap room, so they might be able to get only one deal done. They can’t do a long-term deal with Avril because they come to an agreement by July 15. Franchise players have to settle for the one-year deal after that date. The Lions may have to put the franchise tag on Delmas after the season and then get a long-term deal done with Avril in February.
The NFC North now outranks the NFC West in players entering the NFL as draft choices under Holmgren: Rob Sims and Lawrence Jackson in Detroit, Mansfield Wrotto and Chris Spencer in Chicago, and now Carlson in Minnesota.
Seattle drafted all of those players when Tim Ruskell was making the Seahawks' personnel decisions as the general manager. Carlson was the one Holmgren was most responsible for drafting. He pushed hard for Carlson because he badly wanted a versatile tight end for his offense.
Carlson set a franchise single-season receiving record with 55 catches as a rookie in 2008. Injuries, quarterback issues, roster atrophy and coaching turnover affected Carlson and the offense in subsequent seasons.
The Seahawks' current leadership was not opposed to bringing back Carlson, but the team's decision to pay $6.8 million per season to Zach Miller last offseason redefined where Carlson stood on the roster. There was less room for Carlson to become the player Holmgren envisioned when Seattle made Carlson a second-round draft choice.
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.
Final Chicago 17 Detroit 34 Final Philadelphia 33 Dallas 10 Final Seattle 19 San Francisco 3
1:00 PM ET Washington Indianapolis 1:00 PM ET Tennessee Houston 1:00 PM ET Cleveland Buffalo 1:00 PM ET San Diego Baltimore 1:00 PM ET New York Jacksonville 1:00 PM ET Cincinnati Tampa Bay 1:00 PM ET Oakland St. Louis 1:00 PM ET New Orleans Pittsburgh 1:00 PM ET Carolina Minnesota 4:05 PM ET Arizona Atlanta 4:25 PM ET New England Green Bay 8:30 PM ET Denver Kansas City