Patrick Causey, Follow him on Twitter @pcausey3
The 3-0 Philadelphia Eagles face the 1-3 Detroit Lions coming off their bye week. On paper, this is a winnable game. The Eagles are coming in hot while the Lions have lost three in a row and are without some of their best players. But NFL games are not played on paper. And with upcoming games against the Redskins, Vikings, Giants, Cowboys, Falcons, Seahawks, Packers and Bengals, who are a combined 21-10, this has all the symptoms of a trap game. Whether the Eagles can win a game they should will shed light on the makeup of this team and coaching staff.
Here is a scouting report on the Lions and how the Eagles can beat them.
While the Lions are 1-3, they lost the three games by a combined 11 points. They have talent on their team — this isn’t the Cleveland Browns we are talking about — but they are wholly inconsistent. The Lions were up big against the Colts and Titans, but allowed second half comebacks by both teams. Against the Packers, the Lions were down big, but made it a game in the second half. In other words, they have a hard time putting together a full game. In that sense, they remind me of the Eagles at the tail end of the Andy Reid and Chip Kelly eras: capable of wowing you one minute and making you pull your hair out the next.
The Lions are also the third most penalized team in the NFL, with 39 penalties on the year, according to NFLPenalties.com. I lost track of how many positive plays were negated by penalties when I watched the tape, but I counted at least three touchdowns that were called back, two of which occurred on back to back plays against the Colts.
The Lions are also without three of their best players for this game: defensive end Ziggy Ansah, tight end Eric Ebron, and linebacker DeAndre Levy, while running back Dwayne Washington is listed as doubtful. That’s in addition to running back Ameer Abdullah, who is lost for the season on injured reserve.
So other than being inconsistent, penalty prone and injured, the Lions are a dangerous team!
Sarcasm aside, the Lions are actually a threat on offense, which is spearheaded by Matthew Stafford and the passing attack. The Lions are both productive and efficient: they have the 9th most passing yards per game, rank 10th in offensive efficiency per FootballOutsiders.com, and 10th in DAVE, which projects future offensive efficiency.
Stafford has completed 67% of his passes for 1198 yards, 7 touchdowns, 4 interceptions, and a quarterback rating of 93.9. Stafford is still capable of wow throws and has one of the strongest arms in the league. But Stafford trusts his arm too often, leading to questionable decision making. Stafford could easily have 6 or 7 interceptions on the year but for dropped picks and penalties.
The Lions have made a concerted effort to get Stafford on the run more frequently. I saw plenty of boot legs off play action and Stafford has also shown a willingness to take off and run or use his legs to extend plays in the pocket.
Despite losing Calvin Johnson, the Lions have good receivers that the Eagles must respect. That starts with free agent addition Marvin Jones, who ranks second in the NFL with 482 yards and an absurd 21 yards per catch. The Lions send Jones on go routes up the far side of the field multiple times a game. When defenses sell out to stop the deep pass, Jones has shown an ability to stop on a dime and catch the back shoulder fade.
While Jones is the preferred deep threat, the Lions throw a heavy dose of short passes and wide receiver screens to Golden Tate and Anquan Boldin. Tate has gotten off to a slow start this year, but offensive coordinator Jim Bob Cooter (love saying that name) stated that Tate should have a huge game this week. Bolding is 36, but hasn’t shown any signs of slowing down or avoiding his physical style of play, so the Eagles secondary must be sound in tackling.
The Lions running game is underwhelming, ranking 20th in the league in total rushing yards and 22nd in rushing yards per game. With that said, Theo Riddick is a dangerous weapon on offense. Eagles fans need no reminders; Riddick torched the Eagles last year, catching 5 passes for 62 yards and a touchdown in last year’s Thanksgiving day massacre.
While Riddick isn’t nearly as accomplished, his agility and lateral mobility rivals LeSean McCoy. He makes absurd moves in tight spaces and has broken at least 10 different defenders’ ankles on the year with moves like this:
With the Eagles looking to get pressure on Stafford, I would expect a steady diet of screens and designed pass plays to Riddick out of the backfield. Can Mychal Kendricks and Jordan Hicks do better defending Riddick than last year? That remains to be seen, but will go a long way towards determining the outcome of this game.
The key for the Eagles defense, as it has been the entire year, is the defensive line. The Lions have given up 10 sacks on the year, the 8th highest mark in the league. With Schwartz having and extra week to prepare for his former team, I expect to see some exotic blitzes and different looks. If the Eagles can get pressure — and I suspect that they will — they should be able to limit the passing game’s effectiveness and force Stafford into turning the ball over.
The Lions run an attacking 4-3 defensive scheme under defensive coordinator Teryl Austin. Unlike Schwartz, Austin prefers to create pressure with multiple fronts and blitzes. This could pose a problem for rookie signal caller Carson Wentz, especially given that the Eagles are on the road in a hostile environment.
If you just looked at the numbers, you would think the Lions are wholly inept on defense. They rank 25th in total yards allowed per ESPN.com, 22nd in passing yards allowed and 22nd in rushing yards allowed. And they are even worse from an efficiency stand point, ranking 32nd in defensive DVOA per FootballOutsiders.com and 32nd in DAVE.
The Lions have also done a poor job at creating turnovers this year. They have only 1 interception and zero fumble recoveries, while they rank 25th in turnover differential.
If there is one area where the Lions excel, it’s getting sacks. The Lions have recorded 9 sacks on the year, tied for 8th best mark in the league. But, the Lions are without their best pass rusher in Ziggy Ansah, so that could limit how much pressure they get on Carson Wentz. To make matters worse, the Lions are also missing their best linebacker, DeAndre Levy, so they could struggle even more against the run.
While the numbers aren’t particularly kind to the Lions, they look good on tape at times. But they still suffer from the same inconsistency issues as the offense. They shut down the Colts in the first half, giving up 10 points, only to give up 25 in the second. They limited the Titans to 3 points in the first half, only to surrender the lead by giving up 12 points in the second. And against the Packers, they gave up 31 points in the first half, but limited Aaron Rodgers and the vaunted Packers offense to only 3 points in the second. If the Lions ever put together a full game, they could be a good defense. They haven’t yet, so let’s hope they don’t start this week.
I expect the Eagles to use multiple tight end fronts to limit the Lions pass rush and give Wentz time to pick apart their suspect pass defense. I expect a heavy dose of passes to Jordan Matthews and Zach Ertz, and for Darren Sproles to be a dynamic threat in the passing attack out of the backfield. Assuming they can protect Wentz, the Eagles offense should be able to move the ball at will. They will just need to score touchdowns instead of settling for field goals, because the Lions offense is not as bad as their record might suggest.
Two weeks ago, I had the gut feeling that the Eagles would win, but went with logic and picked the Steelers. This week, my gut is telling me the Lions win this in a classic trap game. Everything points to an easy Eagles victory: the Eagles are hot, the Lions are not, and the Lions are injured. But winning games on the road is very difficult in the NFL, especially for a rookie quarterback. This could very easily be a game where the Eagles come out flat and overlook their opponent, Matthew Stafford gets hot, and the Lions defense decides to show up for a full four quarters. If so, I wouldn’t at all be surprised if the Eagles lose.
But, I don’t like picking games off gut feelings. I trust what I see in the tape and the numbers. The Eagles are the better team playing more disciplined football. Sometimes it really is that simple. But most importantly, I think this Eagles defense is a legitimate top 5 unit. So even if the Eagles offense sputters, I think the defense carries the day. That means the defensive line creating havoc and forcing Stafford into multiple interceptions.
I am taking the Eagles in a close one, 23-21.
Season Record: 2-1