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Fan-Demonium: The Challenge Awaits

Posted Dec 7, 2013

Last October, the Lions beat the Eagles 26-23 in overtime. The Eagles blew a 23-13 lead in that game. Juan Castillo was relieved of his duties as defensive coordinator afterward and the Eagles lost the next six games. The season went from good to awful in a hurry. That loss turned out to be the beginning of the end.

You can argue that it also turned out to be a blessing. The misery of 2012 paved the way for change. Out went Andy Reid and in came Chip Kelly. There have been lots of other changes. The offense is new. The Eagles now use the 3-4 defense for the first time in almost 30 years. Lots of players have come and gone. The biggest change of all is winning. If the Eagles manage to beat the Lions on Sunday, they will have doubled last year's win total. It truly is amazing what a difference a year makes.

Sunday’s showdown features two explosive offenses. Detroit has only had one game with fewer than 21 points. Quarterback Matthew Stafford is playing some of the best football of his career. He's already thrown 27 touchdowns. If you saw his great comeback against Dallas earlier this year, you know just how good he can be. Stafford has the strongest arm in the NFL. Every receiver is a threat on every play.

Stafford will force some throws. He already has 14 interceptions this year. He's thrown 500 passes, which leads the NFL. As a point of comparison, Nick Foles has thrown 461 career passes. He has five career interceptions. Stafford will take chances. It is crucial for the Eagles defensive backs to play the ball well and make plays when the chances present themselves.

The biggest weapon is wide receiver Calvin Johnson. He is arguably the best player in all of football. You don't stop Johnson. You hope to slow him down. The Eagles got lucky with the timing of this game. Last week the defense had to deal with Larry Fitzgerald, another big, talented receiver. Bill Davis was creative in defending him and the staff can look at what worked and what didn't. They will figure out the best plan of attack for how to defend Johnson.

I was fascinated with how Davis tried different things last week. I was shocked when I saw Trent Cole line up over Fitzgerald for a play out in space. Cole jammed him, to keep Fitzgerald from getting a clean release. Cole then trailed him down the field as the underneath defender in bracket coverage. There was a safety over the top. Connor Barwin lined up over Fitzgerald quite a bit. Barwin is better out in space and did a good job of jamming him.

The whole point with having a linebacker jam these receivers is to disrupt the timing of plays. Most defensive backs are around 200 pounds. Fitzgerald is 225 pounds. Johnson is closer to 240. They can physically overwhelm defensive backs and quickly get into their routes. Linebackers have the size and strength to jam these receivers and really make the initial release tough. The longer it takes a receiver to get into his route, the more likely it is the quarterback will have to throw the ball elsewhere.

Detroit has other receivers, but Johnson is the guy you must focus on. He has 12 touchdown catches this year. The rest of the receiving corps has a combined total of five touchdowns, and two of those came in last week's blowout win. There is another red zone threat. Rookie tight end Joseph Fauria has six touchdown catches. He's only got 11 grabs on the year so he's primarily a red zone threat. You can't ignore the Lions other receivers, but you have to focus on Johnson and take your chances with them.

For the first time in a while, the Lions actually have a viable running attack. Stafford and Johnson have been on their own in recent years. This season Reggie Bush and Joique Bell have combined for almost 1,300 yards on the ground. Bell has six touchdown runs. Watch for him to get the ball in the red zone. Bush and Bell have also combined for 79 catches. They get a lot of touches. Bush has 10 plays of 20 or more yards. He remains one of the most dangerous open field weapons in the NFL. By comparison, LeSean McCoy has 11 plays of 20 or more yards.

Detroit's offensive line is playing well this year. Stafford has only been sacked 15 times and the line has opened good holes for the running backs. The Eagles need to get pressure on Stafford if they want to have a chance to slow down that offense. There will be some blitzing, but the guys up front have to get the job done. Trent Cole had a monster game last week. It would be great to see him stay hot as a pass rusher. This would also be a good time for Fletcher Cox to play well. Vinny Curry and Brandon Graham are role players, but each guy will have a chance to get after Stafford.

Aside from the Broncos, this is the best offense the Eagles have faced. They are in for a big test. The defense has limited teams to 21 points or less in eight straight games. This will be the toughest challenge to that streak. The Eagles have come up with two or more takeaways in four straight games. They need that trend to continue.

I do think the Eagles could win a shootout if the game goes that way. The Lions run the Wide-Nine front on defense. As most will remember, that is designed for defenders to attack upfield and really get after the quarterback. Ironically, the Eagles have more sacks than the Lions, 29 to 27. Detroit does have more tackles-for-loss, 37 to 23.

The Lions do get more consistent pressure on quarterbacks, but they aren't a good coverage team. Opposing quarterbacks have a rating of 89.0 when going against the Lions. That puts them down at 21st in the league. Darius Slay, their most gifted cover corner, suffered a knee injury on Thursday and is out. Chris Houston is the other starter. He missed the previous game due to injury and is questionable. The Lions don't have a good secondary when everyone is healthy. Yikes. Don't be surprised if Chip Kelly has the team throwing the ball a lot on Sunday.


Tommy Lawlor, goeagles99 on the Discussion Boards, is an amateur football scout and devoted Eagles fan. He is the Editor of and was a contributor to the Eagles Almanac.

Detroit's defense is having an up and down year. Three weeks ago they gave up 37 points to the Steelers. Last week, they held the Packers to 10 points and 126 yards. That's impressive defense, even with Aaron Rodgers out for the game. The Lions have been a juggernaut against the run for the past six games. They have only allowed 243 rushing yards in that timeframe. That's incredibly impressive. The odd thing is that the Lions gave up 749 rushing yards in the first six games of the season. I don't have a thorough explanation for what happened, but that's a substantial change. LeSean McCoy is in for a big test. 

Dealing with top 15 picks like Ndamukong Suh, Nick Fairley and Ezekiel Ansah will prove to be a major challenge for the Eagles offensive line. Ansah leads the team with seven sacks. Suh and Fairley are wrecking balls on the inside. They are incredibly tough to keep under control. Last year, the Lions limited McCoy to 22 yards on 14 carries. Detroit attacked gaps and took away outside runs. Kelly will need to be creative with the run game. Maybe he will use quick hitters on the inside to try and burn the Lions’ aggressive style.

I have confidence that Nick Foles and his receivers can burn the Lions secondary. Detroit doesn't have anyone who can run with DeSean Jackson. If they double him, that will leave Riley Cooper with single coverage. If the Lions go zone, that will leave receivers running open. I look for Foles to have a big day. I think the Eagles blockers will give Foles a clean pocket often enough that he'll have time to get the ball to his weapons.

If the game comes down to special teams, I give the Eagles the advantage. Detroit is 30th in kickoff coverage. The Eagles are middle of the pack. Neither team has a strong return game. We did see DeSean Jackson get loose last week, but a penalty wiped that out. Donnie Jones is the hottest punter in the NFL and is a key reason the Eagles play such good defense. He's able to consistently pin opponents deep. I joked the other day that he should be an MVP candidate and that Calvin Johnson is the Donnie Jones of wide receivers. Feels funny to have a punter playing so well, but let's give the guy credit. He has been great this year.

Old friend David Akers returns to town as the Lions kicker. He and Alex Henery have both missed five field goals. Akers has missed two from inside of 40 yards, while Henery has only missed one. Akers is 15 of 20 on the year. Henery is 18 of 23. Henery did say recently that he adjusted his kicking motion and is hitting the ball better. We'll see if that is true.

This game has playoff implications since the Lions and Eagles are both going for division titles. Both teams are also in the Wild Card mix. This is a big opportunity for the Eagles to help themselves in both races. They can remain atop the NFC East and hurt a Wild Card contender by winning. Kelly won't tell the players about the playoffs or win streaks. He'll preach to them to just keep on grinding and playing good football. That formula worked when the Eagles were 3-5. It worked when they were 5-5. Let's hope it works again this week and results in a big win.

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