The Eagles and Detroit Lions don't regularly take the field against each other, so Eagles fans may not be all that familiar with a new-look squad looking to make waves in a very talented NFC North division. In today's piece, I'll try and give you a peek into Detroit's philosophies on both sides of the ball and what they'll look to do in Sunday's matchup at Lincoln Financial Field.
Let's start on offense, where the group is still led by quarterback Matthew Stafford. The veteran signal-caller reportedly played most of last season with a broken bone in his back, and the offensive line has historically had issues protecting him. That didn't improve in Week 1, where Stafford was pressured constantly by the Arizona Cardinals. Stafford is still a gunslinger who can throw it as well as anyone in the league.
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Stafford throws with tremendous velocity, can deliver passes from multiple angles and platforms, and with a flick of the wrist he can turn a busted play into a huge gain down the field. He's a threat to stretch the field vertically on any play. The Lions are currently tied for fourth in the league with 11 completions of 20-plus yards. It's something to be aware of going into this contest against an Eagles secondary that has struggled a bit with vertical throws thus far.
I want to hit on Detroit's wide receivers because the Lions have a trio of players whose skill sets complement one another.
Kenny Golladay may be the prototypical "No. 1" guy in this offense. Golladay is a big-bodied kid who can go up and get it at the catch point. The Lions line up Golladay inside and outside and try to find favorable matchups with him down the seam and outside the numbers. A former third-round pick out of Northern Illinois (where he was incredibly productive), Golladay is a high-effort player and someone who has to be accounted for as Stafford has a lot of trust in him.
I've always been a big fan of Marvin Jones. A crafty route runner who excels at creating his own separation, Jones is a very reliable possession threat who can win at all three levels of the field for Stafford and that coaching staff. Like Golladay, he'll line up both inside and outside for the Lions, and is a very consistent move-the-chains type of player for that team.
The Lions went out and got a former New England Patriot in receiver Danny Amendola this offseason, as he replaces Golden Tate in the slot. One thing Detroit loves to do with Amendola is keep him in tight to the quarterback on condensed formations and then sprint him toward the sideline on quick out routes, giving him tons of green grass to run into. A savvy route runner who can still be very effective at the catch point, Amendola is a strong complementary weapon for the Lions' offense. He's someone that they'll still work down the seam as well.
The Lions have a new offensive coordinator this year in Darrell Bevell, a veteran coach in the league who is known most recently for being at the head of the Seattle Seahawks' offenses during the "Legion of Boom" days. Bevell's recent history points to him being a run-first coach who wants to establish the rushing attack but attacks defenses in a variety of ways from multiple personnel groupings. With that in mind, the team went out and completely reshaped the tight end room by signing Jesse James away from the Pittsburgh Steelers in free agency and then spending a top-10 draft choice on T.J. Hockenson out of Iowa.
James isn't a dynamic pass catcher, but he's a consistent weapon in the passing game who also serves as a more than adequate blocker. That versatility serves him well in Bevell's scheme. Hockenson is a more dynamic player in both phases, and has already made an impact on this Lions team.
For a young player, Hockenson has some savvy to the way he plays. He's a natural route runner, is very aggressive at the catch point, particularly in contested situations, and overall plays the ball very well in the air. Hockenson is a fluid athlete who can be a mismatch player at times. I love how creative the Lions are they get him off the line of scrimmage. You'll notice that on those passes above, he's got a free release each time. He's not dealing with a press corner, safety, or linebacker right up on him at the line. This, along with their play-action game, makes Hockenson a dangerous threat in the deep and intermediate areas of the field. The Eagles have to be very wary of him off these run fakes.
The play-action pass game is going to be HUGE, particularly after what we've seen in the first couple of games. Washington's Case Keenum and Atlanta's Matt Ryan combined to go 16-of-21 against the Eagles' defense on play-action throws, throwing for three touchdowns and five passes of 15-plus yards. It just so happens that the Lions major in the play-action pass game.
What does this mean for the Eagles' defense? Well, first off, the Eagles must continue to honor the run. Second- and third-level defenders can't just sell out to defend the pass, but after confirming that the running back does not have the ball, Eagles defenders must get back to their landmarks quickly and either get their eyes back on the quarterback or hunt up a receiver running through their area and get into his hip pocket. Atlanta executed a great game plan last Sunday night, and Washington did for a half in Week 1. The Eagles have to keep Detroit off balance to prevent them from executing on Sunday afternoon.
Kerryon Johnson is why the Eagles must continue to honor the run. His numbers haven't been through the roof so far, but the second-year back is a tough, physical runner who really impressed me with his ability to create yards. Johnson excels at turning what should be 1-yard runs into 4-yard gains, or 2-yard losses into 5-yard rushes. He's not a blazer in the open field, but he's got a knack for toting the rock and has a three-down back skill set. He's going to be one of their linchpins on offense for a long time.
Let's transition over to head coach Matt Patricia's defense, which is basically the same scheme the Eagles saw in the Super Bowl LII victory over the New England Patriots. Detroit plays a lot of people, utilizes a handful of subpackages, and has a group of versatile front-seven defenders who line up all over the formation. Two of the players who best embody this philosophy? It's a pair of newcomers in free agent signee Trey Flowers and rookie linebacker Jahlani Tavai.
Flowers aligns up and down the line of scrimmage, while Tavai plays all over the formation for the Lions. What does this mean for opposing offensive coaches? It can be very tough to game plan for this group. Coaches chart everything and those analytics help build out a game plan. You may know what personnel is on the field for Detroit in any given situation, but it's tough to pinpoint exactly how that personnel will be utilized. Will it be a tight front? A wide front? A pressure look? Will it be edge pressure or interior pressure? Who is covering who? So much of the battle in executing a game plan is having an educated guess about what the opponent is going to do in every situation, and the multiple front looks from Detroit (and New England, of course) make it difficult to game plan for.
Flowers and Tavai aren't the only versatile players on that front, because guys like Da'Shawn Hand (who hasn't been active yet due to injury), Devon Kennard (who leads the team in sacks), and Christian Jones are as well. You know who has been incredibly impressive so far through two games, though? A'Shawn Robinson.
Robinson joins Damon "Snacks" Harrison to form one of the best run-stopping pairs of tackles in the NFL. Robinson is a massive player who is extremely physical, and just like he was at Alabama. He is absolutely textbook in his technique when stacking and shedding blocks. I know what Harrison's reputation is around the league, but I think Robinson may actually be a better player today. He extremely impressed with his strength, technique, and urgency as a player up and down the line of scrimmage.
While Detroit's fronts can be tough to figure out, its coverages are a bit simpler. Straight up -- this is a pure man-to-man defense. They live in man coverage with a single-high safety, and this is a really competitive group on film that lives for the challenge of being island players in coverage.
Darius Slay, who Eagles fans may remember from the last time these two teams squared off in 2016, is one of the most underrated players in the NFL. I'd argue that he's one of the top corners in the league. Athletic, fast, instinctive, and tough, he's a very difficult matchup for anyone. They match him up with opposing No. 1 receivers often, so it will be interesting to see how the Lions deploy him on Sunday with DeSean Jackson out.
Rashaan Melvin will get the start opposite Slay. He's not as physically gifted as him, but he's really shined through two games. Melvin is a long, competitive kid with toughness and urgency on the perimeter. He plays with attitude and swagger that you want on the island. They love to match him up on bigger receivers where he can battle above the rim. If Alshon Jeffery is good to go on Sunday, that's the matchup to watch in my mind. If not, I bet they put him on J.J. Arcega-Whiteside.
Justin Coleman was signed this offseason from Seattle to a big free agent contract to be their nickel corner. Coleman played for head coach Matt Patricia in New England. He's a hyper-competitive cover man with the ability to match up with anyone physically because of his play demeanor. He's a great fit on the inside in that man coverage scheme.
The Lions may decide in this game that they don't want to match up a defensive back to a particular receiver. That's how they approached the game against Arizona (at least in the first half). In that scenario, Slay is mostly the right corner, while Melvin is the left corner. We'll see how they decide to line up on Sunday afternoon.
At safety, the Lions also have an interesting duo on the back end.
Tracy Walker is the free safety. He was a third-round pick a year ago, and I liked his range and experience in man coverage coming out of Louisiana. A four-year starter for the Ragin' Cajuns, Walker had really good eyes in zone coverage both high and underneath in college. I think those instincts are starting to transition to this level of competition.
Diggs, the strong safety, was a guy who was seen by analysts as a great corner prospect when he was a collegian at Texas. I didn't quite buy the hype for him on the outside and liked him more as a future nickel and even as a developmental safety. I loved his willingness to come down and be a playmaker in the run game as a tackler, and that absolutely shows up on film in the NFL.
In summation, this is an offense that wants to be physical and run the ball, but the Eagles have to be wary of play-action and the deep ball with Matthew Stafford pulling the trigger in the pocket. On defense, this is a high-volume man coverage team, so it's time to dust off those route concepts that attack those schemes. The defense is also extremely multiple and versatile up front. I'm excited to see this matchup play out on the field.
Fran Duffy is the producer of the Emmy-nominatedEagles Game Planshow which can be seen every gameday during the season on NBC10 in Philadelphia. He is also the host of two Eagles-related podcasts,Eagle Eye in the Sky, which examines the team from an X's and O's angle each and every week as well as theJourney to the Draft podcast, which covers college football and the NFL Draft all year round. Fran also authors the Eagle Eye in the Sky column, which runs four times a week during the football season to serve as a recap for the previous game and to preview the upcoming matchup. Prior to joining the Eagles in 2011, Duffy was the head video coordinator for the Temple University football team under former head coach Al Golden. In that role, he spent thousands of hours shooting, logging, and assisting with the breakdown of the All-22 film from the team's games, practices, and opponents.