Earlier this week, I summed up the loss to Tampa Bay in 10 plays, but just like the team, it was a quick turnaround to focus on the Detroit Lions for Thursday's Thanksgiving showdown. Although they started the season slow and faced a lot of turmoil internally, you have to remember that this is a talented group that won 11 games a year ago. Detroit also happens to be on a two-game win streak that includes victories against a hot Oakland team and a win at Lambeau Field for the first time since I was in Kindergarten. With talent on both sides, there's a lot to get to, but it all starts on offense with the man they call Megatron.
Quarterback Matthew Stafford has the confidence in Calvin Johnson that he can win in any situation, which makes sense because he's one of the handful of receivers in the league who is always open (even when he's covered). Many will say that Johnson has lost a step, but he's still got the size, the savvy and the ball skills to win consistently at the catch point.
On this play last week against the Raiders, Oakland is playing with two high safeties. That should, in theory, deter Stafford from throwing in Johnson's direction down the field, right? Well, with the help of another vertical route inside to hold the safety closer to the hash, Stafford lets it fly and he connects for a gain of 36 on third-and-long.
One of the things that Detroit does with Megatron is that you never know where he's going to be. They'll line him up all around the offensive formation, including with tight splits inside. When you have a receiver that big and that athletic lining up inside the numbers, it's tough for a defense because he's got a two-way go. On this play, the Lions are running a three-level stretch concept, with Johnson serving as the intermediate crossing route. Chicago is playing Cover 3. I showed you this exact same play-concept from Sunday's game against Tampa Bay, with Jameis Winston hooking up with Mike Evans on a perfectly thrown pass. This is a concept the Eagles will have to be aware of on Thursday afternoon.
The Lions don't just line him up tight to the formation as the outside receiver, but he'll line up in the slot as well. Johnson is such a good route runner for a big man that he's able to separate at the top of his stem with ease. Look what he does here to the Minnesota defender, pressing toward the corner before breaking back to the post, a 46-yard gain back in Week 7.
Many people view Johnson as one of the best X receivers in the entire league, but what about when he isn't the "X"? This is a 3x1 set against San Diego, a formation that you typically see the X receiver line up as the single receiver to the weak side of the formation. Here, Johnson is lined up as the No. 3 receiver, and runs an over route. The Chargers moved cornerback Brandon Flowers inside to shadow Johnson. Will the Eagles do the same? I'm interested to see how Bill Davis chooses to defend him when he does move inside.
When Johnson does line up as the X in those packages, the Lions have other weapons who can hurt you inside, including former first-round pick Eric Ebron. The dynamic tight end is coming into his own in this, his second year in the NFL. He has the ability to win down the field as a vertical threat in this offense. But Ebron isn't the only threat the Eagles have to worry about in the middle of the field, because running back Theo Riddick is as dynamic as they come out of the backfield.
Riddick is one of the leading receivers on this Detroit roster. A former receiver, he's got great hands for the position, quickness to get in and out of breaks, great lateral agility and vision in the open field after the catch. He's a great checkdown option for Stafford, as you can see in this play against the Bears. He goes 34 yards after the quick dumpoff pass in this four verticals concept.
On the previous play, Riddick was a checkdown option. Here, Riddick ran an option route against a linebacker. Stafford knew he was going to Riddick the entire time. Riddick is too quick for 99 percent of the linebackers in the league, as he pulls away from rookie linebacker Eric Kendricks for this 31-yard gain. For what it's worth, I think his brother Mychal could be a much better matchup defensively than the younger Kendricks sibling.
The Lions don't just rely on Riddick's ability to win one-on-one because they work to get him the ball in certain situations as well. On this third-and-long play, the Lions stack Riddick behind a receiver tight to the slot, and run a quick rub route toward the sideline expecting man coverage. Kendricks has too much traffic to run through to make the play on the ball, and Riddick runs for a first down.
Remember a few weeks ago as the Eagles prepared for the Dallas Cowboys? I wrote about double coverage concepts and how much importance is placed on, not the double team, but on the defenders relied on to win their one-on-one matchups away from the double team. That concept will once again apply this week.
Detroit comes out in an empty set down in the high red zone. Johnson is lined up to the far left and Riddick is aligned in the slot to the same side. San Diego has a bit of a bracket on Johnson - or at least the safety is very much focused on him - meaning that the linebacker is matched up against Riddick in the slot all alone. Riddick beats him easily, gets into the open field, evades four defenders and plunges into the end zone for a touchdown.
Riddick isn't the only dangerous threat out of the backfield. Rookie second-round pick Ameer Abdullah has always been seen as a dynamic option at the running back position. Abdullah hasn't gotten on track as a runner yet this year, but he's still very much capable of winning in space and making defenders look silly when they're stuck on an island with him. Here, Abdullah takes this swing screen 36 yards for a first down.
I want to talk a bit about run fits. When you go up against an outside zone stretch team like we are going to see on Thursday, it's important for your defense to be sound in the way they fit the run. On a couple of plays last Sunday, "misfits" as Bill Davis calls them were a big issue.
Here's an outside zone run from the Lions against the Chargers. Look at the back side of this play. You have three defenders responsible for the backside A, B and C gaps. The ball is snapped. The run is going away, but instead of staying in his B gap defensive end Corey Liuget tries to go backdoor to make a play. That small crease turns into a giant hole, as Liuget is unable to get to Abdullah. The Eagles will need to play disciplined up front on Thursday, and maintaining their gap integrity will be of the utmost importance against the Lions.
On the defensive side of the ball, Detroit is very athletic up front. The defensive line, in particular, has a number of long, explosive pass rushers who can win both inside and out. Here's a play against Minnesota that really helped illustrate some of the issues they present.
First, let's look at former top-five pick Ziggy Ansah at right end. He wins off the ball from a Wide-9 technique, gets to the corner and lays a hit on Vikings quarterback Teddy Bridgewater. Bring it back to the snap, and look at veteran defensive tackle Haloti Ngata. Acquired in a trade with Baltimore this offseason, Ngata isn't the dominant presence he once was, but he is still very disruptive inside and has the ability to consistently win one-on-one matchups. Then, when you look at the left, you can see the game up front with athletic linebacker Tahir Whitehead and right defensive end Devin Taylor.
Whitehead saw extensive snaps a year ago, and is one of the team's most athletic defenders from the linebacker spot, with ability to defend the run, rush the passer and make plays in coverage. Taylor has great length and deceptive movement for his size, a player who was at one point considered a high draft pick early in his career at South Carolina. He comes home free after the stunt with Whitehead, meeting both Ngata and Ansah in the backfield for the sack on third-and-long.
Here's another interesting look from Detroit against Seattle. With just two threatening rushers to the defense's right side, Seattle slides its protection to the left. With three blockers to block three blitzers, the Seahawks should be able to block this up, right? Well, Taylor peels off to cover the running back out of the backfield and the versatile Jason Jones drops into underneath coverage, leaving the Seahawks' line confused. It is unable to account for the blitzing corner from the boundary. Three rushers against three blockers, the free man forces Wilson to step up and he is brought down for the sack. He loses the ball, and former Ivy Leaguer Caraun Reid scoops it up and brings it back for six points. This Detroit line is versatile, and the Eagles' offensive line will have to come to play on Thursday.
At linebacker, Whitehead is joined by veterans Josh Bynes and Stephen Tulloch. While Tulloch is getting up there in age, he is still one of the most reliable tacklers in the entire league. Tulloch is physical, stout at the point of attack and aggressive downhill. The Eagles' interior line will have to be cognizant of where he is at all times to keep him from making plays on Thursday.
In the secondary, young veteran Darius Slay is a player on the rise. The former second-round pick out of Mississippi State is long, athletic and his ball skills have improved each year in the league. This is Detroit's top cover man, and the biggest threat on the back end.
Fran Duffy is the producer of "Eagles Game Plan" which can be seen on Saturdays during the season. Be sure to also check out the "Eagle Eye In The Sky" podcast on the Philadelphia Eagles podcast channel on iTunes. 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.