Detroit Lions head coach Jim Schwartz is well aware of the challenge his defense will face when it rolls into Lincoln Financial Field to take on the Eagles in a showdown between two 7-5 teams fighting to make the playoffs.
"First of all, they don't make very many mistakes," Schwartz said. "They run the ball very well. LeSean McCoy is a threat every time he touches the ball. They threaten the whole width of the field with the way that they run the read-option stuff. They've made a lot of big plays in the passing game, particularly over the last six games. A lot of balls go over the top of the defense when the defense is crowded up there to stop the run. They're done some really good things over the past six weeks. Anytime you're 5-1 in that span, you're going to be happy with the way things are going."
The rushing attack is a staple of the Chip Kelly offense, but the passing game has really taken off with Nick Foles at quarterback and now ranks ninth in the NFL at 256.8 yards per game. The Lions defense, meanwhile, is allowing 262.3 yards per game through the air, which ranks 26th in the NFL. As Kelly always mentions, it doesn't matter how the points are scored, as long as the end result is a win. With Foles at quarterback, the Eagles have enjoyed plenty of wins, and that means more than any individual passing stat.
"I think the biggest thing with quarterbacks that you want to judge guys on is wins and losses," Schwartz said. "A lot's being made of (Foles') 19 touchdowns and zero interceptions, even though he's had a couple that have been near misses, which every quarterback has. With all due respect to fantasy football and stuff like that, the only thing that really matters for quarterback stats is their ability to lead the team to wins and he's done that. He's executed their offense – they're calling the exact same plays they called earlier in the season with Michael Vick. Obviously that's a different skill set between the two guys and Foles doesn't have the mobility that Vick has, but he's still executing the offense and that's a credit to him."
While the Lions defense has been vulnerable against the pass, it is an elite unit against the run and has particularly ramped up its performance in that area since the first month of the season. The Lions run defense ranks third the in the NFL and only gives up 82.7 yards per game, while the Eagles run offense still ranks second in the league at 146.8 yards per game despite being less explosive than usual in recent weeks.
"It's going to be a good battle," Schwartz said. "We've played the run very well lately and really all year. Earlier in the season our run stats weren't that good because we gave up a few big plays (but then would shut teams down the rest of the game). Particularly these last six or seven games we've shut down some good run teams and pretty good running backs. We have a great challenge ahead of us in LeSean McCoy and Bryce Brown and even Nick Foles – Foles will pull the ball and run it. It's going to be a great challenge. We've faced similar schemes in the past – well, it's a similar philosophy but a different scheme when you talk about the Redskins and what (Robert Griffin III) does. That's obviously going to be a big part of this game because they're committed to the run and it sets up a lot of the stuff that they do, and we've been a team that's been good against the run."
Charged with controlling the line of scrimmage and stopping McCoy and the Eagles rushing attack will be a ferocious Lions defensive line that is stacked with talent and coached by Jim Washburn, the former Eagles position coach who was acrimoniously fired before the end of last season. He has found a home in Detroit, however, and most certainly has revenge on his mind in his return to Philadelphia.
"I worked with Jim for a decade in Tennessee and we had a lot of success together," Schwartz said. "He's been able to develop players. …. He is, unequivocally, one of the best position coaches in the National Football League, and we're really glad to have him here. He's made a difference on our staff, not just with our run defense but also with our pass rush. We had some injuries but are getting better. You see (rookie) Ziggy Ansah, he missed a couple games but now has seven sacks. (Rookie) Devin Taylor has come on recently. Jim Washburn works really well with (defensive line coach) Kris Kocurek, a guy who was one of his protégés, and now they're working together. I like where we're going defensive line-wise, and Jim Washburn is a big part of that."
On offense, the Lions' philosophy reflects that of Kelly's "big people beat up little people" mantra. They employ a legion of enormous receiving weapons all measuring at least 6-foot-5 with monster wingspans, as well as the vertical leaping ability to jump over defensive backs and high point the ball. This especially comes in handy in the red zone, where the Lions rank fourth in the league in efficiency by scoring a touchdown on 61.7 percent of their opportunities.
"That's low-post basketball," Schwartz said. "You get guys matched up and it doesn't have to be a perfect pass to complete a touchdown. We do have size in our receiving core. Kris Durham is 6-5, Calvin (Johnson) obviously has that size, (rookie tight end) Joe Fauria is 6-7 and that might be selling him a little short, Brandon Pettigrew – a lot of guys with great length. When the field gets smaller, it helps when your players are big because a size mismatch can mean a lot since there's not a lot of space out there to throw to and you need guys with size to go up and come down with balls."
In addition to those receiving weapons, the Lions boast an offensive line that has given up the fewest amount of sacks in the league and two running backs in Reggie Bush and Joique Bell who offer speed, power and receiving ability. Quarterback Matthew Stafford gets rid of the ball quickly, has a strong arm and is not afraid to take chances or put the ball up for his receivers to make plays even when they're covered. For an Eagles defense that has made tremendous strides over the last two months, this potent Lions offense will mark the best, most explosive attack it has faced since Peyton Manning's Denver Broncos – a true measuring stick for how far the unit has come.