The 8-2 New England Patriots welcome the 7-3 Detroit Lions this weekend in another great test for the streaking Pats, winners of six straight.
The Lions have actually pounded the Patriots pretty good in the 2011 and 2013 preseasons, but those games were in Detroit and without the usual kind of gameplanning that goes into the regular season contests.
Still, the Lions feature an impressive defense and have enough weapons on offense to challenge the Patriots suddenly stout defense.
Here’s the gameplan for the Pats:
The Lions have the #1 ranked defense in Football Outsiders’ DVOA metric. They are 3rd against the pass and 1st against the run, but have they faced the kind of gameplan-oriented offense like the Patriots in non-ideal conditions yet? Nope.
The biggest key to the game might be keeping Ndamukong Suh out of Tom Brady’s face. If there’s one recurring nightmare in the Patriots infrequent losses, it’s pressure coming up the middle early and often. If Brady cannot establish an early rhythm, it could ensure the game stays close well into the second half.
However, this year’s Patriots have shown a remarkable ability to overcome bad plays and bad drives, bouncing back and looking unstoppable, even after looking gross.
Expect the Pats to shift away from the run-heavy approach they took against the Colts and move to a more spread-offense, quick throw approach.
Once again, Rob Gronkowski will be a key, whether he’s catching the ball or just drawing excessive attention in coverage, opening things up for the other receivers. The Lions are the #1 team in the NFL covering tight ends, that should be put to the test this week.
Julian Edelman and Danny Amendola could be big keys in the slot, while Brady will take his deep shot to Brian Tyms, with Brandon LaFell keeping the Lions honest on the perimeter.
Shane Vereen should be the running back of choice instead of running Jonas Gray and newly-reunited LeGarrette Blount into the teeth of the Lions’ defense. The Lions are 26th in DVOA covering running backs, so throwing to Vereen makes sense.
The Lions have the 22nd ranked offense in DVOA, 18th in passing and 30th in rushing, but those numbers don’t match the talent they have, especially in the passing game with Calvin Johnson and Golden Tate forming a tough combination to defend.
As is the case every week, the question is who will Darrelle Revis cover. While conventional wisdom might put him on Megatron, the Pats haven’t always used Revis straight-up on the best opposing receiver.
More often they use him against the quarterback’s safety valve, so there’s certainly a case to be made for using Revis on Tate, and using Browner’s size and length (along with over-the-top help) on Calvin.
Though Browner is former teammates with Tate, sometimes that kind of familiarity is useful as we’ve seen with Kyle Arrington covering Wes Welker.
The Patriots’ defense has found their stride in recent weeks and going against pass-happy teams like Detroit feeds right into what they are built to stop.
With newfound confidence in their defensive backs, the Pats are more willing to send extra blitzers like Dont’a Hightower and Jamie Collins. Dominique Easley has also shown signs of recovering his elite burst and could be in for a big game.
Points of Emphasis
1. Trim the Bush: Tate and Johnson are very good players and will cause issues, but the Pats secondary is up to the challenge. Where the game could be lost is if Reggie Bush gets hot, both running against the sub defense and in the passing game. Jamie Collins figures to draw a fair amount of responsibility to cover Bush in the passing game, but it will be up to the front four contain Bush on the ground.
2. Spread ‘Em: These are the kind of games that will bring back memories of 2007 as the Pats should get all their receivers involved. If guys like Tim Wright and Danny Amendola can snag some catches early, it will all start to unravel for Detroit, who is undoubtedly hoping to take Gronk out of the game and force the Pats to win with Edelman as the main passing focus.
3. Top of the Pocket: Games like this are a great test for the interior of the Pats offensive line, especially rookie Brian Stork. This is where the game will be won or lost. If Brady can’t step up into the pocket things could get interesting. He’ll want to unload the ball quickly, but the only way to stop it is if there’s immediate pressure in his face. That cannot happen.
4. Force Throws to the TEs: Expect the Pats to take away the deep ball to Tate and Johnson, forcing Stafford to check down to his tight ends. While it might be by design, the Pats are 31st in DVOA covering tight ends. As we saw last week with Coby Fleener going off, but the Colts still losing, we could see Brandon Pettigren, Eric Ebron or even Joe Fauria catch a bunch of balls. Even if that’s happening, it’s playing into the Patriots game plan.
5. Win – I think this is the week the Pats expose the reality of the Lions. They’re a good team, but I just don’t think they have what it takes to beat the Patriots in Foxboro. The Pats certainly took a look at how the Lions dominated them in recent preseason games and should be motivated to send a message. With the Packers looming next weekend, moving to 9-2 while maintaining the top record in the AFC is a great way to enter the post-Thanksgiving stretch, a time when they should really start playing their best football.