NFC Wild Card Matchup, Lions vs. Saints: 5 Lion Combos You Must Watch

James Van EttenContributor IJanuary 6, 2012

NFC Wild Card Matchup, Lions vs. Saints: 5 Lion Combos You Must Watch

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    There are five Detroit Lion combinations you must watch as they make their return to playoff football in the Mercedes Benz Superdome for the daunting task of upsetting the New Orleans Saints.

    Not really the welcome basket the Lions were looking for when they squandered their chance to beat the Packers JV squad in Green Bay and head to New York.

    If you think the opponent doesn’t matter, you didn’t see Matthew Stafford’s emotional plea to his defense to come up with a stop at the end of last week’s game.

    The Lions missed out on a Matthew Stafford vs. Eli Manning showdown and now must attempt to stop Drew Brees and the No. 1 offense in football in their own backyard.

    Not to mention the Saints are still bitter about having to travel to Seattle last year and play a road playoff game against a team with a losing record that sent the fleur-de-lis home, one and done.

    The Saints are battle-tested, focused and looking for retribution, while the Lions are making their first playoff appearance since Stafford was figuring out his first locker combination in sixth grade.

    Like Lloyd from Dumb and Dumber optimistically replied to Mary, “So you’re telling me there’s a chance.”

    Sure, the Lions have a chance on Saturday night and the Detroit Pistons could win the NBA title, but I’m not going to jump a bird to Vegas to bet the mortgage on either.

    Wait, let me put on my Honolulu Bleux glasses...oh, things are becoming much clearer now.

    The Superdome was host to the Fab Five when they knocked off Kentucky and Michigan turned three special teams’ miscues by Virginia Tech into a Sugar Bowl victory earlier this week.

    Why can’t the Lions pull off a Ronald Miller stunner and turn an African anteater ritual into a trendy Bayou boogie in the NFL’s version of the big dance? 

    For the Lions to attain their own “one shining moment” (the original by David Barrett is still the best), Detroit will need some breaks to go their way and play a near flawless game on both sides of the ball while avoiding special teams snafus like the two blocked field goal attempts on their last trip to Creole country in unlucky Week 13.

    With both teams ranked in the top four in scoring, one would expect a shootout of 100 points with over 1,000 yards passing and within the lexicon of NFL records; Drew Brees and Matthew Stafford does sounds much better than Stafford and Flynn.

    But don’t expect records to be broken again. This will be playoff football; winner moves on, loser goes home. Both coaching staffs are busy scheming to stop the opposing quarterback rather than putting up NBA-like scoring totals themselves.

    Don’t get me wrong, the final won’t be 9-6, but the track meet we saw last weekend will not be replicated. 

    With that said, here is the wild card, combo, edition of the Van Etten V V…

Matthew Stafford and Calvin Johnson

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    I normally refrain from identifying the deadliest pitch-and-catch combo in the NFL as players to watch; but it’s the playoffs, time to hold nothing back.

    Matthew Stafford and Calvin Johnson have shown the NFL why they were both drafted first and second in their respective draft classes.

    With Stafford under center, Johnson has taken his rightful spot atop the NFL in receiving yards with 1,681; the only receiver to average over 100 yards/game.

    Beyond the yardage, Calvin’s 16 touchdown grabs is second only to the 17 amassed by Rob Gronkowski in an unprecedented year for a tight end. But it's Johnson's explosion plays, plays of 20 yards or greater, that put him in a category all his own.

    With 42 explosion plays; Megatron’s big plays are nearly 25 percent greater than the second-best vertical receiver, Victor Cruz. It’s not even close who the best receiver in the league is, and the spread will surely become greater as Stafford continues to mature.

    As for Matt, his 5,038 yards is third-best in this record-breaking year for passing yardage, and he’s only the fourth quarterback in NFL history to pass for over 5,000 yards.

    With the third-best touchdown total of 41, I think Eli would probably not have been voted into the Pro Bowl if the voting were done after week 17.

    But those stats should mean little to both No. 9 and No. 81 this weekend.

    Sean Payton has made it a point to recognize Calvin as “elite,” earlier in the week, and the Saints will certainly try and scheme Megatron out of Saturday’s game.

    It will be up to Scott Linehan to move Calvin into different formations and motion him across the field to create separation that will allow the wide receiver, with a defensive end’s body, to do damage against a susceptible Saints secondary.

    Stafford will need to recognize when the single coverage is there and get Calvin the ball in patterns up the field, where Calvin can utilize his height and leaping ability.

    But the crossing patterns can free him up from double coverage by creating a wash where Calvin can separate; using both his speed and strength to his advantage. If Stafford can hit him in stride, big plays are probable.

    Watch to see how often Calvin lines up, or ends up in the slot. This should tell you how often Linehan and Stafford are trying to create matchup problems for New Orleans.

Titus Young & Brandon Pettigrew

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    If the Saints insist on giving Calvin Johnson coverage reminiscent to Kwame Kilpatrick’s entourage, Titus Young and Brandon Pettigrew should be the benefactors.

    Both Young and Pettigrew had less than memorable games on their last visit to New Orleans, as they both were hit with personal foul penalties that killed drives.

    Titus was punished for his lack of maturity, after have two receptions for 60 yards, as Schwartz benched the rookie after his penalty. Pettigrew was no better with multiple drops and finished with 13 yards on two catches.

    But both have flipped the script since then and have been hot in the final quarter of the season. Young has scored four of his six touchdowns, and Pettigrew has averaged nearly seven catches and over 75 yards receiving.

    If the Lions have a chance to pull the biggest upset of the weekend, according to Vegas, both Titus and Brandon will need to take advantage of the TLC the Saints give Megatron and make them pay with big plays.

    Catch the ball, catch the ball, catch the ball!

Ndamukong Suh & Nick Fairley

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    To kill a snake, you must cut of its head; Ndamukong Suh and Nick Fairley need to bring their swords.

    Drew Brees is the unmistaken leader of the Saints and probably the league MVP. If he’s thinking about a collapsing pocket and not his teammates, the Lions just might have a shot.

    The House of Spears was back home in Portland the last time these two teams played, and now he’ll get a chance to prove he truly is a difference maker. The strength of the Saints offensive line is the three interior linemen, and if Suh can beat their double-teams, it will say a lot for how truly dominate he can be.

    Fairley was a man amongst boys in week 13 as he had three tackles and a sack in the first quarter and appeared to make life miserable for Brees in front of a national viewing audience.

    Unfortunately, the toe injury jumped up and bit Fairley again and forced him to the sidelines, ending his night. If Fairley can stay on the field and generate the same kind of damage he did previously, both he and Suh should be able to press the pocket, take Brees out of his comfort zone and force the play to Avril and Vanden Bosch.

    I’m also interested to see if Gunther Cunningham moves Suh around and stunts the front-four more often. The straight-up vanilla rush was unsuccessful last week.

Kevin Smith & O-Line

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    The running game is not as critical in the NFL as it was in the past, but the Lions running game must be effective for the Lions to stay close.

    Kevin Smith averaged over five yards per carry and nearly eight yards per reception in the last meeting, but with only six carries and nursing the ankle injury sustained on Thanksgiving, he was unable to shoulder the load.

    This time around, Smith is still not 100 percent, but he’s in better health and will need to contribute.

    The Lions cannot afford many three-and-outs against the Saints. First, that means they missed out on an opportunity to score, but second it means the defense has had little time to catch it’s breath from defending the high-caliber attack of the Saints.

    Being able to string a couple first downs together will be critical for the Leos to keep Brees off the field. Trust me, the Saints are thinking the same thing about Stafford.

    With the sixth-best rushing attack at nearly 133 yards per game, the Saints will be able to keep their defense fresh; the Lions offensive line needs to create some creases for Smith and keep the chains moving to keep their own defense sharp and on even footing with New Orleans.

    Otherwise, it could get more rancid than Bourbon St. at 6 a.m.

Chris Houston and Louis Delmas

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    Both Chris Houston and Louis Delmas were not on the field in Week 13 when Drew Brees torched the Lions secondary for 342 yards and three touchdowns; part deux could have a different outcome with these two on the field.

    Houston is having a career year with 55 tackles and five interceptions, two of which returned for touchdowns. He’s had his share of forgettable plays this year, but you have to think he’ll be an upgrade from Aaron Berry on Saturday.

    Louis Delmas will return to the field after a five game hiatus to quarterback the backend of the defense and his leadership will be helpful according to Houston.

    "Communication, leadership, the fire he brings. Like with a couple of things I saw during the game (against the Raiders), even though it was early I saw some things they were doing with (T.J.) Houshmandzadeh in the slot running those out routes.

    With Lou in the game, he would have told me, 'Go ahead and jump it, I would have got you.' So I feel we could have made a couple plays with him with the time I was in the game. But with the other safeties, they might not understand or not have the same athleticism he has." (freep.com)

    With tight end Jimmy Graham the favorite target of Brees, look for Delmas to get matched up on the All-Pro often, and his ability to cover ground quickly should help defend the gadget plays devised by Sean Payton as well as the jitterbug Darren Sproles.

    Additionally, don’t be surprised if Gunther Cunningham dials it up and brings more blitzes this week. Brees is at his best against standard four-man rushes, completing a league-best 75 percent.

    With a win-or-go-home ultimatum, the Lions may take more chances up front, leaving the corners on islands and bringing unfamiliar pressure to try and rattle Brees.

    A couple bad decisions and maybe a turnover could be the difference Detroit needs and is worth the risk instead of letting Drew sit in the pocket and get surgical on the secondary.

    Those are my five Lion combinations to watch, enjoy the game!