One month ago, Drew Brees and his New Orleans Saints offense exposed the Detroit Lions secondary. Completing 26 of his 36 pass attempts for 342 yards and three touchdowns, Brees put on a passing-efficiency clinic; his passer rating was an eye-popping 129.6.
Brees stretched the defense laterally with his stable of tailbacks and tight end Jimmy Graham, who had eight catches for 89 yards. Then, in the second quarter, Brees stretched the already-thin Lions defense past its vertical breaking point: all three of his touchdown passes were 20 yards or longer.
Brees was able to keep the offense on schedule with short passes and screens, setting up frequent third-and-short situations. That's when Brees and the Saints are hardest to stop: Do you press them to stop the first down, or drop into zones to prevent the big play?
The Lions chose the former path, pressing receivers at the line. With top interior pass rusher Ndamukong Suh, top cover corner Chris Houston and playmaking safety Louis Delmas unavailable, the Lions tried to bridge the talent gap with tactics.
At the start of the second quarter, the Saints had scored only three points and were facing 3rd-and-4 on their own nine yard line. Brees broke the huddle and faced this puzzling Lions alignment:
Cliff Avril, #92 was at his usual left defensive end spot. Immediately to his right, lined up as a tackle, was right defensive end Kyle Vanden Bosch. To his right was #99, DT Corey Williams. Finally, at right "defensive end": 330-pound DT Sammie Hill.
OLB Justin Durant had snuck up to the line in Vanden Bosch's "wide nine" RDE spot (albeit with no hand down). To the right side of the defense, three cornerbacks (from inside to outside: Eric Wright, Alphonso Smith, and Aaron Berry) were playing press man.
At the top of the screen, safety Amari Spievey was in press man against Graham. MLB Stephen Tulloch spied Saints tailback Pierre Thomas. Safety Chris Harris was playing deep, deep centerfield (off camera to the left).
Whatever it was, it was a perfect counter to the Saints' approach: if all five "linemen" rushed, Brees wouldn't have time to throw it over the heads of the pressing corners, and the coverage was too tight to hit someone underneath.
Saints head coach Sean Payton didn't like what he saw. Despite coming in off a quarter break (the clock still read 15:00), Payton called a timeout. The Saints called a different play, and the Lions reverted to a vanilla 4-2-5 nickel:
What happened next is pure execution. The Lions get good penetration, with Hill and Vanden Bosch stunting effectively. Though the massive Hill got a hand in Brees's face, Brees released a perfect pass to a streaking Robert Meachem, who hauled it in right over Berry. The Lions did everything right on that play; Brees and the Saints just beat them.
To avoid a repeat of December's 31-17 blowout, the Lions must prevent huge downfield passes, without also allowing Brees' backs and tight ends to move the chains at will.
How can they do it?
First, the Lions have to improve their execution in pass defense, regardless of down, distance or alignment; the return of Suh, Houston, and Delmas should help tremendously. Second, they must improve on first and second down, limiting 3rd-and-short situations where Brees makes them pick their poison.
Finally, the Lions must continue to innovate schematically, forcing Brees and the Saints to adjust their game rather than the other way around. If Jim Schwartz and Gunther Cunningham can keep Payton and Brees guessing and adapting, the Lions have a chance to advance beyond the Wild Card round for the first time in twenty years.