Thanks to the NFL, this will be the second of three consecutive games where the Eagles will face an opponent coming off its bye week. With this disadvantage serving against them, Andy Reid will have a lot to cover as he prepares his Eagles for an explosive opponent.
With that in mind, here are the 10 keys that will decide the outcome of Sunday’s contest.
There’s no doubt in my mind that this game will be won by the team that can pressure the quarterback.
Both of these teams run the Wide 9 formation and both of these teams are built around an aggressive pass rush.
For the Eagles, this means they must do a better job of keeping Michael Vick upright and clean. Of course, this is easier said than done. The Lions have one of the more talented defensive lines in the NFL and can collapse the pocket from the outsides and in the middle. Each of their nine sacks have stemmed from the play of their front four, so expect them to give Philadelphia’s makeshift offensive line all they can handle.
On the other hand, Juan Castillo’s defense has failed to record a sack for the past two weeks. Now, that doesn’t mean the defense has played poorly, but it has allowed opponents to extend drives and has given them better field position. Against a dangerous Lions’ offense, this has to change.
If the Eagles are going to protect Michael Vick, they need better play up front. There have been too many times this season where a defender has come off the edge unblocked and tagged No.7 for a big hit.
Part of the blame belongs to Vick for not being able to identify the blitz. But the other part falls upon the offensive line.
The middle of the protection has blocked defensive stunts very poorly, while delayed blitzers are forcing Vick to leave the pocket and make throws on the run. Vick has rushed to the sideline too many times this year—not by instinct, but by necessity. By extending the play for just a few extra seconds, the chances of him getting hit and fumbling the ball drastically increase.
And speaking of fumbles…
This is one aspect that can, and will, ruin a solid well-rounded performance from the Eagles.
Michael Vick’s turnover issues have been well documented, but it hasn’t been all on him. LeSean McCoy has already fumbled twice this season, and to be quite honest, I don’t see how he doesn’t lose the ball more often with the way he brings it away from his body.
After throwing six interceptions to open the season, Vick hasn’t thrown another pick for the past three weeks. Ironically enough, the Eagles are undefeated when he tosses it to the other team, but only 1-2 when he doesn’t.
The reason for this is that instead of launching it down the field, Vick is simply fumbling it away. The repercussions of not flipping field position with a fumble magnify the impact of a lost possession.
Hopefully, Andy Reid will be aggressive on Sunday and attack a weak Lions secondary. If turnovers become a byproduct of that style, it would be much easier to live with than simply fumbling the game away.
Eagles fans have been criticizing Andy Reid and his play-calling all season long—and for good reason, let me add.
I made the case for LeSean McCoy as Philadelphia’s best player a while back, and my stance remains firm.
In the past two weeks, McCoy has shown why he’s the team’s best option and needs more touches. Not only does he make plays for himself in the backfield, but he can also be used to keep pressure off the quarterback as well.
Now, while I normally believe the run should be used to open up the passing game, I would like to see a flip of the script in this matchup.
Detroit’s top cornerbacks are Chris Houston and Bill Bentley—not exactly two defenders you want to shy away from. If Philadelphia can take advantage of weak coverage during the first half, they can ride McCoy the same way they did against the New York Giants to seal a victory.
What makes LeSean McCoy so great is his well-rounded skill set. We all know him as the make-you-miss-expert that he has made himself to be. But that doesn’t mean we should overlook his contributions as a receiver or in protection.
The Eagles have always been known to dominate the screen game, yet for some reason they seem to have gotten away from that this year. The loss of Jason Peters has definitely limited some of the things Andy Reid can do offensively. However, against a Lions’ defensive front that has the tendency to over-pursue, the screen pass can do more than just limit an aggressive pass rush.
There are a variety of ways the Eagles can get McCoy involved without using a handoff. Aside from screens, play-action and motion can be used and cause mismatches. Believe it or not, the way Shady is utilized away from the ball may just impact the game more than when he actually has it.
While DeSean Jackson is a name that you should find on any list of big-play wideouts, that list would not be valid unless it had Calvin Johnson on the top of it.
The two receivers will be the focal point of each team’s vertical attack. However, they will carry different responsibilities along the way. Jackson will be used to stretch the field against the Lions’ banged up safeties, which will open up underneath routes for Brent Celek and Jeremy Maclin. Megatron, on the other hand, will need to carry the load for his offense and should see at least a dozen targets—regardless of how well he’s defended.
With tight end Brandon Pettigrew being limited in practice due to a knee injury, expect Titus Young and Nate Burleson to have expanded roles as well.
In order for the Eagles to ground the Lions’ aerial attack, Philadelphia’s secondary needs to play better coverage—particularly, Nnamdi Asomugha.
However, that’s going to be extremely difficult for Asomugha this week if he’s lined up across Calvin Johnson.
The Eagles brought him in to be the shutdown man-to-man corner who allowed the pass-rushers of the Wide-9 to get to the quarterback. Instead, as a 31-year-old, it seems as if he’s lost a step and can no longer dominate at the line of scrimmage like we’re accustomed to seeing.
It goes without saying that Asomugha will be physically challenged against the quicker, stronger 6’5”, 236-pound Johnson on Sunday. Yet, he’s still one of the top cornerbacks in the NFL, and the best option the Eagles have at their disposal.
Juan Castillo will always have an extra defender shading towards Johnson’s side of the field when he’s on the outsides, but whenever he lines up in the slot, that coverage assignment should primarily fall to Asomugha.
With none of the Lions running backs averaging more than four yards per carry, and the way Philadelphia has been defending the run, this aspect almost takes care of itself.
New linebackers DeMeco Ryans and Mychal Kendricks have brought an element of reliable tackling that was severely lacking in 2011. But for some reason, the team was a bit sloppy last week against the Steelers, and it showed with the way Rashard Mendenhall ran through arm tackles.
The Lions will be fresh coming off a bye week, so there’s the likelihood that another poor effort is in store for Philly defenders. The last thing the Eagles want to do is give life to an anemic running attack when they’re likely to have their hands full with No. 81.
For the past two weeks, Bobby April and the Eagles’ special teams unit have done a bad job of covering kickoffs. In comparison, the Lions’ group has been far worse.
Not only have the Lions allowed two kickoff returns to go for touchdowns, but they’ve also surrendered two punt returns for scores as well.
The Eagles selected Brandon Boykin in the fourth round of the draft not just to play cornerback, but also to give life to their return game. So far, Boykin has managed a long of just 29 yards on 13 attempts. If there’s a time for him to break out and become a difference maker on special teams, it’s going to be this week.
According to Eagles 24/7, there are four Eagles who are tied for the team lead in penalties committed with four apiece. Those culprits are Dominique-Rodgers Cromartie, Nnamdi Asomugha, Evan Mathis and Demetress Bell.
I’m going to excuse the offensive linemen for their infractions since the stability and cohesiveness of that group is far from what we expected it to be, and because Michael Vick is the most difficult quarterback to block for in the history of the NFL.
As for the two starting cornerbacks, their penalties have proven to be more costly and bother me a bit more. I understand that when the replacement officials were calling the shots, defenders could get away with a lot more. But those days are now in the past, and if those two players can’t adjust to the new old rules, Philadelphia will lose games because of it.
Although the DRC and Asomugha haven’t racked up big yardage from their penalties, they are still surrendering automatic first downs to opposing offenses. And with the Eagles offense averaging a mere 16 points per game (ranked 31st), they will need all the opportunities they can get.