Two teams scrapping for division titles come together in Philadelphia this Sunday, as the Detroit Lions pay a visit to the Eagles.
What: Detroit Lions (7-5) vs. Philadelphia Eagles (7-5)
Where: Lincoln Financial Field, Philadelphia, Pa.
When: Sunday, December 8, 1 p.m. ET
Watch: Fox, check local listings
Both teams are coming off home victories. Philadelphia took care of Arizona 24-21, while Detroit annihilated Green Bay 40-10. The Lions do have some extra rest, as that game took place on Thanksgiving Thursday.
Philadelphia presents a stern challenge for these Lions. The Eagles are flying high, cresting with four consecutive wins.
There are two primary reasons why the Eagles have taken off recently. First, quarterback Nick Foles has emerged as a legitimate Most Valuable Player candidate over the last month.
Secondly, the defense has tightened up. Over the last six weeks the once-porous Philly defense has allowed just 17 points per game. In the Eagles' first six games, the same unit allowed 29.8 points per contest.
With those two keys in mind, here is how the Detroit Lions need to approach this tough matchup. A tip of the hat to Deep Purple for the inspiration here.
Curb the Space Truckin'
One of the hallmarks of the Philadelphia offense is its ability to create space for the playmakers. Coach Chip Kelly is excellent at isolating dynamic players like DeSean Jackson and LeSean McCoy with a lot of turf around them.
As a result, the Eagles lead the league in explosive plays. As Chris Wesseling of NFL.com noted recently:
With Nick Foles at quarterback, first-year head coach Chip Kelly has removed all doubt about his ability to scheme and call offenses. The Eagles lead the NFL in explosive plays (20-plus yards) by a wide margin.
The key for the Lions is not to break down in spatial awareness and positional integrity. In other words, keep McCoy and Jackson confined to narrow lanes instead of wide swaths of open highway.
Here is a play from the Eagles' win over Arizona that illustrates how well they create favorable matchups.
DeSean Jackson (No. 10) begins this play as the wide receiver on the outside of a trips formation. The Cardinals are caught in a base defense with a linebacker flanked out over the slot and just one cornerback on the side.
Jackson motions inside before the snap, which tips off the coverage to both Foles and the receivers. If one of the safeties comes up in coverage, Jackson has the ability to wheel outside and streak up the field around the corner.
In this case, the safeties stand pat, leaving just two defenders outside on three receivers. The inside linebacker is now responsible for both Jackson in the near slot and the running back next to Foles.
A quick play-action fake holds both that linebacker and the safety for a count, giving Jackson time to flare out and the fellow receivers on that side a chance to set up and block. Foles quickly hits Jackson on a bubble screen.
Now the Eagles have the ball in the hands of one of the best playmakers in the entire league. He has two blockers to occupy each defender near him and a 15-yard cushion from the safety. Come on, let's go space truckin'...
The Cardinals react to this pretty well, all things considered, and force Jackson out of bounds after a 14-yard gain. They avoided the moon shot, but the Eagles still had a ball with an easy first down.
So what can the Lions do when presented with a similar scheme? Aside from calling timeout, the inside linebacker must flare out into space when Jackson motions inside. That seems counterintuitive, but the Eagles are trying to create space.
Stephen Tulloch will have to choose between sticking inside the tackle box to help against the run or driving outside to mow down some of the open turf for Jackson. It will help that the base Detroit defense features three corners, which means Bill Bentley will be where a linebacker was for Arizona.
The safeties must understand that while it's bad to let guys like Riley Cooper or Zach Ertz get the ball in open space, it's lethal to allow Jackson to catch the ball with that much room. Philly ran this exact same play against the Oakland Raiders, except it was Cooper getting the quick bubble screen to the left. He gained 42, but in the lither Jackson's hands, it would have gone for 90.
When the Eagles line up the trips formation, the Lions must bring Louis Delmas or Glover Quin closer to the bunch in coverage. The safeties have to slash the tires before they hit the open road.
Hush the Crowd
Philadelphia fans are famously hostile to outsiders; this is the city that booed Santa Claus, after all. But when things aren't going well for the home team, the partisans don't give much of a boost to the Eagles.
The Lions need to hush the crowd, and the best way to do that is to grind out long drives on offense.
While Detroit isn't known for having a ball-control offense, it has shown the ability to produce some long and productive drives. The Lions have eight drives of 10 or more plays in the last three weeks.
For Detroit, running the ball will be key. It's not often that the high-flying Lions want to take the air out of the ball and shorten the game, but it's a prudent strategy in Philadelphia.
While the Eagles are statistically better against the run than the pass, it's a bit of a misleading fact. As I covered earlier this week, part of the reason why the Eagles allow so many passing yards is because they face far more passes than any other team.
Teams have found success against the Eagles by running straight at them. When opposing offenses are gashing the Philly defense for four to six yards at a time, the crowd quiets.
Detroit has an excellent run-blocking offensive line, and this is the perfect time to lean on guys like Larry Warford and Riley Reiff. Here is a play the Green Bay Packers used, one which the Lions absolutely can replicate.
Green Bay ran this play with 12 personnel (one running back, two tight ends), but the function of the second tight end is superfluous; the blocking advantage gained by having a tight end instead of a slot receiver is negated by the ability to increase the spacing with a fleeter wideout.
This is a designed A-gap run for Eddie Lacy, with the key to the play being right guard T.J. Lang's (No. 70) ability to get out quickly and engage the linebacker at the second level. The center has to move nose tackle Bennie Logan (No. 96) to that right side to create the inside running seam.
The Packers did this very effectively on this play. This might come as a bit of a surprise for Lions fans who just watched the Packers offensive line getting pushed all over the field by Detroit's defensive front.
That just reinforces why the Lions can do this effectively. If the Packers can do it, you'd better believe Detroit can do it even better.
Lacy follows Lang into the hole and has an option. He can either break it more to the right, or he can bounce back to the left. Strangely, Lacy opts to go straight behind Lang and into the defenders instead of trying to avoid them. Still, he gets 11 yards.
This is where having two backs with divergent skills can really pay off for the Lions.
Joique Bell runs with a similar style to Lacy, a powerful interior runner who gets yards by breaking tackles. It's easy to see Bell making this very run behind Warford and center Dominic Raiola, or perhaps even cutting to the outside behind impressive rookie right tackle LaAdrian Waddle.
Then there is Reggie Bush. When he's being assertive—which unfortunately is not all the time—Bush can get to the position where Lacy is in the above screen shot and wreak havoc. He has the agility to cut back to the left or to bounce around the fray and pop outside the tackles for a bigger chunk of yardage.
Grinding out yards not only keeps the Philly fanatics quiet, but also keeps Foles and the offense off the field.
Keep Burning on Third Down
One of Detroit's big advantages over Philadelphia comes in the discrepancy between the two teams on third downs.
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The Lions are very good on third down on both offense and defense. On the flip side, the Eagles struggle equally on both sides of the ball.
The benefits here are twofold. Detroit does a much better job of extending drives and eating precious clock. It gives the Lions more opportunities to progress into scoring situations, making them less reliant on the big play.
Also, it keeps pressure on the Eagles. Nothing is more discouraging for a defense to see than the offense go three-and-out, then surrendering a drive where the opponent converts three third downs in a row.
The key here is to avoid crippling penalties and plays that produce losses. Detroit's offensive line does a great job in protecting Matthew Stafford and opening running lanes on first-down jaunts.
This game is not going to be easy for Detroit. Philadelphia is a formidable opponent that is playing very well lately, and it needs this win just as much—if not more—than the Lions.
Detroit will have to play with the passion and celerity that brought them so much success against Green Bay. They've proven the capability is there. Keep roaring, Lions, and the playoffs are yours!