Eli Manning hopes that a certain Lions defender doesn't spend Sunday afternoon in the Giants backfield.
The individual matchups should be crucial in a contest where the Lions are in a must-win situation, while the Giants look to play spoiler one week after getting embarrassed in a shutout home loss to the Seattle Seahawks.
Who will be responsible for neutralizing Lions wide receiver Calvin Johnson, arguably the premier player at his position in the NFL, is one matchup that will be analyzed. Which other key players are involved in individual battles that will help decide this game?
Find out in the following slides—compiled in ascending order, from the matchup that is least crucial among the group to the one that is most important.
Hakeem Nicks is looking for answers for his inconsistent play this season.
The Lions are not proficient at defending the pass. They are allowing 252.9 yards per game through the air on 7.6 yards per attempt. Both of these marks rank in the bottom third of the NFL.
However, the Giants air attack may be lacking their best weapon on Sunday. According to Ebenezer Samuel of the New York Daily News, Victor Cruz, who sustained a sprained knee and concussion in the third quarter of the loss to the Seahawks, may be put on season-ending injured reserve. If that occurs, Big Blue will be without their team leader in receptions and receiving yards.
Hakeem Nicks will become Manning's chief target in Cruz’s absence. The 25-year-old has struggled this year with consistency, despite playing in 13 of 14 games.
Nicks has three 100-yard games to his credit, but he also five outings where he has failed to top 40 yards receiving. And, of course, his well-publicized streak of games without a touchdown catch is now at 16 games.
The fifth-year veteran will likely face Rashean Mathis for most of Week 16. Mathis is a better matchup on paper than the Lions other starting cornerback, Chris Houston, since he stands at 6’1”, while Houston is only 5’9”. When he is playing at a high level, the 6'1" Nicks is a physical receiver who effectively uses size and strength against smaller corners.
Also, Mathis has had a better year than Houston, despite the latter coming into the season as Detroit’s top cornerback. Houston has struggled with consistency, which has resulted in poor coverage, as his -10.0 Pro Football Focus rating in this area indicates. Conversely, Mathis sports a respectable 3.1 PFF coverage rating (subscription required).
This matchup is the least crucial of the group since Manning should have modest success in the passing game if Nicks struggles. Along with Houston, the other Lions cornerbacks are not particularly effective in coverage, so New York’s signal-caller figures to find a rhythm with the likes of Rueben Randle and Jerrel Jernigan.
And if Cruz defies the odds and plays, that will likely only enhance the Giants chances of moving the ball through the air against the Lions.
Justin Tuck is having an impressive bounce back season.
Rookie LaAdrian Waddle was not deemed good enough get drafted last April, but that hasn’t stopped him from becoming Detroit’s starting right tackle. An injury to starting left tackle Riley Reiff in Week 7 allowed Waddle to get his first NFL snaps midway through the season. Beginning in Week 8, he slid over to right tackle in place of the injured Jason Fox and has not left the starting lineup since.
The 22-year-old has fared well in his 497 snaps to date, as witnessed by his 7.7 PFF rating (subscription required).
However, despite having not allowed a sack, Waddle can be exposed by a good pass-rusher. He has allowed 17 hurries and seven hits on the quarterback. Both of these numbers are high, given his limited workload.
Based on his 2013 performance, Tuck could be the player that registers a sack on Waddle. The nine-year veteran has 7.5 sacks over his last four games and nine on the season. The latter matches his total from the 2011 and 2012 regular seasons combined.
He has also been excellent at stopping the run, with a 11.4 PFF rating. He should see his fair share of opportunities to stop the run in Week 16, since according to Football Outsiders, the Lions run to the right 31 percent of the time, compared to only 26 percent going left.
This matchup is well ahead of the Nicks-Mathis tilt in terms of importance, simply because Tuck could significantly disrupt the Lions' offense with a top-notch effort (like he did in Week 13 versus the Washington Redskins).
Calvin Johnson's size makes him a difficult matchup for most cornerbacks.
While Tuck could wreak havoc on the Lions offense, Calvin Johnson possesses the ability to singlehandedly be the Lions' passing attack Sunday afternoon.
That is why his matchup with Prince Amukamara is so critical.
Johnson has seven 100-yard games this season, including a 329-yard effort against the Dallas Cowboys in Week 8 that nearly broke the single-game record for receiving yards. He is a nightmare to cover, since he stands 6’5” and 236 pounds yet has the speed of a much smaller receiver.
Despite his freakish physical gifts, Johnson has proven to be human at times this season. He has four games where he has failed to register at least 55 yards receiving. In addition, his hands have been shaky with 10 drops.
Amukamara will need a good performance and some help and luck to contain Johnson. The 24-year-old has been a solid cover corner this season, despite a misleading -5.2 PFF coverage rating. He has surrendered only 571 receiving yards, on 10.8 yards per catch and two touchdowns. All of these numbers are solid and mask the fact that he is simply not a playmaker (only one interception and seven pass defensed this season).
Like virtually all NFL cornerbacks, though, Amukamara can’t match up physically to Johnson, even though he's a good-sized corner at 6’0”, 207 pounds. If Megatron flashes his stone hands a few times and safeties Will Hill and Antrel Rolle help provide strong double-teams, then Amukamara has a chance to neutralize the Lions' best offensive weapon.
However, if Johnson is sharp and Amukamara and company aren’t, it will be hard to keep the Lions' offense from topping the 30-point mark.
Ndamukong Suh disrupts all facets of an offense.
This matchup is the game’s most crucial because Ndamukong Suh has a better chance to disrupt the Giants offense than Johnson does of torching their secondary.
Why? Because Kevin Boothe, and in particular, David Diehl, appear to be severely overmatched by Suh.
First a look at the Lions' stud defensive left tackle. Suh is turning in an All-Pro season, as he has been a major force as a pass-rusher and run-stopper. In terms of the former, he has 48 quarterback hurries, 11 hits and 5.5 sacks.
The first number is particularly impressive since 30 hurries over a full season for a defensive tackle is considered a strong number. This does not bode well for Manning, as Suh figures to be in his face a lot, especially considering the shaky protection the Giants' quarterback has received in 2013.
Combined, Boothe and Diehl have allowed 44 hurries, 13 hits and five sacks this season.
Diehl accounts for a large portion of the damage, which is why he sports -19.6 PFF pass-block rating, ranking him 75th out of 77 guards graded (subscription required).
Expect plenty of double-teams on Suh by this duo, which could open up opportunities for defensive tackle Nick Fairley and rookie defensive end Ezekiel Ansah to get to Manning.
Suh could also find his way into the Giants' backfield quite a bit on running plays, considering his 10.0 PFF run rating and six tackles for a loss.
New York's offense is certainly familiar with unsuccessful rushing attempts this season. According to Football Outsiders, 23 percent of Big Blue’s carries have resulted in no gain or negative yardage.
If Suh has his way, that percentage will likely be higher come Monday morning.