Patriots vs. Lions: 10 Keys To Thanksgiving Win For Lions
The New England Patriots travel to take on the Detroit Lions this Thursday in the first game of the Thanksgiving holiday at Ford Field in Detroit.
At 8-2, New England has a very real chance to win the AFC East and home-field advantage throughout the playoffs. The Lions, meanwhile, are without quarterback Matthew Stafford for the rest of the season and sit at 2-8, having lost on Sunday in Dallas.
On paper, this one is a laugher. The Patriots should walk away with the easy win, and have every reason to feel confident as they prepare during the short week. As long as they are sufficiently rested from a grueling 31-28 win over Indianapolis, that is likely the way things will go.
For the Lions to pull off an upset, a lot needs to go right. Yet, if they could somehow beat the Patriots at home on Thanksgiving, it would go a long way toward redeeming a long-lost season for Detroit. The sheer energy such a win might generate would be a great way for the Lions to head into the final stretch of the season, during which they play each of their NFC North rivals at home. It could be the time for the franchise to begin to really move forward.
Of course, it's very unlikely, but here are ten things the Lions need to do if they want to get a surprising and electrifying victory over New England Thursday.
10. Fly Under The Radar
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In Week 12, the Patriots play the 2-8 Lions in Detroit. In Week 13, they take on the Jets at home on Monday night, in a game that will almost surely decide the AFC East. Which is the team more likely to prepare intensely for?
Brian Billick, an astute analyst of the game who coached the Ravens for years, said once that he never expects his team not to play hard on Sunday: If you let up in this league, you could be seriously injured or killed, and every player knows that. Still, Billick noted, guys tend to let their concentration on game plan installations and walk-throughs suffer during the week before "trap games," and those are the times when Billick would lay into his team to send a message. He would look for subtle signs of lacking focus, such as leaving game film at the practice facilities instead of taking them home for further study, as his charges usually did.
This week, Patriots head coach Bill Belichick has very little time to notice any signs of that kind of lapse. Therefore, the Patriots could well come into Ford Field slightly unprepared. For that to play into the Lions' hands, though, they must do nothing to disrupt what must be supreme confidence on the part of New England. Give Belichick any bulletin-board material, or take a cheap shot early in the game, and the Lions might as well kiss the game goodbye.
9. Use The Crowd To Their Advantage
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As desperate and despairing as Detroit football fans are, they still turn out on Thanksgiving Day, and the Lions ought to use that to their advantage. The team feeds well off the home crowd: All four of its wins over the last two seasons have come at home.
This season, the Lions are 2-2 at home, and each of their losses came by one field goal to an elite team (the Eagles in Week 2, the Jets in Week 9). It isn't such a stretch, really, to imagine that they could hang with the Patriots. To finish the job this time, though, they must keep the crowd in the game and ramp up their confidence entering the fourth quarter.
8. Pressure Brady
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Obviously, this is much easier said than done. The Patriots have a terrific offensive line and Brady, while known as a pocket passer, uses superior footwork to move that pocket at will. The Lions' defensive line has its work cut out for it, especially because the team can ill-afford to blitz aggressively and leave its modest secondary in isolation with new England's talented receivers and backs.
For the first time since the days of Robert Porcher, though, the front four for Detroit has what it takes to meet that challenge. Led by rookie Ndamukong Suh and free-agent acquisition Kyle Vanden Bosch, the team has one of the league's best defensive lines. That group needs to get penetration, stuff the run, then pin their ears back and fight their way to Brady.
The good news is that, with rare exceptions, the Patriots' offense is actually a bit behind the curve when it comes to conforming with the new vogue in NFL passing schemes. Brady does his best work when he has time to survey the field and throw a long out or post route—the Patriots play a more vertical game than most others in the league. That gives Suh and the boys a split-second of extra time with which to work.
7. Get To The Second Level
The Lions will be able to pass against the Patriots (although the degree of success they have could vary), but the running game has to be there as well if the team wants to move the ball consistently against this veteran defense.
The key to that dimension of the offense will be getting to the second level of defenders as quickly as possible on rushing plays. The Patriots run a 3-4 defense predicated on the roaming, play-making abilities of Jerod Mayo (one of the elite inside linebackers in football) and rookies Brandon Spikes and Jermaine Cunningham.
The Lions have to get those guys blocked, and should make sure they do so by having their offensive linemen make those guys primary targets. Vince Wilfork, Gerard Warren and Mike Wright make up the Patriots' defensive line, and while they specialize in stopping opponents from getting by them to block their linebacking corps, they have 23 combined seasons of NFL experience. Wright is also battling a neck/concussion injury, and it looks like Brandon Deaderick may need to step in for Wright on Thursday.
Add the bumps and bruises that pile up by Week 12 to the age of that defensive front, and the Patriots have a group unlikely to make a ton of plays in a game following a short week. It is imperative for the Lions to block those guys only on their way to the younger, stronger and more dangerous men at the second level.
6. Contain Danny Woodhead
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Danny Woodhead, once an undrafted afterthought in Jets camp, only touched the ball between seven and 10 times per game. Yet, every time he gets an opportunity, he makes a big play.
Woodhead is averaging 5.6 yards per carry this season, and has four total touchdowns. He is dangerous out of the backfield as a receiver, too, and the Patriots love to use him that way when the defense sinks too far back to defend the vertical passing game.
The Lions need to be very aware of Woodhead, but there is good news: Because of his size, he is not often used as a blocking back, or even as a decoy. When he is on the field, the defense need not hesitate to assign someone as his shadow. The best man for the job is free safety Louis Delmas.
Delmas is a solidly-built safety who prefers run-stopping to pass coverage anyway: He has 60 tackles but no interceptions on the season. The Steelers had success in slowing down Woodhead when they used safety Ryan Clark to do the same sort of thing.
Woodhead is not the Patriots' most dangerous weapon, so the Lions cannot afford to focus too intently on him. Still, moving Delmas up and into position to follow Woodhead would go a long way toward shutting the door on one more weapon for New England.
5. Get Aerial
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As important as balance is, the Lions have one offensive strength, and the Patriots have one defensive weakness. Luckily for the Lions, those two things match up: The Lions have weapons in the passing game, while the Patriots cannot defend the pass.
It used to be daunting for opponents to look across the field at New England's secondary. There stood Asante Samuel, Randall Gay and Rodney Harrison, all capable of making plays in more than one way. Now, that secondary is far depleted, and the Pats rank 31st in the league against the pass.
To exploit that group, the Lions need to stretch the field as much as possible. Because the Patriots will counter that strategy by blitzing aggressively, though, tight end Brandon Pettigrew will need to stay home and block on many of those plays. The team's passing scheme should emphasize the sheer dominance of Calvin Johnson, for whom New England has no good matchup.
4. Best Of Both Worlds
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During the Belichick era, the Patriots have become famous for using their running backs as interchangeable pieces. They get the most out of their backs by making them all primarily receiving backs, and by stretching the field (having Randy Moss always helped) to create space underneath the defense in which the shifty runners could work.
The Lions' rookie running back Jahvid Best may be as good as any back the Patriots have deployed in the past decade. He has struggled running the ball behind a porous offensive line, but Best has shown flashes of extraordinary potential even so. His 49 receptions reflect his ability to come out of the backfield and make sure-handed, solid plays in the passing game.
For the Lions to beat New England, Thanksgiving must be his coming-out party. Best practiced despite turf toe injuries on both feet, so he will apparently try to play through those maladies. A game-breaking play or two from the team's resident gladiator could get the crowd into the game early and give the Lions their spark.
3. Out-Belichick Belichick
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One of Bill Belichick's greatest gifts as a coach is his ability to convince his team to play every game with the sort of cutthroat, hyper-efficient focus normally reserved for a team's most bitter rivals. For the Lions to take down the Patriots, Lions head coach Jim Schwartz has to do something like that.
It should not be a tough sell: The Lions have a lot to play for Thursday. In a season when they have played a number of heart-breakingly close games against tough teams, the team has to feel it has just missed competing for a playoff berth this season. If they beat the Patriots, the team will have validation of that idea, as well as a reputation (already in the making this year) for defending their home turf.
More than that, though, they will build momentum to take into a home stretch of the season that is critical not because the team must win each game, but because they must compete and win some of the games to garner respect going forward. A team on the rise always needs a statement win to take the big step from pretender to contender, and Schwartz should not hesitate to tell his charges (truthfully) that this is that game for the Lions.
2. Pull a Payton
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Sean Payton's election to employ a surprise on-side kick at the start of the second half in Super Bowl XLIV will go down as one of the guttiest and (because it worked) most brilliant moves in Super Bowl history. Yet, the play is more important (for Detroit, anyway) for what it tells underdogs everywhere about playing against a heavy favorite: The champion always wants to trade punches. Rattle them, and you might just knock them out.
When Saints punter Thomas Morstead cut the kick to the left side to start the half, chaos briefly ruled. The Colts missed a chance to grab the ball, then piled relentlessly on the ball in an effort to create confusion enough to get it back. It did not work. The men in blue seemed jumpy and on tilt the rest of the night, and New Orleans won easily.
Of course, Schwartz's tactical maneuver need not take the same form. A good old-fashioned hook-and-lateral would be fun, and almost no one in the NFL runs them anymore. A reverse on a kick return or a flea flicker of some stripe all sound about right. One way or another, Schwartz's team must take a big risk early on to show the Patriots they will not be intimidated.
1. Win The Turnover Battle
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This is the No. 1 way for any team to win any game, really, but the Lions actually have a chance to do it on Thursday. Suh leads a front seven who love to go for the big hit or the strip, and the secondary (while inconsistent on this point) looks to jump short routes while playing more conservatively along the back lines in deep responsibility.
The result has been a league-leading 12 fumble recoveries for Detroit, which would mark the fifth straight season in which the team has finished in the NFL's top four in that category. The interception total (nine) is more average, but the team still has the ability to make big plays and turn the game around if New England jumps ahead early.
The real key, then, will be for Shaun Hill and Best to take care of the ball. Turnovers going the other way will be devastating blows for the Lions, especially because they must try to keep the aging defense of the Patriots on the field as much as possible after the short week of rest and preparation.