The Detroit Lions' Sunday Night Football game against the New Orleans Saints generated a wealth of storylines: the Saints home unbeaten streak continuing, the Lions road unbeaten streak coming to an end, the continued production of Matthew Stafford, the brief coming-out party of Nick Fairley and the continued rash of bizarre and post-snap Lions penalties.
But as the old saw says, the offensive line is doing their job best when you don't hear about them. Reviewing the Lions performance against the Saints, I saw Matthew Stafford hitting players like Nate Burleson and Titus Young deep downfield, throwing to second and third reads he either hadn't been looking for, or hadn't had time to throw to in recent games.
I suspected the Lions' pass protection had returned to its early-season form, and the tape confirmed it: Jeff Backus had his best game of the season in the Superdome.
The stats back this up: per Pro Football Focus, Backus nearly pitched a shutout against Saints DE Will Smith. Backus held Smith to no sacks, no QB hits, one QB pressure, no solo tackles and one assist. By PFF grades, it was simultaneously Backus's best game of the season (+4.1) and Smith's second-worst (-3.4).
Backus was equally good opening holes as he was protecting Stafford. The Lions, down 17-0 in the first half, were driving to get on the board with just five minutes left before halftime. Faced with a rare second-and-five situation, the Lions chose to run behind Backus and left guard Rob Sims.
Before the snap, we see the Saints in a 4-3 alignment. This has been their primary defense. Sims will take on Smith, while Backus reaches out to block Saints OLB Johnathan Casillas. Sims does a great job sealing off Smith, but Backus delivers the key block.
Because Backus quickly got to the second level, got his hands on Casillas and kept him from getting to the hole, Lions RB Kevin Smith has the space to cut upfield and turn a two-yard gain into a seven-yard gain—and pick up a crucial first down.
Here's an example of Backus's pass protection enabling Matthew Stafford. After a quick defensive stop, the Lions have just 22 seconds before halftime. With only a couple of plays to drive 73 yards, the Saints know the Lions will be throwing:
The Saints line up in a 3-3-5 nickel, with the corners lined up well off their man assignments. They blitz one outside linebacker, rushing four. Backus is one-on-one against Smith, and he shuts Smith down:
Backus gets good positioning with his kick-slide, absorbs Smith and holds his ground. Stafford was looking down the seam for either Nate Burleson or Brandon Pettigrew, and begins his throwing motion—but at the last second, he thinks better of it, pumps, turns and fires down the sideline to a wide-open Titus Young.
Because Stafford trusted Backus to protect his blind side, Stafford had time and confidence to go to his second (or third) option. This long pass play set up a field goal attempt that kicker Jason Hanson missed—but if it weren't for Backus buying time, Stafford might have been sacked on this play, or at least flushed from the pocket.
This was Backus' 172nd consecutive start, setting a Lions franchise record. If he can continue to play at this level, or anywhere near it, Matthew Stafford will again have the time to all of his weapons—not just Calvin Johnson—to shred opposing defenses downfield.