The Patriots are facing one of the more underrated teams in the league on Thankgiving. Yes, they're 2-8. But they're the best 2-8 team in a long time. They lost to the Bears in Week 1 due to a terrible call that overturned a touchdown. They lost to the Eagles in Week 2 by 3 points. They lost to the Packers in Week 4 by 2 points. They lost to the Jets in overtime. This is a team that plays up to its competition- the Patriots cannot rest. They are the NFC equivalent of the Cleveland Browns.
Here's what the Patriots need to look for while playing the Lions:
The Lions Unreliable Running Game
The Lions lost their #2 running back, and #1 in previous years, Kevin Smith to a thumb injury. That leaves the Lions with only rookie Jahvid Best in the backfield- and Best has been suffering from turf toe, the same injury that's had Fred Taylor sidelined for almost the entire season. As a running back, Best is far from impressive. He's less than mediocre when he's carrying the ball and is averaging 3.0 yards/carry. He's good for one good run in the game for 10-20 yards, but then he's greatly ineffective the rest of the game. He can get 1 or 2 yards per carry the rest of the game. His strength is not in carrying the ball.
Best's value comes from his receiving skills. He is averaging 5 receptions and 38 yards per game as a receiver. His toe has been affecting him lately as his overall numbers have been down, but the Patriots cannot afford to let Best out of their sight when he's on the field. He's thrived as one of the top outlet receivers for the Lions and the Patriots can be sure that Best will get at least a couple touches as a receiver.
As a running back, though, the Lions seems to be without much depth or strength. Look for Brandon Spikes or Jerod Mayo to shadow Best for most of the game. The Lions shouldn't be able to run the ball.
What else should the Patriots watch out for on Thanksgiving?
Megatron + Company Must Be Stopped
Calvin Johnson cannot be stopped. He's averaging 5.5 catches, 72 yards and 1 touchdown every game this season. He'll most likely be matched up against Kyle Arrington or Darius Butler with Brandon Meriweather over the top. Johnson cannot be single covered and he'll probably still perform if he's double covered- but the hope is that if he's double covered then the Lions might look away from him more often. The cornerback must play tight man coverage on Johnson for the whole game- sit in his hip pocket. The safety must play close over the top to eliminate any passes to the bubble, but also to take advantage of any wayward passes. The Patriots can afford to double cover Johnson so tightly because of how limited the Lions are in terms of offensive weapons.
Jahvid Best is hampered by turf toe. Tony Scheffler is out with an injury. That leaves only Brandon Pettigrew and Nate Burleson as deep threats for the Lions. With only four real offensive weapons- Johnson, Burleson, Pettigrew and Best- the Patriots can give Johnson plenty of attention.
Pettigrew is one of Lions Quarterback Shaun Hill's favorite targets. He's averaging 6 receptions for 75 yards in all of Hill's starts. At 6-5, 265 lbs, Pettigrew is a unique player who, as Comedic.Sans has pointed out, will most likely make the most out of his opportunities and help move the ball down the field. Pat Chung and Gary Guyton should be used to cover Pettigrew, with Chung over the top and Guyton underneath. Johnson is clearly the Lions' main target, but Pettigrew is next in line. Take away Johnson and Pettigrew, then the Lions will start looking to Nate Burleson.
Burleson has thrived the past 6 weeks, averaging 6 receptions for 70 yards and .66 touchdowns. Burleson will most likely be on an island with Devin McCourty, so McCourty must step up to the plate and remove Burleson from the game. Burleson, much like Best in the running game, is good for one big reception in the game, and a rather pedestrian rest of the game. It's up to McCourty to prevent Burleson from having that one big play.
Notice something else? All three targets are averaging around 6 receptions and 75 yards. Even Best is averaging 5 receptions. The Lions like to spread the ball around to all of the receivers and it is certain that the Lions are capable of giving the ball to everyone. Just like every week, the Patriots must play the full 60 minutes to not allow the Lions back into the game. Here are the match-ups:
Jahvid Best - Jerod Mayo on passing downs, Brandon Spikes on running downs.
Calvin Johnson - Darius Butler/Kyle Arrington + Brandon Meriweather playing tight and physical.
Nate Burleson - Devin McCourty on an island.
Brandon Pettigrew - Pat Chung over the top and Gary Guyton underneath
This defense features the three down linemen (preferably Brandon Deaderick, Vince Wilfork and Ron Brace), as well as two outside linebackers (preferable Jermaine Cunningham and Rob Ninkovich), on top of Meriweather, Chung, McCourty, Butler/Arrington, Mayo and Spikes/Guyton. It should limit the four main weapons of the Lions, while still generating solid pressure with 4 or 5 man rushes.
But no matter how it happens, the Patriots need to take away the Lions' weapons.
Run the Ball
The Patriots have been able to run the ball with BenJarvus Green-Ellis and Danny Woodhead. The Lions, on the other hand, cannot stop the run. Opposing running backs are averaging 4.6 yards/carry against the Lions defense- which is actually better than the Indianapolis Colts' run defense, just to give a bench mark. In fact, the Patriots will probably have a similar run performance against the Lions as they did against the Colts. The Patriots running backs picked up 165 yards, 5.9 yards/carry and 2 touchdowns on the ground against the Colts. In order to generate a pass offense, the Patriots will need their run game to perform well against the Lions.
Look for the Patriots to follow the same game plan as they did against the Colts- a healthy dose of BJGE early on, followed by a heavy dose of Woody late in the game. The Patriots should open up with some quick passes underneath and on hitch routes to receivers in order to open up the field for the running backs. Once the running backs start getting in a groove- which they should- then the Patriots should look for some deeper passes. As much as the Patriots want to come out slinging, they need to open the field before they can pick up lots of yards.
Main point: Protect Tom Brady. The Lions are 7th in the league in sacking opposing quarterbacks. The Patriots offensive line has been stellar since Logan Mankins' return and the movement of Dan Connolly to right guard. The Lions feature a defensive tackle by the name of Ndamukong Suh who is a stellar pass rusher, despite his poor run blocking skills. Suh will be lining up against Connolly and Dan Koppen, which should be enough protection for Brady. Add in Alge Crumpler and Rob Gronkowski ans the Lions shouldn't be able to get near Brady.
One thing to worry about is the fact that the Lions have recorded at least one sack in every game this season. Every one of their defensive linemen is capable of reaching the quarterback. Fortunately for the Patriots, their defensive line is dinged up. The only offensive line comparable to the Patriots that the Lions have faced is the New York Jets and they only managed one sack by Cliff Avril- and he was lined up against Damien Woody. The Patriots O-Line thrives against 4-3 defenses, giving up only 1 sack in three contests, to Dwight Freeney. Since Mankins' return, there has been almost negligible interior penetration. While Suh may be a challenge for the offensive line, the Patriots should be able to compensate in protection.
Against Freeney and Mathis, the Patriots used the guards and tight ends to shift outwards to help protect the pocket. Against the potent interior of the Lions, the Patriots should shift their guards inwards to help push Suh away.
Beware the Cornerbacks
The Lions feature a pair of underrated cover corners. Both Alphonso Smith and Chris Houston are capable of knocking away passes and snatching them out of the air. Brady's accuracy must be on the spot the entire game in order to prevent an untimely turnover. Both Houston and Smith rank in the top 25 of the league's defensive backs in terms of passes defended. Brady cannot afford to throw the ball on the ground or behind receivers. He's been money the past couple weeks and must sustain this magic. Deion Branch and Wes Welker must shed their coverage in order to give Brady clear passing lanes. It's a potential big day for everyone on offense as long as everyone performs.
My Prediction: Patriots 31, Lions 21
Brady: 250 yards, 2 TDs, 0 INTs
BJGE + Woody: 150 yards, 2 TDs
Megatron: 7 reception, 100 yards, 2 TDs