Try and name the top five skill players on the Lions offense. You get Calvin Johnson (although he's been hurt and missed practice today). Golden Tate. Joique Bell. Reggie Bush (also out of practice).
Who is the fifth?
Is it a tight end? Brandon Pettigrew also missed practice and only has 68 yards on the season (ninth on the team). Rookie tight end Eric Ebron ranks eighth with 125 yards. Joe Fauria is averaging less than a target per game.
Who is the third receiver? Their primary kick returner Jeremy Ross ranks sixth on the team with 204 yards from scrimmage. Corey Fuller ranks seventh with 178 yards.
For a point of reference, Tim Wright has 182 yards on the year. He's a rotational fifth, now that Stevan Ridley is injured.
The Lions primary offense comes from their three running backs, an obvious connection between the Lions offensive coordinator Joe Lombardi and the Saints offense that he used to run; Bell, Bush, and Theo Riddick (fifth on the team with 213 yards) join Johnson and Tate to form the Lions top offensive receiving threats.
Clearly the Lions can't play all three running backs at the same time- and it's probably difficult to get two on the field at any consistency. Compare that to the Patriots who have a top three of Rob Gronkowski, Julian Edelman, and Brandon LaFell, along with Shane Vereen and Jonas Gray splitting time in the back field. This means the fifth player (Wright or Danny Amendola in this case) is the only real "liability" when it comes to offensive scheming.
For the Lions, they don't have the same breadth of skill players. This simplifies how the Patriots can play the Lions.
Stop Calvin. Stop Golden. Stop whoever the running back is. The fourth and fifth options (who are generally Ross and Ebron) are the metaphorical left hand that Bill Belichick forces other teams to play with.
This isn't to say that the Lions can't be dangerous with their slot receiver or their tight end- especially not when the Patriots have been weak while covering tight ends. It just means that the Patriots need to distribute their defensive resources accordingly.
When it come sto the Patriots defensive front, they should continue to play the 4-2-5. The Lions will be without their starting right guard Larry Warford and possibly their starting right tackle LaAdrian Waddle, himself a back-up, so watch for the Patriots to pressure the right side of the pocket.
A defensive line of Akeem Ayers, Dominique Easley, Vince Wilfork, and Rob Ninkovich makes the most sense, with Chris Jones and Alan Branch seeing time for heavier sets. The Patriots have suddenly found a viable run defense so facing the Lions and their trio of backs is certainly a great measuring stick for how far they've come.
Jamie Collins and Dont'a Hightower should continue to be the linebackers and they'll be excellent at attacking the offensive line, sniffing out running lanes and generating pressure. Expect the Patriots to bring back some of their A-Gap blitzes as the Lions don't really have a consistent target in between the numbers. Additionally, these blitzes will occupy the running backs and prevent them from breaking out into the open field as receivers.
This front six should be able to provide enough pressure as Matthew Stafford ranks in the bottom 25% of quarterbacks in handling pressure, while offering the third highest sack rate.
With the five players in the secondary, it's clear that the Patriots should devote plenty of resources to both Tate and Johnson. While Johnson is still returning from injury, he is Megatron. This is how the defensive backs should align:
Calvin Johnson: Brandon Browner. It's hard for a defensive back to knock a receiver like Johnson off their routes, but Browner is the most likely candidate. Browner has the size to attack the quick plays and Devin McCourty will be able to provide enough support over the top to help prevent the big play.
While it might make sense to put Revis on Megatron, the Lions don't really have a tight end worth dedicated to Browner. As a result, Megatron and Browner make the most sense.
Golden Tate: Darrelle Revis. Some might think that this is why he was signed. Revis has definitely proven his worth over the past few weeks. Over the past three weeks, Revis has been asked to cover players like Brandon Marshall, Demaryius Thomas, Emmanuel Sanders, T.Y. Hilton, and Reggie Wayne. Through 17 targets, Revis has allowed 7 completions (41%) for 87 yards, 1 interception, 1 pass defended, and 0 touchdowns. The 39.4 passer rating against over these three weeks is one of the best in the league.
Tate is the Lions leading receiver, so it's not like they're dedicating Revis to a nobody. He and Revis match-up very well for Revis' skill set; consider it to be covering a player similar to Sanders. There's no reasonable argument to put Browner on Tate.
Jeremy Ross: Kyle Arrington. Arrington has flown under the radar for too long. He covered Hilton extremely well, especially with safety help, and he's one of the top slot corners in the league. Arrington is allowing a reception once in every sixteen coverage snaps, good enough for the second best rate in the league. The 44.4% completion rate on passes towards Arrington is the lowest of any cornerback with 300+ snaps, per Pro Football Focus.
Arrington should be able to lock down this role without much support and prevent the Lions 4th/5th weapon from picking up steam.
Eric Ebron: Pat Chung. Chung took a seat against the Colts after a tremendous effort against the Broncos. Look for Chung, who is tremendous against the run, to help limit the Lions other 4th/5th weapon. Chung should be able to cover Ebron, but also attack the rush, to give the Patriots, effectively, a front 7, with Chung has the third linebacker. Chung is a top rated safety and this is a perfect match-up for his skill set.
Devin McCourty is the single deep safety, shading over towards Johnson. The linebackers are focused on shadowing the running backs, as well as generating pressure.
This is a quality match-up for the Patriots defense. They should have the right pieces to have a successful game.