The Patriots will have their hands full with the visiting Detroit Lions. While the Colts revealed definite weaknesses on defense, which the Patriots absolutely exploited, the Lions are a whole different animal. They feature a fierce defensive front that can give even the most explosive offenses headaches.
This week we broke down the Lions past two games- a Week 10 victory over the Dolphins and a Week 11 loss to the Cardinals. It should be noted that both of these opponents feature top 5 defense to complement middle of the road offenses, which is a different type of competition than the Patriots present.
Still, there was much to learn about the Lions style of attack and how the Patriots would be best fit to stop them in all facets of the game.
When the Lions run the ball
Detroit is without their starting right guard Larry Warford, and their starting right tackle LaAdrian Waddle (already a back-up forced into a starting role) is nicked up. It shows on tape. The Lions have much more success running to their left than to their right and it would make sense for the Patriots to put heavier heads on the left side of the offensive line.
As reviewed, the Lions feature a three headed attack of Joique Bell, Reggie Bush, and Theo Riddick, who combine to be three of the Lions biggest five weapons. Bell is their best back, but he did not practice and might not be available for the game. Bush is fighting an ankle injury. Riddick is not as potent of a runner (although he's a quality receiver).
If the Patriots can place a heavy front, they should have success in stopping the Lions run and effectively force Matthew Stafford to win by using his arm.
The Patriots should play their standard 4-3 front, but looks for Dominique Easley to hold down one of the defensive end positions, preferably across from the left tackle. Vince Wilfork should line up next to Easley, with Alan Branch and Rob Ninkovich across from the weaker right side of the offensive line. Should Chris Jones play in Branch's stay, look for Jones to line up next to Easley in a single gap responsibility, with Wilfork assisting in Branch's gap.
When the Lions pass the ball
Lions quarterback Matthew Stafford has a complete cannon. He can, inconsistently, hit every place on the field so it's important to never let him settle. The Cardinals had a lot of success overloading pressure on the Lions weak right side to collapse the pocket and force Stafford to make an off-balance and inaccurate throw.
Another attack by the Cardinals D was to fake pressure to the Lions right side and just drop back into coverage. It froze the Lions offensive line and prevented the right side linemen from helping with any blocking- and it tricked Stafford into making more than a couple bad throws.
Stafford loves to use his checkdown running backs and will turn away from the deep throw and look for his backs at the first sign of pressure. As a result, if there is quick pressure he will rarely make a deep attempt. This will be a tremendous challenge for Jamie Collins and Dont'a Hightower who could be considered the most important players on the Patriots defense.
The Lions will chip away on every drive by checking to the running back, so the Patriots linebackers will need to be active. In fact, it would make sense for the Patriots to attempt, or at least fake, A-gap blitzes to keep the running backs in the backfield for additional protection; at the very least the backs should never get a free release out of the backfield.
Both the Cardinals, with Patrick Peterson, and the Dolphins, with Brent Grimes, played their top cornerback on Calvin Johnson for the game to varying degrees of success. The biggest takeaway was the success that Antonio Cromartie had in coverage of Golden Tate; Cromartie could be compared favorably to Brandon Browner for their straight line coverage ability.
While shadowing Calvin with Darrelle Revis would make sense, it looks like this will be a game where the Patriots never show Stafford the same coverage twice. Kyle Arrington should see time on the outside, after handling T.Y. Hilton well, while Browner and Revis can both match up well against Tate and Johnson.
When the Patriots run the ball
The Patriots will not be seeing the same rushing lanes they had against the Colts. Think more of the Broncos games; the Lions defensive tackles do a great job of crashing into the rushing lanes, while the defensive ends pinch and close any outside lanes for bouncing.
The Lions linebackers and safeties are extremely active in run defense so stretch plays are just asking to be stopped for a loss. If the Patriots want to run the ball, they'll need to just attack head on before the back end of the defense can attack the rushing lane.
This looks like another six offensive linemen game for the Patriots, and with Cameron Fleming sidelined it will likely fall on the shoulders of Marcus Cannon. James Develin should be active early on. There's no weak side on the Lions defensive line to attack- so just angle away from Ndamukong Suh and hope that the linemen can seal him out of the play just long enough.
There's no easy answer here and no real way to scheme around the Lions defensive line. This will be a battle that the Patriots have to fight to a draw in order to set up the play action pass.
When the Patriots pass the ball
While Detroit's defensive front does a great job stifling the run, they didn't seem to have the same success rushing the passer against Arizona. Cardinals quarterback Drew Stanton had plenty of time in the pocket; if he had better throwing mechanics and accuracy, he would have picked up a lot more on offense. There were a lot of missed yards.
The Dolphins, on the other hand, played right into the Lions strategy. They left quarterback Ryan Tannehill in the pocket for extended periods of time, which allowed the Lions defense to hit, hurry, and harrass him the entire game. The clear adjustment is to draw up quicker plays, but Miami never really made that change until it was too late.
The Lions defensive ends do a great job of making the pocket skinny and preventing any deep drops. This should be a game where Tom Brady side steps out of the pocket more than just a couple times to both buy time and to avoid the rush on big play attempts.
The Cardinals specifically took a deep shot on pretty much every single drive- and they hit on a few. The Lions free safety wasn't bad, but there were some clear mismatches on the deep half of the field. Look for the Patriots to try and use the play action to set up a couple early shots to Brian Tyms or Aaron Dobson.
The Lions really thrive in dropping their linebackers into interior passing lanes, but it leaves the defense exposed to shallow passes outside the hashmarks. This will definitely limit Rob Gronkowski's effectiveness in the passing game, but so long as he draws coverage from the linebackers, Shane Vereen will likely have an open running lane on swing passes.
The Cardinals and the Dolphins both had success when they got the ball into their receiver's hands quickly, to help negate the pass rush. The Lions defensive looked to be over-aggressive at times and would miss open field tackles. If the Patriots can incorporate quick screens (Julian Edelman) and slants (Brandon LaFell), they should be able to pick up yards after the catch fairly well.
The Lions play very undisciplined football and take a lot of boneheaded penalties. Look for them to get overheated; Rob Gronkowski needs to make sure he doesn't get riled up, too.
Detroit's special teams unit is fun to watch. Their punting teams deserves focus as they love to fake and pick up the first to extend the drive. Bill Belichick likely gave this unit the same focus he gave the Colts kick-off team.
The Lions have a ton of quality players that are nicked up. Their starting running back (Bell), defensive tackle (Nick Fairley), wide receiver (Johnson), and right guard (Warford) all missed Wednesday's practice due to injury. The Patriots could be catching them at the right time.