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Eagles-Lions Preview: Transforming Into a Winner
A couple of 7-5 teams at the top of their respective divisions meet on Sunday, when the Detroit Lions visit the Philadelphia Eagles, with quite a few intangibles to consider. First of all, the weather forecast is for light snow and sleet during the game and dome teams, like Detroit, traditionally don't fare well in bad weather. There is also the fact that the Lions have had ten days off since their Thanksgiving Day domination of the Packers. On the flip side, the Eagles have won four in a row, including two in a row at home after losing 10 straight at home dating back to last season.
Will any of that matter? Who knows. What I do know is that the Lions have the 2nd best offense in the NFL (424.5 yards per game) and the Eagles have the 3rd best offense (403.6 ypg). Let's take a look at the matchup on the field.
Eagles Offense Versus Lions Defense
Eagles quarterback Nick Foles leads the NFL with a 125.2 passer rating and still hasn't thrown an interception this season. As a matter of fact, if he manages to throw another TD without an interception, he will tie the NFL record of 20 TDs to start a season without an interception, set by Peyton Manning earlier this season. Luckily for Foles and the Eagles' 9th ranked passing attack (256.8 ypg), they are facing a bad Detroit pass defense, ranked 26th (262.2 ypg). Something to watch during the game will be third down conversions. The Lions have the best third down defense in the NFL, stopping opponents nearly 70% of the time. Meanwhile, Foles has completed an impressive 66% of his third down passes.
After being shut down by Arizona's Patrick Peterson last week, DeSean Jackson will look to get back on track against the weak CBs of Detroit. Rashean Mathis and Chris Houston are below-average corners, so Jackson and Riley Cooper should have plenty of opportunities to make plays. Eagles coach Chip Kelly has also started to use two tight ends more often, so expect to see lots of Brent Celek and Zach Ertz on Sunday. Ertz will most likely be covered by Detroit safety Louis Delmas, but don't be surprised to see LB DeAndre Levy covering TEs. Levy leads the entire NFL with 6 INTs.
Of course, none of that will matter if the interior of the Eagles offensive line can't contain the best DT combo in the game, Ndamukong Suh and Nick Fairley. The Lions have only recorded 26 sacks this season, but they get most of their pressure up the middle, which makes life hard on quarterbacks. Center Jason Kelce and guards Evan Mathis and Todd Herremans need to be on top of their game or it will be a long day for Foles.
The Lions play the Wide-9, which Eagles fans are more than familiar with, and they even have Jim Washburn running it for them. But unlike the disaster it was in Philly, the Lions have the players to make that scheme work. The Lions don't allow wide running lanes normally associated with the Wide-9, as evidenced by their No. 3 ranking against the run (82.7 ypg). Levy and MLB Stephen Tulloch both rank in the top 20 tacklers in the NFL. The Eagles are no longer the best running team in the NFL and LeSean McCoy is no longer the top rusher. Both McCoy and the team slipped to No. 2 and it won't get any easier this week. Last year, the Lions held McCoy to 22 yards on 14 carries. If he doesn't do better, the Eagles have no shot.
Is Calvin Johnson the Greatest WR in NFL History?
Lions Offense Versus Eagles Defense
The Lions not only have the No. 2 offense in the NFL by yardage, but they also are No. 4 in scoring at 27.2 points per game. That is thanks mostly to their passing game, which is ranked No. 2 in the NFL (309.3 ypg). And of course, that passing game is led by quarterback Matthew Stafford and receiver Calvin "Megratron" Johnson.
Stafford is a bit underrated considering the fact that he is second in the NFL in passing yards (3,825) to only Peyton Manning and third to only Manning and Drew Brees in TD passes (27). Stafford has completed 296 of his league-leading 500 passes (59.2 percent), but he is tied for third with 14 interceptions. As a matter of fact, 10 of those INTs have come in the last 5 games. This is good news for an Eagles defense that is ranked dead last in pass defense (296.8 ypg), but is tied for third with 15 INTs. The Lions have 25 turnovers this season, which is the third most in the NFL. Obviously the Eagles best chance at getting their fifth straight win is to create turnovers and Stafford and the Lions seem capable of providing them.
The problem for the Eagles, and every other defense in the NFL, is trying to cover Calvin Johnson. Johnson is probably the best receiver in the history of the NFL. Yes, I know Jerry rice holds most of the records, but Rice also always had a Hall of Fame QB (A couple of guys named Montana and Young ) throwing him the ball. Johnson can't be covered by one defender and often can't be stopped by two. Bradley Fletcher and Cary Williams will need help on every single snap, so expect safety Nate Allen to be over the top of Johnson all day. The 6-foot-5, 236 pound Johnson set the NFL record with 1,934 receiving yards last season and he has 72 catches for an NFL-leading 1,299 yards and 12 TDs already this season.
Nate Burleson and Kris Durham are the other receivers and rookie tight end Joseph Furia is a big (6-7) target who has 6 TDs. The Eagles will also have to keep an eye on running backs Reggie Bush and Joique Bell, who are third and fourth respectively with 488 yards on 45 receptions and 378 yards on 34 receptions.
Speaking of Bush and Bell, they give the Lions a dimension that Detroit hasn't had in a while. Bush is the outside threat, while Bell pounds the ball in-between the tackles. Detroit is only the 15th ranked rushing offense (115.2 ypg), but at least they give opposing defenses something to think about, unlike previous years. The Eagles are No. 19 against the run (115.5 ypg), but seemingly have trouble stopping opposing teams from running the ball in the first half. Since the Eagles often get early leads, their opponents have to abandon their running game in the second half, so the Eagles ranking might be a bit skewed. Bennie Logan has been pretty good at nose tackle and Fletcher Cox and Cedric Thornton have been better than expected in their transition from a 4-3 to 3-4, but they aren't great.
The Eagles pass rush took advantage of a bad Arizona offensive line last week to produce five sacks, but that won't be the case this week. LT Riley Reiff is going to bring Trent Cole back down to reality and RG Larry Warford looks like the best rookie offensive lineman in the NFL, not the guy the Eagles took No. 4 overall. Stafford has only been sacked 15 times in 515 pass plays, which is tied with Manning for fewest in the NFL for any QB who has started every game, so don't expect many sack dances from the Eagles this week.
Out of all the free agent signings the Eagles made this past offseason, the best of the bunch was punter Donnie Jones. Only 6 of his last 28 punts have been returned and only one has been returned for 10+ yards all season. He also has dropped 29 punts inside the 20, which is 2nd best in the NFL and he's 7th overall in net average (41.3). The Eagles coverage teams are much improved as a result, which is important since Detroit return man Michael Spurlock has five return TDs during his career. On the flip side, ex-Eagle David Akers is at the end of the line. The greatest kicker in Eagles history is just plain awful these days.
The Man They Call Megatron
Jim Schwartz will forever be known as the guy who chased down 49ers coach Jim Harbaugh because he thought Harbaugh shook his hand too hard and Chip Kelly is still having trouble with those pesky challenges. But both men have their teams at the top of their division with a good chance at the playoffs. Really not much more you can ask of your head coach than winning, is there?
Both teams are hot, but the weather is going to be cold are raw. Normally that would be enough for me to lean towards the home team facing a visiting dome team. Unfortunately, the Lions do have a decent rushing attack and their defense absolutely stuffs the run themselves. Add in the fact that not even Mother Nature can stop Calvin Johnson and I have to go with the visitors from Motown.
Lions 31 - Eagles 27