The Lions have a lousy record and will again be drafting in the top 10, but this is one of the best teams they've had in years, even if that's not saying a whole lot. Four of their eight losses have been by three points or fewer, and two other losses were by five and eight points, respectively.
They play hard, and they've got talent. Head coach Jim Schwartz, a disciple of Bill Belichick, has the Lions taking on his personality, and Schwartz has utilized the same defensive system he showcased when he commanded the Tennessee defense for eight years.
Detroit's defensive line is the most active of its three levels, and the front four has recorded 21.5 of the team's 27 sacks this season. Rookie defensive tackle Ndamukong Suh is the driving force of that line, and he'll likely command double teams, which will force New England's tackles — who are coming off an excellent performance against the Colts — and the singled-up guard to win their one-on-one battles at the line. Defensive ends Kyle Vanden Bosch and Cliff Avril each have four sacks, and Avril is the speed rusher, while Vanden Bosch is more about power.
However, as strong as the Lions' front is at attacking the passer, they aren’t a good run-stuffing group. The Lions have given up 130.6 yards per game on the ground, which ranks 26th in the NFL and isn’t much better than Indianapolis' unit. Therefore, there's reason to believe the Patriots can capitalize on the ground in this game.
Detroit's secondary is young, but it's got some speed and playmaking ability. Cornerback Chris Houston is lightning quick, and Alphonso Smith has come into his own in Detroit's system after losing his way in Denver. Smith has playmaking ability and leads the Lions with five interceptions. Second-year safety Louis Delmas is the most dangerous defensive back in Detroit and a rising star at the position. He's somewhat similar to Patriots safety Patrick Chung, although not as fast, in that Delmas is always around the ball and can make plays in all three levels of the defense.
The Lions are expected to start quarterback Shaun Hill in the place of Matthew Stafford, who is injured again. Hill is a gamer and may be an overachiever. He plays tough and can be fun to watch when he's got it going, and Hill will also tuck the ball and run with it when necessary. He might not have the strongest arm, but with some of his receiving options, placement is typically more important than how hard he gets it there.
Wide receiver Calvin Johnson is one of the two or three best in the game. He's huge — 6-foot-5 and 236 pounds — and he's stronger and faster than most of the players he'll line up against. And even when Johnson is covered, he can jump over the defenders in his path, so once again, the Patriots will need to employ the jamming techniques that have frustrated the other more skilled wideouts they've come across.
Now, re-read that last paragraph and apply it to tight end Brandon Pettigrew, who isn’t as fast or as polished as Johnson, but he's dangerous and is one of Hill's favorite targets.
Rookie running back Jahvid Best got off to a blazing start, but he's been really limited by turf toe, and that has killed his production. Best's best assets are his speed and elusiveness, so it's going to be important for outside linebackers Jermaine Cunningham and Rob Ninkovich to set the edge and make sure Best can't get to the outside, where he'll really pose problems for New England's defense. Best is also a useful receiver, simply because of his athleticism in space.
If Best can't play, Maurice Morris is his primary backup, and he's a journeyman running back who won't really wow anyone. Even with Best's injury, it would be a tough loss for the Lions if he can't go.
The Lions' offense has enough talent to pose problems for the Patriots, and their bend-but-don't-break approach could get tested by Johnson, whose 10 touchdowns show how much of a threat he is in the red zone.
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