Patchy Lions defense to have hands full with soaring Saints offense
There's no other way to describe Lions defensive tackle Ndamukong Suh's latest -- and most costly -- loss of poise and professionalism.
At stake for the once-lowly Lions Sunday night is a potentially fate-changing win against a bona fide Super Bowl contender. The Lions remain in the wild-card race, but have very little margin for error. The Saints are grooving at the perfect time, showing all the determination they did during their 2009 Super Bowl run, again feeding off the intensity and talent of veteran quarterback Drew Brees.
Suh, however, showed why youth often can be wasted on the young and dealt a severe blow to playoff hopes. When Suh stomped on Packers guard Evan Dietrich-Smith on Thanksgiving Day he might as well have been kicking dirt in the faces of Lions teammates and fans.
With Suh fined and suspended two games for losing his cool, the Lions defense may still be a talented threat, as Brees said this week. But they clearly are not the same without Suh on the field. Worse, not only are the Lions down to one interior defensive lineman against Brees, but also the secondary is hurting. Louis Delmas (knee), Chris Houston (knee) and Brandon McDonald (thigh) all enter the game against the league's No. 1-rated passing offense either doubtful or questionable for Sunday.
At some point, Suh may mature and find balance between the on-field intensity and rabid style that makes him great, and the poise that will help make his team great. But it probably won't be this year.
Suh already has taunted an opposing player (Falcons QB Matt Ryan) while he was injured on the field, been called the dirtiest player in the NFL, faced criticism from his NFL peers and now been fined and suspended.
Since giving up an ungodly six sacks to the pitiful St. Louis Rams in an Oct. 30 loss, dropping the Saints to 5-3, the offensive front has not given up another. That's going on five weeks of keeping arguably the best quarterback in the game unscathed. The perfection has come against formidable foes, too -- the Bucs, Falcons and Giants.
It's no wonder the Saints have run better, been much more efficient all over the field and picked up steam, averaging 34 points and 464 yards per-game since the collapse against St. Louis.
Part of the transformation has been physical, with tackle Zach Strief back after missing five games (knee) and center Brian De La Puente getting comfortable at center, amid the staples Carl Nicks, Jahri Evans and Jermon Bushrod. But Sean Payton also has enhanced protection packages, keeping more two tight-end formations on the field.
The result has been a unit that plays with confidence and swagger and nothing reflects this more than the interior three of De La Puente, Nicks and Evans.
While Nicks and Evans have the most press clippings, the inside-power of these three have completely dominated inside tackles of late, making the absence of Suh even more crucial.
With three solid backs behind the interior three, the inside run-blocking success has been obvious. But it's in pass protection where the strength of these three becomes obvious. Not only do they rarely give ground, but also they have a knack for pushing rushers to the outside, giving the shorter Brees a clear look at the entire defense.
With the Lions' reeling and the defense hurting, Detroit's only chance to pull out what would be a crucial win may be outscoring the sizzling Saints. That would point directly to one often-dominant Lions weapon -- Megatron. But there's one problem: That weapon, Calvin Johnson, lately has been like Elmo at toy stores -- hard to find.
Johnson averaged two touchdowns per game in his first four outings this year. In his next four outings, he averaged more than six catches and 120 yards per game.
But since then, with opposing defenses employing more blitzing and sandwiching Johnson high-low in Cover Two defenses, Johnson has just one touchdown and is averaging 73 yards in receptions.
The Saints defensive coordinator is one of the best at mixing blitz packages and is sure to do the same. The one thing Johnson has going for him is that when the ball is up for grabs, he usually gets it. Conversely, the Saints have been horrible in what usually is their forte, forcing turnovers. The Saints enter the game ranked 24th in the league in turnover margin.
The Saints' guard has become a rock on the offensive line in his four NFL seasons and is a big reason the offensive front has responded from a six-sack, 56-yard rushing effort against the St. Louis Rams in Week 8. He also was suspended Lions DT Ndamukong Suh's teammate at Nebraska.
"I guess we're just playing better together as a team. There's just something about November and December that separates the pretenders and the contenders. I know it's kind of cliche, but we feel like we have that hunger. We're at the point where it's our fourth and fifth game starting this five together. We had several injuries and weren't really together. Our chemistry is getting better and better each week. We know our job. Get Drew [Brees] time, he's going to exploit you."
"One thing about Drew, he's dead serious in practice, but he'll joke around after practice, in the locker-room. The other day, I came in to watch film and he was in there watching film. I walked in and he was listening to rap music. I was like, "What?" He just laughed. He's a down to earth guy and he likes to joke. He's all business when it's time, but he's a fun guy to be around."
"It was my fault. My senior year, I figured we wouldn't make a bowl game and I just wasn't mature. I quit going to class and even before that, all I did was the bare minimum. Before Pro Day, I got arrested (inmate of a disorderly house and failure to disperse). I had too much to drink and told people I wouldn't leave a party. I got banned from my Pro Day.
"For a while, I blamed Bo Pelini, because he had just gotten there as coach. I thought, he didn't even know me. I got drafted later than I thought, but it got me to play early, play harder and we won a Super Bowl. I got the chance to prove people that I wasn't that guy. I went back to Nebraska and apologized to [Pelini and AD Tom Osborne] about how I handled that situation. I totally understood why he did what he did. I thanked him for it."
"It sucks that I can't play against him. He's absolutely one of the top two defensive tackles in the NFL. I feel like I'm turning into one of the best offensive guards in the league. I had this game circled on the schedule. It's too bad Nebraska guys get a bad rap. I've been there. I'm never going to say anything bad about him. I just wish him the best."
In the NFL, dirty deeds are not exactly done dirt cheap. Here is a list of the NFL's most notable players fined or losing pay via suspension thus far in 2011:
This is the second consecutive week the Saints have caught a team reeling and searching for answers. The Lions do have a better ground attack and outside weapon in Calvin Johnson offensively. But without Suh making plays in the middle and a secondary that has three key players injured, the task against Drew Brees is more than formidable.
On the road at New Orleans, and with Brees playing his best football of the year, if not his career, the Lions' only shot is to force turnovers and exploit the blitzes Saints defensive coordinator Gregg Williams is sure to bring.
Both will be difficult: The Saints offensive line has become dominant and Williams is a master at disguising pressure packages.