Many would argue that the Detroit Lions and their dominating defense will face their first true test this week against the New Orleans Saints. The Saints boast the second-best offense in the league that is bound to test whether the Lions defense is "real" or not. But if the Saints have such a threatening offense, why are they just 2-3 on the year? They must have some weaknesses, so let's find them:
Let's start with the defense, since that seems to be an easier egg to crack. Though Rob Ryan brought the defense to respectability in 2013, the Saints seem to have fallen back to reality this year. While New Orleans' defensive line remains pretty good (a scary thought for Lions fans), it is their linebackers and secondary that have really let the team down.
Teams have found a lot of success against the Saints with short and medium routes over the middle of the field. The linebacking crew in New Orleans is decent against the run but a big liability in coverage. The Dallas Cowboys knew this, and exploited it:
It doesn't take long for the receiver to create distance between himself and No. 53. Jairus Byrd comes down from the secondary to make him pay, but the Saints will be without Byrd for the rest of the season after he suffered a torn meniscus in practice.
Which brings me to my second point: Aside from poor coverage, the Saints' second- and third-level defenders suffer from some serious tackling issues, especially with Byrd out for the season. After four games, the Saints were on pace to miss 176 tackles on the season, according to Pro Football Focus. To put that in context, the Saints only missed 77 tackles last year.
Below, you'll see the Cowboys execute a perfect screen against the Saints.
The play fake first gets the linebackers and safeties waaaaaay out of position:
Add in a missed tackle at the end and the Cowboys nearly have a touchdown.
The Lions have the personnel to exploit this defense. If Reggie Bush can go, he is the perfect weapon against these linebackers. Bush has shown in the past that he can destroy man coverage if given the chance. But if Reggie can't go against his former team, Theo Riddick proved last week he can do the same:
Watch Riddick come out of the backfield, take one step to the outside, then cut inside. The Minnesota Vikings linebacker takes one damning step to the outside, and he is toast.
Riddick is also currently nursing an injury, but if he or Bush can go, the Lions will have a big mismatch on their hands.
There's no escaping it; the Saints offense is still good. The Lions will catch a huge break with Jimmy Graham likely out of the game, but Drew Brees excels at spreading the ball around, and the Saints have a multitude of weapons outside of Graham. Five receivers not named Graham already have 10+ receptions and 100+ receiving yards in just five games.
The Lions could attack the Saints the same way they attack every offense: with pressure from their defensive line. The Lions now lead the league in sacks and are finally getting some help from their defensive ends.
The Saints have a decent offensive line, but if there is one weak link in the line, it is right guard Jahri Evans. Our good friend in Tampa, Gerald McCoy, absolutely dominated his matchup against Evans in Week 5.
McCoy overpowers Evans all the way into Brees' grill. As the quarterback tries to escape the collapsing pocket, McCoy gets a hand on him and forces an errant throw that is eventually intercepted.
But if the Lions plan on relying entirely on pressure to attack the Saints offense, they are in for some trouble. Brees has excellent pocket presence and, more importantly, gets rid of the ball very quickly.
Instead, the Lions are going to have excel in coverage, specifically limiting yards after the catch. Much like the game plan for the Lions offense, the Saints will likely use short, quick routes against Detroit. The Lions will need to rely on solid coverage and tackling from their back seven, who are much more talented than the Saints defense.
Against the Vikings, the Lions defended this kind of offense (albeit, a much less talented version) in a dominating fashion. Back-to-back plays in the first quarter really illustrate how the Lions were able to stymie the Vikings' quick passing attack:
The key to this stop is the play of two unlikely heroes: Ashlee Palmer and Darryl Tapp. Palmer, lined up against the slot receiver, recognizes the screen quickly and beats the lineman trying to block him. This forces the receiver back inside, where Tapp is hustling from the defensive end position to bring him down for a minimal gain.
The defense followed up this play with a huge play from Ziggy Ansah:
The Lions drop Ansah into coverage. Ziggy doesn't buy the pump fake to the top of the screen and stays true to his assignment. He easily sheds a block and meets the talented running back behind the line of scrimmage.
This shows me that the Lions were well prepared against the Vikings. They knew short, quick passes were coming, and so they dropped linemen into coverage fairly often in this game. This limited the Vikings to little or no yards after the catch more often than not.
Overall, the Saints defense doesn't provide much of a threat, though the ailing Lions still may struggle with New Orleans' defensive line. Stopping Brees is a much tougher task, but the Lions have stepped up to the occasion plenty of times this season and appear to be well prepared each week.