It's hard to imagine a team that has beaten five of its last six opponents by 15 or more points has any significant weaknesses. In fact, finding a chink in the New England Patriots' armor has been a tricky task. Not only are the Patriots on a six-game winning streak, but they have dominated some of the perceived best teams in the NFL. The Detroit Lions hope to avoid being added to that list. That task won't be easy, but the Patriots are not infallible, even if it looks like their coach is perpetually concocting some sort of black magic.
I'll be honest, I spent over three hours poring over film trying to find a weak link in the Patriots' offense. And I'm still stumped. While New England struggles to run the ball (3.9 yards per carry), it doesn't seem to slow down their offense one bit (32.3 points per game, second-most in the NFL). Though the Lions can -- and probably will -- slow down the Patriots' running game, that isn't going to stop New England from moving the ball.
The one key to stopping the Patriots is stopping Tom Brady. And there is no clear blueprint as to how to do that. After starting the season in a mini-slump, Brady has regained his status as a perennial MVP candidate.
The one way to slow down Brady is to pressure him, especially up the middle of the line. Brady offers little to no mobility, and like any quarterback, he tends to make mistakes when forced to release the ball before he wants to.
On a short-yardage situation, the Patriots try to run play-action. New England's starting right guard fails to pick up the defensive tackle, who is crashing toward Brady. The pressure forces Brady to heave up a prayer to Rob Gronkowski. Though Gronk was open, the pass rush caused Brady to lob the ball up high, giving the safety plenty of time to recover and nab the interception.
Of course, creating this pressure is much more easily said than done. Brady has outstanding pocket presence, and New England's offensive line is solid. According to Football Outsiders, the Patriots have the sixth-best pass protection, and they have only allowed 16 sacks on the year (t-ninth). The good news is that the Lions have one of the best defensive lines in the league. But they will have their hands full with the Patriots offense this week.
While Teryl Austin will have his hands full trying to figure out a way to stop one of the best offenses in the league, the much-maligned Joe Lombardi has a much easier task with the Patriots' mediocre defense.
In the past few weeks, opponents have found a specific weakness in their defense that the Lions can exploit: their coverage against tight ends.
Here's how tight ends have fared against New England in the past five weeks:
Broncos game aside, tight ends have had their way with the Patriots defense, and they have done it in a myriad of ways. No one exploited this weakness like Coby Fleener last week.
The Indianapolis Colts used Fleener all over the field, and wherever he went, he was successful.
With the Patriots in simple zone coverage, the Colts used Fleener as a prototypical tight end, running a seam route up the middle of the field. The Patriots' linebackers fail to drop deep enough into coverage, and the one-high safety is too late in reading the play:
Fleener has plenty of room to operate, and because the middle linebacker hasn't dropped deep enough, Andrew Luck can float the ball over his head for an easy 20 yards.
But Fleener's dominance didn't stop there. The Colts also sent him out wide, because the Patriots don't have anyone in their secondary who matches up well with an athletic tight end. Watch Fleener dominate:
Fleener uses his physicalness and his agility to embarrass the cornerback and turn a double-move into a 40-yard splash play.
You know who else is a physical but speedy tight end? Mr. Eric Ebron.
Though Ebron has yet to break out as a dominant threat, last week provided a glimpse as to what the Lions may have in Ebron. Although he was called for a penalty on the play below, I absolutely loved what I saw from him on this down:
Lined up wide, Ebron uses his strong arms and forces the defender 5 yards back and straight onto his backside. If Ebron can learn to use this physicalness in a slightly more subtle fashion, he'll be able to create that kind of separation without drawing a flag.
I expect the Lions to utilize their tight ends much more than they have in the past. With Joseph Fauria near full health and Brandon Pettigrew possibly returning to work this week, the Lions have no excuse but to deploy their tight-end army against this shaky defense.
The Patriots are playing at the top of their game right now and are downright embarrassing some of their opponents. But the Lions actually match up moderately well against them. If the Lions can right the offensive ship, and somehow get pressure on Brady, they have as good of a chance as anyone against the Patriots.