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The Cheat Sheet: Lions must stop Saints’ yards after catch

New Orleans Saints vs. Detroit Lions game preview and prediction.

NFL: Green Bay Packers at New Orleans Saints Derick E. Hingle-USA TODAY Sports

There’s been a lot of chatter about Drew Brees’ arm strength over the last few weeks.

Whether his arm has diminished or not, Brees hasn’t been willing to throw the ball down the field consistently this season.

Here’s a look at his passing charts through the first three weeks via NFL Next Gen Stats:

Through three games, Brees has thrown 23 percent of his passes at or behind the line scrimmage.

Now, the Saints love to utilize the screen game and swing passes so that’s not all that surprising, but the complete lack of a downfield attack has been troublesome. And it might not get all that better when Michael Thomas comes back on the field either. Of Brees 378 pass attempts in 2019, he only had 27 that traveled more than 21 yards in the air.

This should be a fun chess match for the Lions and Matt Patricia. Will the Saints be able to force the Lions into believing they’ll take their shots? Or will the Lions sit on short routes and dare the Saints to throw it over the top?

Of course, none of this matters if the Lions can’t limit the Saints’ yards after catch (YAC). So far in 2020, the Saints rank second in the NFL in YAC with 490 yards.

Let’s take a look at how the Saints took advantage of the Buccaneers in the red zone in Week 1:

It’s third-and-10 near the goal line and the Bucs come out in a zone defense designed to keep everything in front of them.

In an ideal world, they force the Saints to throw underneath, make the tackle, and force the field goal attempt.

The Saints, of course, have other ideas.

Kamara fakes that he’s blocking and then leaks out into the flat for the screen.

By the time the Bucs get smart to it, Kamara is in the clear with two blockers clearing the way.

Great play call and great execution by the Saints.

Opponent snapshot

It’s hard to believe both the Lions and the Saints are 1-2 heading into this Week 4 matchup. What was probably penciled in as a loss by most fans and pundits before the season now feels like a very winnable game for a Lions team that just snapped an 11-game losing streak.

The Saints are still a good team. But they might not be as good as originally thought.

They’ve have struggled to push the ball downfield, are one of the penalized teams in the NFL, and can’t seem to stop opposing tight ends.

Detroit Lions v New Orleans Saints Photo by Wesley Hitt/Getty Images

Saints’ biggest threat

Alvin Kamara

No Michael Thomas. No problem.

Remember those 490 yards after the catch the Saints have racked up through three games? Kamara accounts for 58 percent of them (284 yards). Kamara leads the entire NFL in YAC and the next closest receiver, Washington’s Terry McLaurin, is at 175.

He can effortlessly take a little check-down pass and turn it into a big gain.

The Lions will have their hands full with probably the best running back in football right now.

Houston Texans v New Orleans Saints Photo by Jonathan Bachman/Getty Images

Saints’ weak link

Penalties

It’s hard to believe a defense with multiple Pro Bowl caliber players could be playing so poorly, but after three weeks Saints have averaged a league-worst 110.3 penalty yards per game. They also rank 32nd in the NFL with 13.8 yards per penalty.

Many of their penalties have come when teams attack them down the field. In just three games, the Saints have had five different members of the secondary called for pass interference.

The Lions would be smart to stretch out the Saints downfield using Marvin Hall and/or Kenny Golladay on Sunday and see if the Saints woes continue.

Bottom line

I don’t expect either team to play much defense Sunday and it should be a pretty good shootout. The over/under right now has this game at 54 and I’m taking the over. Give me the Lions in close game.

Prediction

Lions 34 Saints 30