Already this week, we've heard several Detroit Lions players express optimism that the Philadelphia Eagles will ignore a season's worth of video evidence and use man-to-man coverage against their pass-catchers Sunday at Lincoln Financial Field. Most recently, receiver Calvin Johnson wrote on his DetroitLions.com blog:
"I'm looking forward to going up against the Eagles' defense. This might be a chance where we get quite a bit of one-on-one in a game, which we haven't seen since early last year, really. It's going to be good for us at the receiver positions, tight ends, everybody that's touching the ball on offense has the chance to have a good game."
It's true that the Eagles like to play man coverage, mostly because they have two excellent cover cornerbacks in Nnamdi Asomugha and Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie. It's also reasonable to expect them to stick with their strength, even if it runs contrary to what has worked so well against the Lions this season. (According to offensive coordinator Scott Linehan, opponents have used a traditional man defense on only five of 296 snaps against them this season.)
But I don't think we should necessarily assume that the Eagles' man defense is a better matchup for the Lions, especially when you realize that no matter what scheme they run, the Eagles aren't likely to leave Johnson in single coverage too often if ever. John McTigue of ESPN's Stats & Information passed along some research this week that helps explain what has happened to the Lions' offense this season and also how the Eagles have played, ultimately noting that the Eagles provide a quite formidable obstacle for the Lions to get on track via the downfield pass this week.
According to McTigue, opponents have blitzed Lions quarterback Matthew Stafford on 12 percent of his dropbacks, an NFL low. That means Stafford has faced maximum coverage from a numbers standpoint 88 percent of the time.
In fact, opponents are using at least one extra defensive back almost exclusively against the Lions: 90.8 percent of the time. They're staying in nickel for the most part even when the Lions are using two or more tight ends (76 percent to be exact). Presumably, that's to cover Brandon Pettigrew and Tony Scheffler. The approach exposes an almost total disregard for the Lions' running game, an issue we'll come back to. So are the Lions failing to get downfield only because of deep zones? Or is it possible that the nickel and dime packages, and ignoring the run game, have been at last partially to blame -- regardless of the actual scheme run?
We'll find out the answer to that question Sunday, because the Lions are still likely to face maximum coverage in terms of numbers from the Eagles defense. No team has put seven or more players in coverage more often than the Eagles this season, about 80 percent of the time, and their approach has worked as well as can be reasonably expected in today's passing era.
The Eagles are limiting downfield passing attacks better than any other NFL team, and it's not close. Opponents are completing 28 percent of passes that travel at least 10 yards past the line of scrimmage against them; the next-best defense is the San Francisco 49ers at 37.8 percent.
The obvious answer is to run against schemes that are so obviously geared for the pass, and the Lions have tried to do that this season. They have run on 42.9 percent of their first-quarter plays this season and 43.1 percent of their plays in the second quarter. Those numbers have dwindled in the second half as they've worked to overcome halftime deficits, but to me, their inability to take what defenses are so obviously giving them is as big of problem as any they've experienced this season.
I realize that some of you don't like drawing conclusions from a select cross-section of analytic stats. I still think we can say this much: The Eagles have been excellent at stopping what the Lions are hoping to be better at Sunday. The Lions have their work cut out for them, no matter what scheme the Eagles play.