Every week leading into the New England Patriots' next game, ESPN NFL analyst Tedy Bruschi and ESPN Patriots reporter Mike Reiss preview the matchup. This week, it's Sunday's home game against the Detroit Lions (1 p.m. ET, Fox):
Mike: One of the things we've heard from Patriots players this week is that they don't know the Lions very well. What have you seen from this team in your film study?
Tedy: Let's start with some basics first. The Lions are coming off a loss to the NFC-leading Cardinals on the road, but they're clearly still in the race for a possible first-round bye if they can keep pace with Green Bay. Both teams are at 7-3 and the first thing I see is a Lions-Packers game scheduled to be played in Green Bay the final week of the season. That could be huge because the Lions already beat the Packers this season (Week 3, 19-7). As for what shows up on film, I'd start with the fundamental shift that is hard to miss with Jim Caldwell as their head coach. I felt like this team was out of control at times under their former coach, Jim Schwartz. That was tied to Schwartz being an emotional, fiery coach, and you still see that from him in Buffalo, where he's defensive coordinator and they have one of the league's highest-ranking defenses. But Caldwell comes into Detroit and it's a mentality shift that you see playing out on the field. No one is talking about how immature the team is, or how short a fuse the coach or players have.
Mike: So you're buying the Lions?
Tedy: They are a very talented team, but individual talent doesn't win football games. You have to come together as a team. I like what I've seen, but I'm reserving judgment for a bit longer. I still feel like I need to see it for a consistent stretch of time, past Thanksgiving. But one thing that stands out is how this team is taking its coaching well. A play like we saw against the Saints on Oct. 19, when defensive lineman Nick Fairley didn't let running back Travaris Cadet sneak out of the backfield for a screen (5:34 left in the fourth quarter), speaks volumes to me. The Saints are a big screen team, and that was a critical play in the game, forcing an incomplete pass on third down. The Lions ended up coming back to win that game (they were down 20-10) and it's little things like that -- the awareness they showed -- which makes a big difference. I viewed that as a reflection of a team that is taking its coaching well.
Mike: When it comes to players who are fun to watch -- unless you are playing against them, of course -- Lions defensive tackle Ndamukong Suh is close to the top of the list. I watched him basically blow up Miami's opening drive in a Week 10 game.
Tedy: After J.J. Watt, he's in the conversation for the best lineman in the game. From a Patriots perspective, this is a big change from last week, when they went up against a Colts 3-4 scheme where they didn't have the biggest linemen and weren't a threat to overpower. Now they're going against a Lions line that gets on the edges, gets upfield and wants to penetrate. It's similar to what Tom Brady saw on his two interceptions against the Colts -- linemen shooting gaps on play-action, beating offensive linemen (Sebastian Vollmer on the first pick, and then Bryan Stork and Ryan Wendell on the second). That's what the Lions want to do every play.
Mike: The Lions are the NFL's top-rated defense, allowing an average of just 15.6 points per game. They are also the league's top-rated run defense, as opponents are averaging 3.0 yards per carry and 68.8 yards per game. Let's get into how they are doing it.
Tedy: The Lions show good gap integrity in their front seven. In that Saints game (third quarter, 2:58 remaining), you get a good look at it when they drop running back Mark Ingram for a loss of 4 yards. The penetrating defensive line takes care of its gaps, linebacker DeAndre Levy knows he has the force, and he attacks the edge of the blocker.
Mike: Levy just crushes fullback Austin Johnson on that run force.
Tedy: Yes, Levy is a player whom a lot of folks might not know about, but he catches my eye. He's been making plays like that on a weekly basis, going back to the season opener against the Giants. On the Lions' first defensive play of the season (first quarter, 12:11 left, he showed a nice combination of patience, the ability to diagnose the play, and then finishing it off by tackling running back Rashad Jennings for a 2-yard loss. He has great off-the-ball instincts and reads the running game almost like a running back. Levy also might be the best cover linebacker in the NFL, and I wonder if they might put him on tight end Rob Gronkowski. You don't usually see linebackers defending wide receivers in the slot, but the Lions have that much confidence to put him out there.
Mike: Levy entered the league as a third-round draft choice out of Wisconsin in 2009.
Tedy: Their confidence in him hasn't always been rewarded, though. Last week against the Cardinals, on the first play of the second quarter, it was man coverage and Levy was in a combination call with cornerback Cassius Vaughn. The Cardinals had a stacked two-receiver set with Larry Fitzgerald and John Brown, and from the Lions' perspective, putting Levy in that situation shows how much faith they have in him. But the communication got botched and Brown ended up being left alone as Levy and Vaughn both covered Fitzgerald. But I'd just say that's more the exception than the rule. Levy has been very good.
Mike: As has most of the Lions' front seven. How do you think the Patriots attempt to attack them?
Tedy: This is a week to highlight the importance of getting angles on the defensive line in the running game. It is similar to what the Cardinals attempted to do last week with receiver Larry Fitzgerald and his crack blocks. A crack block is when a receiver comes from a wide alignment with motion pre-snap to crack down on an end or a line-of-scrimmage defender. So I envision this as a week where we will see more wham blocks from tight ends and trap blocks on the nose tackle. So it's all about angle blocks, and also, misdirection could possibly take advantage of the Lions' desire to get up the field and penetrate. I don't see the Patriots thinking the best approach in this game is to rely on winning one-on-one battles against this front. I could also see the Patriots using the hard count because of the penetrating nature of the Lions' D. But just as we saw Bill Belichick stay with the running game when it was working last week, we all know that he isn't the type of coach to bang his head into a brick wall just to say he ran it. If it doesn't work, that approach goes into the trash can and they try something else.
Mike: What else stands out to you about the Lions' defense?
Tedy: I wouldn't call this is a pressure-based team, but they did show some five-man pressures against Arizona. What they do isn't all that complex. A lot of it is four-man rush and man coverage, or four-man rush and then zone coverage. They have confidence in their rush that if the quarterback has to come off his first read, they feel like the pressure will get there at that point. So coaches tell their linebackers and defensive backs to hard-read it. That's a little bit of the gamesmanship in this game because when you're playing quarterbacks like Brady and Peyton Manning, a defense might always take the first read with a grain of salt because you know he's going to look one way and come back to his next read with the intention of moving the defense. Will Brady have the time to do that?
Mike: Your defensive index has had the Lions as the NFL's top unit for some time now. Any other players we should touch on?
Tedy: When I watch safety Glover Quin, one of the first things I thought was, "This is a player Bill Belichick would probably like." He's very smart. We've talked in the past about not being an "error repeater" and Quin showed how he might make a mistake once, but it rarely, if ever, happens twice. In the Week 2 game against Carolina, the Panthers scored on a 14-yard touchdown catch by receiver Jason Avant (third quarter, 2:36 left). The Panthers had Avant split wide to left and Jerricho Cotchery in the left slot, and Quin favored the inside route of Cotchery and left a big window for Cam Newton to fit the ball in to Avant. It was a great play-design, and with the NFL being a copycat league, it was no surprise that the Vikings tried something similar in Week 6 against the Lions. In the first quarter (7:42 remaining), they had the shallow route to try to draw in Quin, and then a corner-post double move that is designed to take advantage of the vacated middle. Quin read it perfectly and intercepted quarterback Teddy Bridgewater in the end zone. So there's a lot of talk about the front four with the Lions, but I'd say Quin has been huge for this team.
Mike: He teams up with former Patriots safety and University of Massachusetts alum James Ihedigbo to form a solid 1-2 tandem.
Tedy: There's a good chemistry that has developed between them. In the win over the Saints in Week 7, Quin had a big interception in the fourth quarter (3:20 remaining) and you notice the two almost switch responsibilities right before the snap, as Ihedigbo points in Quin's direction. Usually, you'd have Ihedigbo as the down guy and Quin over the top, but they switched it on the play, and Quin broke on the ball and made the pick over the middle. That flexibility shows how far they have come in terms of working together.
Mike: Let's flip to the offense, where the Lions have struggled to score points. They rank 26th in the NFL in points scored (18.8) and offensive coordinator Joe Lombardi (grandson of Vince Lombardi) has talked about scaling back the plays this week.
Tedy: I have to start with the offensive line. I keep an index of all the offensive lines in the NFL and they've been last in the rankings for a long time. At the same time, you watch them and they'll find a way to get their shots in at you. There's a big pile and all of a sudden, flying out of nowhere, comes center Dominic Raiola to lay someone out. That's how they get their paybacks in. They might give up some pressure, but they make sure to get you back with some shots.
Mike: Because the protection often isn't very good, quarterback Matthew Stafford (226-of-369 for 2,679 yards, 13 TDs, 9 INTs) is often on the run.
Tedy: I still see Stafford as reckless at times, but he has guts and pocket courage. He'll take a shot if it means he has a chance to get the ball downfield. Last week against the Cardinals (second quarter, 13:28 left), it's third-and-12 and he takes a shot from defensive lineman Tommy Kelly and gets the ball to receiver Golden Tate for 30 yards. The other thing that stands out with Stafford is how he uses multiple throwing angles to find passing lanes. He'll go sidearm at times and I'd call him a very good "off-platform" quarterback. He's slippery in the pocket, too, similar to Brady with "pocket athleticism." Just like Colts coach Chuck Pagano talked about linebacker Jonathan Newsome having some slither to him last week, I'd say Stafford has some of that slither, too.
Mike: It sounds like running back Reggie Bush might be back after missing Sunday's game in Arizona with an ankle injury, and he teams with 229-pound Joique Bell (team-high 442 yards this season). They don't run the ball very well, in part because of the offensive line struggles.
Tedy: The book is the same on Bush -- fast, explosive and he wants to get to the edge in the running game. He's also a solid receiver (26 catches this season) out of the backfield, but durability is always an issue. Bell sometimes struggles in blitz pickup but he runs hard and breaks tackles, which he has to do because the line doesn't block very well. As part of the offensive line index, there is a category for yards before contact per rush, and that's an area where the Lions don't grade out well.
Mike: When Patriots cornerback Darrelle Revis was asked what makes receiver Calvin Johnson different from everyone else, he said, "He's Megatron." Revis, who was complimentary of Johnson, has had some success against him in the past. Johnson has been slowed by an ankle injury.
Tedy: This is going to be fun. Johnson should be motivated because Revis has dominated him in the past. You figure Johnson wants to come out and right that wrong, to show that he's the best in the business. Patrick Peterson had success against him last week, so does Revis duplicate that this week? Some say Peterson is right up there with Revis. Some say he's better. I'd agree that Peterson is playing the best in terms of the cornerback position. If you plan to play physical with Johnson, you should be prepared to get pushed back. He'll do whatever he has to when it comes to getting open, and that means pushing off at times. There is a lot of hand-fighting. He also has downfield speed. I'm curious to see what Bill Belichick and defensive coordinator Matt Patricia come up with. Do they put Brandon Browner on Johnson? Who's on Golden Tate?
Mike: For all the talk about Megatron, it's Tate who leads the Lions with 68 catches for 950 yards and three touchdowns. He's quick.
Tedy: I've always been a big fan of Tate's, even when he was with Seattle. Some players are just ballers, no matter where they play. I put him in that category, along with others like Anquan Boldin and Steve Smith Sr. They only know how to play one way. Tate is a very strong runner and the Week 2 game at Carolina had several good examples of this -- one of which came with 4:24 remaining in the first quarter on third-and-2, and Stafford throws a short pass to Tate, and Tate puts a spin move on Panthers cornerback Antoine Cason to get the first down and then add about 10 more yards after the spin. I haven't seen many players break as many tackles as he does. It's sort of similar to Julian Edelman -- he runs with a purpose. He might turn out to be the guy they really focus on defensively, and when you have the depth the Patriots do, there are some different options.
Mike: What else are you seeing from the Lions offensively?
Tedy: I'm curious to see if their first-round pick, tight end Eric Ebron, might be in position to do some things. The idea is that if the Patriots focus on Johnson and Tate, it could open opportunities for him. They move him around a little, and last week against the Cardinals, they put him in the offensive backfield to block. He's more of an athletic guy who I think wants to be separated from the line of scrimmage. I'm not sure how much dirty work he wants to do.
Mike: On special teams, the Lions faked two punts against Miami in Week 10 (one successful, one stopped), so the Patriots have to be aware for that. They also made the change at kicker early, starting with Boston College's Nate Freese and ultimately winding up with veteran Matt Prater. As for a prediction, it's a matchup of strength versus strength when it comes to the NFL's second-ranked scoring team (Patriots average 32.3 points per game) against the NFL's top-rated defense (Lions allowing 15.6 points per game). While the Lions' defense warrants respect, I think the way the Patriots' offense is playing right now, it's the best unit that Detroit will have faced this year (the Packers, in Week 3, were still piecing things together). The Patriots have it rolling and the Lions are in a bit of a tough spot -- having traveled to NFC-leading Arizona last Sunday and then looking at a quick turnaround for their annual Thanksgiving home game next week. Prediction: Patriots 23, Lions 17.
Tedy: The Lions have a number of players I respect as football players. They play hard and have heart, but this Patriots team has shown me enough this year that they are ready for all comers. Yes, the Lions have a great defense and Calvin Johnson, but the Patriots' multidimensional offense will find the answer to put enough points on the board and New England's secondary is too deep and talented. Patriots 28, Lions 21.