Tom Brady will lead the Patriots against the Lions on Sunday. (Gregory Shamus/Getty Images)
Here’s everything you need to know about Sunday’s contest between the Patriots and Lions:
Our three favorite matchups on the afternoon:
1. Ndamukong Suh against the interior of the Patriots offensive line: As our scout indicated earlier in the week, Suh is one of the toughest matchups in the league for an offensive line because he can be utilized in several spots up and down the defensive front, and is disruptive enough to work as a presence as a run stopper as well as getting after the passer. When he’s lined up as a defensive tackle, look for him to be a two-gap presence that guards Dan Connolly and Ryan Wendell and center Bryan Stork have to deal with. The key when it comes to slowing Suh is to maintain proper technique and footwork, and also get some help in the form of a back who could do whatever he can in hopes of trying to slow him down. The Detroit defensive front is far from a one-trick pony, as Suh is joined by top-notch defenders like defensive end Ziggy Ansah and linebacker DeAndre Levy. (The Patriots will catch a small break, as defensive tackle Nick Fairley is out because of a knee issue.) But his high motor, aggressive approach and phenomenal skill set means Suh will be priority one for the New England offensive line on Sunday afternoon.
2. The Detroit pass defense against Shane Vereen: The Lions do an excellent job of getting after the quarterback and shutting down passing lanes, so look for New England to get the ball out as fast as possible (also expect some play action and reverses to try and counter the hyperaggressive Detroit defensive front). One player who could have good success either out of the backfield or split wide is Shane Vereen, who is just one of six running backs with at least 70 carries and 35 catches at this point in the season. Look for the Patriots to try and get the quick Vereen involved in the passing game against the Lions, a team that is ranked 20th in DVOA against running backs in the passing game this season per Football Outsiders, having yielded an average of 7.4 receptions and 54.6 receiving yards per game against opposing running backs. Looking back at some of the Detroit film, both Arizona and Miami had good success getting the ball to receivers as fast as possible, slowing the Lions pass rush and getting guys like Suh on their heels. Regardless of whether or not Vereen is used out of the backfield in one-back sets (and is asked to slow down one of the Detroit rushers before he goes into his route) or is part of four- and five-receiver sets the Patriots should lean on out of the gate, his presence in this one will be very big,
3. Calvin Johnson and Golden Tate against Brandon Browner and Darrelle Revis: There are a few different schools of thought as to how the Patriots are going to defend what has become a pretty impressive receiving duo, but when in doubt, we’ll fall back on our report from this NFC scout that said that while the Patriots will mix and match their coverage in hopes of confusing quarterback Matthew Stafford, it wouldn’t be a surprise to see Revis on Tate and Browner on Johnson. Tate has emerged as Detroit’s No. 1 threat in the receiving game with a team-high 68 catches (on 95 targets) for 950 yards and three touchdowns, and with the understanding that Revis usually draws the tougher assignment, that would certainly seem to make sense. That’s no disrespect to Johnson, who has struggled with ankle and elbow injuries over the last month-plus, but still has 34 catches on 64 targets for 520 yards and three touchdowns. It’s just that right now, Tate is your No. 1 concern in the passing game. Then, there’s the idea that the bigger Johnson (6-foot-5, 236 pounds) is a better matchup for the equally sizable Browner (6-foot-4, 221 pounds), particularly when it comes to jump ball situations in the red zone. Browner doesn’t have the best wheels, but his physical nature and veteran savvy could be a good matchup against Johnson, who is no longer the burner he once was.
4. Under the radar opponent who Patriots’ fans need to know: Fauria is a well-known name around Foxboro, but former New England tight end (and ace midday WEEI guy) Christian is usually the one folks are talking about. This weekend, it’s going to be Joe Fauria, Christian’s nephew and the talented young tight end for the Lions. A 6-foot-7, 259-pounder out of UCLA, Fauria had seven touchdowns last season, and remains a sneaky red-zone threat for Stafford in the Detroit passing game. Fauria has struggled with injury this season (he hurt his ankle chasing after a puppy and sat out six games) but is expected to be in the lineup Sunday against the Patriots. In addition, you can’t sleep on rookie Eric Ebron — while he’s had his own injury issues (hamstring), when he’s been healthy, he’s been a nice addition to the Detroit offense with 10 catches for 103 yards and one touchdown in six games. Coming off back-to-back games against the likes of Julius Thomas and Coby Fleener, it’s not an elite-level matchup, but it’s a positional grouping that can burn you if neglected.
5. By the numbers (tie) — 3: Only three teams in the last 20 regular-season games have topped 100 rushing yards in a game against the Lions. Detroit has allowed one team to reach the 100-yard mark on the ground this season, as the Jets finished with 132 rushing yards in a 24-17 loss to Detroit on Sept. 28.
3: The Patriots have scored at least 40 points in three straight games — tied for the longest streak in franchise history. Just three teams in NFL history have scored 40-plus points in four consecutive contests: 1960 Chargers, 2000 Rams and 2004 Colts.
6. Quote of note: “Foxboro’s a weird place. You go up there and you’re in a hotel and then you got to drive through like back woods to get there and then all of a sudden a stadium appears like it seems like in people’s backyard and it’s like, just a weird place out there. And they love it. They play great there. I’ve never won there. I’ve played there three or four times, I’ve never won there. It’s tough to win there. … I just know you’re going through like the back woods, and you’re just like, ‘Oh my God, what am I going to?’ And then all of a sudden it’s like you see like a little trailer park or something like that, and then all of a sudden you see the stadium, you’re like ‘Whoa, right in the backyard?’ … It’s weird out there. It’s weird out there, I can’t even lie.” — Detroit defensive back Glover Quin speaking with the Detroit Free-Press about playing in Foxboro
7. Patriots fans should be worried about… the Lions finding some way to run the football. Detroit really doesn’t run the football — the Lions’ ground game is led by Joique Bell (122 carries, 422 yards, three TDs) and Reggie Bush (53 carries, 191 yards, 1 TD). The Lions have topped 100 rushing yards as a team just twice in the last 11 regular-season games, dating back to last year. This season, they’re tied for 30th in the league in yards per game (79.8) and yards per carry (3.2). It remains highly unlikely, but if Detroit figures out some way to pick up consistent yards on the ground, it will certainly change the complexion of the game.
8. Lions fans should be worried about… the Patriots getting after Stafford consistently. The Detroit offensive line has struggled with pass protection over the course of the season, and as a result, it’s no surprise Stafford is one of the most sacked quarterbacks in the league with 31 through 10 games. (He’s on pace to be sacked 50 times.) Even though the Patriots won’t have Chandler Jones, there’s the very real likelihood that New England will be able to find a soft spot in the Lions offensive line and exploit it, whether it’s through the use of a situational rusher like Akeem Ayers or deciding to bring an extra rusher. Regardless, this appears to be a winnable matchup for the Patriots, and if they arable to harass Stafford to a point where he starts to throw some bad balls (something he’s done on occasion this year with nine picks), it will certainly go a long way toward winning the ball game on Sunday.
9. One more thing: The Lions have made some really impressive gains over the course of the 2014 season, but at this point in their development, this is a game where they appear to be in a little over their collective heads. This game reminds me of a phrase from former Patriots running back Antowain Smith, who once remarked about a big contest that it’s the sort of game where you have to put your big-boy pants on. The Patriots won’t score as much as they have over the last three weeks — that Detroit defense is one of the better groups New England will face all season — but in the end, the Patriots have more than enough talent and leadership on both sides of the ball to come out of this game with a victory.