Here are 10 things worth keeping an eye on in Thursday’s Patriots-Lions game:
WHEN THE PATRIOTS HAVE THE FOOTBALL
The Patriots will be facing two of the worst run defenses in the league on back-to-back weeks. Last Sunday, it was the Colts, who entered the game allowing 133.2 yards per game (29th in the league), and the combination of BenJarvus Green-Ellis and Danny Woodhead combined to rush for 165 yards on 28 carries, an average of 5.9 yards per carry. This week, it’s the Lions, who are giving up an average of 130.6 yards per game (26th in the league). While New England won’t be a run-first team on Thanksgiving, look for a similar offensive balance (34 rushes, 25 pass attempts) that it had against the Colts, especially if the Patriots can establish a double-digit lead in the second half. If Fred Taylor is ready to go (he’s been a near-miss the last two weeks), it could tilt the scales more toward the run.
Green-Ellis, who is averaging 4.3 yards per carry (a better average than NFL luminaries like Maurice Jones-Drew, Ray Rice, Rashard Mendenhall and Cedric Benson), said that when it comes to running the football, preparation doesn’t necessarily change all that much from week to week.
“The way defenses kind of work, they all kind of do the same things. There are a few things each team does differently, but for the most part, teams do one or the other, so you just have to take your preparation from previous weeks and get prepared for this game,” Green-Ellis said. “We’re going to approach this game like we approach every game. We’re going to go out there and work hard and try and get the job done.”
Keeping Tom Brady upright. The quarterback has been sacked only 14 times through nine games, an impressive stat considering the Patriots have faced San Diego (best in the league with 32 sacks), Pittsburgh (tied for second with 30 sacks), Miami (tied for ninth with 26 sacks) and Indianapolis and the Jets (tied for 13th with 21 sacks).
While the Detroit run defense is statistically below average, the Lions pass defense is better than average, allowing a 213.6 passing yards per contest, 13th in the league. In addition, they have shown an ability to get after the quarterback — they have 27 sacks, tied with the Giants for seventh in the league. (Rookie defensive lineman Ndamukong Suh leads the team with seven.)
“I think [Suh] is very powerful, gets into the pocket, plays with a good motor. He’s tough. He’s going to be a good player for a long time,” Brady said. “They’ve got a couple other guys who are really good, too: [Kyle] Vanden Bosch. Corey Williams is a good player. And then their other end, who’s been out — [Cliff Avril] is a hell of a player, too. That’s a big strength of theirs — the way they can get after the passer.”
How the tight ends are utilized. Because of the Lions’ pass defense, expect the Patriots to use their tight ends in much the same fashion as they did the last two weeks against the Colts and Steelers, providing support as blockers with only rare appearances as pass catchers. This likely means another week where Aaron Hernandez gets significantly fewer looks in the passing game.
It’s been a slow couple of weeks for the rookie tight end out of Florida, who led the team with 436 receiving yards prior to the Pittsburgh game on Nov. 14 but has one catch for eight yards in his last two games. He has been passed by Wes Welker (502 receiving yards) and is about to be passed by Deion Branch (432 receiving yards). He did have a touchdown catch against the Colts, but when it comes to facing pass rushers, it figures that the Patriots would rather go with the beefier Rob Gronkowski and Alge Crumpler to provide support instead of Hernandez, who is much closer to a wide receiver than tight end.
A fast start will help avoid talk of a trap. The Patriots are best in the league when it comes to “first-possession” points with a total of 66 points scored on their combined first and second half opening possessions. (Houston is second with 54 and Atlanta and Miami and tied for third with 50.) In addition, they outscore their opponents 48-26 in the first quarter. Getting off to a fast start Thursday is paramount for several reasons, not the least of which is that the Lions are a feisty young team. New England can’t afford to let them to hang around and gain confidence. Shut them down early, don’t let them get a whiff of hope and take the Lions’ biggest crowd of the year out of the game.
“This team does a lot of good things they’ve been in a lot of close games against a lot of good teams,’’ Brady said of the Lions — five of their eight losses have been by five or fewer points. “If you don’t get it going early, that dome’s gonna be rocking and we gotta get it going early.”
WHEN THE LIONS HAVE THE FOOTBALL
Containing Jahvid Best ... if he plays. The rookie running back is Detroit’s most complete offensive option when healthy — the 5-foot-10, 199-pound Best is one of only a handful of players who has over 300 yards rushing and receiving, with a team-high 382 yards on the ground and 375 receiving yards (fourth on the team). In a Week 2 loss to the Eagles, he had 78 rushing yards, two rushing touchdowns, and 154 receiving yards, including a 75-yard touchdown reception.
However, he has been pretty banged up since the third week of the season. Best is battling turf toe injuries on both feet, and is also slowed by a sore shoulder. Despite all of that, he was taking reps with the first offense on Tuesday, and it appears likely he’ll give it a go on Thursday.
Fourth-quarter defense. The Patriots have shown a knack for yielding lots of points late in the last few games. Overall this season, they have been outscored 96-74 in the fourth quarter, and have yielded 37 points combined in the fourth quarter of the last two games. According to Nuggetpalooza, the Patriots have allowed nine touchdown passes in the fourth quarter this year, more than in any other full season since 2000, except for 2005.
When asked if they were doing anything different defensively late against the Colts (who had 14 fourth-quarter points on Sunday, and were close to another touchdown if not for James Sanders’ late interception), Belichick told WEEI the only thing that changed defensively down the stretch was “overall execution.”
“There weren’t any new calls [late],” Belichick said. “We played the way we played the whole game. … We missed some tackles. [Manning] made a great throw there on the middle read for the last touchdown. They had a good play on the pop pass where he faked the run and hit the slot over the middle. They had some good plays. We had some good plays. Luckily, we just had a couple more than they did.”
Regardless of why they’ve allowed so many late points, they need to stay on their toes against the Lions — Detroit has outscored opponents 83-56 in the final quarter of their games.
The Lions in the red zone. Detroit is the best team in the league at converting its red-zone touchdown opportunities. The Lions have had 27 red-zone possessions, and have connected for touchdowns on 19 of those possessions, good for a 70.4 percentage rate, the best in the NFL. (By way of comparison, the Patriots are 23-for-39 on red-zone touchdown chances, good for 59 percent.)
Calvin Johnson will likely be the most complete wide receiver the Patriots will face all season. The 6-foot-5, 236-pound receiver is near the top of almost every major receiving category this season, with 55 catches (a staggering 37 of those catches have gone for first downs), 725 receiving yards and 10 touchdowns through only nine games.
“He’s never covered,” Belichick said. “The play against Green Bay, there’s 10 seconds left to go in the half, [Charles] Woodson’s on him, the safety’s over the top, they throw it up to him, he goes up for a touchdown and gets it. I mean, it looks like Shaquille O’Neal going up for a rebound against two point guards. He’s never covered. He’s never covered.
“And they have a lot of confidence in him and they should. They throw some balls to him that you look at and say, ‘Wow, that’s pretty tight coverage. I don’t know if he should be throwing it there.’ Then he comes up with the catch and you understand why – I don’t want to say the ball is being forced in there – but it’s tight coverage, but it isn’t good enough because he’s got really good ball skills and he’s a big target. He’s an impressive player.”
In addition, Johnson leads the NFC in scoring for non-kickers with 62 points (10 touchdowns and a two-point conversion), and he’s seventh in the league in third-down receptions, with 18 catches for 281 yards (an average of 15.6 yards per catch) and three touchdowns.
However, earlier this season, he was held to one catch for 13 yards by Jets cornerback Darrelle Revis. Revis told reporters that he was taken aback by Johnson’s physical game at the start, and had to adjust accordingly.
“At the beginning of the game, a couple times he just pushed me out the way when he was running his route,” Revis said. “And I had to adjust a little bit and stay over the top of him to make sure he didn’t get behind me.”
While Brandon Tate is still fifth in the NFL in average kick return yards with 27.7 yards per return, he hasn’t been a threat to break one lately, as was the case earlier in the season. While the return numbers are good, he’s been slowed lately by a bout of the flu, as well as the fact that many teams (like the Browns) have been actively kicking away from him. One other special teams note — Adam Vinatieri and Stephen Gostkowski set the bar awfully high around here for kickers, so when Shayne Graham misses an extra point (like he did against the Steelers) or only puts one of six kickoffs in the end zone and fails to record a touchback (as was the case against the Colts), it raised some eyebrows.
Winning the turnover battle. The bottom line remains that if the Patriots take care of the football, they are going to win the game. New England is a perfect (7-0) when it is at least plus-one in the turnover department, and with a boost from its three-interception performance last week against the Colts, the Pats are plus-nine in the turnover department. (For what it’s worth, only two other AFC teams — Tennessee and Cleveland — have more interceptions than New England.) In addition, Brady has now gone five consecutive games without an interception. (The last time he threw a pick was against the Ravens on Oct. 17.)