Let me start out by saying that I have a low opinion of game preview articles. They are written, at best, by people who see only a keyhole view of the ins and outs of game planning and strategy. At worst, they are written by uber-fans who think that their constant observance of all things NFL somehow makes them a football expert (hint: I’m a lot closer to the latter than the former).
With that disclaimer out of the way, onto the predictions!
1. Lions will unveil more aggressive defense.
The Lions face one of the most dangerous quarterbacks in the league in the form of mighty midget Drew Brees. Going into his ninth season of proving everyone wrong, Brees has graduated to the elite ranks of NFL passers. Brees is smart, accurate, and has plenty of weapons.
When the Lions hosted the Saints last year, Detroit’s bend-then-break defense held him to a mere 351 yards and 2 TDs as the Saints romped to a 42-7 victory. Detroit’s new defensive coordinator, Gunther Cunningham, has an unenviable choice to make. Either keep more defenders in coverage with the hope of shutting down passing lanes, or rush more defenders with the hope of getting pressure on the quarterback.
The problem is that Drew Brees is the type of quarterback that can exploit either strategy. He is accurate enough to thread the ball into tight coverage and can keep drives alive by checking down to an outlet receiver if given enough time to throw. However, he is also terrific at getting rid of the ball quickly and finding the open receiver, which minimizes the effectiveness of blitz packages.
All things considered, Cunningham has the reputation for being more of a gambler, so that likely means we will see more plays in which Detroit sacrifices pass coverage for QB pressure. This will have a positive effect on Lions fans in two ways. First, there will likely be more big plays on defense in the form of quarterback sacks and potential turnovers. Second, when the Saints do score it will be less painful to watch because it will happen very, very quickly.
2. Stafford will provide evidence for lovers and haters.
Anyone who watched Stafford during the preseason had to be impressed by the poise, arm strength and athletic ability he displayed. However, they were also likely dismayed by the number of times he made really bad decisions. In other words, he is exactly where he should be as a highly touted rookie number one overall draft pick.
Stafford will be blessed – for the first time – with a full contingent of weapons in the receiving corps which will hopefully aid his completion percentage by getting open more often and dropping balls less often. However, he will also be facing – for the first time – a first string defense that has strategized specific ways to make his life miserable.
There are many question marks that will determine how well the Lions offense performs overall including: “Will the running game average more than 1.5 yards per carry?” or “Will the offensive line give Stafford more than 1.5 seconds to throw?”
The bottom line is that Stafford will make some plays that make fans cheer and some plays that make fans cringe. It’s what rookies do. At this point in his career, there may be more cringing than cheering, but there will be one or two plays that promise something better to come. The kid has potential, and the fans will get to see some of it on Sunday…along with the growing pains.
3. Kevin Smith Proves He is a Feature Running Back
The Lions have been waiting for someone to step up and solidly take the running back reigns since Saint Barry Sanders rose up to football heaven. James Stewart briefly managed the role of all-purpose back early in the millennium, and Kevin Jones may have been able to fill the spot if he’d been able to stay healthy.
Kevin Smith will be given the opportunity to show that he can do it all on Sunday. He will carry the ball, catch passes and pick up blitzing pass rushers with equal aplomb. Offensive coordinator Scott Linehan showed in preseason a penchant for screen plays and other passes to the running back which will give Smith a chance to show how much he has improved in that area. While Maurice Morris and Aaron Brown will get some reps, Smith will take center stage.
It is a true youth movement at the offensive skilled positions. While it may take another season to reach fruition, Smith, Stafford and Calvin Johnson all have the potential to be special in this league.
4. Lions Lose, but Show Toughness
It is not outside the realm of possibility that the Lions could pull off an upset in The Big Easy (any given Sunday, remember?). However, a win is a lot to expect from this young, rebuilding team as they are facing one of the league’s best offenses on their home turf.
That being said, it is not too much to ask that they play a tough and hard fought game. The Lions have some pretty good weapons on both sides of the ball and should be able to hang in there for four quarters.
Drew Brees is darn good, and the Saints offense will score points. However, if Detroit’s defense can get a few good stops and force a turnover or two; and if the Lions offense can put together a few long drives that end in touchdowns; and if Detroit gets a couple of key plays to go their way…who knows?
Of course, that’s probably the kool-aid talking.
Hopeful prediction: Lions 31, Saints 30.
More likely prediction: Saints 30, Lions 23.
Oh my God please no! prediction: Saints 42, Lions 7.