Saints face challenge in preparing for Lions

Calvin Johnson (Kirby Lee, US Presswire)

En route to their first winning season in over a decade, the Detroit Lions gave opponents fits in 2011 on both sides of the ball. Expect that trend to continue in New Orleans.

The National Football League is a preparation driven league.

Countless hours are invested into strategic game planning for each individual opponent through tireless film breakdown in an effort to identify potential ways to successfully attack and defend on a weekly basis. 

It is commonly said, “The film doesn’t lie,” and coaches around the league watch hours of film to ascertain tendencies of their opponent.

The film on the Detroit Lions hasn’t lived up to its trustworthy reputation this season.

Opposing teams have deviated from their routine game plans against the Lions, generally showing unique looks as they alter their strategy to counteract the Lions big-play ability on offense and defense.

Offensively, teams have gone to great lengths to neutralize the Lions pass rush.  A combination of protection schemes have been leveraged as well as quick routes and change-of-direction plays.  

“Everybody that we play week-to-week changed their blocking screen based upon our defensive scheme,” said defensive end Willie Young.  “Teams come up with a particular plan for their particular opponent.  In our case, we get a lot of max up, a lot of six, seven man protection, which sometimes makes it difficult for a defense to get pretty good pressure on the quarterback.”

The Lions still reached New Orleans Saints' QB Drew Brees twice the last time these two teams played (five weeks ago), tied for the most single game sacks on Brees in the Saints' last eight games. The Lions were without Ndamukong Suh in that game, who was out due to a suspension.

On the other side of the ball, opposing defenses generally go to great lengths to eliminate wide receiver Calvin Johnson.  Whether it is safety help over the top, double or sometimes triple coverage, teams are changing their defensive looks in an attempt to eliminate Detroit's most dangerous weapon.

The Saints also altered their defense as they attempted to keep Johnson in check, which opened up opportunities for other players.

“That was one of our big games where I thought Matt (Stafford) really went to the favorable matchups,” said offensive coordinator Scott Linehan.   “They were truly doubling Calvin so you saw a lot of production coming from our No. 2 and No. 3 receivers that day. I think we had this discussion before about it going kind of full circle. If they are going to commit so much attention to Calvin, that is why we have the other players in this offense and that is why we go to them.”

In that game, the Saints went to great lengths to restrict Johnson, holding him to six receptions for 69 yards and no touchdowns.  Stafford was able to take advantage, completing 25 passes for 339 yards to an assortment of nine different players not named Calvin Johnson.  

It is likely Stafford and the Lions will have to be prepared to handle the Saints intent to focus on Johnson but their previous experience should help them.

“Yeah I think that’s obviously something we talked earlier this week,” said head coach Jim Schwartz. “Going through something a second time, you’re going to be a little bit more experienced, obviously, and hopefully you learn from your mistakes and things like that.”

Still, the Lions cannot expect the Saints to call the same combination of plays they did during the last meeting.  

“Well, they are going to change,” said Linehan.  “One thing everybody does is look at that game very close like we do and say, ‘Okay, we showed them this, we brought this look and brought this blitz, we will try to show them the same thing and bring it the other way.' There is always a chess match there and offensively you have to anticipate that. It doesn’t mean they won’t run the same thing, but we expect the counter. It is a lot like when you play in the division, like when you play a division game, you play them the second time around there are going to be some new wrinkles.”

There is no doubt that the Saints are adjusting their game plan as they prepare to meet the Lions for a second time.  And this time, the Lions will have a better idea of what to expect. 

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