Lions at Saints (8:30pm ET Monday, ESPN)
The Detroit Lions started the season in a complete free-fall, going 1-7 before winning 3 straight. But, the good times are over as they’ve returned to their losing ways for the past two weeks to bring their record to 4-9, consigning them to the cellar of the NFC North.
How does a team go from 11-5 and a Wild Card berth to the fourth-worst record in the league just a year later? The blame can essentially be laid at the feet of the defense. Last year, the Lions D was 2nd in yards allowed and 3rd in points. This year? 16th and 28th. What happened? The biggest difference is clearly the departure of free agent DT Ndamukong Suh. Yes, Suh’s replacement, Haloti Ngata, is a mountain of a man with more Pro Bowl jerseys than Suh, but he’s not Suh, who over the last 6 seasons has twice as many sacks – 40 to Ngata’s 20 – and 43 more tackles – 214 to Ngata’s 171. This is not to say that Ngata or the Lions D are bad, they’re not, but Ngata is definitely a downgrade and the unit as a whole has gone from elite to below-average..
Lions QB Matthew Stafford has, for good or ill, been his usual self and probably his best since 2011. Calvin “Megatron” Johnson has lost a small step, but he’s still an elite receiver. The running game is as lackluster as ever while the kicking game’s fine. Really, it’s the defense, which – thanks to a toothless secondary that has the second-fewest interceptions – has allowed the 4th-highest quarterback rating, 101.2, in the NFL.
So, maybe all those obituaries for the Hall-of-Fame career of Drew Brees, QB of the 5-8 Saints, were a bit premature. After suffering through some rotator cuff issues that caused him to miss the Saints’ third game of the season, Brees has got his mojo back. He has passed for 3,184 yards and 23 TDs over the last 10 games, despite the loss of favorite targets Jimmy Graham and Kenny Stills to free agency.
Brees already has four receivers with 50 or more catches, two of which (Brandin Cooks and Willie Snead) have a chance to finish with more than 1,000 yards. Pro Bowl running back Mark Ingram was having another fine season, but he’s been lost for the year to a shoulder injury. Tim Hightower took over for Ingram last week, rushing for 85 yards on 28 carries – suffice to say, Ingram will be missed.
Still, the Saints offense ranks 4th in yardage, 6th in yards per play, 3rd in first downs, and 5th in touchdowns. Strange enough, however, they’re only 11th in scoring, as they are the proud owners of the second-worst field goal unit in all of football, having made only 13 of 19, or 68.4% of their attempts. Their 13 FGs is 8 below the league average, however, if they had just the average number of field goals, they’d be 5th in scoring. Of course, there are the direct failures caused by the lack of skill, like a blocked field goal with 1:01 left on the clock against Tennessee to cost them a win. But then there are the indirect ways a lousy kicking unit can hurt, like forcing you to make play calling decisions you might otherwise not.
New Orleans started the season with the incompetent Zach Hocker as their kicker and soon replaced him with Kai Forbath, who has been even worse. Kickers matter, folks.
But, no amount of kicking can Spackle over the holes in the Saints' D, which is worst or second-worst in yards, yards per play, first downs, passing TDs (dead last by 7), interceptions, net yards per pass, rushing yards, yards per carry and percentage of drives ending in a score. There’s nothing these guys can’t not do! That said, they did just hold the Bucs to 291 yards – 134 fewer than their average through Week 13.
A perfectly serviceable QB and a Hall-of-Fame receiver going up against a wretched defense vs. a Hall-of-Fame QB going up against one of the worst pass defenses in the league. Hope you like high-scoring games.