“It was an embarrassing loss,” coach Dan Campbell said at his Monday press conference. “They let us have it, they rubbed our nose in it, and listen, man, they came in and did everything that they wanted to do they did to us times 10… Now, they’ll have a couple of tweaks here and there, but I mean, I would fully expect them to come in and see if we’ve fixed our problems. And so, we understand that that’s where we’ve got to be better at. And we understand the opponent that’s coming in. This is a good football team that we’re getting ready to play.”
Last year’s game was a turning point for both teams.
The Lions had a bye week after that game and made drastic changes on both sides of the ball. Most notably, they shifted offensive play-calling duties away from then-offensive coordinator Anthony Lynn to Campbell and promoted current offensive coordinator Ben Johnson into a passing game coordinator role. That move, arguably more than any other, changed the direction of the organization.
For the Eagles, they found life in the run game and shifted to a heavier rushing attack. As Jeremy Reisman pointed out in his scouting report, the Eagles ended the season “first in rushing yards per game (159.7), fourth in yards per carry (4.9), first in rushing touchdowns (25), and third in rush DVOA.”
The Eagles have tried to balance their offense before the start of this season, and trading for wide receiver A.J. Brown has helped that transition. But as Campbell pointed out on Monday, it would make sense for the Eagles to test the Lions’ run defense with their proven rushing attack and see if they can stop them.
And that brings us to our first of five keys to victory for the Lions.
Stack the middle
Step one to trying to limit the Eagles’ offense is to clog the gaps and slow down their rushing attack. That won’t be an easy task with veteran Jason Kelce at center and last year’s second-round pick, Landon Dickerson on his left. But if the Lions can’t stop the run, this one could get ugly quickly. If the Eagles’ line has a weakness, it’s at right guard where Isaac Seumalo is coming off a season-ending injury last season.
Fortunately, the Lions’ refocused defensive line has looked stout of late. It has been able to capitalize on shifting personnel, most notably moving second-year defensive tackle Alim McNeill around and using his agility to collapse the pocket. At the second level, rookie Malcolm Rodriguez continues to fill the right gaps and is expected to have a “pretty big role” moving forward. On top of that, the light bulb has come on for Derrick Barnes, and suddenly the Lions might just have two linebackers capable of making noise against the run.
Outside contain, limit Jalen Hurts daylight
Stopping the run doesn’t just mean clogging the middle as Eagles’ quarterback Jalen Hurts has plenty of juice and can collect yardage quickly if not accounted for.
“I mean this guy’s a really good player,” Lions’ defensive coordinator Aaron Glenn said of hurts on Thursday. “I think he had the most rushing yards, I could be mistaken out of any quarterback. I know he had probably the most rushing touchdowns, so that’s something that we have to account for. And we have things in our system to be able to account for that.”
The Lions will need to play contain with their edge players and try and force Hurts to beat them in other ways. If they can close the pocket around him and force him to get happy feet, their chances improve.
Hurts’ game has expanded over the last year, and with Brown pairing up with 2021 first-round pick DeVonta Smith and tight end Dallas Goedert, he will have plenty of options to throw to. That being said, Hurts needs to be able to prove he can maintain the balanced offense that Eagles coaches want, and to do that, he will need to make throws—an area he still needs to expand on.
Lions OL needs to establish the run
Right now the Lions’ offensive line is a potential mess. Starting right guard Halapoulivaati Vaitai was placed on injured reserve, starting center Frank Ragnow missed practice on Thursday with a groin injury, and the team hasn’t settled—well, at least they’re not telling us—on how they plan on adjusting where necessary.
Still, the Lions need to be able to establish the run in order for their offense to gain traction. With a stout Eagles front in on the other side of the ball, that won’t be easy.
“Huge test,” Lions left tackle Taylor Decker said about facing the Eagles defensive front. “Looking back at last year, that was a front that was a big challenge for us. I personally didn’t play in that game, but they’ve got guys all across the board. Brandon Graham’s back now, too. They drafted Jordan Davis, so they’ve got multiple guys. They don’t just have the front guys, so I can’t speak for their team, but I’d imagine they hang their hat on that front seven, so it’ll be fun, it’ll be a challenge, it’ll be a good test.”
If the Lions can establish the run, regardless of who is starting on the offensive line, they’ll have a chance to let quarterback Jared Goff prove that he is better than the current narrative.
Keep Jared Goff clean and let him work
Last season, Eagles defensive coordinator Jonathan Gannon came under scrutiny for his passive defensive play calling, running a lot of basic zone packages with minimal blitzing. The Eagles invested heavily in defense over the offseason, adding starters/contributors at every level. They drafted nose tackle Jordan Davis in the first round and linebacker Nakobe Dean in the third round. The team signed numerous free agents, including edge rusher Haason Reddick, linebacker Kazir White, and corner James Bradberry. Then right at the end of August, they replaced Anthony Harris by trading for safety Chauncey Gardner-Johnson.
That’s a pretty solid group with plenty of talent, but if Gannon stays passive, the Lions will have an opportunity to attack.
The Lions’ first-team offense operated with aggression and efficiency throughout camp. In their one offensive drive during the preseason with Goff under center, the Lions drove down the field 79 yards on 10 plays, using just over five minutes of clock and scoring a touchdown. This was a reflection of what they have shown in training camp practices all fall. If they keep Goff upright, he has the confidence to take shots and weapons to make plays all over the field.
Attack the seams
Eagles corner Darius Slay (yeah, that still hurts) is an aggressive corner who thrives in man coverage and is capable of matching up and shutting down even the top wide receivers in the NFL. But with Gannon’s scheme, and Bradberry on the opposite side of him, they may not have him travel against the Lions. If they do, logic seems to suggests Slay will match up across from DJ Chark, with Bradberry working against Josh Reynolds. The outside receivers will still be targeted, and they will still make their fair share of plays, but the advantage on the outside seems to favor the Eagles.
In the slot, the pendulum shifts in the Lions’ favor. The Eagles slot corner Avonte Maddox is very solid, and Gardner-Johnson’s ability to drop into the slot from his safety position gives them another element to their coverage. However, I think they will struggle matching up with T.J. Hockenson’s size, Amon-Ra St. Brown’s creativity, and D’Andre Swift’s quickness out of the backfield.
If Lions’ offensive coordinator Ben Johnson can use his outside receivers to stretch the field, draw the attention of the outside corners and at least one safety, that should open up the middle for the Lions’ best playmakers.