I think you all enjoyed this format last week so I'm bringing it back again. I do have to say I was mildly disappointed no one replied to me saying what their favourite sandwich filling is, you're all in my bad books right now. You're not here to hear me whine about not getting attention like a puppy though, you're here to see what four things I'm going to be looking out for on Sunday night.
Kupp and Nacua vs Branch and Sutton: This might honestly be where the game is won. We will need to keep the Rams receivers in check on Sunday; no ifs, buts or maybes about it. The bad news is we're going up against a Pro Bowler and Offensive Rookie of the Year candidate on the outside (69.2% of Puka's snaps have been on the outside) and a former All-Pro and league leader in receiving yards a couple of years ago in the slot (59.6% of Kupp's snaps are in the slot), so that's going to be a tall task.
Given where they take their snaps, it will likely be the tasks of Sutton and Branch to cover them. I can say with some confidence that I trust Branch to at least be able to stick with Kupp. His 76.0 coverage grade from PFF is somewhat comparable to Kupp's 72.2 receiving grade. However, Nacua's 85.1 receiving grade is a darn lot higher than Sutton's 53.9 coverage grade. While I of course have to admit that PFF grades are not exactly a one-on-one stat that you can use like attack and defence points on a Yu-Gi-Oh! card, we can perhaps use them to see what kind of form a player is in. The PFF grades suggest that we should be able to limit Kupp's impact on the game, Nacua might get the Jefferson/Lamb treatment where we try to double-cover or bracket him but will be happy to give up yards if we can limit touchdowns.
That tactic has worked to an extent over the past few weeks, we've come out of those games 2-1 (though it should have been 3-0, but that's by the bye). However, it might not work this week. This isn't a Nick Mullens-led Vikings team or a Cowboys team that is without a run game. The Rams are one of the most in-form teams in the league, and can both run and throw the ball. If we give them free yards, they'll happily take them for granted and take the rest for themselves. Our secondary needs to be on their A-game.
The Lions safeties: On the topic of our secondary, our safeties also need to be switched on. We can't be giving up explosive passing plays like they're kisses on Valentine's Day. We all know better than most how good Stafford's deep ball is. Hell, it made Marvin Hall a viable receiver for a year. We can't let it happen this week though. I know giving up big passes is seemingly symptomatic of our defence, so much so it's made "I'd rather be in a 3rd and 3 than a 3rd and 30" a catchphrase of mine, but we can't keep doing it at the rate we have been recently. And, unfortunately, it comes down to the safeties to me. We've seen it the past few weeks where a safety is supposed to be double-covering a receiver with a corner, and they haven't been as close as they should be, or not even covering the player at all. It reeks of a lack of communication or constant lapses in concentration.
Sadly for me, the worst offender has been Kerby Joseph. He has a 51.2 coverage grade from PFF this season, which is not only the worst of our four safeties but is also very concerning for a player whose best traits are his range and ball skills. While this is partly due to how PFF grades coverage, it also does come down to how Kerby plays safety. He constantly gambles in coverage. While this can lead to some great turnovers, it also leads to giving up big plays. Maybe he's just been unlucky and been close to making some plays and just came short, but he needs to focus on turning the negative plays into net neutrals. We know he can do it, he's certainly improved on his run defence (70.6 grade this season) since he entered the league. But if he is to hit his ceiling of a prime Earl Thomas-like player, he needs to cut out the missed assignments and stop giving up as many big plays.
Maybe getting Ceedy Duce back fully healthy and with some game time under his belt will help, but we cannot ignore that on one of the big plays we gave up to Jefferson last week, it appears he was supposed to be bracketing Jefferson and he just didn't. He is supposed to be the veteran leader in the locker room, and we need him to step up this week to help lock down the backend. Of course, he should also get some new cleats because the ones he's going to be wearing on Sunday are an abomination. He has a 72.8 coverage grade on the season but has also given up the highest completion percentage of all our safeties which suggests he is for the most part making the net neutral we're asking Kerby to make.
This is of course without mentioning arguably a top-3 safety over the past month or so in Ifeatu Melifonwu, who has a team-leading 80.9 coverage grade (sorry, I'm not counting Hutch's as he isn't a coverage player). Getting him to continue his streak of form and the versatility he brings will allow AG to open up the playbook and get creative with making Stafford's game hard on Sunday, which is what we will need to do to stand a chance.
The Lions' pass rush: We will need to get pressure on Stafford to force him into mistakes. The bad news is that 9 has a 2.51-second time to throw, which is the 7th-quickest of all QBs to have taken at least 160 dropbacks, which will make it hard. The good news is that Derek Carr has the 6th-quickest time to throw, and we managed to get pressures on him on 50% of his dropbacks in that game with a 16.7% pressure-to-sack rate, 12 pressures and 2 sacks. So maybe it's not an impossible task.
Hutch for the most part will be lining up against the Rams' best pass-blocker in Rob Havenstein. Aidan has a 91.2 pass-rushing grade from PFF after becoming the 5th ever player to record over 100 pressures in a season since PFF began tracking them. Havenstein has a 68.4 pass-blocking grade. Other than the center Coleman Shelton, all the Rams' starting linemen have a pass-blocking grade above 67. This means the catalyst for the pass rush will be Alim, as Shelton's 48.9 grade is a mismatch compared to Alim's 76.2 pass-rush grade. If we can get pressure in John Matthew Stafford's face, it will either force him to get the ball out quicker than he'd like, or it'll force him into pressure from the outside, leading to potential drive-stalling plays like sacks, interceptions or fumbles. This could be the kind of game where the team who blinks first loses. Let's make 9 blink like a man with an eyelash in his eye.
Lions iOL vs Donald and Turner: To make it not all about the defence, let's talk about what is perhaps the scariest matchup for us on offence: one of the best defensive players in NFL history and a DROY candidate versus our interior offensive line. I have all the faith in the world in Ragnow, he is an All-Pro guy despite what the AP voters think. Whoever he doubles on that Rams defensive line will be at least heavily slowed down. Deck and Sewell should be able to handle the Rams' edge rushers. The problem is that the Rams have two guys on the interior who need special attention, so we will have to pick our poison.
Donald splits time pretty equally between the left and right (371 snaps at LE/LDT, 400 at RE/RDT), as does Turner (247 equally on the left and right). If I were the Rams, I'd be putting Donald on their right so he faces Jonah and Decker for most of the game. While we all would love to see Donald and Sewell square up once again, this would be the best matchup for them as Jonah has been a weak link on this offensive line this season. Donald has a 91.5 pass-rushing grade on the season and Jonah has a 62.7 pass-blocking grade, but in true pass sets, these grades get even worse from a Lions' point of view as Donald's grade goes up to 91.8 while Jonah's drops to 41.5. On the other side, Turner has an 80.5 pass-rushing grade and Glasgow has a 56.2 pass-block grade from PFF. The Rams have the advantage here, so we will likely need to keep extra help in to slow down the interior rush, making it easier for the Rams as they will have less to cover. If we let Donald and Turner take over, they could win the game by themselves. Let's not let them, please.
Hot Take: With Kalif Raymond out, Donovan Peoples-Jones gets at least five targets, which he converts into at least 3 catches, 40 yards and a touchdown.
Score Prediction: This could be a shoot-out, but the defences will get some as well. Maybe it's homerism, but I can see our offence being the more consistent on the day, and with the hometown crowd urging them home, they win by two scores.
Detroit Lions 34, Los Angeles Rams 20
How do you see the game going? Will the Lions win their first playoff game since Wayne's World was released in cinemas, or will Stafford finally win a playoff game at Ford Field?
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