We are 72 hours away from 4 quarters of meaningful football.
We did it.
When the Chargers have the ball
No Suh, no Fairley, Ngata problem?
Up front, the Lions lost 1 of the most disruptive interior defenders in the league in Ndamukong Suh. Football Outsiders had Suh involved in 7.1% of the Lions plays. That's good for 11th best in the league and that is despite being game-planned for and constantly double-teamed. There's no replacing Suh. Even though the Chargers have upgraded at both guard positions, Suh would've given the team hell this upcoming Sunday. As it stands, the Lions have replaced Suh and Nick Fairley with the truly underrated Tyrunn Walker -- a player that I was a strong advocate for from the Saints -- and Haloti Ngata.
Both players are exceptional run defenders. Neither are slouches versus the pass, either. Though Ngata is 31 years old, he accrued the 4th most disruptions (batted passes + incompletions caused by QB hits) even though he missed 4 games. Walker has the kind of quickness that will give interior linemen troubles. Without Suh, it'll be interesting to see just how much more Lions defensive coordinator Teryl Austin will blitz. When you have 2 dogs in the middle, and an athletic freak like Ezekiel Ansah (7.5 sacks, 19 QB hits per FO) on the outside, you really don't have to send the house like other teams do. Ansah is likely a better finisher against the run than he is a pass rusher, to boot.
As much as I expect the Chargers offensive line to be improved this year, this isn't an ideal front to go against when you're still gelling as a unit. Power, speed, quickness, athleticism, the Lions front has it all. San Diego's best chance is to establish their quick passing game and be able to keep the defense honest running the ball. Last year teams all but gave up running on the Lions. You just couldn't do it. They had by far and away the best run DVOA in the NFL. That will falter a bit without Suh, sure, but they are the better unit this game.
Mismatches on the 2nd level
Last years star linebacker Deandre Levy is expected to miss the game with a hip injury. That's a big deal. He was everywhere. Levy was involved in 19.5% of the Lions plays, the 3rd highest of any defender in the NFL. Detroit does get back Stephen Tulloch, fresh off an ACL injury. Tulloch is an excellent linebacker in space. This game, he'll have to be. I can totally see offensive coordinator Frank Reich abandoning the run early on and trying to get his running backs in space on "extended run plays", like swing passes, screens, and the Danny Woodhead special, Texas routes over the middle.
I don't know much about the other linebacker, Tahir Whitehead, but I'm going to go out on a limb and say he's not at the same level as Tulloch or Levy and the Chargers will look to exploit him in short areas where he has to be sudden in his decision-making. There will be opportunities for Woodhead, Melvin Gordon, and Branden Oliver to make plays 1-on-1 against these linebackers. A year ago, the Lions were the 5th worst team in the NFL at passes thrown behind the line of scrimmage with a 32% DVOA. I think the savvy veteran Woodhead has a big day underneath for the Chargers and keeps the offense ahead of the chains.
Where the Chargers have to win
Offensively, on the perimeter. The Lions won't make you guess what they're going to do. Glover Quin is going to play the single-high safety center-field role. There will be 3 CBs, and James Ihedigbo will be in the box somewhere. Detroit ran Nickel 80% of the time last year. The Chargers used 3 or more WRs 74% of the time. This is the matchup they must win. Here's to hoping the best play-action team in the NFL, ya know, runs play-action. There's really no correlation to being able to run the ball successfully and being a successful play-action team.
Quin is a good one. He had 7 INTs a year ago and can really cover ground. Rashean Mathis is a wiley old vet that has gone from terrible, to okay, to good. Opposite him is a guy I liked quite a bit coming out a few years ago, Darius Slay. Slay had 16 passes defended last year. Both corners are far from slouches, but they're not exactly Darrelle Revis, either. With the spacing, Keenan Allen should be able to work underneath, as should Stevie Johnson. You could argue Allen and Malcom Floyd are a push, but the reason the Chargers have the advantage here is Johnson. I'm expecting a "wow" game from Johnson. Stevie is more than likely going to be matched up against newcomer Josh Wilson, who allowed 70% of his passes his way to be completed. This has the makings of making Tom Telesco look like a very smart man for picking up Johnson. Philip Rivers is excellent at spreading the ball around and recognizing where the mismatch is. He'll spot the mismatch Sunday.
When the Lions have the ball
Don't back down
We'll get to the weapons, but one thing defensive coordinator John Pagano cannot do is sit back and play coverage. You have to put the pressure on Matt Stafford, and force this offensive line to block on a consistent basis. The Lions are weak at left guard and center. The Chargers have to figure out a way to get pressure up the middle to not only stop the run, but keep Stafford from getting in a rhythm. Teams that beat Detroit last year had 5,7, and 4 sacks respectively. The other teams had Tom Brady and Aaron Rodgers. You have to get pressure against this team. Pressure makes a monkey eat a hot pepper.
For obvious reason, teams just don't blitz Stafford. You can't give him time to sit back there and allow his already uber-talented receivers more time to get open. I think Corey Liuget is going to eat this game. I also think that won't be enough. Melvin Ingram played quite well in the preseason. He'll go against another T-rex armed tackle in Riley Rieff, who just seems to get the job done. Across the board the Lions are more consistent and they don't make mistakes. They're not great, though. The Chargers are more explosive and have the opportunity for some explosive plays against the Lions tackles. It's tough to choose, but I think Liuget has the upper hand Sunday.
Have. To. Tackle. In. Space.
One thing that has really plagued this team, even in the preseason, is missed tackles. There's really no sign over the last couple years that the poor tackling will stop. On one hand, there's no reason the team should struggle to tackle Joique Bell, who rushed for 2 yards or less 49% of the time last year. On the other hand, The Lions are more likely to spread you out and force you to tackle some scrub running back they drafted out of Nebraska last year.
Donald Butler has shown to be a liability on the field. It'll be interesting to see if it takes a team investing a 2nd round pick at your position to get him to play harder and more aggressive in general. If the preseason is telling, that's not the case. To his credit, Manti Te'o has quietly improved. He's far from a playmaker but he's trending in the right direction and is closer to impressive when it comes to the passing game. Because I'm just not confident in the linebackers at this point, I can't say with conviction that they have the advantage.
The Best of the Best
Calvin Johnson. Golden Tate. The reason teams blitz Detroit fewer than any other team in the NFL. You're leaving your defenders 1-on-1. It's already hard enough to cover these guys when you play coverage, but the catch-22 is Tate and Johnson are going to get open. Tate is so, so good at receiver. He's YAC waiting to happen. He's a tough cover because he's strong, which makes him hard to tackle, but can also run by you.
This is a tough match-up for Brandon Flowers. Flowers is a great tackler, but both WRs are so good in and out of their breaks, I'm not sure who Flowers should guard. I'd lean Tate just because you want to limit him after the catch.
As stupid as it sounds I would shadow Jason Verrett on Calvin Johnson. I'd play 2 high safteies and make Detroit beat me with methodical drives. I don't think Stafford has the patience to do that. Back to the matchup. We know how incredible Johnson is, but he's not without his faults. He only caught 55% of his passes a year ago. Yes, he was battling injuries, but he seemed to be bothered more than ever by contested catches. I don't care if he is 5'3" because making the catch contested is where Verrett excels. Make no mistake, Johnson will get his. I also think Tate will have a couple big plays.
Kyle - This is a pretty even matchup. The Lions are better upfront, and a better tackling team. They have a very good group of weapons as well. I'm still not sold on Stafford, and I think he makes a costly mistake this game. I don't think either team runs the ball well. When it doubt, go with the team with the better QB. Rivers to Stevie and goddammit I can't wait to see Johnson's TD dance, 23-21 Chargers.
Matthew Stanley - Chargers 27 Lions 23. Both defenses will have a hard time slowing down the other team's offense. The Chargers defense will get credit for the win after forcing more punts/FGs than the Lions do.
Ruben Gonzalez - Chargers defense gets to quarterback Matthew Stafford 4+ sacks. Chargers defense looks very solid and helps secure the seemingly easy 31-17 victory.
Daniel Stebbins - Chargers 30 Lions 23. Chargers young and talented defense will have it's struggles but come up big when it counts. Offense starts slow but hits its stride after a drive or two.
Gennaro - Melvin Ingram gets a sack, Jason Verrett gets an interception, and the reaction after the game by the national media will be about how the Lions can't win with Stafford at QB. Lions rally late to make it close, but Rivers plays game-manager and the offense runs smoothly, putting up a solid mix of drives ending with touchdowns and field goals. 26-20 Chargers victory.
SDNativeTX - Both offenses look sloppy (or do both defenses look sharp?). The Bolts are able to move the ball a little bit better than the Lions and win 21-16.
Jordan Lee - Chargers 27 Lions 21 The Chargers passing attack clicks along despite the concerns at tight end. While Melvin Gordon isn't spectacular in his debut, he, and the rest of the committee, provide consistent support for Rivers in the ground game. San Diego actually puts forth a pass rush and bothers Stafford throughout. It's hot, it's ugly, but it's enough for 1-0.
Jeff - Chargers 24 Lions 19. The Lions are able to move between the 20s, but the Chargers defense comes up with some big stops in the red zone. Rivers leads a clock-eating drive in the 4th quarter, and secures the win.
Richard - Chargers 24, Lions 21. Neither defense looks great against the opposing passing attack, with 5 of 6 touchdowns being scored in the air. A Josh Lambo field goal provides the margin of victory.
Crean - Chargers 27, Lions 17. Lions never really in the game and spend the entire postgame bitching about the heat.
Garrett Sisti - Chargers 20, Lions 17. Stafford & Rivers are on their heels most of the game because of the new faces in the middle of both DET & SD's Offensive Lines. This makes it a long day for the QBs; it doesn't click early but the Chargers pull it out.
Max - Detroit looks to be a top-10 offense this season with the addition of A Abdullah. Against the 5 top-10 offenses faced last season, the Chargers surrendered an average of 27 points. Detroit should also boast a top-10 defense despite the losses of Suh and Fairley. Against the 8 top-10 defenses faced last season, the Chargers averaged 19 points. Given the fact I may be too bullish on the Detroit offense and the fact that San Diego should be improved over last year in both categories...Prediction: Detroit 24-21
Jerome - As much as I would love to say Chargers open up the season with a win, I just don't see this week. This Lions' defense is legit and when it comes to stopping the run, no one is better. This is a tough matchup for an offensive line that is still working out the kinks. Philip Rivers reaches 30+ attempts in this game but it won't be enough without run support. I have San Diego losing this 27-12.