5 things to watch: Lions at Saints

The Detroit Lions embark on the first leg of a consecutive two-game away stretch, facing the New Orleans Saints at Caesars Superdome this afternoon. This encounter holds significant implications for both teams, with the Saints endeavoring to maintain their competitive position in the NFC South against the Falcons. Meanwhile, the Lions aim to avert consecutive defeats for the first time this season while seeking to widen their lead in the NFC North to three games over the Vikings.

Outlined below are five key aspects to monitor in today’s contest:

1. BACK TOGETHER?

The starting left guard, Jonah Jackson, resumed full participation in practice on both Thursday and Friday, signaling a positive indication that he may return to the lineup for the upcoming game after a two-game absence due to a wrist injury. Jackson’s status was listed as questionable in Friday’s injury report. This development is particularly advantageous for the Detroit offensive line, which faced challenges in its performance during the recent Thanksgiving matchup against the Packers, arguably marking the team’s most uneven display of the season.

Despite achieving 140 rushing yards, the offensive line encountered difficulties in pass protection, conceding three sacks and enduring 12 hits on the quarterback. The offensive line unit, known for its prideful ethos, is poised for a rebound performance. The cohesion of the starting five—comprising Taylor Decker, Jonah Jackson, Frank Ragnow, Graham Glasgow, and Penei Sewell—holds significance, as they may potentially commence a game together for only the third time this season.

2. BALL SECURITY

The Detroit Lions have placed significant emphasis on ball security this week, evident in the observed portion of practice accessible to the media. This heightened focus follows Detroit’s recent struggle with turnovers, having relinquished possession seven times in their last two matchups. Quarterback Jared Goff, in particular, underscored the need for increased caution, especially when maneuvering outside the pocket.

The New Orleans Saints’ defense, a formidable unit, currently ranks second in the NFL with 14 interceptions and shares the fourth position with 20 takeaways overall. This defensive squad is characterized by its opportunistic playstyle. Given these circumstances, the Lions are keenly aware of the imperative to avoid providing the Saints with additional possessions and advantageous field positions on the road, particularly by minimizing errors and turnovers.

3. PASS RUSH

The Detroit Lions could benefit significantly from an enhanced defensive performance.

Aidan Hutchinson currently ranks second in the NFL for quarterback hurries, trailing only Micah Parsons and Maxx Crosby, with an impressive count of 46 for the season. Despite this, Hutchinson’s sack count stands at 5.5, a figure he hopes to increase. However, the formidable challenge he faces stems from frequent double teams and chips, as the Lions lack consistent production from the opposite edge.

While the interior has seen commendable pressure from Alim McNeill, the team requires a reliable third player to step up. Defensive coordinator Aaron Glenn has highlighted second-year defensive lineman Josh Paschal as a potential contributor. Although Paschal has excelled in run defense, Glenn emphasizes the need for increased pass-rushing effectiveness to relieve pressure on Hutchinson. Notably, Paschal is yet to secure his first sack this season, contributing to the Lions’ ranking of 26th in the league with a mere 23 sacks for the year.

4. RED ZONE

In today’s upcoming competition, significant attention will be directed towards the red zone, a pivotal aspect of the game. In the previous week’s match against the Falcons, the Saints displayed an impressive offensive performance, amassing 444 yards. Despite this, they suffered a 24-15 defeat, primarily attributed to their failure to capitalize in the red zone, resulting in an 0-for-5 conversion rate and reliance on five field goals. Over the course of the season, New Orleans currently holds the 29th position in the NFL, converting in the red zone only 42.5 percent of the time. Saints head coach Dennis Allen has underscored the importance of rectifying this issue, particularly given its detrimental impact on the previous game.

The forthcoming challenge for New Orleans involves confronting a Lions’ defense ranked 30th in red zone defense. Detroit’s defense has struggled, allowing a touchdown 68.6 percent of the time.

Saints defensive coordinator Glenn emphasized the critical nature of the red zone defense, characterizing it as a situation rife with one-on-one matchups. He highlighted the necessity for players to excel in these scenarios due to the limited space available, precluding the possibility of relying solely on zone defense. Matching up effectively with opponents becomes imperative in these circumstances, as articulated by Glenn when discussing his unit’s approach to red zone defense this week.

“We must have a comprehensive understanding of our support system. This aligns with the players’ execution, and it is our responsibility to ensure that they are strategically positioned. In the context of the red zone, the dynamics essentially boil down to one-on-one situations. It is crucial to recognize the rapid release of the ball or the need to fortify our defense. Successful teams in the red zone are often characterized by their ability to effectively run the ball. Therefore, improvement in this area is imperative for our team.”

5. WITHOUT ANZALONE

The Detroit Lions will be without their defensive captain and leading tackler due to a hand injury sustained by veteran linebacker Alex Anzalone during the Thanksgiving game against the Packers. Consequently, the team will require additional contributions from its linebacker corps.

Primary among those expected to assume a heightened role is rookie MIKE linebacker Jack Campbell. Tasked with calling plays and ensuring the defense executes the appropriate adjustments, Campbell will receive support from the experienced Derrick Barnes. Additionally, heightened involvement from Malcolm Rodriguez and Jalen Reeves-Maybin on the defensive front is anticipated. This presents a significant opportunity for Campbell to showcase his capabilities.

Facing the formidable offense of the New Orleans Saints, which features dynamic players such as running back Alvin Kamara and versatile athlete Taysom Hill, the Lions’ Head Coach Dan Campbell emphasizes the “next-man-up” mentality in navigating the challenges of professional football. This ethos will be particularly pertinent in addressing the absence of key linebackers in today’s defensive lineup for the Lions.

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