Thanksgiving test for Patriots
Every week during the season, Mike Reiss and Tedy Bruschi break down the New England Patriots' upcoming game. This week's breakdown is on Thursday's game between the Patriots and the Detroit Lions at Ford Field (12:30 p.m.).
Mike: There has been a lot of talk this week about the quick turnaround for the Patriots, so let's start there. They win a heart-stopping contest against the Colts at home on Sunday, then they turn around and visit the Lions on Thursday. In your playing career, you did that twice, in 2000 and 2002.
Tedy: When you have a short week like this, what usually happens is that you get back to your locker after the game and the DVD is already in your locker and a couple pieces of paper with depth charts of who you are going to play next. Players probably got home after the win over the Colts around 9 or 10 o'clock, and there is still time to put a DVD in late at night, or early in the morning, before you're reporting back to the facility. That's how you get that extra jump and making up for lost time during the week.
Mike: On Tuesday, I chatted with one player in the locker room who was explaining how his body was still aching. He would have been on his day off during a normal week, but he was heading out to practice. He was trying to battle through it. How challenging was it physically for you?
Tedy: To play on Thanksgiving, you really do feel the tradition there in Detroit. It was fun to play in that atmosphere. I didn't mind the short week because you knew there was a light at the end of the tunnel. If you just sucked it up for a couple days, and you go win a game, you sort of have a mini-bye week before the next game. You have your aches and pains, so you get your extra treatment and you get into the tub and all that, but if you win, it really feels great because of the time off.
Mike: One message Bill Belichick has stressed to players is that this is like the Lions' Super Bowl.
Tedy: This Lions team might be 2-8, but don't get fooled by the record. The Lions opened the year versus the Chicago Bears, and that was the game with the Calvin Johnson touchdown that was ruled an incompletion because of the continuation-of-the-catch rule: He caught the ball, put it out in one hand, it hit the ground, it moved and they called it an incompletion. There was a three-point loss to the Eagles, a two-point loss to Green Bay, a two-point loss to Buffalo, so you see they've been close. They compete in every game, and I don't see them giving up like I have some other teams on film this year. They're still playing hard, even though their starting quarterback, Matthew Stafford, is out with an injury.
Mike: The Patriots have built some nice momentum leading into this game, with back-to-back wins over the Steelers and Colts. You mentioned in "Bruschi on Tap" that there are no other back-to-back wins that could make a bigger statement for the team, especially the way the Patriots pulled it out against the Colts at the end.
Tedy: I was happy to see the defense in its shining moment. I've been waiting for this, when the D is up against a quality offense, one of the best quarterbacks in the NFL, in a situation where the opponent was driving to win the game. Could the guys make the big play to win the game? James Sanders ices the game with the interception. That is a great confidence boost for that defense.
Mike: I think that was the biggest play of Sanders' six-year career. He's one of those real professional guys in the locker room, so one could feel good for him to experience that type of success.
Tedy: He's a very mature player. He always seemed to have that veteran presence about him. When he was younger, I remember, he was always asking veterans about how to become a leader and become a professional. He grasped all of that at such a young age.
Patriots defense vs. Lions offense
Mike: You dissected the tape of the Lions' loss to the Cowboys this past week, showing me their style of play, and one of the first things that stood out was how they can move the ball through the air. It doesn't matter that quarterback Matthew Stafford is not playing, they are still a threat in an area in which the Patriots have shown some vulnerability.
Tedy: Shaun Hill has stepped in at quarterback and one positive with him is that he's very decisive. Once he sees where he wants to throw it, he's going to throw it. He has no fear. He doesn't care if the receiver is covered; he doesn't care if Calvin Johnson is streaking down the sideline and there is a safety over the top. He's just going to put it up and trust his playmakers to make plays.
Mike: Let's break down the Lions' running backs and a rushing attack that ranks 31st in the NFL in yards per game (80.5) and average yards per carry (3.5).
Tedy: They've been decimated by injuries there. They placed Kevin Smith on season-ending injured reserve. Jahvid Best is an explosive rookie, but he's been dealing with a turf toe problem on both feet and he had only three carries this past week. Maurice Morris has been carrying the load at the running back position, and he runs hard.
Mike: So you figure if the Lions are going to pull off the upset, it's going to have to be through the air, and that's where receiver Calvin Johnson, with his team-high 55 receptions for 725 yards and 10 touchdowns, comes into play.
Tedy: They call him "Megatron" because it's like he's just a big, robotic stud out there, making plays. He has size, speed and leaping ability. He seems to be able to go and get the ball no matter where it's thrown. The other receiver, Nate Burleson, is sort of a smaller type receiver who runs the underneath routes and gets a lot of things done. I also like the tight end, Brandon Pettigrew. He catches the ball well [50 receptions, 487 yards, 3 TDs]. I see players like that and think this is a team that has potential down the road.
Mike: On the offensive line, fans in New England will see a familiar name in Gosder Cherilus, the former Boston College blocker. He starts at right tackle, and coach Jim Schwartz said he has overcome some early injury problems in his first two years in the league and looks like he has a possible bright future.
Tedy: The center, Dominic Raiola, I remember playing against him a couple of years ago. He's a real scrapper. He isn't the most gifted in terms of size [6-1, 295] and strength, but he'll fight. I think all those offensive linemen kind of rally around his attitude because they have been struggling at times this season. He keeps them going. I don't think the Lions will be able to run the ball against the Patriots. Up front, I think the Patriots are too stout -- Vince Wilfork is just a beast in there. But the Lions are good at throwing the ball, ranked sixth in the NFL with 256 yards per game. Any type of first-and-10, or second-and-longer, yardage, they aren't afraid to line up in empty and let Shaun Hill throw it around, so they will be looking to attack this Patriots secondary.
Patriots offense vs. Lions defense
Mike: I think my favorite part of watching the Lions-Cowboys game was your reaction as veteran defensive end Kyle Vanden Bosch was making plays all over the field. You're not supposed to be seeing defensive ends racing from sideline to sideline, sometimes 15 yards behind the line of scrimmage, but that's what Vanden Bosch was doing. He's in his 10th year in the NFL, but I didn't see too many signs of him slowing down in that particular game.
Tedy: I have watched a lot of film this year, pretty much every play of the NFL season, and I haven't seen another defensive player play as hard as Vanden Bosch has played this year. There is a reason Lions coach Jim Schwartz went out there and got him as a free agent in the spring. He sets the tone along that defensive line. The Lions struggle in the secondary and at the linebacker level, but their strength is along the defensive front and it starts with Kyle Vanden Bosch. I love the way the guy plays. He has a motor like you've never seen before. If the Patriots get ahead, he won't quit. He will play until the whistle is over, until he has nothing left in his body. I'm really impressed with him. I'm looking forward to watching him play on Thanksgiving.
Mike: Vanden Bosch has four sacks on the season, and he will be a challenging matchup for the Patriots' offensive tackles, specifically Matt Light. It's interesting how that works, Tedy, because after a week in which we heard a lot about Colts defensive ends Dwight Freeney and Robert Mathis, I haven't heard much about Vanden Bosch this week. I'm glad you brought it up because that's real football. And the other point you made is how a player like Vanden Bosch has rubbed off on defensive tackle Ndamukong Suh, the No. 2 overall pick in the draft who leads the Lions with seven sacks.
Tedy: Suh has found different ways to contribute to this team. When kicker Jason Hanson was injured a few weeks ago, the Lions even had Suh attempting an extra point. He has that much skill and is that type of athlete. He's so violent in the way that he tackles. There was a play against the Cowboys in which he grabbed Marion Barber's hair and pulled him back, tried to take his head off. He wants to inflict pain on people. They called him for a horse-collar tackle on the play against Barber, and he was so mad about it, the next play he took Leonard Davis, picked him up, threw him aside and made the tackle with no helmet. That's the type of aggression this guy has. He is going to be fun to watch, as well.
Mike: In terms of the general style of the Lions' defense, what can Patriots followers expect to see -- a lot of blitzing or more of a standard four-man rush?
Tedy: Think back to the old Tennessee Titans days when Albert Haynesworth was there. He was the classic "3 technique" penetrating up the field in the four-man front, getting the job done in terms of penetration. Suh is playing a similar role for the Lions. The front seven, with gap responsibility, you have the defensive line penetrating and the linebackers flow in unison off of them. That's the type of defense they run, which is a stark contrast to the two-gap system of the Patriots. They penetrate, and they want to fly to the ball. It's not necessarily a lot of blitzing, because they trust those four guys along the front line -- Vanden Bosch, Suh, Corey Williams and Cliff Avril -- to get pressure. Coveragewise, this team relies on zone concepts with a mixture of man coverage.
Mike: When looking at the Patriots' offense, then, what do you see being the key?
Tedy: The Patriots' offensive line has played great, and as much as I've been speaking highly of Vanden Bosch and Suh, I think the Patriots should be able to handle this defensive line. I think it depends on what they want to do, but Tom Brady usually plays very well against vanilla four-man rush schemes, especially when the line is playing well, covering guys up, blocking them, giving Brady time. Brady likes to pick those teams apart, especially in those zone concepts. I don't think the Patriots will abandon the running game -- they'll use it to keep teams honest -- but I like Brady to have a big game statistically.
Special teams and predictions
Mike: A couple of things stood out on the stat sheet from the Lions. They rank first in the NFL in kickoff return average (27.4), and Stefan Logan has a 105-yard return for a touchdown this season. And it looked like punter Nick Harris has a little bit of a knack for pinning teams deep in their own territory, as we saw last week against the Cowboys, which set up the Suh safety. It is my opinion that the Patriots should be prepared for some tricks in this area because the Lions, at home with nothing to lose, will be looking to steal a possession with an onside kick or fake punt.
Tedy: Logan is one of those small, undersized guys you feel like you can just get a hand on and slam him to the ground. But he's so quick, so fast, that it's tough to get a hand on him. He has made a difference for the Lions' return game, so his presence is something to keep an eye on in that third phase of the game.
Mike: How much do you see the short week affecting the Patriots in this game?
Tedy: I don't think it's going to be a huge factor. Going back to the Cleveland loss, when the Patriots got beat up, I think they realized the importance of preparation. They've really taken it to the next level with two signature wins, and there is no way they want to take a step back now. Even though it's a short week, there are a lot of young players on the team who will be able to recover quickly, so the physical strain won't be as bad. It will be the mental strain of doing that extra bit, of being a professional, and I see those young players following the Patriots' leaders.
Mike: Let's continue with our routine of answering a question from a Patriots fan. On Twitter, "Boston D" asks the question: How much tougher is it to prepare for younger quarterbacks, like a Colt McCoy, when there is less film to watch?
Tedy: Boston D - You always look forward to playing against rookie quarterbacks. They just haven't had the experience to see all of the possible looks you can give them. Even when Peyton Manning was young, we enjoyed confusing him with our different disguises. It's much tougher to go up against a veteran quarterback who has seen it all.
Mike: When making a prediction for this game, I wouldn't be surprised if it's close early on before the Patriots pull away late. I think it's going to be tough to go in there and start as fast as they want to with all the factors in play -- short week, road game, fired-up crowd on Thanksgiving. But in the end, I see the Patriots as the more talented team. I like a lot of points in this game -- Patriots 34, Lions 24.
Tedy: Shaun Hill will attack the Patriots secondary. I see him putting up good numbers, but the Patriots will continue to cause turnovers. It will be a happy Thanksgiving for Pats fans. Patriots 31, Lions 21.
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