The Detroit Lions kick off their NFL season this Sunday at home against the Philadelphia Eagles. Last year, the Eagles wiped the floor with the Lions beating them handily 44-6. The Lions could not stop the run game at all as the Eagles rushed for 236 yards on a whopping 5.1 yards per carry. This year, the Lions hope to reverse last year's fate and upset the playoff-hopeful Eagles. Here are the keys to the game if the Lions hope to pull off the upset.
The Lions Interior Offensive Line Must Slow Down Defensive Front
Key Lions Players: Jonah Jackson, Frank Ragnow, Evan Brown, Logan Stenberg
The excitement for the Detroit Lions offensive line took a big hit when starting guard Halapoulivaati Vaitai went on the IR. On top of that, star center Frank Ragnow has been limited all week with a groin injury and backup guard Tommy Kraemer is already listed as out. In their place, expect Logan Stenberg to start at guard and Evan Brown at center, if Ragnow cannot play. On the opposing side, the Eagles have one of the most formidable defensive tackles room in the NFL. Fletcher Cox and Javon Hargrave are disruptive forces who have spent most of their careers in the backfield. On top of that, the Eagles added Jordan Davis in the first round who is a freak athletically and will present problems.
If the interior line cannot hold their own, the Eagles' defensive line will dominate the game. By himself, Jordan Davis can disrupt the Lions' run game and shut down the inside run. If that happens, the rest of the defensive line can pin their ears back and penetrate up the middle. Jared Goff struggles when pressured, and the entire game plan could fall apart. Luckily for the Lions, Stenberg looked good in the preseason, and last season, Brown performed at a starter level filling in for Ragnow. However, if they struggle, the Eagles' defensive line can single handily disrupt the entire game plan.
Detroit Lions Receivers Must Win on the Inside
Key Lions Players: TJ Hockenson, Amon-Ra St. Brown
The Eagles also boast one of the better cornerback duos in the league. On one side, Darius Slay hasn't lost a step and still lives up to his “Big Play” nickname. Opposite of him, free agent acquisition James Bradberry continues to be one of the more solid coverage men in the NFL. Both players should present problems to outside receivers Josh Reynolds and D.J. Chark.
Instead of attacking outside, the Lions should look inside to their two best pass catchers, Amon-Ra St. Brown and T.J. Hockenson. The Eagles are weaker on the inside but are definitely not slouches. Avonte Maddox provides a steady slot presence, and they recently traded for safety Chauncey Gardner-Johnson who loves matching up in the slot.
This is not a heavy mismatch in the Lions favor, but they will need to win here in order to pass effectively. Look for Ben Johnson to creatively use St. Brown to get him open and to move the sticks consistently. Hockenson needs to prove why he is one of the better tight ends in the league. Gardner-Johnson is good, but Hockenson needs to use his size and skill to provide a safety blanket for Goff. If they win on the inside, it will draw extra attention from the defense and help the entire offense.
Lions Defensive Line Holding Their Own Against Run Game
Last year, the Philadelphia Eagles offensive line completely dominated the line of scrimmage opening up huge holes for Eagles running backs. Look for the Eagles to try and replicate last season's success and run the ball down the Lions' throat. Up front, the Eagles excel at running the ball. Lane Johnson is the gold standard at right tackle, and Jason Kelce is a future Hall of Famer. Similar to the offensive line, the defensive line is short-handed missing the last two second-round picks, Levi Owunzurike and Josh Paschal. Despite the injuries, the Lions should be better than last year with the addition of blue-chip prospect Aidan Hutchinson
Alim McNeill will have a huge role in stopping the running game. The second-year defensive tackle has to get penetration and draw double teams to make the play himself or to free others. If he can do that, Hutchinson and Charles Harris can set the edge against single teams and create havoc. With chaos in the backfield, the Eagles running backs will spend more time running east and west making the linebacker's lives much easier. The Eagles' offense then will be much more vulnerable without a consistent run game. Hurts should be better with the addition of A.J. Brown, but the Lions have a much better chance of forcing him to beat them with his arm.
If the Eagles' offensive line dominates like last year, it will get ugly once again. They will try to push the lineman back into the linebackers basically blocking both players with one guy. If they do that, it will look like last year with rushing lanes all over the defense. With a great running game, Hurts will be scary in play action where he can choose his spots to run or pass.
The Detroit Lions should put up a lot more fight this year after an embarrassment at the hands of the Eagles last year. However, if they want to pull of the upset, they will need to neutralize the Eagles' strength. The interior offensive line will need to slow down the scary interior penetration to open holes in the run game and buy time for Goff. With that time, Amon-Ra St Brown and T.J. Hockenson will have to get open over the middle to move the ball down the field. On defense, it comes down to stopping the run. The Eagles' offensive line dominated last year, so to flip the script, the Lions' defensive line needs to step up and disrupt the Eagles' rushing attack. It won't be easy, but it's definitely doable and would set up an exciting start to the year.