As far as depth is concerned, it's actually very understandable that the Lions traded Shaun Rogers to the Browns this offseason.
Although Detroit has faced the fewest pass attempts in the league (25.8 per game) and a number of their defensive linemen have missed time due to injury, they still have recorded 25 sacks in 13 games, with 20 of those sacks coming from linemen. Six different defensive linemen have recorded at least two sacks each.
DE Dewayne White
Although their leading sacker, Dewayne White, has missed the past five games with a calf injury, this is still a pass rush that deserves respect, especially considering the Lions haven't played with the lead for much of the season, haven't faced a lot of pass attempts, and tend to let a receiver in the open before the rush can get to the quarterback.
Conventional wisdom says that the best way to tame a fierce pass rush is to run right at it. The Titans were successful when they spread the formation and ran the ball with Chris Johnson early in the game on Thanksgiving day, whereas Adrian Peterson was actually held below his season average of 4.8 yards per carry and fumbled three times running out of a standard formation.
The return of Jeff Saturday and the continued development and improvement of Mike Pollak and Charlie Johnson, combined with the skill and speed of the Lions ends, make running right up the middle from the shotgun — a staple of the Colts offense — the smartest play in this situation.
Defensive tackles Chartric Darby and Cory Redding are neither particularly swift nor stout at the point of attack and tend to overpursue the play, particularly if it appears as though the offense intends to pass the ball, as they fully embrace the Cover 2 adage of stopping the run on the way to quarterback.
With White out, the end depth has been tested, though rookie Cliff Avril does have four sacks. Second-year man Ikaika Alama-Francis has failed to distinguish himself among the rest of the 11 defensive linemen on the roster, though, so he will be an easier draw for Ryan Diem.
Tony Ugoh will need to stay alert against Avril or White, whoever suits up and comes at him, since they are both fast, agile men that can get to the quarterback and Ugoh has his share of difficulties against smaller, quicker adversaries.
Whatever happens, the Colts offensive line needs to give Peyton Manning his three seconds, since he faces a number of extremely favorable matchups in the back seven of this defense.
What Paris Lenon, Ryan Nece, and Ernie Sims lack in name recognition, they make up for with speed. Sims is the star of the linebacking corps because he plays the Derrick Brooks position in this defense, he's a former top-10 selection, and he's the fastest, most talented player of the group.
They have more than enough athleticism to run from sideline to sideline, as well as the quickness to cover the zones in the Cover 2. What they lack, though, is awareness, the ability to diagnose a play, and the presence of mind to not overcommit to it.
Conventional wisdom would say to make them pay with misdirection, but they're simply too fast and commit too hard to properly allow a misdirection play to develop.
The best way to defeat a defense as swift and cocksure as this one is to identify the pursuit lanes they intend to attack and find the holes in their scheme before the snap. Fortunately for the Colts, Manning is their quarterback. Even more fortunately, Saturday will be there to help Manning find these weaknesses and exploit them.
Ultimately, this will work out best for Joseph Addai, if he plays, and Dominic Rhodes. If Manning is on his game and the Detroit defenders are overly anxious — two things that tend to happen frequently — Manning can call a running play to the spot where the linebacker used to be and the running back will be able to get to the second level very quickly.
Although Addai and Rhodes are not nearly as explosive as Chris Johnson or Adrian Peterson, they should be able to pick up yardage in chunks and make it very difficult for the Lions secondary to focus on stopping the passing game.
The Detroit secondary needs all the help and focus it can get. The fact that the Lions are 17th in the league in pass defense does not begin to describe their struggles.
If the Lions pass defense numbers were taken together and assigned to a single quarterback, that quarterback would have 2,777 yards passing, average a gaudy 8.7 yards per attempt, 19 touchdown passes compared to only four interceptions, and a passer rating of 108.2. That would represent the highest quarterback rating in the NFL, the second least interceptions, the tenth most touchdowns, and the highest per attempt average.
DB Keith Smith
Since they recently released cornerback Brian Kelly, they are left with Leigh Bodden, Travis Fisher, Ramzee Robinson, and Keith Smith at the position. Bodden was acquired in the Rogers trade with Cleveland and was starting to make some waves with the Browns, but has struggled this season, since he is a better man coverage player. He does have one of the four interceptions the Detroit defense has recorded this season, which is tied for the team lead.
Safety Dwight Smith has seen his star fall since he was named MVP of Super Bowl XXXVII as a member of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. He has been with the Saints, Vikings, and now the Lions since he left Tampa as a free agent in 2004, and moved to safety from cornerback to prolong his career. He still has some coverage ability and can cover the deep zone, but his best days are behind him.
Daniel Bullocks continues to be a force near the line of scrimmage, but has been unable to make too much of an impact in coverage.
Dallas Clark may actually struggle, since Detroit's speedy linebackers and hard-hitting safeties will be patrolling the middle of the field and, with more exploitable weaknesses to attack on the perimeter, Manning may not look his way.
Operating out of the shotgun, Manning should have plenty of options and, since the Lions give up a whopping 6.2 yards per play, should have plenty of success whether he chooses to run or pass.
Balance. In the close games that the Lions have been involved this year, the opposing team came out and assumed that they could run the ball at will against this front seven.
Although teams have had a great deal of success against this Detroit run defense — to the tune of 173.3 yards per game, a good deal of those yards came against exhausted and defeated defenders in the late stages of blowouts.
In tight games, this defense has stayed surprisingly vigilant, though they have had a tendency to fold in the last half of the fourth quarter when push came to shove.
Early on, the Colts need to adopt the strategy that the Titans went with, passing the ball down the seam and to the outside while mixing in a good balance of runs from the shotgun formation. Given the success that teams have had in the passing game as well, the yards will be there for Manning and company.
They just need to gain those yards, keep the Lions defense guessing, jump to an early lead, and put the game away against an overly aggressive group of linebackers and linemen playing out of position in the hopes of making a play.
The last thing Indianapolis wants is for this game to stay close into the fourth quarter and give a desperate team a glimpse of victory. By staying balanced in the first half, they can end the game by halftime and spend the second half thinking about how to close things out and their upcoming game against the Jaguars.