Eagles Provide Test For Growing Lions

Most observers, myself included, believe that the Detroit Lions are at least one year away from being a real playoff contender. But the Lions have a growing number of supporters who believe in this era of NFL parity, that Detroit could become a playoff team this season. Lions' insider Mike Fowler previews Sunday's matchup between Detroit and Philadelphia.

DETROIT LIONS (2-0) vs. PHILADELPHIA EAGLES (2-0)
FORD FIELD, DETROIT, MI 1:00 PM EST
TELEVISION: NATIONALLY FOX TV
LAST MEETING: OCTOBER 8, 1998, EAGLES 10-LIONS 9
ALL TIME SERIES: SERIES STANDS AT 12-12-2

INJURY REPORT: DETROIT; LB Boss Bailey (knee) is out. CB Dré Bly (knee), DE Kalimba Edwards (foot), CB André Goodman (thigh) and T Matt Joyce (elbow) are questionable. WR Az-Zahir Hakim (thigh), DE James Hall (hand) and DT Shaun Rogers (ankle) are probable.

INJURY REPORT: EAGLES; DE Jerome McDougle (groin) and DT Darwin Walker (calf) are questionable. DT Paul Grasmanis (Achilles), CB Roderick Hood (hamstring), LB Dhani Jones (ankle), WR Todd Pinkston (shoulder), CB Lito Sheppard (thumb), LB Mark Simoneau (ankle) and LB Nate Wayne (pectoral) are probable.

(ALLEN PARK) - Most observers, myself included, believe that the Detroit Lions are at least one year away from being a real playoff contender.  But the Lions have a growing number of supporters who believe in this era of NFL parity, that Detroit could become a playoff team this season.

Who's to argue with that logic, after all, it's been done before, most recently by the Carolina Panthers who rode the play of two unlikely stars, Jake Delhomme and DeShaun Foster, all the way to the Super Bowl.

Having said all of that, the arrival of the Philadelphia Eagles into Ford Field on Sunday will provide the Lions with an early test, a gauge of where they are as a football team.

"Like Coach (Mariucci) said, Chicago and (Houston) are good teams; every team in the NFL is a good team, [but] they're more on our level as far as being younger teams trying to build their programs," said Lions quarterback Joey Harringon, "Philadelphia is the established one, the Goliath, the team that's been there for three years in a row. Who better to measure your status against than a team like that?"

Said Safety Brock Marion: "They've been in the NFC Championship the last three years so we know what they can do.

"We're playing pretty good right now and we're pretty confident at what we're doing, I think that's what we're focused on. You've got to know your enemy and know what they're doing and how they're going to attack you. If we do that we have a pretty good chance of winning the football game."

ANALYSIS
Marion's optimistic view notwithstanding, Detroit will go into this game as an underdog and rightly so.  The Eagles, despite some personnel losses, are a veteran team.  Their defense (10.5 points per game allowed) remains tough, bolstered by the play of linemen Jerome McDougle (brother of Lions tackle Stockar McDougle) Hugh Douglas and Javon Kearse.   The revamped secondary led by corners Lito Sheppard and Sheldon Brown are still strong and defensive coordinator Jim Johnson's game planning are among the most effective in the league.  Their linebacking corps isn't bad either.

KEY MATCHUPS
DAMIEN WOODY AND STOCKAR MCDOUGLE VS. JAVON KEARSE AND COREY SIMON
Detroit will need to run the football to keep the hyperactive pass rush off quarterback Joey Harrington's passing lanes.  Philadelphia (23rd in the NFL against the run) has proven to be subsceptible to a strong rushing football team.  Detroit's 1-2 punch of Kevin Jones and Artose Pinner will have a huge say in this ball game.   Philadelphia is at their best when they force teams into passing downs.  That's when defensive coordinator Jim Johnsons can disguise coverages and blitz to confuse opposing quarterbacks.

Detroit's head coach Steve Mariucci has been reluctant to use Jones and Pinner in passing situations because of their inexperience in pass coverage.

"They only blitz half the time," said Mariucci.  "That's going to be part of their development, learning to recognize, adjust, and pick (up the blitz), and all those sort of things that go along with playing a team that blitzes a lot. This is one of those teams. Part of their growing up and development, they have to be able to do it. (Shawn Bryson won't) necessarily (play more). We're still going to force feed the young guys."

To avoid putting the passing game and Harrington in harm's way, Detroit needs to stay away from 3rd-and-long situations and make some positive yardage on first and second downs in the run game.

The Lions tend to be right handed and rely on guard Damien Woody and Stockar McDougle to be their "go-to" side when running the football.First of all, their defense is nice; their whole defense, not just their ends," said McDougle who'll face the unenviable task of going head-to-head against brother Jerome.

"Their ends are exceptionally fast and we're just going to prepare for them just like we prepare for everyone else. We're going to respect them because they are extremely fast. We're going to prepare to the best of our ability for that."

Because of the Philadelphia propensity to blitz, look for Detroit to call screens and dump off routes when passing the football to prevent the Eagles from pinning their ears back against Harrington.  Tight end Stephen Alexander, who hasn't gotten the call much to date, could be a huge factor in this one.

Detroit would like to get Jones isolated in the flat against a linebacker, even one as talented as the Eagles Nate Wayne.    But in 2nd and 3rd-and-long situations, that when Kearse goes to work.  "Jevon is everthing we though he was and probably more, " said defensive coordinator Jim Johnson.   "He can go sideline to sideline and you just don't see many defensive ends who can do that.  This guys runs down running backs from behind.  He's just an amazing specimen."

Kearse has a penchant for the big play, McDougle will have his hands full dealing with Kearse, and his brother Jerome.

FL ROY WILLIAMS and SE TAI STREETS VS. CORNER LITO SHEPPARD and SHELDON BROWN
While Detroit was able to stretch the field with rookie wide receiver Roy Williams last week going against Houston's less than stellar secondary, it's unlikely they'll be able to accomplish the same against the Eagles outstanding pair of safeties Brian Dawkins and Mike Lewis.  

Instead, Detroit will likely look to the intermediate passing routes which were so effective against Houston.  While Sheppard cannot matchup physically with Williams, but has speed to run with him.  Detroit will also likely go to different looks to get Williams matched up on Brown.  

Many have compared Williams to a younger version of Eagles receiver Terrell Owens, but Reid said that is unfair.

"Roy is a heck of a college player and it looks like he has a great jump on things in the pro level," said Reid.

"I'd probably say the same thing I said when people asked me to compare Donovan McNabb and Brett Favre when Donovan was a rookie. It is too early right now. It is too early to do that. It is unfair to the kid to compare him to somebody that has been doing it for so many years. He has to put his own name on this offense. To compare the two, I don't think that's fair to do right now."

Sheppard said even if Williams get some big plays, he can handle it.

"You have to be thick-skinned and mentally tough to play this position," said Sheppard.  "I've been under the microscope my whole career, my whole life.  This is just another chance for me to show everbody what kind of player I am."

Being matched up against Williams will give Sheppard an opportunity to stop the rookie phenomenon that has given opposing defenses fits.  

After a four catches for 73 yards and two highlight reels touchdown grabs, Williams was named Pepsi NFL rookie of the week and his 14-yard toe-tapping sideline touchdown catch was named the Levitra Play of the Week as the single most exciting play of the week.  

But don't overlook Streets.  He has been sure-handed and steady, keeping drives alive with solid but unspectacular catches.  Streets will have a huge size advantage over Brown, whom he's likely to be matched up against.

"I keep hearing, we're too small, we're too small", said the 5-foot-10, 200-pound, South Carolina standout. "That hurts ecause I busted my tail on special teams, and I thought I showed that I'm a physcial player, that I'm big enough."  

RB BRIAN WESTBROOK VS. LINEBACKERS TEDDY LEHMAN AND DANTE CURRY
Detroit's defense (21st in the NFL against the run) has been able to contain opposing offenses by keeping everything in front of them in coordinator Dick Jauron's base scheme.

Detroit hasn't allowed a running back to gain 100 yards against them to date and shouldn't be overly concerned with the Eagles rushing attack.  With Corel Buckhalter out, Brian Westbrook has carried the load with great success.  

Westbrook (6.5 per carry and 8.1 per touch average) is one of the NFL premier threats with the football in his hand.  He opened the season with a 119-yard performance against the New York Giants.  

In Philadelphia's offensive scheme - which mirrors Detroit's - the Eagles send lead blocker Jon Ritchie (ala Cory Schlesinger) to clear the way for Westbrook.    Lehman and Curry will often need to make open field tackles and play their best games to date to stop one of Philadelphia's most potent threats with the ball in his hand.

"Brian is a good football player," said Eagles head coach Andy Reid. "He is very well rounded. Number one, he is a very smart kid so he can analyze all of the different adjustments that you want to make with him outside of the running back position. He's got great hands a great feel for the game."

WR TERRELL OWENS VS. CORNER FERNANDO BRYANT
Here's where you wish Dre' Bly was healthy enough to play.  Bly lives for matchups against opposing team's best players.  Bly had great success against the Vikings Randy Moss a year ago but the more bigger Owens poses a problem for defensive backs by nature of the physical way he plays the game.  

Without Bly, much of the task of stopping the talented Mr. Owens will fall to Bryant.  Eagles quarterback Donovon McNabb talked about how he and Owens have been able to quickly develop such great chemistry.

"T.O. and I spend extra time together just so that we will have our time together," said McNabb. "It's not just TO and I, it is myself, the wide receiver corps, the running backs. We're doing extra so that we will go out and be successful.

He came out to my place in the summer, we spent some time together working out, getting to know each other and I plan on doing that for the years to come."

Detroit will likely go to nickle coverage to provide an extra pair of hands in passing situations but in other situations, this is a matchup that favors the Eagles, unless Bly can participate at near 100%.

"He's playing well, just like he has been," said Owens' former coach Steve Mariucci. "He's been productive. He has four touchdowns and he's a good player. He's another weapon that they've added to that team. And of course, Donovan (McNabb) is playing well in his sixth year, they're good on the ground and they've got some capable tight ends and other receivers. They're a talented team."

EAGLES QUARTERBACK DONOVAN MCNABB VS. DE JAMES HALL
McNabb currently leads the NFL in passing efficiency and can pull it down and run it as effectively as many running backs.  McNabb is one of the top five players in the NFL and his presence tilts the field in favor of the Eagles.  Unlike Michael Vick, McNabb has the presence of a saavy veteran seemingly knowning where all his weapons are at any particular moment.

McNabb is aware of the challenge that the Lions pose despite being young.  

"Everyone kind of uses us as their red letter game. We definitely appreciate that and there is a reason why they do that.

"The whole focus for us is just to go in and play against a tough team that is obviously on the rise, be able to execute, know what is going on out there, being on the same page. (We want to) use this energy that we've had the last two weeks to continue this thing on.

"Everyone talks about this young Detroit team. It may not be their time, but they feel like it is their time now. We definitely feel that it is our time as well. It should be a battle between the lines. We're definitely going to give it all we have on both sides and make sure that we come out on top."

Detroit's pass rush has been bolstered by the surprising play of Hall who leads the NFL with 3 1/2 sacks including 2 1/2 against Houston. If Hall can pressure McNabb into bad or rushed throws, it gives Detroit a chance at a big play.

OVERALL:
The Eagles are the NFL's best road team since 2000 for a reason, they play sound solid football and seldom turn the ball over or make key mistakes.  While the Lions are a team on the rise, they likely haven't risen far enough to defeat Philadelphia, even at home.  

"We try to stay as consistent on the road as we are at home as far as the way we stay at the hotel and the meals and so on and so forth, meeting times," said Reid. "I think it is really coming down to that we've had good football players here and we've had good coaches here. That's a good combination for wins on the road."

Detroit's best chance is to get on top of the Eagles early with big plays and then get their crowd involved.  If that happens, give the Lions a "puncher's chance" to pull off the upset

PICK:
While Detroit has progressed greatly from a season ago, it's too early for them to win a game of this magnitude.  Philadelphia has too much depth, too much experience and too much fire power.  Detroit will hang in there as long as they can

PHILADELPHIA 24 - DETROIT 16


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