Five on the Lions
PHILADELPHIA (973espn.com) - The schedule has been kind to the Eagles early this season and that theme will continue Sunday in Detroit when Philadelphia tries to avenge an ugly Thanksgiving Day loss last season by taking on the banged-up Lions.
THE SCHWARTZ RETURNS
Highly-regarded Eagles defensive coordinator Jim Schwartz was the head coach of the Lions from 2009-2013 and took over the only 0-16 team in NFL history and turned them into a playoff team in three years.
These days Schwartz has taken over a much-maligned unit that struggled statistically with Chip Kelly and Bill Davis running things and has turned it into the league’s top-scoring defense early on, fueling speculation that Schwartz’s stay in Philadelphia may be a short one because he figures to get looks as a potential head coach again.
That’s is down the road, though, and right now Schwartz is trying to succeed against a team he claims he still has feelings for in other weeks.
"I think you guys would probably be surprised how much I root for the Lions, "Schwartz admitted Thursday. "As long as it's not in direct conflict with the Eagles, I want those guys to win every week. I've got too much blood and sweat in that building, and there's a lot of guys there that mean an awful lot to me.
"Start with [Lions QB Matthew] Stafford and [TE Brandon] Pettigrew and [LB DeAndre] Levy. Those guys were my first draft class. I want those guys to succeed. I don't want them to succeed this Sunday. I'm going to do my very best to try to beat them, but I think everybody would be surprised how much you have relationships that just don't go away when you leave or a player leaves. Those guys have had my back when I coached there, and I've had their back, and I'm sure that'll continue. Not this Sunday, though."
One of the players Schwartz still has an affinity for is his ex-quarterback, Matthew Stafford, a strong-armed signal caller who is near the top of the NFL in many categories, ranking fourth in passing yards (1,198), tied for fourth in completions (104), ninth in completion percentage (66.7) and tied for seventh in touchdowns (7).
Dating back to Week 10 of last season, the Lions won six of their final eight games when they changed offensive coordinators and went to Jim Bob Cooter as the play caller. Although, only 1-3 on the season and now without potential future Hall of Famer Calvin Johnson, Stafford still has plenty of options to go to, led by free agent receiver Marvin Jones and running back Theo Riddick, who maybe the best pass catcher out of the backfield in the NFL today and perhaps the toughest matchup problem the Eagles will face this week.
"He's scrambling probably a lot more than he has in the past," Schwartz said when discussing Stafford. "He's making some plays with his feet, got a couple big first downs with his feet this year, made some plays there.
"...We'll have our work cut out for us. Even though Calvin (Johnson) is not there, Stafford moves the ball around to all the receivers. He doesn't just have one favorite. He moves it around to all the eligibles, uses his [running] backs, can make any throw on the field, and like I said, he's moving in the pocket and scrambling maybe a little more than he has in the past, and it puts a little bit more more pressure on the defense. We're going to have to play very well to stop him."
Week 5 begins a three-game home stand for Detroit as it tries to turn its season around and head coach Jim Caldwell has said that a focus for the struggling Lions on both sides of the ball will be limiting penalties over the course of a game.
The Lions come in with an astounding 39 penalties through four games, the third most in football behind Oakland and Jacksonville, and that “hidden yardage” has been a big issue in the team’s slow start.
“You know, you look at the reasons why they happen and sometimes it’s a technical issue, sometimes it’s overaggressiveness in some cases,” the coach said. “We talk about those, we get them straightened out. You know, did we do the normal things we normally do? Make certain we have officials at practice that point those things out, that throw flags and we go about it the normal way of attacking it, looking at it and see if we can get it straightened away.”
SPECIAL TEAMS STARS
When you’re struggling sometimes you need a lift from your special teams and the Lions have had some pretty good ST units early this season, starting with the punting group as Sam Martin currently ranks first in the NFL in net punting average at 47.0. Not surprisingly with that number, Detroit is also among the league leaders by allowing only five yards per punt return.
Conversely, Andre Roberts returned his first career punt return for a touchdown last week with an 85-yard return against the Bears and the Lions are averaging nearly 20 yards per punt return this season.
“I’m very confident in our ability as a return team on doing something special every play, no matter who we have back there returning kicks or punts,” Roberts said. “It definitely helps to know that we’re able to do it and that we’ve done it now. We just have to keep trying to do it every week.”
KERRY, NOT ZIGGY
When you think about what has been a solid Detroit pass rush in recent seasons, the first thing you should envision is Ziggy Ansah, the rangy former first-round pick that has developed into one of the best edge rushers in the NFL and had 14 ½ sacks last season.
Ansah, though, is dealing with a high-ankle sprain that is expected to keep him out of Sunday’s game. In his absence, however, first-year DE Kerry Hyder has seized an opportunity and run with it, amassing five sacks in four games, second in the NFL to Denver superstar Von Miller, who has 5 ½ sacks.
Hyder arrived in the NFL as an undrafted free agent out of Texas Tech and spent the majority of the 2014 and 2015 seasons on the New York Jets and Lions practice squads,
“It feels great to see the work I put in and finally seeing it on the field,” Hyder said. “I’ve got a lot to work to do, I’ve got a long hill to climb, so I’m still grinding.”
With Hyder’s unexpected contribution to the pass rush, the Detroit defensive line, which also features Haloti Ngata and Tyrunn Walker inside, as well as Devin Taylor on the edge, remains one of the team’s strengths despite the absence of Ansah.
Since Teryl Austin took over the Lions defense in 2014, the Lions rank sixth in opponentyards per game (332.1), fourth in opponent rushing yards per game (93.8), sixth in rush yards per attempt (3.9), tied for seventh in team sacks (94) and first in tackles for loss (217) so it is typically a solid unit.
973espn.com prediction: Things have fallen Philadelphia’s way early this season and nothing changes here as the Eagles come in off the bye completely healthy while the Lions will likely be missing a number of key contributors, including Ansah, linebacker DeAndre Levy and tight end Eric Ebron. The run continues. Call it Eagles 27, Lions 14
-John McMullen covers the Eagles and the NFL for 973espn.com. You can reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @JFMcMullen