By Greg Doyle, Patriots Daily Staff
Its Thanksgiving and the Patriots are headed towards Detroit. And really, what can be better than Thanksgiving, eating turkey and mashed potato with the family, having a few beers and watching the football. It has to be among the greatest holidays and its certainly my favorite.
A Patriots win would make the turkey taste that much better. If they learned anything from the Cleveland debacle, they’ll be on top of their game from the outset and not let an inferior team get confident. But still, the Patriots are a young team. Despite their record, the Lions are improving and have numerous excellent players. They’re also a much tougher team, lead by Belichick protégé Jim Schwartz at head coach. And they’re probably not going to go down Thursday without a fight.
So lets take a look at some of the key players and factors in the game and Happy Thanksgiving First Impression readers:
Shaun Hill (#14), Quarterback: Hill is filling in for injured starter Matt Stafford, who could be out for the season. Traded to the Lions this past offseason for a 7th round pick, he has done a pretty good job compiling a 80.5 QB rating and a 12 to 9 TD/INT ratio. His career QB rating is 84.8. The problem is, he’s only won one game he has started. Hill does everything adequately. He can move in the pocket, he is over 61% accurate for his career and he puts nice touch on the ball at times. He has a pretty good group of skill players to throw to. While Hill isn’t a great QB, he is capable and could put up a good game versus the Patriots. Really, it wouldn’t surprise me either way because he can be somewhat inconsistent. It would seem if the Pats don’t disrupt him and cause some negative throws on his part early, it could be a long day because he is a rhythm quarterback subject to both hot and cold streaks.
Jahvid Best (#44), Running Back: Best is a somewhat undersized burner of a back, checking in at 199 lbs. He was one of the fastest players in this year’s past draft and the Lions took him with the 30th pick overall in the first round. So far, he has not been very good strictly running the ball, only averaging 3.0 yards per carry. Really, to me, that isn’t that surprising because at his size and with a finesse style it was questionable all along whether he could be a feature back. He clearly has the speed, hands and elusiveness to be a great third down back and change-of-pace back. The Lions may have miscalculated thinking he could carry a full-time load and may have to reach back into the draft high this year for another back. For Thanksgiving, Best could most hurt the Patriots by getting into space in the passing game where he is very dangerous. The Lions do all they can to try and do that as evidenced by his 49 catches through 10 games. He has made some very big plays in that area. So the Patriots really need to watch him out of the backfield and not let him get lost on the backside of misdirection plays, as the Lions are so fond of trying to do.
Calvin Johnson (#81), Wide Receiver:
Patriots coach Bill Belichick raved about Johnson this week, saying he was virtually uncoverable. He compared trying to cover him to Shaquille O’Neal going for a rebound versus a point guard. Devin McCourty may have to play his best game, and most physical, since coming into the NFL this year to try and neutralize this receiver. Just 25 years old, Johnson has it all….a 6’2″ 235 frame, strength, hands and 4.35/40 speed. It makes one wonder how productive he could be if the Lions ever found a consistent running game. His nickname is Megatron, reflecting how he is liable to go off at any moment. It was just a little more than 3 weeks ago Johnson pulled in three touchdowns in a single game and if the Patriots allow a similar performance against their sometimes shaky secondary, they may just get upset. He is that much of a game changer.
Ndamukong Suh (#90), Defensive Tackle: Suh was the second player taken overall this past draft and so far he has lived up to the hype with 7 sacks thru 10 games and by being very disruptive and stout versus the running game. The Patriots interior line, Dan Koppen, Logan Mankins and Dan Connolly, have their toughest test this week to deal with his pure brute strength. I am a big fan of Suh in that he is supremely talented, but also brings ferocity and intensity to a defense when he plays. It hasn’t quite paid off in wins and the Lions defense hasn’t gelled yet, but they are very physical. They are capable of stretches of great play. They may be a few players away, but on Thanksgiving they always seem to rise to perform well and Suh’s biggest showcase game so far is at hand. If the Patriots come to play, or not come to play, as they did in Cleveland, you’ll see Suh hitting Tom Brady all day long.
DeAndre Levy (#54), Linebacker: Levy is an underrated, energetic, sure tackling middle linebacker who has been hurt most of the year but is now back starting. He started 10 games for the Lions as a rookie and was on his way to taking the next step in his game this year when injuries slowed him down. He could be a major factor in stopping BenJarvus Green-Ellis and he has the speed to run with Danny Woodhead. With Suh in front of him, it frees him up to be a playmaker. How the Patriots handle him will help tell the story how productive their running backs are both carrying the ball and in the passing game.
Dave Rayner (#3), Kicker: Filling in for the injured, long-time Lions kicker Jason Hanson, Rayner is a bit unproven and if he becomes a factor in the game it may spell trouble for the Lions. He does have a big leg and indoors can get it fairly consistently deep in the endzone on kickoffs. He can hit the occasional 45+ yard field goal. But he’s just been too inconsistent so far in his NFL career. Beyond 50, he’s a mere 1-5 in the NFL. Overall, he’s a mere 71.4 percent kicker and has missed 6 of 19 between 30-39. If it comes down to a big kick, I’d give it even money at least he misses.
Thanksgiving Day Football: The Lions are truly one of the more storied franchises in NFL history. Or at least they were. You look at them now, playing in a Dome, with a traditionally bad team, in a dying, decaying city and winless two seasons ago and its easy to forget that. But there was a time they were the NFL gold standard. They were something of a dynasty in the 50’s, winning three NFL Championships that decade. They have four overall. They have a long, long list of legendary players who’ve suited up for them. And they’ve been, along with Dallas, a traditional home team on Thanksgiving for the NFL. Overall, they’re 33-35 on Turkey Day, having lost six straight years.
But it seems to me, many times over the years watching them on that day they were competitive that day even with their worse teams. Of course their are exceptions, for example they’ve lost the last six years by scores of 34-12, 47-10, 37-26, 27-10, 27-7 and 41-9. So perhaps I’m remembering back to the Barry Sanders years. Its been awhile since they’ve actually pulled an upset or even played close. But still, something inside me says they are improving, have lost a lot of tough games this year and in the second year of Coach Jim Schwartz program, they’ll want to re-establish themselves as a tough out on the one day the entire football watching nation always watches them. The Patriots beat them on Thanksgiving 20-12 back in 2002 in what I remember to be a fairly closely fought game. And given all this, I’m anticipating a tougher than expected game this year as well.