The Detroit Lions – like every NFL team – spend a significant amount of time reviewing film for upcoming opponents to better understand what to expect when they take the field.
What has been interesting for the Lions is that they aren't generally getting what they see – particularly from opposing defenses.
"It's tough when you see Cover-Two every single game," said Nate Burleson after the team's most recent game. "It's tough when you watch film and teams are confident enough to drop a single high safety and play the receivers they go against man-to-man but when we face them their zoning up everything. They are waiting for you to catch the ball and just try to play preventative defense."
The Lions have played four games this season – some against aggressive blitzing units, some against passive Cover-Two types, some 3-4, some 4-3 – and despite the differences in the defensive philosophy, they all played the Lions similarly.
The tactic against the Lions is two deep safeties playing zone coverage while cutting off the top of the field and creating smaller windows to throw the ball through.
When asked how many times the Lions had received man-to-man coverage this season, with a single high safety, Lions quarterback Matthew Stafford ventured a guess.
"Five," he estimated.
For a team that is built to throw the ball, this can be a frustrating obstacle to overcome. It isn't only a hindrance to the deep bomb but it also limits run after the catch in the intermediate passing game.
"Yeah, down field too but also just being able to catch and run and not have four guys still back there that you have to try and break a tackle on," said Stafford of the opportunities created by single-high-safety coverage. "That's one of the benefits of teams playing soft is if we catch it they still have four or five guys ready to rally to the ball but when you have one guy back there and you make a guy miss, it's a big play. That's obviously the pros and cons of man coverage and zone coverage."
In order for the Lions to take advantage of the preventative style the opposition is playing against them, they need to do one of two things. They need to either generate explosive plays despite the deep coverage – most likely through the run game – or, if that doesn't work, they need to be prepared to sustain long drives without turnovers (the running game can help there as well).
The team doesn't care how it moves the ball but understands the above two items are essential.
"We've been really efficient running the ball the last couple of games and picking up first downs and all that kind of stuff but we need explosive plays," said Stafford. "Whether it be through the run or the pass, we don't really care. We just want plays of 20 yards or more and those equal points in this league. The more and more you can do those, the more and more you're going to score."
When the explosive plays aren't available, the long drives will be needed.
"We're going to have to nickel and dime most of these defenses we play," said Burleson.
The Lions next opponent, the Philadelphia Eagles, have a talented secondary. Due to the trust they have in their defensive backfield, they have a tendency to leave man coverage on receivers and attack the quarterback.
Still, the Eagles do shift their coverages throughout a game, making it difficult to anticipate what they are going to do.
"Well, the one thing is we try is to roll our coverages," said Eagles head coach Andy Reid. "You know, that's what we've done in the past where we don't just play one thing. I mean, that's what we've done. So up to this point we play some man, we play some zone, we're very capable of doing whatever we need to do there and that's what we'll go about doing. We'll figure out what's best or what we feel is best to play the Lions and then go with that. But if you've really studied that then you've seen a mixture of different coverages."
So, the Lions must decide if they are preparing a gameplan geared to what they've seen on tape from the Eagles or the consistent adjustment made by their previous opponents.
Or there is one other approach.
"We just have to go with what we see on tape and make adjustments from there," said head coach Jim Schwartz. "We'll prepare for just about anything."