8:30 PM EST, ESPN – Line: New Orleans -2.5, Over/Under: 51.5
As the 2015 campaign races to it’s conclusion, a pair of last-place teams wondering what might have been face off in the Louisiana Superdome, as the New Orleans Saints host the Detroit Lions on Monday Night Football. It’s been hard times in the Motor City, as the Lions (4-9, 4th in NFC North) have absolutely collapsed just one year after arguably their most successful season in recent memory. A year ago, Jim Caldwell and his charges were on their way to putting a bow on an 11-5 year (their most wins since 1991), which culminated in just their second trip to the postseason since 1999. But oh, what a difference a simple 365 days can make, as these Lions are hardly recognizable when compared to their predecessors; Detroit got off to a horrific 1-7 start, which prompted major change in the organization, with not only Offensive Coordinator Joe Lombardi losing his job, but Executive VP of Football Operations and General Manager Martin Mayhew receiving a pink slip as well. Caldwell effectively went from guiding hand to crisis manager overnight, as one would be hard-pressed to think that even he will survive the impending massacre in two weeks, despite the team’s temporary awakening in which they won three consecutive outings after their Bye Week. Those tepid feelings of optimism were cruelly crushed over the past two outings; Aaron Rodgers’ miraculous Hail Mary a week after Thanksgiving stole what could have been the kind of victory that turns a season around, while last weekend’s sluggish performance at St. Louis had all the signs of a hangover from the previous contest’s debilitating defeat. Against the Rams, they simply couldn’t contain Todd Gurley, who cut through their defense like a hot knife through butter on his way to 140 yards and a pair of touchdowns on just sixteen carries. However, even with the hosts’ 203 rushing yards on the day, the visiting side still owned a healthy 33:50 advantage in terms of Time of Possession, along with a plus-1 advantage in Turnover Differential. Hell, they even managed to rush for 111 yards on twenty carries (their second-highest total this season). So just how in the hell did the Lions find a way to lose against a team that had previously lost five games in a row, you ask? Detroit was a dreadful 5-of-13 (38.5%) on Third Down, along with 0-for-1 on Fourth Down, while Quarterback Matthew Stafford was pressured relentlessly (4 sacks), and saw his Second Quarter interception returned fifty-eight yards by Rams’ Cornerback Trumaine Johnson for a touchdown. It was a microcosm of their season thus far, for even with the game well within their grasp, Stafford and Co. simply couldn’t make enough plays to enjoy success.
It’s been a case of hustling backwards all year in Detroit, no doubt making this winter seem all the more colder. Last year’s success was significant because the Lions finally looked like a team that had figured it out, after years of being a very flawed group; they were solid on both sides of the ball, while Caldwell did a stellar job of fine-tuning the offense, Defensive Coordinator Teryl Austin galvanized the defense. Now, they’re a pale imitation of both. Offensively, the Lions have lost their bite; after ranking among the league’s most explosive units for four years, Caldwell has since presided over an offense that has slumped to 20.5 points per game (23rd Overall) on 357.0 total yards (23rd Overall), including a 277.7 yards through the air (9th Overall) and a league-worst 79.3 on the ground (32nd Overall). Balance was one of their biggest keys to success in 2014, but now it must seem like an abstract concept. During their 1-7 start, the Lions had mustered a scant 69.6 rushing yards, with that figure being inflated by a 155-yard outburst in their lone win (37-34 in overtime over Chicago) during that stretch. Take that performance out of the equation and you have a unit that had averaged just 57.4 rushing yards on the ground!!! Seriously, that’s a day’s work for a lot of players in this league…Rookie Tailback Ameer Abdullah has failed to provide any spark in the running game, while Theo Riddick has proven far more effective in the passing game, and Joique Bell has fell out favor with the Coaching Staff, which has all led to a dangerously one-dimensional attack that has struggled mightily to sustain drives. Everyone knows Matthew Stafford is throwing the football, especially opposing defenses, evidenced by their 531 passing attempts, fifth-most in the NFL. However, the explosive plays that used to be this team’s hallmark have all but vanished. Indeed, the well has run dry in Detroit, as the passing game is averaging a mere 6.0 net yards per attempt (23rd Overall), which continues their steep decline in that category over the past few years; back in 2013, the Lions averaged a robust 6.8 net yards per attempt (8th Overall), but saw that figure drop to 6.2 net yards (19th Overall) upon Caldwell’s arrival a year later. For his efforts, Stafford has done the best he can given what he’s had to work with; the 27-year old has completed 65.0% of his passes for 3,409 yards (6.9 y/a), twenty-four touchdowns and thirteen interceptions, but has been sacked thirty-five times, and pressured, hit, and knocked down countless others. To say that his protection has been inept would be kind, as Detroit’s Offensive Line, which has long been an issue, appears to have completely bottomed out in 2015. Riley Rieff has resembled a turnstile at Left Tackle, while Michael Ola and Cornelius Lucas are in over their heads on the opposite flank, with neither providing much push in the trenches. As a result, Stafford has had to dink and dunk far more than he’s accustomed to, effectively neutering his connection downfield with one Calvin Johnson; Megatron, as he’s often referred to, has seen his production decline significantly over the last few years since his record-setting 122-reception, 1,964-yard performance in 2012. Since that campaign, his receptions per game (5.5), yards per game (75.5), and yards per reception (13.8) have fallen with each passing term. In fact, that particular trinity of statistics are his lowest since 2010 (a lingering ankle injury certainly hasn’t helped). And would you like to know how he fared last weekend at St. Louis? He had exactly ONE catch for SIXTEEN yards (WTF?!?!?!?!?!). Now we’re far from experts on the matter, but we feel like if in fact the Lions are going to find some measure of success tonight, it’ll be taking some shots down the field to this guy, for this has always been an offense that has built itself from the outside in, unlike many of their contemporaries; basically, they use the deep ball to open up the short to intermediate passing game, along with the rushing attack. Given their opponent tonight whose own problems dwarf their own, they should have plenty of opportunities…
Meanwhile, the Lions aren’t the only team heading towards an Offseason of sweeping change, for their opponent tonight, the Saints (5-8, 4th in NFC South) look to be set on the same course. In truth, change began back in the Spring, when Management was forced to part ways with a number of high-priced players (most notably Jimmy Graham) in order to shed enough salary to get underneath the Salary Cap. As a result, a mediocre defense got worse, while one of the most high-powered offensive attacks in the league sustained what can only be described as body blows. As November began, New Orleans was 4-4, and still very much in the hunt for a Wild Card in the competitive NFC, only to be crushed by a miserable four-game losing streak that will ultimately keep them out of the postseason for the third time in four years. The defense, which has been terrible all year, really fell apart during that stretch; Head Coach Sean Payton saw his defense allow an average of 36.5 points on a staggering 463.0 yards of offense in that time, leading to the dismissal of maligned Defensive Coordinator Rob Ryan, and replacing him with Senior Defensive Assistant Dennis Allen. In the former Oakland skipper’s first foray into calling the defensive plays, his charges were just another casualty of the Panthers’ undefeated juggernaut, yielding forty-one points on 497 total yards in a 41-38 defeat. And they even forced three turnovers on that day!!!! However, things turned around dramatically last weekend at Tampa Bay, where the visitors avenged an earlier loss to the Buccaneers, besting the hosts 24-17. And for the first time this season, the defense was the key to victory; Allen’s unit held an emerging young offense to season-lows in points (17), total yards (291), and passing yards (176). In fact, last Sunday’s performance marked the first time since December 15th of 2014 that the Saints managed to relegate an opponent below twenty points and 300 yards in the same game, which is indeed a positive sign for a unit that has had very precious little this year. Is it a case of too little, to late for New Orleans, or could it be a sign of things to come?
The biggest question surrounding this team is the future of Payton, who according to reports could very well be done in New Orleans. It’s disheartening news for many of the faithful down in Louisiana, for he along with Quarterback Drew Brees served as the catalyst for a franchise that after years of mediocrity were literally picking up the pieces after the horror of Hurricane Katrina in 2005. Regarded as arguably the most brilliant offensive mind in the game, Payton’s track record in the Big Easy speaks for itself; in ten years on the job, he has led his team to an 85-56 record (.603), along with three NFC South Titles, four trips to the Playoffs, and their crowning achievement, the franchise’s first Super Bowl Championship in 2009. However, the last four years have been difficult, with the Saints going 30-31 (.492) during that span, which was stained by the disappointing Bountygate controversy that led to his season-long suspension in 2012. Now, with uncertainty and change on the horizon in the Front Office, Payton could exercise an escape clause in his contract, which would be activated in the event of a change in ownership, which is becoming a growing possibility. Think Bill Parcells back in New England circa 1997. At the very least, teams looking for a Head Coach (and there will be many of them) will in all likelihood approach the Saints with offers of compensation for hiring him, effectively negotiating a trade. Remember when the Buccaneers acquired Jon Gruden back in 2002 for a cache of draft picks and money? Given the state of the team, the prevailing opinion around the league is that Payton has taken this franchise as far as he can, with an inevitable hard reset waiting in the wings. That could also mean the departure of Brees, who has been arguably the most prolific Quarterback in the league since uniting with Payton in 2006; the nine-time Pro Bowler has thrown for a whopping 47,479 yards since arriving in New Orleans ten years ago, the most of any player in that span, while also tossing a total of 341 touchdowns. This season, he has fought through the loss of so many weapons, and an ailing shoulder to keep this offense together, completing 67.8% of his passes for 3,794 yards (7.6 y/a), twenty-five touchdowns and eleven interceptions, all the while posting a stellar QBR of 70.15. With that said, at 36-years of age, Management could be willing to move on from Brees before his play begins to drop off, particularly given his $23.8 million cap hit this season and the $30 million that awaits him next year, the final of his initial 5-year $100 million contract extension that he inked back in 2012. As stated earlier, No. 9’s salary was a huge reason why New Orleans was nearly $30 million over the Salary Cap back in March, leading to the exodus of players on both sides of the ball. By trading him (and perhaps Payton in a package deal), the Front Office would be giving whomever arrives afterward some real capitol to work with. And it’s a safe bet that whomever the lucky guy is that takes this job will have a significant defensive background; apart from their success against Tampa Bay last weekend, New Orleans has been absolutely dreadful on this side of the ball, allowing a league-worst 30.5 points (32nd Overall) on 414.9 total yards (31st Overall), including 278.8 yards through the air (30th Overall) on 7.7 net yards per attempt (32nd Overall), along with 136.1 yards on the ground (32nd Overall) on 5.0 yards per carry (32nd Overall). Furthermore, they’ve permitted the most passing touchdowns in the league (36), while also proving to be very undisciplined, racking up a staggering fifty-one First Downs by Penalty, by far and away the most in the NFL.