With the suspension of Ndamukong Suh, the Detroit Lions are down one starting interior lineman. With injuries to Louis Delmas, Chris Houston and Brandon McDonald, the Lions may be down two starters and one contributor in the secondary. Now, they face the No. 1 passing offense in the NFL: Drew Brees and the New Orleans Saints.
How can the Lions hope to slow down the lightning-fast Saints without their best interior pass rusher and a banged-up secondary? The answer may lie in a package the Lions deployed on Thanksgiving: the 3-3-5 nickel.
The Lions have used this formation a few times before, most extensively in their first win under Jim Schwartz. Gunther Cunningham’s talk about it during his first minicamp as Lions DC helped fuel speculation the Lions would run a base 3-4. Here's how it looks:
The four square boxes are the three nickel cornerbacks, along with safety Amari Spievey. They're playing tight man-to-man coverage on the three Packers wideouts, as well as tight end Jermichael Finley. Louis Delmas is playing one-high zone, lined up deep off camera.
Kyle Vanden Bosch stays put at right defensive end, but 330-pound Sammie Hill is in at the zero-technique nose tackle. Suh is playing LDE. Behind them are the Lions' base linebackers: MLB Stephen Tulloch, and OLBs DeAndre Levy and Justin Durant.
The down and distance here is 3rd-and-3, so the Lions are trying to force a quick incompletion. Let's watch what happens:
The Lions blitz all three linebackers, bringing a total of six rushers. The Packers send Finley out but keep RB John Kuhn in to block, for a total of six blockers. The Packers do establish a pocket, but QB Aaron Rodgers knows he doesn't have all day. He throws the short out to Greg Jennings, and the tight coverage forces him to lead Jennings to the sideline rather than downfield. Even if Jennings had been able to keep his feet, Eric Wright was there to help prevent the first down.
This is a very aggressive play call, but it's perfect for the situation, and would be effective against the Saints' many multi-WR sets.
In different situations, the Lions could blitz two, one or none; this would allow for a variety of zone and man-coverage packages. Defensive coordinator Gunther Cunningham could also do some clever stuff with safety and zone blitzes. By platooning Durant (an outstanding run stopper) with Bobby Carpenter (much better in coverage), the Lions could further tailor this package to suit non-nickel situations.
The onus would be on the defensive line to continue to bring pressure and maintain outside run containment, but the Lions' depth will help them there. Sammie Hill and Corey Williams could platoon at the two-gap nose tackle spot, with DTs Nick Fairley and Andre Fluellen at left end. Vanden Bosch and Cliff Avril could platoon at RDE, though asking Avril to fill two run lanes might be asking too much.
Running the 3-3-5 for 40 or 50 snaps would give Brees time to figure out the looks and attack the deep coverage, especially if the Lions need to blitz two or more players to get pressure.
But, if the Lions are to have a chance, they'll need to avoid what happened the last time they went to the Superdome at all costs: two Saints touchdowns in the first few minutes, leading to a 47-25 blowout. Running a lot of 3-3-5 early, with a lot of blitzing and confusion, could keep the Saints off-balance enough to give Matthew Stafford—and the Lions—a chance.