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Scouting the Eagles-Lions game

When the Eagles started their three-game home stand on Nov. 17, they were a .500 team buoyed by two strong performances. They close it on Sunday against the Detroit Lions as one of the NFL's hottest teams, with Nick Foles now the undisputed starting quarterback and a defense that continues to impress.

The Eagles warm up before their game against the Lions. (Michael Perez/AP)
The Eagles warm up before their game against the Lions. (Michael Perez/AP)Read more

When the Eagles started their three-game home stand on Nov. 17, they were a .500 team buoyed by two strong performances. They close it on Sunday against the Detroit Lions as one of the NFL's hottest teams, with Nick Foles now the undisputed starting quarterback and a defense that continues to impress.

During the four-game winning streak, the defense has limited opponents to 17.5 points per game. The offense is scoring 31 points per game. The defense has forced 10 turnovers. The offense has committed just one turnover. The benefit has been advantageous field position. In the last four games, the Eagles' average starting field position is their 30.5-yard line. The opposing offense is starting at its 21.25-yard line.

All of these point to a smart, efficient team, which has been a staple of coach Chip Kelly's first season in Philadelphia. A win on Sunday would ensure a least a .500 season. More important, it would continue to keep the Eagles in serious playoff contention.

One factor will be how the game is affected by the weather - a wintry mix is expected to arrive around halftime. The Eagles have not played in bad conditions, and the Lions play most of their games in a dome.

When the Eagles run

The Eagles will face a top rushing defense for the second consecutive week. That did not hinder them last week, when LeSean McCoy averaged 4.2 yards per carry. That average would have been higher if not for a penalty downfield on a long run.

When McCoy watched film of the Lions this past week, he noticed the splits of Detroit's wide-nine defensive line, creating natural rushing lanes. He also noticed the outstanding play of defensive tackles Ndamukong Suh and Nick Fairley, who can dominate the interior. That's why there is an onus on guards Evan Mathis and Todd Herremans, along with center Jason Kelce. They need to find a way to neutralize Suh and Fairley, who help the Lions rank as the NFL's No. 3 overall rushing defense. The Lions also have an impressive group of linebackers, highlighted by Stephen Tulloch and DeAndre Levy. This wide-nine won't look as overmatched as the unit the Eagles sometimes unleashed during the last two seasons.

Lions coach Jim Schwartz said opposing defenses are still focusing on stopping McCoy. McCoy said that with the way Nick Foles is playing, defenses must worry about the passing game now. But look for the Lions to try to keep McCoy in check.


When the Eagles pass

This could be a major advantage on Sunday. Detroit has the No. 26 passing defense in the NFL. Whereas last week the Eagles thought they'd have a mismatch at tight end, this week's mismatch could be in the deep passing game. Look for DeSean Jackson to star against a Lions secondary that may be missing rookie Darius Slay, who is doubtful with a knee injury. The Lions have allowed 13 passing plays of 40 or more yards, which is tied for third most in the NFL this season. The Eagles have 16 passing plays of 40 or more yards, and Jackson is a big reason. The Eagles can also get Riley Cooper involved in the deep passing game, too.

Another element of the passing offense to watch on Sunday is the screen game. The Eagles have been an effective screen team this season. With the way the Lions rush the passer, the Eagles can set up screen plays. Look for LeSean McCoy to be a factor catching the ball out of the backfield, and the Eagles to use their tight ends on screens, too.

Nick Foles has not thrown an interception this season, and needs two touchdowns without an interception to break Peyton Manning's record. Lions linebacker DeAndre Levy leads the NFL with six interceptions.

The Lions have only 27 sacks this season, although rookie defensive end Ziggy Ansah continues to improve and has four sacks in his last two games.


When the Lions run

The Lions pass the ball more than any team in the NFL, but that doesn't mean they can't run the ball. Reggie Bush has emerged as a dangerous rushing threat, with 854 yards this season and 4.7 yards per carry. Bush is questionable with a calf injury. If he's not on the field, the Lions' rushing attack won't be the same. They would turn to former Eagle Joique Bell, who is averaging 4.1 yards per carry.

The Lions have a strong run-blocking offensive line. They're especially effective running behind left tackle Riley Reiff and right guard Larry Warford. Bush averages 9.1 yards per carry running behind the left tackle and the left guard, according to Pro Football Focus. That's the spot of the line that defensive end Fletcher Cox occupies.

The Eagles have defended the run well for most of the season and have the No. 19 rushing defense in the NFL. The defensive line is a big reason, but DeMeco Ryans continues to be a strong tackler, and the addition of Mychal Kendricks also helps. Bush's health could determine whether the Eagles have the edge in this matchup.


When the Lions pass

For the second consecutive week, the Eagles pass defense faces a difficult test. Lions receiver Calvin Johnson is the NFL's best receiver, and quarterback Matthew Stafford is known for his strong arm and quick release. The Lions' 41.7 passing attempts per game are the second most in the NFL, so you know Stafford will sling it. Johnson, who is 6-foot-5 and 236 pounds with elite speed and jumping ability, already has 72 catches, 1,299 yards, and 12 touchdowns this season. His 132 targets nearly doubles the Lions receiver with the next highest total. And Stafford trusts Johnson, so he'll throw to him in double coverage and let Johnson make a play on the ball in the air.

The Eagles will rely on the physicality of their cornerbacks - both Cary Williams and Bradley Fletcher will spend time on Johnson - but they can also try double teams and playing physical with Johnson at the line of scrimmage. The Eagles have shown a look that includes linebacker Connor Barwin outside to bump a receiver before the cornerback picks him up in coverage.

Detroit is especially tough in the red zone, where Stafford has thrown 19 touchdowns. Eight are to Johnson. Five are to rookie tight end Joseph Fauria, who is 6-foot-7. Two are to Kris Durham, who is 6-foot-6, with two more to 6-foot-5 tight end Brandon Pettigrew. That size allows the Lions to play what coach Jim Schwartz termed low-post basketball.

Reggie Bush and Joique Bell are also dangerous catching out of the backfield, showing why this is such a devastating passing offense.

Stafford has been sacked only 15 times this season, but that's an indication of not only his blocking. It also speaks to Stafford's quick release, and the fact that teams are less likely to blitz with all the players who must be covered.


Special teams

The Lions rely on former Eagles kicker David Akers, who has missed three of his last eight field goal tries. They made a change in returner in recent weeks, going with Jeremy Ross instead of Micheal Spurlock. The Eagles' special teams have been thriving. Punter Donnie Jones was named NFC special teams player of the week for the second consecutive game, and DeSean Jackson had a punt return for a score that was nullified because of a penalty last week. Brad Smith can continue to see more time as kick returner.



The Eagles are among the NFL's hottest teams. The Lions played on Thanksgiving and are playing on three more days of rest. Lions assistant Jim Washburn had an ugly divorce from the Eagles, and he's likely looking forward to his return. The biggest intangible in this game might be how the teams react to the bad weather.