Even in the very unlikely scenario that sees the NFL reverse Ndamukong Suh’s suspension upon appeal, the Detroit Lions are going to need all hands on deck Sunday night to pull off a huge upset win in New Orleans.
Believe it or not, Suh’s probable absence from the lineup Sunday might not even be the Lions’ biggest issue. Rather, it’s in the defensive secondary, where dynamic starting safety Louis Delmas will be missing because of a knee injury suffered last week against the Packers.
That leaves Chris Harris, signed just a few weeks ago, to start against arguably the NFL’s best passing attack. One problem there: Harris hasn’t been practicing either — he suffered a knee injury of his own against Green Bay.
New Orleans’ offense tests opposing defenses in just about every way possible — on the ground with Mark Ingram and Pierre Thomas, in the short passing game with Darren Sproles and by stretching the field with a plethora of wide receivers plus outstanding tight end Jimmy Graham.
How the Lions decide to use Harris — or, if he can’t go, likely John Wendling — could be a key element.
Even without Suh in the lineup, the Lions could still be OK up front. Corey Williams and Sammie Lee Hill probably would draw the starts at the two defensive tackle positions, with Nick Fairley and Andre Fluellen ready to lend support. Detroit’s defensive tackle position, thanks to the draft selections of Suh and Fairley over the past two years, might be its deepest spot on the field.
It’s tough to generate pressure on Drew Brees, regardless of personnel, due to the Saints’ quickfire offense — Brees rarely plants himself in the pocket; most of New Orleans’ passing routes are fast, timing patterns.
But part of why Detroit was able to shut down the Packers in the first half on Thanksgiving Day was that the Lions got some pressure on Aaron Rodgers with their initial push. That’s really the only hope they have of getting to Brees, too. Losing Suh takes away one weapon there, but far from eliminates any chance the Lions have.
How Hill responds in his first start since 2009 or how Fairley does in his first start ever could be the keys up front.
It’s easier to be skeptical about Harris deep. Cut by the Bears midway through this season, Harris has just eight tackles and two pass break-ups in 2011 (though he has picked off two passes).
This won’t be an easy initiation into the Detroit starting lineup, either. Whether the Lions opt to use Harris over the top, to try to prevent the Saints from getting deep, or as a drop-down coverage man on Graham or another receiver, he’ll have his hands full.
This game doesn’t come down to Detroit having or not having Suh. For the Lions to find a way to win, they’ll need some big performances from a few relatively unknown quantities.