The 8-3 Patriots will take on the 2-9 Lions this Sunday afternoon at home in Gillette Stadium. Here are five things the Pats will need to do if they want to beat Detroit:
Put a lid on Roy Williams
Texas born and bred, Roy Williams may be one of the most athletic receivers in the NFL. He's the second-best receiver in the NFL based on receiving yardage, and is currently leading the NFC in that category. He draws the double-team frequently, and whether the Patriots do that or not, quarterback Jon Kitna will likely be trying to hit him on long passes. The Patriots secondary did a good job of staying with the Bears deep-threat receivers last week, but two interference penalties nearly brought Chicago back into the game. If the Lions base their attack on last week's game film, they could be sending Williams, who averages 16.6 yards per carry, down the sidelines to try and draw penalties and give him a chance to fight for the ball. Injuries have plagued the secondary this season, but they have held together nicely. They'll need to keep Williams covered up early in the game and force Kitna to spread the ball around, because if Williams heats up, he could be the biggest single-player-headache the Pats have had all season.
Maintain "ball security"
With the Patriots turning the football over five times in last week's Bears game, the phrase "ball security," has been flying around the Pats locker room all week. The team's turnover differential has dropped to plus-1, and they've had a negative turnover ratio in five games already this season. Granted, they won three of those games, including last weekend against the Bears. Receiver Reche Caldwell said Friday that he thinks attention to detail is what makes the Patriots great, and turnovers are exactly the kind of details he was talking about. Running back Heath Evans summed up the offense's feeling about turnovers this week by offering up an anecdote from his senior year in high school when he was visiting his now-alma mater, Auburn University. On a recruiting trip, he walked into running backs coach Rodney Allison's office, and written on the coach's board was the line: "Better off to die as a small child than fumble the football." In talking to running back Kevin Faulk, it's easy to come to the conclusion that fumbles happen and players shouldn't dwell on mistakes too much. Period. But those sorts of errors can't be carried into the postseason. The Patriots need to keep their hands on the football, and ensure team-wide confidence in ball carriers this week.
Improve coverage on special teams
Wideout Eddie Drummond handles the kick and punt return duties for the Lions, and coach Bill Belichick said this week "We've obviously had some trouble with our coverage teams in previous weeks. When you run into a good returner, everyone has to do a good job. One breakdown and [Drummond] is through there." The Patriots coverage units started off strong this season, but haven't been able to maintain that level of play. The Lions currently rank third in the NFL in punt return average. Newly acquired punter Ken Walter kept Bears return man Devin Hester from showcasing his dangerous ability by forcing him to fair catch two punts last week. Drummond is averaging 8.9 yards-per punt return, and if he can provide good field position the Lions could score quickly with passes to receivers Williams and Mike Furrey. If the Pats want to keep the Lions out of this game, they're going to have to stay in position in the return game and keep Drummond from breaking any runs.
Communicate on defense
Linebacker Junior Seau is done for the season with a lower arm injury, and the linebacking corps is going through some restructuring right now. Tully Banta-Cain often plays in third-down sub packages, and is obviously the next 'backer in line to take over a full time starting role. But his participation is limited to the outside linebacker position, meaning that Mike Vrabel is moving from outside to inside. To further complicate things, Rosevelt Colvin moved from right to left outside linebacker when Banta-Cain came in during the Bears game after Seau was injured. These guys are all capable of making this package work, but they'll need to keep communication flowing among them and with the defensive linemen in front of them. They've been practicing this package all season long, and were able to make it work against the Bears. But while they're getting settled in their new roles, they'll need to keep each other aware of what's happening.
Shut 'em down early
The Lions are 2-9, and in the NFL, the end results are the bottom line. However, coach Belichick said this week that he can see the Lions improving on film. They may be out of the playoff hunt already, but they are hungry for a win. The Patriots have a chance to dominate the game, but they'll need to convince the Lions of that first. Letting Detroit into this game could make them believe that they belong in it, while shutting them down early will likely take the wind out of their sails. The Patriots haven't been perfectly consistent this season, especially at home. They beat the Bears, which is an undeniable accomplishment, but getting embarrassed by a team with two wins would be terrible for them. Taking them out of the game early will help the team settle into a groove and demonstrate consistency, which often translates into postseason confidence.
The Patriots held practice on the game field at Gillette Stadium again today, wearing shorts, helmets and shells. … Safety Eugene Wilson was present for the portion of practice available to the media for the first time this week, while tackle Ryan O'Callaghan and safety Rodney Harrison have not been seen practicing all week long. … The quarterbacks were wearing white jerseys again today, rather than their non-contact red ones. … Punter Ken Walter has gotten his locker organized now that he's been here a week and the entire bottom portion of it is filled with candy. … Look for a roster addition to be made before the Lions game, as the Patriots are still a player short on their active roster with Seau placed on IR.