Upset Special: Lions can knock off Cowboys

Can Calvin Johnson and the Lions upset the Dallas Cowboys Sunday? Sure. Here's how. (Leon Halip/Getty)

No game is as simple as it looks on paper in the NFL, especially in the playoffs. Favourites are often built up as invincible, but underdogs are always looking for a chance to jump up and bite them. Each week during the playoffs we’ll take an X’s and O’s look at what one Vegas underdog needs to do in order to pull off a stunning win.

For Wild Card Weekend let’s examine three tactics the Lions–Detroit is the largest underdog this weekend, at anywhere from 6.5 to 8 points–could use to record a victory in the playoffs for the first time since 1991.

Minimizing Murray

Detroit’s number one priority on defence has to be slowing down the NFL’s rushing champion, DeMarco Murray.

Throughout the regular season Dallas’ dynamic back ran behind a tough group of offensive lineman that could execute the Cowboys favourite zone running play in their sleep. Murray will take zone handoffs out of all sorts of different formations as Dallas always looks to create eye candy for the opposition defence. But the Cowboys zone principles remain the same regardless, and that makes it easier for them to have success.

There are a few key factors that could help Detroit’s efforts towards minimizing Murray’s impact. The Lions defence as a whole needs to flow to the football and maintain gap responsibilities–Murray can turn a small seam into a big gain in an instant. Detroit’s defensive line needs to play at a high level on every snap. If a zone run is called to their side, defensive ends Jason Jones and Ziggy Ansah must set the edge at the point of attack and force Murray up inside to the rest of the pursuing tacklers. Then Ndamukong Suh has to come up with a strong 60 minutes penetrating into the Cowboys offensive backfield in order to cut down Murray’s hole-choosing time. That combination–and it’s a run-stopping plan that’s worked at near historic levels for Detroit this season–can help the Lions bottle up No. 28.

Double Dez

Dez Bryant is the one and only matchup nightmare in the passing game on the Cowboys offence. Therefore Detroit must allocate extra resources and not allow Bryant to see straight man-to-man coverage. The Lions can mix up the way they use multiple defenders to cover Bryant, but there needs to be two men in the secondary with No. 88 top of mind at all times.

The Lions cornerbacks are not superstars, but Rashean Mathis is Detroit’s most experienced and physical cover man. So it would make sense for Mathis to follow Bryant around the field no matter where he lines up. And the Lions’ 12-year veteran should use different pre-snap looks to keep Bryant guessing: get up in press, play off, show zone and man stances or anything in between. All of those techniques could be used by Mathis with the knowledge that safety help is always behind him.

That help should come in the form of Glover Quin. He has shown the ability to cover a lot of ground from his free safety position this season and has made impact plays in the process. Quin registered an NFL-leading seven interceptions during the regular season.

Whether it is the combination of Mathis and Quin or another pair in the Detroit secondary, two cover men should be assigned to bracketing Bryant and taking him out of the game.

Decision-making, footwork crucial for Stafford

It’s time for the first overall pick in the 2009 NFL Draft to prove he was worth the selection and win his first playoff game. There are no excuses left for Matthew Stafford. He has a stout defence, a solid offensive line, multitalented running backs in Joique Bell and Reggie Bush and a top tier receiving duo in Calvin Johnson and Golden Tate.

If the defence can do its job, the Lions potential upset will hinge on how well Stafford plays. At times No. 9 can look like an elite NFL quarterback when he’s seeing the field clearly and stepping through his throws. But way too often Stafford’s poor reads and sloppy mechanics below the waist lead to his and the Lions’ demise.

If Stafford is identifying single coverage matchups and appropriate holes in zones when throwing the football against a suspect Cowboys secondary it will bode well for Detroit. And what goes hand in hand with that is Stafford utilizing proper footwork when delivering the football–stepping through his throws instead of throwing off his back foot or falling away. Too often, Stafford relies on his arm to try and fit the ball into tight spots despite bad footwork.

If Stafford is making smart reads and on balance throws it would go a long way towards the Lions going down to big ‘D’ and getting a win.