The Detroit Lions conclude the first quarter of their season later today as they host the New Orleans Saints at Ford Field. Detroit's looking for a 2-2 split to open their season to head to their Week 5 bye feeling good and getting a chance to rest up for the second quarter of their season.
The Saints are coming off two straight losses and looking for a key road win.
Here are five things to watch out for in today's game:
SAINTS WITHOUT THOMAS
Wide receiver Michael Thomas, the reigning offensive player of the year, did not play in either of New Orleans' last two games due to an ankle injury, losses to Oakland and Green Bay. He will not play today in Detroit, either. He was ruled out along with five other starters – tight end Jared Cook, defensive end Marcus Davenport, cornerback Janoris Jenkins, cornerback Marshon Lattimore and guard Andrus Peat – Friday by the Saints.
Thomas led the NFL last year with 149 receptions and 1,725 yards with nine touchdowns. The Saints' offense has missed his production the last couple games.
Thomas is a tough, physical receiver with big-play potential as a runner after the catch. He's been Drew Brees' go-to receiver in critical situations on third down and in the red zone. The Saints' offense looks a lot different with him than it does without him.
Brees' intended air yards per pass attempt is just 4.6 yards so far this season, which is the lowest of his career. Not having Thomas the last two weeks certainly plays a factor in that number.
The Lions could get veteran cornerback Desmond Trufant back in the lineup today after he missed their last two games with a hamstring injury.
If Trufant is active and able to play, it will be interesting to see how the Lions divvy up reps between him, second-year cornerback Amani Oruwariye (who's played pretty well the first three games) and rookie Jeff Okudah, who had the first interception of his career last week in Arizona and has been trending in the right direction in terms of week-to-week improvement.
Could the Lions be cautious with Trufant and play him sparingly, choosing to stay with Oruwariye and Okudah outside? Will Okudah see a reduced role? Could one of the trio potentially slide inside to the nickel?
Without Thomas the last couple weeks, the Saints' passing attack has leaned heavily on running back Alvin Kamara. He caught nine passes for 95 yards against Oakland Week 2 and hauled in 13 grabs for 139 yards and two scores last week vs. Green Bay.
As those stats suggest, Kamara is a terrific receiving threat out of the backfield for the Saints' offense. He's an elusive and explosive runner after the catch. Detroit's defense has to know where he is at all times and do a good job getting him on the ground in space after the catch.
HOCKENSON AND TE PRODUCTION
New Orleans has given up 29 receptions for 200 yards and four touchdowns to opposing tight ends this season. Oakland's Darren Waller caught 12 passes for 105 yards and a touchdown in the Raiders' Week 2 win over New Orleans. The Saints have allowed a touchdown catch by an opposing tight end in every game this season.
Lions second-year tight end T.J. Hockenson is off to a fine start this season. The Lions have utilized his size, speed and physicality to get them into some nice mismatches. Hockenson's caught at least four passes for 50-plus yards in all three of Detroit's contests this season.
It was good to see veteran Jesse James also get involved last week with a touchdown grab. Detroit could potentially have the services of rookie tight end Hunter Bryant today as well. He returned to practice this week after missing the first three games with a hamstring injury. He was listed as questionable on Detroit's injury report.
Detroit's tight ends could play a big factor in the outcome today.
RED ZONE EFFICIENCY
It's been a big topic in Detroit this week and a point of emphasis for offensive coordinator Darrell Bevell and quarterback Matthew Stafford. The Lions were just 2-of-5 scoring touchdowns in the red zone last week in Arizona and are just 6-of-13 on the year. They rank 27th in that department heading into today.
Bevell said their shortfalls inside the 20-yard line so far are due to a combination of execution and play calling. Stafford put more of the onus on the execution by the players.
Whatever the problems have been, Detroit can't consistently turn down four extra points on the scoreboard when they get down there and expect to go on a run. The Saints can score points, even without Thomas, and Detroit has to take better advantage of their opportunity to score touchdowns in the red zone.