Scouting report: Saints need to turn up the heat on Lions QB Matthew Stafford

Based on initial expectations, the Saints have not done a good job of making quarterbacks uncomfortable this season.

That could end this week.

The Lions have allowed 21 sacks, third-most in the NFL, which means New Orleans should have plenty of opportunities to get after Matthew Stafford and end the slump this week. If that sounds like good news, it gets even better: Stafford has struggled with the defense in his face.

He has faced pressure on 74 plays this season, according to Pro Football Focus, and has completed 32 percent of his passes with an interception. But it appears the key to beating Stafford is getting after him with a standard four-man rush. When blitzed this season, he has completed 68.6 percent of his passes. Conversely, Stafford has thrown three interceptions when given a clean pocket.

Those turnover numbers are actually down from previous seasons. While it could be a result of injuries or a lack of time in the pocket, the Lions appear to be taking a more cautious approach on offense.

Short and intermediate throws are now in. The shots down the field aren’t gone, but they are fewer. After attempting an average of 4.8 passes that traveled 20 or more yards through the air last season, Stafford is attempting 3.8 per contest this season.

All of that could change quickly this week if Calvin Johnson returns from a high ankle sprain and looks like himself, but it at least appears things are trending toward a more conservative approach through Detroit’s first six games.

Still, it appears there could be opportunities for the Saints to end their sack/turnover drought. And it starts with a front seven that has struggled to create consistent pressure.

If New Orleans can get Stafford off his spot and get him rattled, mistakes will be made. And if mistakes are made, that typically equates to opportunities to create turnovers.

But if the Saints fail in this regard, the Lions have the weapons to make this a long, hard day on the defense.

Know your opponent

If the Saints offensive line endures the same struggles it had against Tampa Bay, Drew Brees could be in for a long day against the Lions defensive line.

Ndamukong Suh, Ezekiel Ansah, Nick Fairley, C.J. Mosley, Jason Jones — take your pick. All of the Lions’ defensive linemen know how to get after the quarterback. Detroit has combined for 20 sacks and 88 pressures, according to Pro Football Focus. For reference, the Saints have five sacks and 78 pressures.

This Lions team knows how to make things uncomfortable on quarterbacks and has used those opportunities to their advantage, recording seven interceptions.

In other words, Brees is going to have to be smart with the football. He threw two picks against Tampa Bay while trying to avoid sacks. If he makes the same errors this week, he could find himself in trouble.

This is a Detroit team that has won four games by taking advantage of uncomfortable QBs, forcing offenses into mistakes and then protecting the ball.

So while the Detroit offensive line has had its own issues, the Lions are making their bones by creating the same issues for the opposition.

Three and out

1. Life without Jimmy

The New Orleans offense may have to find a way to adapt without its all-world tight end on the field. If he can’t play, there’s no question that losing Jimmy Graham would be a major blow to this offense. The question is whether the Saints can patch it up well enough to avoid disaster.

2. Ingram’s back

Running back Mark Ingram is expected to return after being sidelined the past few weeks with a hand injury. While he was missing, Khiry Robinson built some momentum and kept the chains moving. Will Ingram, who was averaging 6.0 yards per carry, be able to pick up where he left off?

3. Turnovers needed

This one will stay here until the Saints start recording turnovers with some consistency. Patrick Robinson’s interception against Tampa Bay was nice, but it wasn’t nearly enough to take this off the list of concerns. A few more takeaways are needed before that can happen.

Injury report

SAINTS

OUT: LB Ramon Humber (ankle), LB Kyle Knox (ankle)

-- Both missed practice all week.

QUESTIONABLE: TE Jimmy Graham (shoulder), CB Patrick Robinson (hamstring)

-- Graham and Robinson hurt themselves in the Saints’ 37-31 overtime win against Tampa Bay at home Oct. 5. Graham missed work Wednesday but was officially limited in Thursday and Friday practice. If he plays, expect the Saints to carefully pick which spots to utilize him in.

PROBABLE: C Jonathan Goodwin (knee), RB Mark Ingram (hand), FB Erik Lorig (ankle), LB Ronald Powell (sick), RB Pierre Thomas (sick), CB Keenan Lewis (toe)

-- It’d be surprising if any were held out. Lorig is set to make his Saints debut, and Ingram’s back after being out since Week 2.

LIONS

OUT: TE Joseph Fauria (ankle), LB Travis Lewis (quad)

DOUBTFUL: RB Theo Riddick (hamstring), TE Eric Ebron (hamstring)

QUESTIONABLE: WR Calvin Johnson (ankle)

PROBABLE: DE Ziggy Ansah (toe), WR Jeremy Ross (ankle), RB Reggie Bush (ankle)

Predictions

Ramon Antonio Vargas: Lions 28, Saints 24

A Saints team that has lost eight of its past nine regular-season road games dating to last year and that is struggling to protect and take away the football won’t survive at the home of the best defense in the NFL, a unit allowing the fewest points, passing yards and total yards in the league while recording the most sacks. Brace for a disappointing day, folks.

Nick Underhill: Saints 31, Lions 28

The road woes have to end, right? I don’t buy that there’s something weird preventing this team from winning on the road. Good football travels well, and I believe Sean Payton and his brain trust spent the open week diagnosing all that ails this team. They get it together this week.

Scott Rabalais: Lions 26, Saints 23

Hopefully for their sake, the Saints are well-rested, because this game is the start of one brutal midseason stretch. Both teams are missing some key offensive pieces, and the Lions always appear to be a vulnerable team. But New Orleans’ road woes are too significant to be ignored. The Saints fight but come home with another frustrating defeat.