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Allen Park — Offensive coordinator Joe Lombardi will exercise caution greeting his former co-workers when the Lions play the New Orleans Saints on Sunday at Ford Field.

"The quarterbacks told me that I get fined for every hug, so I'm going to try to keep those to a minimum, just try to wave and shake hands," Lombardi said Thursday.

Sunday's game will be an entirely new experience for Lombardi. Having spent the past seven years in New Orleans, he'll recognize several players and coaches before the game. His job with the Saints, first as an offensive assistant, then quarterbacks coach, was just his second in the NFL, and he only spent a year with the Atlanta Falcons.

Despite the intimate knowledge of this week's opponent, Lombardi said he doesn't expect to be of much help for the Lions' defense as it prepare to stop a Saints offense ranked second in the NFL averaging 442.8 yards per game.

"When that team breaks a huddle, you don't know what play's coming," he said.

Lombardi will be one of several Lions players and coaches facing his former team Sunday, but his play-calling will take center stage as the offense tries to break out of a recent funk. In the past two games, the Lions have averaged just 264 yards, scored three touchdowns and finished 2-for-24 on third-down conversions.

All-Pro receiver Calvin Johnson will also likely miss his second straight game with a high-ankle sprain, but the Lions should have opportunities to score against a Saints defense ranked 23rd in yards per game (379.6) and 28th in points per game (28.2).

And even though the Lions have the NFL's top-ranked defense, Sunday's game could be a shootout with quarterback Drew Brees leading the Saints, a player who Lombardi said helped advance his coaching career.

"He's obviously an elite player, and I think the more time you spend around him in the meeting room and at practice away from the cameras you understand why," Lombardi said. "I was his coach, but I'm sure I probably learned more from him than he probably learned from me watching how an elite player operates."

Brees, meanwhile, said on a conference call Wednesday that Lombardi played a significant role in the game-planning the last few years, and it became clear he was on track to become a play-caller.

The Lions' offense does have some similarities to the Saints', and Lombardi said seeing those concepts daily in practice should help the defense. Conversely, New Orleans could have a better understanding of what the Lions try to run on offense, but coach Sean Payton said Lombardi has put enough of a twist on the scheme.

"Certainly you see there are some formation and certain designs that, I'm sure, are very similar, and yet, I'm sure Joe is smart enough with that staff to take the personnel they have and put their own twist on it," Payton said.

Lions players said Lombardi is approaching this game like any other, but they know it could have a little more significance.

"I know deep down that he wants to probably win this game a little more than other games," wide receiver Golden Tate said.

And while Lombardi will greet the players and coaches with whom he spent the past seven years before the game, he doesn't expect it to be too emotional.

"I'm not really sentimental that way," he said. "Obviously it's a little bit different because you spent seven years with that group and I know a lot of the coaches and players well.

"It's like every game; it's the most important one because it's the next one."

jkatzenstein@detroitnews.com

twitter.com/jkatzenstein

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