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Scouting Report: Detroit Lions

Posted Nov 21, 2013

Taking a closer look at the Bucs' opponent in Week 12, as Tampa Bay prepares for a high-powered and multi-faceted Lions offense and a defense driven by hard-charging DT Ndamukong Suh

STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Detroit's offense features the NFL's best receiver but is more than just the Calvin Johnson Show
  • On defense, the Lions get significant contributions from their two highly-drafted DTs, Ndamukong Suh and Nick Fairley
  • Detroit went with a 16th-year kicker and a rookie punter this year and are getting good results from both
On Sunday, the 2-8 Tampa Bay Buccaneers take on the 6-4 Detroit Lions at Ford Field in Detroit, Michigan.  It will be the 55th meeting between the two teams in the regular season, making the Lions the most common opponent in Tampa Bay's 38-year history (more on the Bucs-Lions series history here).  Now riding a two-game winning streak, the Buccaneers will attempt to secure their first road victory of the season against one of the two teams tied for first in the NFC North.

To keep their winning streak alive, the Buccaneers will need to slow down a Lions offense that routinely gets big plays from WR Calvin Johnson and RB Reggie Bush, while also keeping DTs Ndamukong Suh and Nick Fairley from disrupting their resurgent rushing attack.  Here's a closer look at the challenges the Buccaneers will face on Sunday when they visit Ford Field to face the Lions.

HEAD COACH: In his fifth season at the Lions' helm, Jim Schwartz came to Detroit with a defensive background – he had eight strong years as the defensive coordinator in Tennessee – but has presided over a team that has made greater strides on the offensive side of the ball.  Detroit is currently ranked in the top five in offense for the third year in a row, while the defense stands 25th and has been 21st or lower in four of the last five seasons.  Schwartz has a 28-46 record as the Lions' head coach, but he took over a squad that had just recorded the first 0-16 season in NFL history and had it in the playoffs within three years.  The Lions' 10-6 season in 2011 marked Detroit's first foray into the playoffs since 1999, and Schwartz' current team is well on the way to getting back to the postseason with a 6-4 mark that is tied with Chicago for first place in the NFC North.  Schwartz has NFL roots that include time in the player personnel department for the Cleveland Browns, has been described as "intellectual" and has a background of being open to a wide variety of statistical analysis in preparing his team.  However, he knows the importance of being intuitive on game day.  "I don't think there's ever a situation where being smart is a detriment," he told the Detroit Free Press in 2010.  "I do think it's important to see the forest for the trees. … Sometimes more information isn't good.  I've seen guys that have been paralyzed by [information].  This is a quick game, and you need to be able to move quickly."

-- Jim Schwartz took over an 0-16 Lions team and had them in the playoffs in three seasons
OFFENSE: Detroit's offense features one player who is unquestionably the NFL's best at his position: WR Calvin Johnson.  Unfortunately for the Buccaneers, that's just the beginning of the problems that unit poses for opponents.  "Calvin is a huge part of their offense, huge, but they have other weapons," said Buccaneers Head Coach Greg Schiano.  "If it was just Calvin, that wouldn’t be easy, but it would be easier.  But you’re talking about [running back] Reggie Bush, you’re talking about their tight ends, their quarterback is outstanding. If you just look at the stats, they’re top 10 in every major category, almost. You can be top 10 in a few, but when you’re in every major category you’re pretty darn good.”

Indeed, Detroit's offense ranks sixth in points per game, fourth in yards per game, sixth in yards per play, third in passing yards per game, seventh in yards per pass play, sixth in interceptions per pass play, fifth in first downs per game, eighth in third-down efficiency and – quite notably – first in sacks allowed per pass play.  The Lions' offensive line has only allowed QB Matthew Stafford to be sacked 12 times in 10 games, which has in turn helped Stafford bounce back after a mildly disappointing 2012 campaign.  His passer rating dropped from 97.2 in 2011, when he threw 41 touchdown passes, to 79.8 last year but is now back to 92.0 through 10 games in 2013.  The Buccaneers must contend with a quarterback who is throwing for just under 320 yards per game and has an outstanding 21-8 TD-INT ratio.

-- QB Matthew Stafford gets the ball to RB Reggie Bush in a variety of ways
Stafford obviously and necessarily looks in Johnson's direction with great frequency.  Johnson ranks fifth in the NFL in targets this year despite the fact that he has played one fewer game than any other receiver in the top 20 in that category and has missed a signficant amount of practice time with a lingering knee injury.  And that one missed game hasn't stopped Johnson from leading the NFL in receiving yards, at 1,083, which averages to more than 120 per game.  What makes it particularly difficult to stop the 6-5, 236-pound Johnson is that he can make the catch even when extremely well-covered by one or multiple defenders.

As Schiano noted, Stafford has other dangerous options, as well.  The team imported RB Reggie Bush from the Dolphins during the offseason believing he would be the perfect fit for their pass-heavy attack, and Bush hasn't disappointed.  The multi-talented back leads the team in rushing, ranks second in receptions to Johnson and, when you put it all together, stands sixth in the entire NFL in yards from scrimmage…one spot behind his teammate, Johnson.  Five different Lions have at least 29 receptions already, and it's probably going to be six before long because WR Nate Burleson is expected to return to action this week after missing seven games with a fractured forearm.  Burleson had racked up 19 catches in just three games before he hurt himself in a car accident.

The Lions also have a talented offensive line anchored by left tackle Riley Reiff, as evidenced by the low sack totals and a team average of 4.0 yards per carry.  This Sunday, the Buccaneers will face one of the most well-rounded and dangerous offenses they will encounter all season.

DEFENSE: Detroit's defense is dangerous, too, largely because it has invested two high first-round picks in recent years on a pair of disruptive defensive tackles: Ndamukong Suh and Nick Fairley.  If Johnson is the player on Detroit's offense that opposing teams game-plan for and yet still have difficulty stopping, Suh is the same thing for the Lions' defense.  According to the latest Data Crunch analysis here on Buccaneers.com, Suh leads all NFL defensive tackles with a combined 50 sacks, quarterback hits and quarterback hurries.  Only the Bucs' own Gerald McCoy, at 49, is close (McCoy does have Suh by a similarly slim margin when those stats are considered per pass play.)  Suh, the second overall pick in the 2010 NFL Draft that brought McCoy to Tampa at pick #3, is the complete package on the interior line – quick, strong, fast and agile – and he plays with the sort of nonstop hustle bordering on abandon.  Detroit actually ranks 31st in the NFL in sacks per pass play, surprisingly, with just 16 on the season, but Suh leads the way with 4.5.  Fairley has 3.5 of his own, meaning those two players have accounted for half of all Detroit's sacks this year.

Emerging as the top playmaker in the Lions linebacking corps this season is DeAndre Levy, who is tied for the NFL lead with five interceptions.  Levy is quiet and not interested in self-promotion, but his vastly improved coverage skills in 2013 and his team-leading 81 tackles have stirred up Pro Bowl talk. Despite Levy's efforts, though, Detroit's defense ranks 30th in the NFL in pass defense, allowing 310.6 yards per game.  The Lions have been quietly very good against the run, however – once again, that inside duo of Suh and Fairley has been a big reason – ranking fifth in the NFL by allowing 103.7 yards per outing.

-- DT Ndamukong Suh leads the Lions with 4.5 sacks
The middle of the Detroit defense is also ably manned by LB Stephen Tulloch, who followed Schwartz from Tennessee to Detroit in 2011.  Tulloch is both tough and instinctive, and he's been a tackling machine throoughout his NFL career, if not necessarily a strong linebacker in coverage.  Behind the linebackers, the secondary is led by hard-hitting safety Louis Delmas, who is third on the team with 43 tackles and also has two interceptions and seven passes defensed.  The Lions have been looking for an effective combination in the secondary for several  years, and this year that led to the import of former Jacksonville cornerback Rashean Mathis and former Houston safety Glover Quin to handle two of the four starting spots.

Despite struggling in several areas on defense, the Lions do have a couple of hidden strengths that will make it more difficult for the Buccaneers to keep up if Stafford and Johnson turn the game into a shootout.  First is the aforementioned run defense, which directly opposes what has driven the recent resurgence of the Bucs' offense.  Second is the Lions ability to get off the field – they rank second in the NFL in opposing third-down success rate, at 31.6%.  With the Lions offense converting on 41.8% of their third-down tries, this is one area of the game in which Detroit has had a major advantage this year.

SPECIAL TEAMS: The Buccaneers will recognize Detroit's primary return man: Micheal Spurlock, who handled that same job in Tampa during parts of 2007, 2009, 2010 and 2011.  Spurlock, in fact, was the first player in Buccaneers franchise history to return a kickoff for a touchdown, a feat he pulled off against Atlanta in 2007.  As of yet, Spurlock hasn't broken a big one for the Lions, averaging 22.5 yards per kickoff return, but he does have a 57-yard punt return in 2013.

-- Former Buc Micheal Spurlock handles Detroit's return duties
The Lions' kicker is recognizable to most NFL fans: long-time Eagle and short-time 49er who replaced Detroit legend Jason Hanson this year.  Akers, who leads all NFL kickers since 2000 in field goals made and points scored, is 14-of-18 this year and has hit long-range shots of 51 and 53 yards in his only two 50+ attempts.  The Lions went the other direction at punter, using a fifth-round pick to select Appalachian State's Sam Martin, who has been quite good in his rookie season.  He ranks fifth in the NFL with a gross average of 48.3 yards per punt and fourth in net average at 42.5.  Martin has combined with strong coverage work on punts to hold opponents to 5.4 yards per return with none longer than 17.