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."
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.
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
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.
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.