The 6-7 Tampa Bay Buccaneers will put their three-game winning streak on the line in Week 15 during a road trip to Detroit, the Bucs' last away game of the year. The Lions played .500 ball through the first seven games of the season but a current six-game losing streak has dropped them to 3-9-1. Detroit's skid has overlapped with the five-game absence of quarterback Matthew Stafford, who had the Lions' passing game running in high gear before he was sidelined by a back injury.
Detroit still has the league's seventh-ranked passing attack, but it has sputtered over the past month with first Jeff Driskel and then undrafted rookie David Blough at the helm, with just 200 yards per game and seven interceptions thrown in that span. Third-year wideout Kenny Golladay, drafted 12 spots after the Bucs took Chris Godwin in 2017, is the only player in the league with more touchdown catches than Godwin and has been a big-play machine. Injuries have forced Detroit to rotate through a cast of running backs, including Kerryon Johnson, C.J. Anderson, Ty Johnson, J.D. McKissic and most, recently, Bo Scarbrough. Detroit has still managed to put up 102.8 rushing yards per game.
Detroit's defense has fallen from 10th in the league last year to 29th and only two teams are giving up more passing yards. The Lions added three cornerbacks to their rotation in the offseason (more on that below) and traded safety Quandre Diggs to Seattle at midseason but have apparently not found the right combination as they are giving up 276.5 passing yards per game and have allowed a combined opponent passer rating of 100.5. The Lions have only picked off five passes and rank last in the league with an interception rate of 1.04%. Trey Flowers and Devon Kennard lead a pass rush that has produced 25 sacks through 13 games. Here's a closer look at some of the challenges and opportunities the Bucs will encounter when they take their final 2019 road trip to Ford Field on Sunday:
Detroit has been without its top difference-maker since mid-November, as quarterback Matthew Stafford has missed the last five games due to a back injury. He went to the sideline with a career best 106.0 passer rating on the season. The Lions still have a top-10 passing attack but that group took another hit this week when wide receiver Marvin Jones landed on injured reserve. Detroit added three cornerbacks in the offseason through free agency – Justin Coleman, Rashaan Melvin – and the draft – Amani Oruwariye – but already had one of the league's best at that position in Darius Slay. Here are four specific Lions, including Slay, who could cause the Buccaneers trouble on Sunday:
1. WR Kenny Golladay. The Buccaneers' two games against New Orleans this season should help Bucs defensive backs prepare for a face-off with Golladay, who possesses many of the same strengths as the Saints' Michael Thomas, the NFL's leading receiver. Golladay might not be quite as strong as Thomas but he's big (6-4, 214) and long-limbed and he has very good ball skills. He can make contested catches in the end zone and along the sideline and will win a lot of jump balls. Golladay is not the fastest receiver on the field most of the time and yet he owns a per-catch average of 19.0 yards this season, third-best in the NFL among qualifying players, in part because he has a particular knack for getting deep with a double-move. Golladay leads all players with 10 touchdown receptions and has scored six times in the Lions' last seven games. Most notably of late, Golladay has helped out the team's young passer, David Blough, with a touchdown catch in each of Blough's starts, including a 75-yarder to open up the Thanksgiving game.
2. CB Darius Slay. Slay is the Lions' leading interceptor, with two, and he's also broken up 10 passes. A Pro Bowler each of the last two years and a first-team Associated Press All-Pro in 2017, Slay has 19 career interceptions; he peaked at eight in his All-Pro season but has at least two in every year since 2014. He excels in matchup man-to-man coverage and the Lions will generally glue him to the opponents' top receiver. With Mike Evans likely to miss the game, Chris Godwin should prepare to see a lot of Slay on Sunday. Slay's skillset is like that of another cornerback the Bucs faced recently, Jacksonville's A.J. Bouye – smooth feet and hips, good instincts, overall quickness and great ball skills. Both are very good athletes but if anything Slay is a bit faster than Bouye.
3. C Frank Ragnow. The Lions made Arkansas's Ragnow the first center off the board in the 2018 draft, taking him 20th overall, and he has fully solidified that position on the Detroit line. He has started 28 of a possible 29 games since, only missing a Week 12 contest against Washington due to a concussion. The 6-5, 311-pound Ragnow will have his hands full on Sunday with the likes of Vita Vea, Ndamukong Suh and Will Gholston but he's got the size to match up and his intelligence and athleticism help him be in the right place most of the time. Ragnow can also get to the second level and make plays in space.
4. DE Trey Flowers. Head Coach Matt Patricia knew Flowers well from their time together in New England and the fifth-year defensive end was one of Detroit's key targets in free agency this past offseason. Flowers has provided the pass-rush boost the Lions were hoping for, leading the team with seven sacks, which is right in line with his usual production. Flowers has now recorded between 6.5 and 7.5 sacks each of the last four seasons. Similar in style to the Bucs' Carl Nassib, Flowers plays hard at all times and has a big motor. He's competitive on every snap and is effective against both the run and the pass. As a whole, the Lions' defense ranks just 29th in sacks per pass play (5.21%) this season but Flowers is the lineman most likely to make things difficult for Jameis Winston on Sunday.
View some of the best photos from the Buccaneers' Week 14 matchup against the Indianapolis Colts.
As noted above, the Lions rank seventh in the NFL in passing yards, though that was largely the work of Stafford before got hurt. Still, Detroit quarterbacks spread the ball around well to a deep group of targets, as six different Lions have at least 20 catches, six have at least 200 receiving yards and eight have caught touchdown passes. Bo Scarbrough has done well as the most recent starter in a banged-up backfield, averaging 4.2 yards per carry, though he too is now dealing with a rib injury that he says will not keep him out of Sunday's game. Detroit's defense has shown life of late but has had up-and-down results. The Lions allowed only 226 and 230 total yards in narrow losses to the Bears and Redskins but also gave up 509 to Dallas in between those two games. Detroit has recovered 11 opponent fumbles, though, which is fifth-best in the NFL. Here are some more specific areas in which the Lions have done well through the first 13 games of the season:
· The Lions can bite off big chunks of yards in the passing game, and that was a bit of an issue for the Bucs' defense in its most recent outing against Indianapolis. Detroit's offense has produced 51 completions of more than 20 yards, more than any other team except the Rams and the Buccaneers themselves. Golladay is the main threat downfield but six different Lions players have caught a pass for 36 or more yards.
· Tampa Bay would like to get off to a fast start in hostile territory on Sunday but that won't necessarily be easy against a Detroit defense that doesn't generally allow first-possession scores. In fact, the Lions have only given up two touchdowns and one field goal on first-possession drives this year, for a total of 17 points that is tied for the seventh-lowest in the NFL.
· Detroit's punt coverage crew has done a good job. Opponents have returned 24 punts against punter Sam Martin and the Lions but have only 91 total yards to show for it. Detroit's average of 3.8 yards allowed per punt return is second-best in the NFL and it has yet to allow a single runback longer than 17 yards.
· The Lions' defense has not allowed a lot of quick scoring drives. Their 13 opponents have combined for just two touchdowns on drives that lasted fewer than four plays, which is tied for the second-lowest total in the NFL.
Detroit's offense has been in the middle of the pack in red zone efficiency but gets worse when it gets closer to the goal line. The Lions' 52.4% touchdown rate on drives that reach a goal-to-go first down is the fourth-worst in the NFL. On defense, the Lions have allowed the chains to move, giving up 22.5 first downs per game, the third-highest average in the NFL. In addition:
· If Sunday's game comes down to the wire, the Buccaneers will likely feel confident that they will be the ones to pull it out at the end. While Tampa Bay leads the league with 81 points scored in the final two minutes of the two halves (including seven last week), the Lions are dead last in the same category, with 19 points. All 19 of those have come at the end of the first half; Detroit is the only team in the league yet to score in the final two minutes of regulation in any game.
· Detroit's defense has not generated very many negative plays. The Lions have forced losses on 17 runs and five passes by opposing teams, for a total of 22 non-sack negative plays that is the third-lowest in the NFL. Add in sacks and the Lions have 46 negative plays on defense, second-lowest in the league.
· Detroit's kickers do not produce many touchbacks, as evidenced by the 45 kickoff returns the Lions coverage teams have had to face. That's the most against any team in the league and almost exactly double the league average. Both punter Sam Martin and kicker Matt Prater have been used on kickoffs, but Martin has a 25.0% touchback rate (lowest among all players with at least 20 kickoffs) and Prater has a 44.4% rate.
· The Lions' rushing attack has been respectable with 102.8 yards per game but it hasn't generated many breakaways. Detroit's offense has run the ball 343 times, with 30 of those carries producing 10 or more yards. That's 8.7% of all their rushing plays, which is the fifth-lowest rate in the league.
NEW FACES IN 2019
The acquisition of former Patriots end Trey Flowers was considered the Lions' biggest move of the offseason and indeed, as noted above, he leads the team with seven sacks. The Lions also sought to restock their cornerback position through both free agency and the draft and added another former Patriot to their pass-catching core. In addition, injuries at the quarterback position have led to some late additions.
1. WR Danny Amendola. Lions Head Coach Matt Patricia got to see Amendola's work up close for five years in New England but both left the Patriots after the 2017 season. While Patricia got his first head coaching opportunity in Detroit, Amendola signed as an unrestricted free agent with the Dolphins. That marriage lasted just one year, and when Miami released Amendola last March 8, Patricia swooped in three days later for a reunion in Detroit. Amendola is third on the team with 50 catches for 539 yards and a touchdown.
2. CBs Justin Coleman, Rashaan Melvin and Amani Oruwariye. That's two unrestricted free agent signings (Coleman came from Seattle and Melvin from Oakland) and a fifth-round draft pick, and all have seen plenty of playing time. Coleman is the listed starter opposite Darius Slay and he has one pick and 13 passes defensed this year. Melvin also has 10 passes defensed but a recent injury that sidelined him for several games gave an opportunity for the rookie, Oruwariye. In two games, Oruwariye has racked up 11 tackles, one interception and two passes defensed and has generally drawn praise for his play.
3. QB David Blough, Kyle Sloter. That's the top of the Lions' quarterback depth chart right now, and neither passer was with the team in training camp. Detroit got Blough, an undrafted rookie out of Purdue in an Aug. 30 trade with Cleveland, at time to serve as the third quarterback. With Matthew Stafford and Jeff Driskel both sidelined, Blough is currently the starter and Sloter, plucked off the Cardinals' practice squad two weeks ago, is the backup.
1. QB Matthew Stafford. This is the big one, obviously, and we've already referenced it above. Stafford's initial timetable for a return was estimated to be about six weeks, and he's missed five games so far. Stafford seems intent on returning to action before the season is over even though the Lions have been eliminated from playoff contention. It would seem to be a long shot for that to happen this week.
2. WR Marvin Jones. Jones leads the Lions in receptions with 62 and was part of a trio of Detroit receivers all over 50 catches – along with Golladay and Amendola – but the offense will have to play its last three games without him. Jones suffered an ankle injury near the end of the Lions' loss in Minnesota last Sunday and the Lions placed him on injured reserve on Tuesday.
3. RB Kerryon Johnson. Johnson was the Lions' starting back when the season began and he had a 125-yard game against the Chiefs in Week Four, but he suffered a right knee injury in the Lions' sixth game and was placed on injured reserve on Oct. 22. Johnson is eligible to return from IR and recently started practicing again, but the earliest he can be activated is Week 16, so he'll miss the Bucs game.