The Tampa Bay Buccaneers will make their second straight road trip – and last of the regular season – in Week 16, and in many respects the opponent waiting on the other end is similar to the one they just faced in Atlanta.
Like the Falcons, the Detroit Lions are playing for an interim head coach, with Darrell Bevell in charge since the November 28 dismissal of Matt Patricia. Like Atlanta, the Lions immediately won their first game for their new coach, though a rash of injuries have made it difficult to sustain that success since.
Perhaps the greatest similarity is under center. Matthew Stafford, like Matt Ryan, is a proven veteran who has put up big numbers his entire career and continues to do so in 2020. Both the Lions and Falcons rely on their seasoned passer because their rushing attacks have been among the league's worst this year despite each team having a big name in the backfield (Todd Gurley last week, Adrian Peterson this week). Both teams have also been in a lot of high-scoring games as their defenses have struggled; that's a bit more of a prominent issue in Detroit, though, as the Lions have allowed the most points in the NFL this season.
One more similarity between the Falcons and the Lions: Despite being officially eliminated from playoff contention, both clubs are clearly still fighting as we near the end of December. This was most obvious for Detroit in last week's performance by Stafford, who played through a ribs injury that, early in the week seemed sure to keep him out against the Titans. He lasted into the fourth quarter and threw for 252 yards in a loss to the Titans. Why did he play, with little on the line for his team?
"Because I'm the quarterback of the Detroit Lions, and it was Sunday, and I got a bunch of teammates that work their ass off," Stafford said. "They fight to be available and fight to get out there and play and try to help us win. If there's any way I can play, I'm never gonna not (play). I feel like I owe it to those guys, I owe it to the game, I owe it to this organization, everybody. If I'm good enough to play, healthy enough to play, my ass is gonna be out there."
Stafford also said he felt better after that game than he did at the beginning of the previous week, so the Buccaneers should expect to see the Lions' ultra-tough quarterback on the field this coming Saturday. Now in his 12th season, Stafford is putting up numbers right in line with his career averages; in fact, his completion rate (64.2%), touchdown rate (4.7), interception rate (1.8%) and yards per attempt average (7.6) are all better than his career norms. Unfortunately, Stafford has been sacked 37 times, tied for the fourth most in the NFL this season, although he was not sacked in Detroit's most recent contest. The Lions played that game without their Pro Bowl center, Frank Ragnow.
He has done all of this without much from his 2019 breakout star receiver, Kenny Golladay, who has only played in five games due to a hip injury. Veteran Marvin Jones has stepped in as the leading receiver, and his 10 catches last week against the Titans gives him 65 on the year, including seven touchdowns. Second-year tight end T.J. Hockenson, just named to the Pro Bowl, has been Stafford's other main target, with 60 catches and six TDs, and Danny Amendola (40 catches, 559 yards) remains an effective weapon out of the slot.
Rookie running back D'Andre Swift, who has replaced Peterson as the starter when healthy, has also proved to be a good pass-catcher out of the backfield, with 39 receptions. He didn't play much early and missed a few games due to injury in the second half but still has 422 rushing yards, averaging 4.6 per carry and scoring seven times. The Lions made Swift, the former Georgia star, the third pick of the second round and the second running back off the board after Clyde Edwards-Helaire, and it is looking like a good decision.
Detroit's defense is quite simply short-handed right now. Cornerbacks Jeff Okudah and Desmond Trufant, the former the third-overall pick in the 2020 draft, are out for the season, and cornerback Darryl Roberts is on injured reserve. Linemen Trey Flowers, Danny Shelton, Da'Shawn Hand and Julian Okwara are all on injured reserve as well. Untested defenders like cornerback Alex Myres and defensive linemen Frank Herron and Kevin Strong, all recently of the practice squad, stepped into significant roles with varying results. The front line was the biggest issue and it understandably struggled against Tennessee's Derrick Henry, who ran for 147 yards. Detroit's defense cycled in a lot of players last Sunday, with 19 different defenders seeing action, all getting at least 19% of the snaps and 15 getting at least 40%.
Linebacker Jamie Collins, one of many former Patriots on the Lions' current roster, leads the team with 101 tackles and also has a sack, an interception, six passes defensed and three forced fumbles. The Lions defense has only generated seven interceptions, ranking 29th in interception percentage, with safety Duron Harmon on top of the list with two picks. Romeo Okwara, a former undrafted free agent, busted out with a 7.5-sack season in 2018 and, after a less productive 2019, is proving that wasn't a fluke with 8.0 more sacks this year despite only starting seven games.
Overall, Detroit is allowing 401.4 yards per game and 6.08 yards per play, third and second-most in the league, respectively. The Lions have struggled around the end zone in particular, ranking 31st in touchdown percentage allowed in the red zone touchdown (73.2%) and last in goal-to-go situations (90.6%).
The Lions fired Special Teams Coordinator Brayden Coombs on Monday, apparently due at least in part to a "rogue" fake punt order by Coombs. That said, Detroit has gotten pretty good results out of most of its kick and return units, particularly from punter Jack Fox, who earned a Pro Bowl invite in his first NFL regular season. Fox has a gross punting average of 49.3 yards per kick and a net of 45.3, both of which rank second in the league. Elsewhere, the Lions have blocked three punts and are in the top 10 in coverage on both punt and kickoff returns.
Stafford's display of toughness and devotion to the team last weekend is sure to have a motivational effect on his teammates for the last two games of the season. The Buccaneers head to Detroit with much more at stake than the Lions but expect to find an opponent just as primed to play on Saturday. Here are some specific challenges and opportunities the Buccaneers will face when they take on the Lions at Ford Field:
Stafford stirs the drink for the Lions, as he has since he was drafted first overall in 2009. His toughness and his numbers are noted above. Jones provide steady production year after year but would be a better complement to a healthy Golladay. Many of what could be Detroit's most impactful players are on injured reserve or dealing with ailments that will or could keep them out this weekend, including Okudah, Trufant, Ragnow, Flowers, Hand, Shelton and Everson Griffen. So, rather than any of those players, here are four healthy Lions who could make things difficult for the Buccaneers on Sunday:
1. RB D'Andre Swift. The rookie running back missed Weeks 11-13 due to a concussion but since his return has scored three times in two games. Swift had just been promoted to the starting spot over Peterson before his injury – a move that even Peterson said was overdue given Swift's talents – and he was back in that spot against Tennessee last week, rushing 15 for 67 yards and two scores. His one blemish was a goal-line fumble but that won't be enough to limit his playing time against the Buccaneers. Swift has also caught eight passes in the last two games and 39 on the season, and that was highlighted as one of his strengths on scouting reports prior to the 2020 draft. The 5-9, 215-pound Swift is compact but shifty and has the ability to power through a pile, as evidenced by his seven touchdowns. He is averaging 4.6 yards per carry and already has breakaways of 54 and 26 yards in relatively limited action this season. Swift has good vision and can play on all three downs because of his good route running and soft hands. Detroit's offense has been unbalanced this season, ranking seventh in passing yards and 30th in rushing yards and throwing on 62.8% of their snaps, but Swift is capable of putting up a big game, which would only make Stafford and company tougher to defend. The Buccaneers have the NFL's top-ranked run defense and will surely be focused on slowing down the dynamic rookie early on Saturday.
2. LB Jamie Collins. The Lions had high hopes when the signed Collins to a three-year, $30 million deal at the beginning of free agency in March, and for the most part the former Patriot has delivered. He perhaps hasn't been quite as impactful for the Lions as he was in 2019 for New England, when he combined three interceptions and seven passes defensed with 7.0 sacks and 10 quarterback hits, but he does have the most robust stat line of all the Lions' defenders in 2020. Collins has long been a defender that could be moved all over the first two levels of the defense, and his numbers reflect that: 101 tackles, one sack, six tackles for loss, three quarterback hits, one interception, six passes defensed, three forced fumbles and a fumble recovery. Collins can rush off the edge like a 3-4 OLB, though he's better as a blitzer, but he can also play off-ball linebacker and line up in the middle or on the outside. His pre-snap location heat map by Next Gen Stats indicate that he has mostly lined up in the box between the tackles for the Lions this year. Collins is considered a strong coverage linebacker and given his speed and size might be the player the Lions will task with keeping the ball away from Rob Gronkowski. In run defense, Collins can hold his own on the edge and is very good in backside pursuit. With the line in front of him decimated by injuries, Collins will need to have an active game in order to keep the Buccaneers' running game in check.
3. TE T.J. Hockenson. It might not have gone over too well with a sizeable subset of Lions fans when the team took the Iowa tight end eighth overall in 2019 rather than getting some help for the defense. Detroit faithful was perhaps worried about a repeat of the Eric Ebron experience. But it only took Hockenson two years to earn his first Pro Bowl invitation and he is currently one of the team's most important pass-catchers. Hockenson had the team lead in receptions with Golladay out until Jones's 10-catch game against Tennessee pushed him to the top. With 60 receptions for 675 yards and seven touchdowns, Hockenson ranks third among all NFL tight ends in yards, behind only AFC superstars Travis Kelce and Darren Waller. His 60 catches rank fourth in the league. Tight ends don't get drafted in the top 10 unless they are perceived as true every-down players at their position, meaning they are above average at both receiving and blocking. Hockenson is 6-5 and 250 pounds and is an excellent blocker, which should eventually help a Detroit rushing attack that hasn't yet found its footing. As a pass-catcher, Hockenson can work the seams downfield and is a serious size mismatch for a lot of safeties. He's also a strong red zone weapon with the leaping ability to get over defenders catches in tight spaces.
4. DE Romeo Okwara. The fifth-year defensive end is having something a second breakout season. Originally an undrafted free agent with the Giants and then a waiver claim by the Lions, Okwara surprised with a 7.5-sack season for Detroit in 2018. Both he and the Lions had a tough year in 2019, though, and he followed up with just 1.5 sack and 28 tackles, prompting a rededication to his craft during this past offseason. It has paid off as Okwara has emerged as Detroit's best pass-rusher by far, leading the team with 8.5 sacks, 10 tackles for loss and 16 quarterback hits. Nobody else on the Lions' defense has more than 2.5 sacks or seven quarterback hits. Okwara has also forced two fumbles and recovered one. According to ESPN Stats and Information, he had a 19.4% pass-rush win rate heading into the Lions' most recent game, in which he recorded another sack. That pressure rate was tied for 16th among all NFL players. NFL stat service Radar360 also credits Okwara with 26 quarterback pressures. The 6-4, 263 pass-rusher plays about 65% of the Lions' defensive snaps and goes all out on every one of them. The Lions have moved him around their defensive front this year and Okwara has produced steadily, with at least one QB hit in 12 of the last 14 games. The Lions rank just 28th in the NFL with a sacks-per-pass-play rate of 4.00, but Buccaneer blockers will have to work hard to keep Okwara away from Tom Brady.
Even without Golladay for much of the season, the Lions have put up the seventh-most passing yards in the league and are ranked 12th in yards per pass play. Detroit's 17 giveaways on offense are below the league average and the team's red zone touchdown efficiency (64.7%) is tied for 10th in the NFL. Statistically, there isn't much the Lions' defense can hang its hat on but the kick-and-return game has been solid and punter Jack Fox, as noted above, is going to the Pro Bowl. Here are some more specific areas in which the Lions have done well in 2020:
· In addition to his toughness, Matthew Stafford has also shown that he can get his team into the end zone when the clock is winding down. The Lions have 37 points in the final two minutes of the second and fourth quarters this year, which is the second-highest total in the NFL. It is also nearly double the league average of 19.4 points per team in that situation.
· The Lions' special-teams cover men have helped Fox put together his Pro Bowl season, contributing to his great net punting average by bottling up opposing return men all season. Detroit opponents are only averaging 5.4 yards per return on punts, the third-lowest mark in the NFL. The Lions' special teams unit has also blocked three punts this season.
· The Lions' conversion rate of 42.4% on third downs on offense this year is good enough for 14th in the NFL, but Detroit seems to get better as the level of difficulty increases. On third downs that need 11 or more yards to be converted, Detroit ranks second in the NFL with a success rate of 25.7%. And in the third down range of 7-10 yards, the Lions' 39.6% conversion rate is the eighth best in the league.
· Though the Lions have been outscored by 100 points this season and have a handful of lopsided losses, they know how to win when the game is coming down to the wire. Detroit has played in seven games this season that were decided by seven or fewer points and has a 4-3 record in those contests. That includes wins over potential playoff teams Arizona, Washington and Chicago.
The Lions have allowed the most points in the league (435) and are also in the league's bottom three on defense in yards allowed per game, yards allowed per play, yards allowed per pass play, first downs allowed, red zone touchdown percentage allowed and goal-to-go touchdown percentage allowed. The offense is gaining just 92.6 yards per game on the ground, third-worst in the NFL and Matt Prater's 74.1% field goal success rate puts the Lions 27th in that category. In addition:
· Detroit has been relatively safe with the football, only committing 17 turnovers, but the team is still -5 in turnover ratio because the defense has only forced 12 turnovers of its own. That's the third-lowest total in the league and it means the Lions haven't gotten a lot of easy points or field position on defense to help their offense. The Lions have just 37 points off takeaways in 2020, the fourth-lowest mark in the league. Contrast that with the Buccaneers, who have 85 points off takeaways so far this season.
· The Lions have essentially broken even with their opponents in terms of passing offense, gaining 264.5 yards per game while giving up 264.1. It's on the ground where Detroit has lost, well, ground, as they are averaging 92.6 yards per game but giving up 137.3. That rushing-yardage differential of negative-4.6 yards per game is fourth worst in the NFL, ahead of only Jacksonville, Dallas and Houston.
· Detroit's defense has had difficulty defending the short pass in particular. Opponents have averaged 6.13 yards per attempt throwing short passes to the right side, the second-highest mark against any NFL defense. When throwing short over the middle, Lions foes have gained an average of 9.16 yards per play, the second-worst mark for any NFL defense.
· The Lions' defense has allowed a success rate of 48.8% on third downs this season, which is the fifth-worst mark in the league. Where Detroit has struggled the most in this regard is after halftime. The Lions have allowed a league-high 51.6% conversion rate on third downs in the second halves of their games.
NEW FACES IN 2020
Two of the Lions' most important additions in 2020 – free agent linebacker Jamie Collins and second-round running back D'Andre Swift – were already addressed in detail above. Detroit revamped its cornerback position by drafting Jeff Okudah third overall in April and snapping up Desmond Trufant after the Falcons let him go. Unfortunately, those two only combined to play in 15 games before both ended up on injured reserve for the remainder of the season. Still, the Lions got one of their most productive defensive backs in an offseason trade and seem to have found a late-round contributor for the defensive line.
1. S Duron Harmon. An offseason trade for Harmon was part of the New England-to-Detroit pipeline and in this case the Lions got a safety who has started all 14 games in a secondary that has otherwise been in flux for much of the season. Harmon, who had 19 interceptions in seven seasons for the Patriots, leads the Lions with two picks this year and is third with 56 tackles.
2. DL John Penisini. The sixth-round rookie out of Utah has seen his snap count soar in the second half, and he was already playing meaningful minutes in the first half. After getting somewhere between 25 and 47% of the defensive snaps from Weeks 2-7, Penisini has seen his playing time go as high as 77% of the snaps in recent weeks. He has helped hold together a line that has been hit hard by injuries and he has contributed 30 tackles, one sack and four tackles for loss.
3. G Jonah Jackson. The best value the Lions got in the 2020 draft, at least so far, may have come in the third round, where they nabbed Jackson, the Ohio State product, with the 75th pick. Jackson won the starting left guard job to open the season and has remained their ever since, impressing with his quick feet and his pass blocking.
1. WR Kenny Golladay. We've noted the unfortunate season Golladay has had a couple of times above. Golladay hasn't gone on injured reserve and at times has appeared to be on the verge of returning, but he hasn't played since Week Eight due to his hip injury. At this point, it's looking likely that the fourth-year receiver will remain sidelined for the rest of the season. Last year, he made the Pro Bowl after catching 65 passes for 1,190 yards and leading the league with 11 touchdown receptions.
2. OL Frank Ragnow/Halapoulivaati Vaitai. Ragnow was briefly a trending topic on Twitter when he suffered an injury against Green Bay in Week 14 that was described as a "fractured throat." Head Coach Darrell Bevell later clarified that it was a vocal cord injury, which was keeping Ragnow from being able to speak. That's a problem for a center who makes calls and adjustments at the line. Ragnow missed the last game and was not in practice for Detroit to start this week. Vaitai, who was brought in through free agency to start at right tackle, has opened eight games, including last Sunday's loss to Tennessee. Vaitai had just returned from a concussion and he only played half of that game before being pulled. He is on the injury report this week again due to that concussion and did not practice to start the week.
3. DE Trey Flowers. The Lions expected Flowers to be their top edge rusher this year but he has only played in seven games with two starts so far. Another former Patriot, he was placed on injured reserve on November 2 and the Lions thought he would be able to return before the end of the season. As of the start of this week, Flowers was still on IR due to a wrist injury.