Free Press sports writers Dave Birkett and Carlos Monarrez preview the Lions’ game against the Bills. Recorded Dec. 13, 2018.
Carlos Monarrez and Dave Birkett, Detroit Free Press
Free Press sports writer Dave Birkett breaks down Sunday’s game between the Detroit Lions (5-8) and Buffalo Bills (4-9) at New Era Field in Orchard Park, N.Y.:
Lions run offense vs. Bills run defense
Kerryon Johnson hasn’t played in about a month, but the Lions have been strangely productive on the ground even without their best running back. With LeGarrette Blount, Theo Riddick and Zach Zenner sharing the workload, the Lions have topped 100 yards rushing in three straight games.
Blount should be the feature back once again Sunday, but the Lions will be without 40 percent of their starting offensive line. Kenny Wiggins has taken over for T.J. Lang at right guard, and Tyrell Crosby is expected to make his first career start at right tackle. Still, with a dearth of weapons in the passing game, expect the Lions to rely heavily on their rushing attack.
The Bills rank ninth in the NFL against the run at 104.8 yards per game allowed. They’re aggressive tacklers, with eight forced fumbles on the year, but have been susceptible in the red zone. Rookie middle linebacker Tremaine Edmunds leads the Bills with 90 tackles.
Lions pass offense vs. Bills pass defense
Whether he wants to admit it or not, Matthew Stafford’s back is an issue. Stafford threw for just 101 yards in last week’s win over the Arizona Cardinals, his lowest passing total since 2010, and his only touchdown pass in the past three games went to left tackle Taylor Decker.
Beyond Stafford’s injury, the Lions are working with a depleted receiving corps that’s made throwing downfield tough. Bruce Ellington could miss Sunday’s game with a hamstring injury, which would leave Kenny Golladay, TJ Jones and Brandon Powell as the Lions’ top three receivers.
The Bills have the NFL’s No. 1-ranked pass defense. They get good pressure up front from right end Jerry Hughes and linebacker Lorenzo Alexander, and do a good job disguising coverages in the back end with safety Micah Hyde. Top cornerback Tre’Davious White should draw the assignment on Golladay.
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Bills run offense vs. Lions run defense
What little success the Bills have had offensively this year has come on the ground. Buffalo entered the week tied for ninth in the NFL in rushing, and they’ve done it in unorthodox fashion.
Rookie quarterback Josh Allen is the team’s leading rusher, and his 490 yards is tops among all quarterbacks. He’s big and fast, and prone to taking off quickly when things break down. Allen has run for 99 or more yards in three straight games, but he’ll be without top tailback LeSean McCoy this week because of a hamstring injury. Chris Ivory should get the bulk of the carries for the Bills, who use a fullback on about 13 percent of their plays.
The Lions have done a good job keeping running quarterbacks like Cam Newton, Russell Wilson and Mitchell Trubisky in the pocket this year, and they’ve been stout against the run overall in recent weeks. Da’Shawn Hand won’t play Sunday, but Damon Harrison and A’Shawn Robinson are playing well at tackle and Jarrad Davis is coming off one of his best games as a pro.
Bills pass offense vs. Lions pass defense
Allen has impressed with his legs this year, but he’s struggled throwing the ball. The seventh overall pick of April’s draft, Allen has nine interceptions against five touchdown passes on the season and is completing just 52.4 percent of his attempts. He has a strong arm, but he’s sack-prone and erratic in the pocket.
The Bills will take some chances deep with Allen’s arm, but they’re extremely limited at the wide receiver position. Zay Jones, the only receiver with more than 15 catches, has good hands but is not a burner. Robert Foster has taken over as Buffalo’s No. 2 receiver, and tight end Charles Clay is Allen’s safety valve in the passing game.
The Lions rank 11th in the NFL against the pass, but they’ll play Sunday without two of their best pass rushers in Hand and Ziggy Ansah, who’s on injured reserve. Darius Slay should draw the assignment on Jones, though the Lions could play more zone defense to account for Allen’s legs. And Devon Kennard is trending towards a return from his hip injury, which should held the rush.
The Lions have started to look more like the special-teams unit we thought they’d be in recent weeks. They’ve curtailed some of the penalty and coverage issues they had early in the season, and specialists Matt Prater and Sam Martin are kicking the ball well. The Lions still don’t offer much in the return game, but Prater is Mr. Reliable when it comes to field goals, even outside in the elements.
Former Lions special-teams coordinator Danny Crossman now holds the same position with the Bills, but he’s been saddled with a merely average kicking game. The Bills are on their third punter of the season and netting just 38.3 yards per punt, and kicker Stephen Hauschka has made just 10 of 14 kicks from 40-plus yards. Hyde is a dangerous return man, though the Bills use Isaiah McKenzie in those roles primarily.
A week after holding the worst offense in the NFL to three points, the Lions get the league’s 31st-ranked offense in what should be another barn-burner. Allen is a tricky player to defend because of his dual-threat ability, but he has little talent around him and the Lions are well equipped to shut down Buffalo’s running game and force Allen to beat them with his arm. The Lions don’t offer much on offense these days themselves, and playing a good defense on the road won’t be easy. This game probably comes down to little things like turnovers and special teams, and while neither team has been very good in either department, the Lions are slightly better in both. With a chance to stay on the fringes of the playoff race, that’s enough for them to squeak out their second straight victory.
Pick: Lions 17, Bills 16
Contact Dave Birkett: email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @davebirkett. Download our Lions Xtra app for free on Apple and Android!