Free Press sports writers Dave Birkett and Carlos Monarrez preview the Detroit Lions vs. Los Angeles Rams game for Sunday at Ford Field.
Carlos Monarrez and Dave Birkett, Detroit Free Press
Free Press sports writer Dave Birkett breaks down Sunday’s game between the Detroit Lions and Los Angeles Rams at Ford Field:
Lions run offense vs. Rams run defense
The Lions will be without running back Kerryon Johnson for the second straight game due to a knee injury, which means it’s the LeGarrette Blount-Theo Riddick show once again. Blount had a season-high 88 yards on 19 carries in the Lions’ Thanksgiving loss to the Chicago Bears, but he had most of his success in the second half of that game as the Lions kept the score close enough to keep him involved in the second half.
They won’t have the luxury of waiting for their running game to get going this week as the Rams have one of the highest-scoring offenses in the NFL. Blount needs to do a better job getting upfield, and the offensive line needs to be sharp early or this will turn into a game in which the Lions use passing back Riddick on most downs.
The Rams rank just 21st against the run at 119.9 yards per game, and teams like the Seattle Seahawks (190 and 273 yards rushing in their two games) and New Orleans Saints (141 yards) have had success on the ground. Of course, the Lions don’t have a running game on par with either of those teams, and they have to contend with the best defensive tackle tandem in football in Aaron Donald and Ndamukong Suh.
Lions pass offense vs. Rams pass defense
Like their running game, the Lions have a depleted passing attack. They don’t have Marvin Jones or Golden Tate, but they do have designs on getting the ball out of Matthew Stafford’s hands quickly and limiting the number of hits he takes from an aggressive, mobile pass rush.
Stafford has 13 turnovers on the season, including seven in the Lions’ last four losses. If he’s careless with the ball Sunday, the Lions won’t stand a chance. But as conscious as the Lions want to be of the Rams’ pass rush and of controlling tempo, they need to take more shots downfield than the two passes over 15 yards they attempted last week.
Donald leads the NFL in sacks and defensive coordinator Wade Phillips moves him, Suh and Michael Brockers all over the field. The Rams tend to give up yards in chunks at times, but they’re tied for fifth in the league in takeaways and they expect to get top cornerback Aqib Talib back from injury to pair with Marcus Peters and Lamarcus Joyner in a talented secondary.
Rams run offense vs. Lions run defense
Todd Gurley is a legitimate MVP candidate for the Rams as the NFL’s second-leading rusher (94.8 ypg) and one of the most versatile backs in the game. He’s a big part of the Rams’ passing attack with 43 catches, has an NFL-best 17 touchdowns and does a lot of his damage against sub defensive packages because the Rams use “11” personnel with three receivers on the field so often.
Gurley is averaging 5 yards per carry, and he has the benefit of running behind one of the league’s best offensive lines. Andrew Whitworth at 36 years old is still one of the game’s elite left tackles, and Rob Havenstein is a powerful run blocker at right tackle.
The Lions have the league’s best run defense over the last three weeks, holding the Carolina Panthers and Chicago Bears (twice) to fewer than 60 yards. Damon Harrison has been a revelation at nose tackle, and the Lions have gotten good play from A’Shawn Robinson and Da’Shawn Hand up front. They’ll have to rely on their line to keep Gurley in check because Jared Goff will throw for 400 yards if they commit too many resources to the run.
Rams pass offense vs. Lions pass defense
Goff is the Rams’ other MVP candidate. He averages 9.3 yards per pass attempt, has 26 touchdowns against just six interceptions and is the NFL’s third-highest rated passer.
The Rams excel in the play-action passing game thanks to Gurley’s presence in the backfield, their well-fortified line that gives Goff plenty of time to throw and speedy receivers like Brandin Cooks and Robert Woods who make plays downfield. Coach Sean McVay stresses defenses like few other play-callers by working at a high tempo and always changing his formations.
The Lions have been mostly solid in their pass defense, at least when Darius Slay’s on the field, but they don’t get enough pressure on opposing quarterbacks or create enough turnovers to be one of the league’s top units. Slay could shadow Cooks on Sunday, which would leave Nevin Lawson against Woods. The Lions’ lack of speed at safety could be an issue against a Rams team that’s second in the NFL in passes of 20-plus yards.
Not only do the Rams have one of the best offenses in the NFL and the leading candidate for Defensive Player of the Year (Donald), they also have one of the league’s best special-teams units. Greg Zuerlein seems fine after missing time with a groin injury last year and has one of the strongest legs in the NFL. Jojo Natson ranks fifth among qualifying players at 13.4 yards per punt return and the Rams have blocked two punts this year.
The Lions have been better on special teams of late, cutting down on their penalties and doing a better job covering returns. Matt Prater remains Mr. Reliable in the field-goal department, while many of the Lions’ opponents have struggled in the kicking game. With Jamal Agnew still a couple weeks away from potentially playing in games, the Lions don’t offer much in the return department.
I don’t know how many times I’ve given one team the matchup edge in every category in the nine years I’ve been doing this for the Free Press, but it’s not many. That’s how dominant the Rams are, and how depleted the Lions are on offense. Goff and Gurley are both MVP candidates, Donald will win Defensive Player of the Year, and the Lions are without two of their three best offensive weapons. They’ll need a great defensive performance, on par with what the Dallas Cowboys did to the New Orleans Saints on Thursday night, to pull the upset, and I just don’t think they’re equipped to do that. Unless Blount has a great day and the Lions force a couple turnovers on defense, I don’t see this game being all that close.
Pick: Rams 35, Lions 21
Contact Dave Birkett: firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @davebirkett. Download our Lions Xtra app for free on Apple and Android!