The Lions enter a season with momentum and expectations for the first time in years, their opponent is in a similar situation as well. The Buccaneers took huge strides last year and if not for the Lions, would have made a return to the playoffs. The Bucs were win number two in the Lions’ four game winning streak that helped fuel the optimism that surrounds the 2011 season.
Both teams have very similar traits, promising young quarterbacks, receivers and running backs and a defense built around an aggressive and talented defensive line. There are many that feel that these two teams are just laying the foundation for the next great NFL rivalry for years to come.
The Lions roll into Tampa with a healthy Matthew Stafford and Jahvid Best to pair up with Calvin Johnson and a host of other weapons. The Lions heavily relied on Maurice Morris to set up the run to take pressure off Drew Stanton when they last played. I expect the Lions do the opposite this week and attack the defense and dictate a high tempo. Look for the Lions to spread the field early and often to attack the holes in the zone which will set Jahvid Best up for draws and screens. By spreading the field horizontally, the Lions can slow down the Tampa pass rush and then they can open up the vertical game and target Calvin Johnson and Titus Young deep.
The Bucs were missing Aqib Talib and Gerald McCoy when these two teams played last year and they added DE’s Adrian Clayborn and Da’Quan Bowers to their promising young line. Talib is one of the better cornerbacks in the league, but he’s still going to have his hands full with Calvin Johnson. The Lions will look to exploit the more advantageous matchup between Nate Burleson and Ronde Barber as well as Brandon Pettigrew over the middle against a small linebacking corps. Clayborn and Bowers are talented, but still very raw, so the Lions’ veteran tackles should have an edge in that matchup.
The word of the day when talking about the Bucs’ offense is size. The 6’6″ 247 lb Josh Freeman and the 6′ 247 lb LeGarrette Blount pose matchup problems for every defense they face. Freeman’s size makes him very difficult to tackle and helps him keep his eyes downfield even in the face of a blitz. Blount is a huge back that still has good speed and decent agility, so he’s not only a threat to run over a defender, but run past them as well.
The Lions struggled with Blount last season mostly because of the lack of talent at linebacker. The Lions now boast one of the better linebacking corps in the league with three players that all excel against the run. While none of the Lions’ linebackers are over 240 lbs, all of them can bring the lumber and should help prevent Blount from getting loose at the third level where he did his damage against the defensive backs last year.
Freeman didn’t have a great game against the Lions going 21 of 32 for 251 yards and a touchdown, but he was able to make plays to keep the offense moving . The Bucs converted several third and long situations and guided the Bucs to a 14-7 lead before the Lions would clamp down on him and sack him three times.
The Bucs’ offensive line will have their hands full with the constantly rotating defensive line of the Lions. Don’t expect a lot of blitzing against the Buccaneers unless the Lions can’t get pressure with the defensive line. As I said earlier Freeman can see over the blitz and he can evade it with his mobility, he also is so big that blitzing linebackers and defensive backs have trouble bringing him down.
The Lions’ linebackers not only need to slow Blount down, but to help keep Freeman favorite Kellen Winslow under wraps as well and control the intermediate zones that Freeman likes to attack. The Lions’ secondary is facing a pair of second year receivers in Mike Williams and Arrelious Benn. Williams had a monster rookie year, while Benn was working his way back from injury and is still unproven.
The key for the Lions’ defense is generating penetration to keep Freeman under pressure and prevent Blount from hitting the holes full speed.
The wild card for several weeks will be Matthew Stafford. Stafford had a huge preseason and played extremely well in the three games he played last season. However, he is still unproven in the regular season and this team lives and dies with him.
On paper, the Lions are the more talented team offensively and defensively and match up well against the Bucs. I normally would pick the Lions in this game, but with this being Stafford’s first game back and with the team on the road against another team that’s young and hungry, I see the Lions hitting a road block to start the year. Freeman is the more proven of the two quarterbacks and that should be the difference tomorrow.