The blueprint for beating the Lions has been available since the week 3 win at Minnesota and each team the Lions faced has copied it. Run the ball, control the clock, don’t worry about the run and defend against the deep pass. Each team they have faced took a lead into halftime and for several weeks nobody could deliver the knockout blow. Until last week.
I respect that the Lions have built this to be an aggressive pass first team that is built to rush the passer, but teams know how to attack the Lions. If a team is predictable, it removes the element of surprise from the equation. It makes them easier to attack and easier to defend and that advantage can bridge the gap in talent. There is nobody that can honestly say the 49ers have more talent than the Lions, but it didn’t matter because the 49ers kept the Lions guessing.
If the Lions are going to take that next step, they can’t keep trotting out the same game plan week in and week out. You cannot invite teams to sell out to defend the pass and then try to throw it against them. You cannot invite them to run the ball so you can rush the quarterback better, if they run effectively, they are never in obvious passing situations. The Lions are facing another team that is built to attack their weaknesses, and if the Lions take the same approach as the last several weeks they could be in danger of starting a losing streak.
What a difference a week makes. The Lions went from one of their best rushing performances since Barry left to losing two players to injury (Best and Harrison) and having to scramble to put enough bodies on the field. The Lions will need to reinvent the ground game without Best and Harrison because those were their two speed guys. The shotgun running plays are only a threat if you have somebody that can exploit a crease for a big gain. Maurice Morris and Keiland Williams are not those guys. Even with Best and Harrison the shotgun run game wasn’t working very well, so it will be a complete disaster if the Lions try to keep it going without them.
Maurice Morris ran the ball well last season and he is a significant upgrade over Best in pass protection. The Lions have to try to establish some sort of run game to keep the Lions out of so many 2nd and 3rd and long situations. The offense has been plagued with three and outs in the first half of games because of the lack of balance in the offense.
Atlanta doesn’t rush the quarterback as well as the last several opponents, so perhaps the Lions stand a little bit better of a chance of getting the passing attack going earlier in the game. The Falcons give up a ton of big plays through the air (26 pass plays of more than 20 yards) but they have picked off nine passes through six games.
The Lions have to find a way to move the ball in the first half and put points on the board early on offense. The crowd is their biggest advantage on defense and a slow start sucks the volume right out of Ford Field. The Falcons are not built to come from behind, so the more pressure the Lions offense puts on tehm to keep pace, the higher the chances of winning.
I understand it’s a passing league and the Lions are one of the best at defending the pass. However, it’s their opponents’ run game that has dug them two 20+ point halftime deficits and handed them their first loss. The Lions calling card defensively, is an aggressive defensive line that rotates eight players to keep fresh bodies that can go 100 mph on every snap. That’s great for the defensive line, but the linebackers and defensive backs don’t get to rotate as often. So the longer the drives, the more exhausted they get taking on lineman and tackling running backs and then the holes get bigger and so does the amount of yardage. This will be compounded by the fact that Michael Turner is huge and he dishes out far more punishment to tacklers than the average running back.
People are questioning why the Lions sack numbers are so low this season. Look no further than the rushing yardage being given up. The Lions are surrendering an appalling 5.2 yards per carry, which if not for Jahvid Best’s huge night against the Bears, would be worst in the league. That means opponents are in very few 2nd and 3rd and long situations, which are obvious passing downs. Since opponents aren’t in 2nd and 3rd and longs very often, they can continue to run or throw short passes off of three step drops so the pass rush doesn’t have a chance to get there before the ball is out.
So by selling out to defend the pass and conceding the run, the Lions are inadvertently neutralizing the strength of their defense. They are built to rush the passer, but teams are picking up so much yardage on the ground that they don’t need to pass. The Falcons will gladly take that trade off since they are struggling in the passing game and have been running the ball better.
Justin Durant is one of the best run defending linebackers in the NFL, and the Lions have been getting gashed while he’s been out. He is expected to return tomorrow, which will help, but the Lions need to forget about rushing the passer until they have obvious passing situations created by 2nd or 3rd and long situations or a big lead.
The writing is on the wall for this game, just like last week. The Falcons are built to run the ball and then take advantage of the play action passing game, just like the 49ers. If the Lions stubbornly stick to their give-up-the-run-to-stop-the-pass defense, they will get gashed on the ground, lose time of possession, and take the crowd out of the game. If they commit to stopping the run first, and then defend the pass once they have a lead, the Falcons will be hard pressed to beat them since they can’t come from behind.
If the Falcons keep it close, they will wear down the high-revving Lions defense and then hit big plays once the defense is worn out. Just like the 49ers did. Unfortunately, I get the impression that the Lions’ coaches are too stubborn to change right now. Inviting opposing running backs to break into the second and third levels is dangerous, but it’s even more so when it’s a big back with speed like Michael Turner. The Lions are built to get an early lead and then pin their ears back and attack the quarterback, but they have scored a whopping 20 points in the first half of their last four games combined. I just don’t see scoring points early getting easier now that the little running game they had is gone. I think the egos of the coaching staff are going to hold this team back yet again as they keep trying to force an explosive passing game against teams loading up to stop it. Even though the Falcons are lacking in the secondary, I think they win this game on the back of Michael Turner and take the crowd out of the game with a ball control offense.