Last weekend’s trip to Candlestick Park provided a vivid glimpse of reality, proving that the Detroit Lions have not yet reached the level of the elite NFL teams. Although the Lions may not have earned “contender” status Sunday night, they showed that they aren’t that far off. San Francisco is a complete team, and played a nearly flawless game, and it still took them a full 60 minutes to put down a battered Lions team quarterbacked by a shaky Matthew Stafford. And while a moral victory may be of little condolence, we learned plenty about this team and their mindset.
The loss at Candle Stick opened the dialogue, but this Sunday’s matchup with the Tennessee Titans will show what these Lions are truly made of, and what realistic expectations for 2012 look like. Losing on the road to one of the top teams in the NFL is expected, and to some, even accepted. How you rebound on the road against an inferior opponent may just end up defining this team.
Matthew Stafford vs. Titan Secondary
Every Lion fan, whether they choose to admit it or not, is nervous about what they’ve witnessed from Stafford through 2 weeks. And while the debut of Leshoure may spark some intrigue, it has never been more apparent following last Sunday that this team lives and dies with their quarterback. All eyes will be on Stafford as he is expected to “get right” against an average Titan pass defense.
Tennessee will likely follow the 49er game plan and dare the Lions to run by dropping 8 into coverage. The Titans, however, lack the personnel of the 49ers, and Detroit should be able to have success running against nickel and dime defenses. When Tennessee brings an extra defender into the box to stop the run, Stafford will have to take advantage through the air, forcing the Titan defense into a guessing game. Stafford is expected to have a bounce back game, returning to his 2011 form. Easing the minds of fans will prove difficult however, as nothing short of perfection will likely be enough.
Titus Young vs. Single Coverage
There is a direct correlation between the success of Titus Young and that of Matthew Stafford, as teams simply refuse to allow Calvin Johnson to beat them. As Mike Tice has proven via his “Randy Ratio”, you can’t force the ball into double and triple coverage with consistent and sustainable success, regardless of how talented the receiver is. This is why it is absolutely essential for someone else to step up and take advantage of single coverage. The Lions must force defenses to pay for doubling Johnson, and then make them pay even more when they don’t. Titus Young is the player expected to do this. Brandon Pettigrew is ultra talented, but very inconsistent. Tony Scheffler lacks explosiveness, and has underperformed to this point in the season. Nate Burleson struggles to separate from defensive backs, and a majority of his touches will continue to come from screens and end-arounds.
Titus is the most explosive weapon the Lions have after Johnson, and he has the potential to be much more than an occasional contributor. His talent has never been in question, but his mindset and maturity often are. Young still appears to be selfish, and immature, and often quits on his routes. He has a tendency to harm his team with penalties more than he helps through playmaking. Titus must grow up quickly, and become the deep threat the Lions had hoped he would be after a stellar rookie season. When teams roll coverage to Johnson, Young needs to make enough plays to force defensive coordinators to make a choice. Focus on Calvin and let Young beat them, or focus on Young and risk single coverage on the best receiver in the game. In either scenario, the Lions win.
Other Matchups to Watch
Much like the Lions hope to jump start Matthew Stafford, the Titans will be eyeing this game to get Chris Johnson going. Tennessee is developing Jake Locker, a young quarterback, and the best way to aide him is with a sound running game. Detroit didn’t allow Frank Gore to get loose for huge yardage, but he was able to hurt them when it mattered. The Lions will need to focus on CJ2K and force the game into Locker’s hands.
Detroit’s running game will get a boost with the debut of Mikel Leshoure, who returns from his 2 week suspension. Scott Linehan has shown a commitment to a more balanced attack this season, and it will be interesting to see just how much of a ground game the Lions bring into Tennessee with them. Lion fans will also be excited to find out just what type of Player Leshoure will be for this offense.