The Detroit Lions travel to New Jersey for a decisive Week 4 outing against the New York Jets in what should also be an extremely important game for the Lions’ control of the NFC North. For Detroit, who is currently amid a 0-4 road streak dating back to last season, a date with New York could also be a good gauge as both Green Bay and Chicago have defeated the Jets in the last three weeks.
The Lions’ last three weeks have been up and down, but at the moment Detroit is riding significant momentum from a 19-7 defensive domination of the Packers just a week ago. Despite an offense that has hardly improved the last two weeks and has been plagued with inconsistency, the story of the Lions’ 2014 season has been all about the defense. It’s almost impossible to critique Detroit’s defense, which has only conceded 733 yards through three games. No doubt the Lions’ strength going into this week will be their defensive talent, but against the Jets particularly it should be a very exciting matchup. Detroit currently boasts the 1st ranked defense in the NFL, but the Jets register at 2nd only 72 yards away. Specifically against the pass, Detroit is 3rd while the Jets are extremely credible at 9th. And against the rush, while New York is ranked 1st, Detroit comes in just behind at 2nd.
The narrative for this game is certainly dynamic defense, but the contest could very likely be won by offense. Both teams have had positive spots along the way this season, but often in different ways. Detroit’s rush game has been virtually absent this year, ranked at just 25th with neither RBs Joique Bell nor Reggie Bush even able to break 150 yards so far. Yet through the air, the Lions are ranked 6th mostly because of QB Matthew Stafford’s 114 attempts and 883 yards. While the pass game is far from perfect, it will be vastly more competitive against the Jets than the running game, which on paper has almost no chance to be productive. The same sort of story is true for the Jets, but in a converse sort of way. The Jets passing game has been mediocre at best this year, largely because of QB Geno Smith’s prolonged NFL growing pains and an absence of a true first receiver. Yet on the ground, the Jets are 2nd in the entire NFL thanks to RBs Chris Johnson and Chris Ivory. Both teams have elite defenses, one team with a capable pass attack and another with an electrifying run game. In every way this game will be intriguing, and for Detroit once again, the difference between being good and being great will fall on the shoulders of Stafford to make plays.
Date: Sunday, September 28th
Kickoff: 1:00 p.m. ET
Stadium: MetLife Stadium (82,500 capacity)
Television Broadcasting Team: Kenny Albert (Play-By-Play); Daryl Johnston (Color); Tony Siragusa (Sideline)
Detroit Radio: 97.1 The Ticket WXYT-FM
Radio Broadcasting Team: Dan Miller (Play-By-Play); Jim Brandstatter (Color); Tony Ortiz (Sideline)
Besides inconsistent offensive production, the Lions’ biggest challenge this year has undoubtedly been a long litany of injuries. While LB Stephen Tulloch’s season ending ACL injury last week might be the most detrimental for Detroit, the Lions enter this week with substantial bangs and bruises on both sides of the ball. TE Joseph Fauria (ankle) did not practice Thursday or Friday and is officially out along with LB Travis Lewis (quadricep) and CB Cassius Vaughn (ankle) who didn’t practice at all this week.
RT LaAdrian Waddle (calf) has easily been the most significant offensive injury this season, and his chances for tomorrow seem unlikely still. After three days of limited practice, Waddle is listed as doubtful along with S Don Carey (hamstring) who didn’t step on the practice field this week. WR Calvin Johnson (ankle) didn’t practice earlier in the week but did run around a bit on Friday and is now listed as questionable, which is relieving news for Detroit while FB Montell Owens (hamstring) was back to full practice status by Friday and is also questionable.
Rounding out the injury front is a collection of players who were limited-at-worst this week and are all probable to play tomorrow. DE Ziggy Ansah (knee), RB Joique Bell (knee), DT Nick Fairley (biceps), S James Ihedigbo (neck), DE George Johnson (groin), and RB Theo Reddick (hamstring) have all made positive strides in practice and now have realistic chances to play tomorrow.
The Lions have thrived all season on a very talented defensive line, but the shining story on defense this year has been the performance of LB DeAndre Levy. For the third consecutive game, Detroit has not allowed an opponent rusher to garner more than 80 yards; an accolade largely spearheaded by Levy. At the moment Detroit has only allowed 63.7 rush yards per game with much thanks to Levy who ranks fourth in the NFC with 27 tackles so far next two five tackles for loss and three passes defended. Even with the loss of Tulloch last week, Levy has physically dominated the middle of the field and as of last week became only the fifth player in franchise history to have both a safety and interception returned for a touchdown during their career.
Since Tulloch’s injury, Levy has taken over defensive play calling responsibilities on the field and has looked comfortable in that role. Coming off last season where Levy had 118 tackles, six interceptions, and a touchdown, Coach Jim Caldwell was laudatory of the sixth year linebacker this week.
“Typically every game that he has played in, obviously he’s been a factor. The last year he had a great year and this year he hasn’t missed a beat. He’s one of those guys that is extremely active and he’s sort of quite a force out there, around the ball all the time.”
With a defensive front led by DTs Ndamukong Suh, Nick Fairley, C.J. Mosely and DEs George Johnson, Jason Jones and Ziggy Ansah, Levy has had a lot of pressure taken off of him this season. Yet the question this week has become if raw, young talent LB Tahir Whitehead can adequately take over for Tulloch in the middle spot –a role that the Lions’ surprisingly didn’t put Levy in last week. With a strong preseason under his belt and Levy’s expertise next to him, Whitehead should at least be functional in the position. However, the Lions’ defense will surely miss Tulloch, who had 20 tackles, two sacks, and another two tackles for loss.
The defense will be well matched against the Jets’ power offense, but the key for Detroit tomorrow will be creating a threat offensively. Stafford’s numbers this year are okay but far from flashy; 71 of 114 (62.3%) for 883 yards but only three touchdowns and three picks is nowhere near his potential. Acknowledging that neither Bush nor Bell are even averaging four yards a carry, the weight of Detroit’s offensive load is once again on Stafford; a sentiment all too familiar to Lions fans. Fortunately, both Megatron and WR Golden Tate have delivered this year when Stafford has made good decisions. Johnson enters New York with 19 receptions for 329 yards off a 17.3 yard average albeit with only two touchdowns. Tate has been an excellent addition this season, and similarly when Stafford has been accurate and Johnson has been involved, he has given Detroit’s air attack substantial leverage. Through three games, Tate has 21 catches for 201 yards with a 12.6 yard average and 10 first downs along the way. The problem for Detroit has been getting TEs Eric Ebron, Brandon Pettigrew, and Fauria involved; a challenge that Stafford will have a good chance to rise up to with New York’s banged up secondary.
The Lions and Jets are both historic franchises with long histories, yet surprisingly have only played each other 12 times in regular season action. Tomorrow’s game will mark the first reunion the two teams have had since their 2010 battle that went to overtime.
Detroit vs. New York Regular Season Record: 6-6
Last Meeting: 11/07/2010; Detroit 29 – New York 23 in OT in Detroit
Record in Detroit: 4-4
Record in New York and New Jersey: 2-2
Other Game Notes
The Lions have always historically struggled on the road, but particularly since the Matthew Stafford era started have they looked deflated against talented teams away from Detroit. The Jets are not the Panthers simply by virtue of recent records, but this week will give the Lions’ their stiffest defensive competition yet. And while the Lions are once again faced with an intriguing challenge on the road, really for the first time in a long time Detroit’s strong point will be their defensive grit. The question this week -and throughout this season- will continue to be if Matthew Stafford and the offense can do their part to finish games.