Lions Handle Bucs, Prepare for Vikes, Bears, and Pack

In a season full of inconsistency and anomalies, the Lions showed some elements of continuity in yesterday’s 34-17 win over the Tampa Bay Buccaneers.

More than continuity, perhaps; the Lions actually exhibited symmetry. Yes, the Lions beat Tampa Bay in virtually the same way they manhandled the Bears on Thanksgiving. In both games, the Lions won 34-17 at home. In both games, the offense registered over 400 yards en route to two of Matthew Stafford’s best games of the season. In both games, the Lions’ defense kept their opponents to less than 30 yards total and stripped the opponent of red zone opportunities. Of course, in both games the Lions also beat extremely weak squads; a point worth heeding with the team’s playoff hopes fragile. Nevertheless, with two consecutive wins by double-digit margins, Detroit undoubtedly has some confidence and offensive momentum moving into the season’s home stretch.

All of that said, the Lions simply took care of business in archetypal fashion yesterday. Against the Buccaneers, Detroit did everything it needed to do for a textbook win. Granted the Bucs made things interesting in the second quarter with a 5 yard Mike Evans end zone snag that cut the deficit to 7. But down the stretch, in the second half, the Lions’ defense proved overwhelmingly suffocating once again. On top of just 26 rush yards allowed, Detroit’s secondary played like genuine ball hawks. With big interceptions from James Ihedigbo and Glover Quin (on top of a recovered fumble by DT Andre Fluellen), the Lions crunched and compacted Tampa Bay QB Josh McCown. Detroit made sure that only Evans and Vincent Jackson were relevant through the air for Tampa Bay, and it worked perfectly. Offensively, of course, the Lions returned the favor and never game the Bucs a viable chance to come back. Again, I entirely concede that the Bucs are no match defensively, but it was great to see a potent air attack and a wonderfully complimentary running game. With another huge game from Calvin Johnson and Stafford, a second straight surprise showing from Joique Bell, and signs that the receiving corps in its entirety could be relevant, Detroit marched up and down the field. By taking a 27-10 lead into the fourth and eventually seizing a 17 point win, the Lions proved that they could do everything I assumed they could: win in big fashion with big offensive stat lines.

Yes, there were 9 penalties for 122 yards and there were also two failed attempts on fourth downs. And yes, it was the Buccaneers; the team in tight competition with Oakland, Jacksonville, Tennessee, and New York for the number one draft selection next April. But even with all of the qualifiers to another strong win, the Lions did everything they needed to conjure up consecutive wins and gain some momentum for their next three battles with Chicago, Minnesota, and most importantly, Green Bay.

What We Learned: Offense

Perhaps at the expense of regurgitating myself from last week, I still say that what we’ve seen from the offense recently just reiterates what they’ve always been capable of. The coach has been the same. The coordinator has been the same. The quarterback, his running back, and offensive line have been the same. No matter if you explain the recent ascension solely on Calvin Johnson’s reemergence and the team’s easy opponents, the fact is that this offense has big play potential.

Against Tampa Bay, the Lions certainly lived up to that big play potential. I’ll start by delineating the relative picture, which indicates that Detroit is playing its best offensive football of the season. Against the Bucs, the Lions generated 407 yards, their third most in that category behind only the Bears game and Week 1 against the Giants. With 294 net pass yards (accounting for sacks and lost yardage on pass plays), the Lions turned in their fourth best game on that front thanks to a huge game from Stafford, Johnson, and Bell. And speaking of Bell, the Lions ran for 113 total yards, which not only marks their third straight week of amassing more than 90 ground yards, but also signifies just the team’s third 100+ rush yard game of the season. Only against the Packers in Week 3 and the Vikings in Week 6  have the Lions otherwise rushed for at least 100 yards, which means that the next three games give reason for optimism. Add in the fact that with 34 points the Lions tied their second highest count in that area, and clearly there’s reason for laud.

Going from a relative sense to an absolute one, the Lions flat out played well yesterday. Detroit outdid Tampa Bay 22 first downs to just 15. More (and maybe most) importantly, the Lions also went 7 for 15 on third down, marking not just major improvement but also an ability to extend drives. With 13 total drives (the same as Tampa Bay), the Lions ran more plays, garnered more yards, scored more points, and won the time of possession battle by over 13 minutes. Thanks to a huge return from Joe Fauria and Bell’s own dominance, the Lions also went 80% in the red zone and averaged just shy of 6 yards per play on offense. No one expected the Buccaneers defense to completely stymie the Lions’ offense, but knowing that the Lions are occasional underwhelmers, it was encouraging to see Detroit live up to what was expected of it.

At an individual level, props first go to an offensive line which only let Stafford get hit six times and sacked four times (though for just 17 yards). With Larry Warford and Riley Reiff returning to full health amid battle born seasons, Detroit’s offensive line is finally coming together. With an NFC playoff picture dominated by Dallas and Green Bay –teams with deadly defensive pass rushes- the Lions will take yesterday’s performance as signs of confidence for the potential future. Fortunately for the line, though, was the play of Matthew Stafford which all by itself could have won the game. Coming off a spectacular contest with Chicago, Stafford went 26 of 34 (76%) for 311 yards with three touchdowns, no picks, and a 133.3 QB rating. At 76%, Stafford not only had his second consecutive 75%+ completion percentage game, but has been playing as accurate as ever in his entire career. Despite Reggie Bush’s perpetuated infecundity (just 8 carries for 26 yards), Stafford had major help once again from Bell who ran 18 times for 83 yards with a one yard touchdown. Through the air, the efforts of Calvin Johnson again seemed to counter various pundits’ claims that Megatron has lost his touch. With another enormous game, Johnson caught 8 balls for 158 yards, averaging 19.8 yards per snag and had a touchdown. Both Bell and Golden Tate chipped away at Tampa Bay’s secondary along the way, too, and together combined for 9 catches for 100 yards and a touchdown. Also worth mentioning is Eric Ebron and Fauria, who both collected a few receptions and made marginal but important catches down the stretch.

The Lions three best offensive games this year have been against the Giants, Bears, and now Buccaneers. Very few journalists, experts, let alone coaches will take that as extremely encouraging news. For most, it might just be emblematic of a deeper problem for the Lions, but if anything good, I’ll say that it’s great to know that team at least has it in it to light up a scoreboard.

What We Learned: Defense

We learned that the Tampa Bay Buccaneers simply had no real chance when they came in Detroit. Seriously.

Granted, Vincent Jackson had a great game. He caught 10 catches for 159 yards and exploded at times during the game. That’s simply normal, though, when he’s being covered by a much smaller and a significantly older Rashean Mathis most of the game. Mike Evans also looked good and did score two touchdowns, but as a 6’5, 231 lb first round receiver lined up against all 6’0, 192 lbs of Darius Slay, it just makes sense. In fairness to the Bucs, they have two talented receivers who played like it against the most suspect part of Detroit’s defense. But on the whole, there is no reason to complain about a Lions defense that kept an entire team to 26 rush yards and two touchdowns.

In totality, the Lions kept Tampa Bay to just 233 yards; the lowest amount since November 9th against Miami. With just 207 yards, Josh McCown was on lockdown all day en route to the Lions’ sixth best aerial defense of the season. Truth be told, McCown actually looked lackluster at best throughout the afternoon; he completed just 51.3% of his passes and wrapped up with a 67.3 QB rating. The Lions harassed McCown all day, sacking him six times, deflecting him eight times, and hitting him fourteen times. With a huge day from Ndamukong Suh (6 tackles, 3 for loss, 3 QB hits, and a sack), the Buccaneers not only struggled to protect the quarterback but also failed to run the ball. Fluellen, George Johnson, Ziggy Ansah, and C.J. Mosley also played at high levels on the defensive line, each of them picking up QB hits and sacks. And naturally DeAndre Levy played like an animal with five tackles, two for loss, two QB hits, and two sacks. With another quietly effective day from Tamir Whitehead to round out the effort, the Lions are surely one of the best front sevens in the entire NFL, and it was all on full display yesterday.

Although it still is Detroit’s most suspect defensive part, brief credit does go to the secondary. It’s definitely hard to live up to the same hype as the Lions’ offensive line and linebacking corps anchored by DeAndre Levy, but yesterday the Lions’ DBs played phonemically. Bearing in mind the advantages of Evans and Jackson, the Lions played great. Mathis, Slay, Quin, Ihedigbo, and Cassius Vaughn all deflected McCown passes and forced the rest of Tampa Bay’s receiving corps to just a four yard or so average in the air. In all, a big defensive day for Detroit and a reminder of just how tough the Lions can be when given the right conditions.

What We Still Want to Know

The Lions will enjoy their last home game against the Vikings this Sunday and should enjoy a third consecutive week of poor opponents. Maybe unlike the Bears and Bucs, though, the Vikings are enjoying some upward momentum at the moment. For Detroit, what I want to know more than anything is if the Lions can handle themselves the next two weeks against the Vikes and Bears, and in turn set themselves up for a showdown in Northern Wisconsin. It will be hard for the Lions to win this division, but if Detroit is going to be a serious threat come playoffs, they’ll need to set the tone through the rest of the month, starting when the Vikings roll down Woodward Ave. in six days.

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