Tight end tightrope:
Antonio Gates will be absent as he sits out the first game of his four-game suspension. This is a chance for tight end Ladarius Green to step up ... except, Green might be sitting this one out too -- or at the very least, limited. The fourth-year player was concussed on Wednesday during practice. He skipped Thursday's practice, but participated in full during a non-contact practice on Friday. As of Friday afternoon, he had not been cleared for contact, though that could happen before Sunday. The team re-signed veteran John Phillips on Thursday and Phillips remained on the roster going into Sunday's game, which makes it more realistic Green would be somewhat unavailable in this one.
Defensive line domination:
The Lions defense was tops in the NFL last season in average rushing yards allowed per game (69.3) and yards per carry (3.2). Although they lost tackle Ndamukong Suh to the Dolphins, they acquired tackles Haloti Ngata and Tyrunn Walker inside. The 6-foot-4, 345-pound Ngata missed all of training camp and all four preseason games, but should play Sunday. Whether his health will be a factor remains to be seen, but if healthy, the two-time All-Pro could give opposing linemen – and the running backs -- some fits.
This game is a test for San Diego’s secondary. Cornerbacks Jason Verrett and Brandon Flowers should have their hands full with wide receivers Calvin Johnson and Golden Tate. Johnson caught 71 passes for 1,077 yards and eight touchdowns in 2014, while Tate notched career highs -- 99 receptions, 1,331 yards and four touchdowns in his first season with the Lions.
“There’s a lot of great receivers in this league,” Flowers said. “He’s one of them. It doesn’t matter who we play. We want to step on the field and do what we’re supposed to do … He’s great when the ball is in the air. He can do everything, that’s why he’s respected the way he is. We just have to compete, challenge him and may the best man win. It’ll be a good test.”
Lions on the attack:
Three Pro Bowlers anchor the Lions offense: Quarterback Matthew Stafford and receivers Johnson and Tate. New to the group is rookie running back Ameer Abdullah, a second-round draft pick who – like Melvin Gordon – will be looking to make an impact. Abdullah joins Joique Bell, who ended the 2014 campaign with 34 receptions for 860 yards. Stafford, entering his seventh season, passed for more than 4,000 yards last season and finished the year with 22 touchdowns and an 85.7 passer rating.
Running back mix:
Now, it counts. How will Melvin Gordon do in a full 60-minute match, against a Lions defense that is at the very least a good test, if not more. Expect the Chargers to go with their aforementioned “running back by committee” approach – and why not? They’ve got a healthy Danny Woodhead and also a spry Branden Oliver, who looks even more explosive than last year.
Offensive coordinator Frank Reich said earlier this week that Woodhead looks “stronger than ever.”
Pass rush props:
The Chargers’ front seven looked better this past preseason than it has in several years, but now comes the real test. Lions quarterback Matthew Stafford has a big arm and can be shifty outside the pocket. Can this Chargers defense make him panic? We’ll see Sunday. Also, with linebacker Jeremiah Attaochu limited in practice this week, there’s a possibility we’ll see more of fifth-round pick Kyle Emanuel.
Reich acknowledged Thursday that this game will be a good test for how their little “experiment” on the offensive line is working. How does D.J. Fluker fare at right guard for a full sixty minutes? How cohesive is this line as a whole? Chemistry and communication will be something to watch.