Scouting the Lions: Offense

The schedule appears to have gotten easier since the one win Bengals left town, as the 0-13 Lions slouch their way into Lucas Oil Stadium. But, Detroit took the Vikings to the brink last week. Can their offense stand up to the Colts? Brad Keller breaks it down.

Offensive Line:

When a team loses their first 13 games, it's easy to find a number of holes in their lineup, and Detroit is no exception.

They currently rank 30th in the NFL in rushing and 26th in passing, which is quite an accomplishment, considering that they've been far behind in a number of games and have gained a lot of yards through the air in garbage time.

However, they have not been without their issues along the offensive line.  Week 14 against the Vikings was the first time since Week 9 that all three of their interior lineman — guards Edwin Mulitalo and Stephen Peterman and center Dominic Raiola — were starting together in the same game.

The times that the same five linemen have started together have been few and far between this season due to injuries or ineffectiveness.  It's true that the Colts have had similar struggles with various ailments in 2008, but the Lions didn't draft two guards and a center in April and they don't have Peyton Manning on the payroll.


Gosder Cherilus is looking like the force ColtPower predicted before the draft
Getty/Dominic Centofani

The good news for Detroit is that the tide seems to be turning in their favor, their hub linemen are all back and healthy, and rookie right tackle Gosder Cherilus — with whom ColtPower readers should already be familiar from our draft coverage — is coming into his own as the dominant, imposing force that he seemed to be heading into this year's draft.

The bad news is that left tackle Jeff Backus' claim to fame is that he's started every game for the Lions since being drafted in the first round in 2001.  He has little else to hang his hat on, is not particularly overwhelming at the point of attack, and lacks the feet and hip flexibility to adequately block speed rushers.

In short, Backus is a dream come true for Dwight Freeney and a nightmare matchup problem for the Detroit coaching staff.  Jon Abraham victimized him for three sacks earlier this season and Jared Allen has been very effective against him so far.  Backus will need some assistance, either from a running back, a tight end, or both.

Robert Mathis and Raheem Brock face a much stiffer challenge in Cherilus, since he's too powerful to go through and too big and swift to go around.

What they need to do is get into his body, force him upfield, then cut inside to clean up after Freeney.  Freeney will most likely take a wide angle to the quarterback and make him either step up or sacked. 

Mathis and Brock, as well as Antonio Johnson and Eric Foster or Keyunta Dawson (if available) pushing from the inside, should be able to take advantage of a harried quarterback that is desperately trying to escape Freeney's grasp, only to find himself in the arms of one of the other members of the front four.

Wide Receivers:

Injuries have struck the receiving corps as well, though their depth was also challenged by the Roy E. Williams trade.  The man to watch is Calvin Johnson, the culmination of a run of first-round receivers for the Lions, he was the one that paid off.


WR Calvin Johnson has the total package for a wide receiver
Al Messerschmidt/Getty Images

Johnson has an outstanding mix of speed, size, hands, and determination.  Whereas Braylon Edwards may drop too many passes and Vincent Jackson may give up on a play, Johnson will always grip the ball and will never give up on a play or a game that has gotten out of hand, which shows in the fact that he has done so well in the fourth-quarter of blowouts.

Since the hope is that Detroit will be down big early, the most important thing Indianapolis needs to do on defense is bracket Johnson with a linebacker in the slot, a cornerback jamming him at the line of scrimmage, and a safety over the top.  Kelvin Hayden has returned from injury and is playing well.  He will have his hands full on Sunday, but should be physical enough to handle his assignment.

With Bob Sanders back as well, they should be able to put him in the box, play Cover 1, and shade Antoine Bethea to Johnson's side of the field.

Mike Furrey and Shaun McDonald have both experienced their moment in the sun, but have been relegated to second and third fiddle to Johnson, combining for 51 receptions for 513 and one touchdown.

Tight end Michael Gaines is far less talented and less involved in the game plan than most of the tight ends the Colts have faced this season.

If Indianapolis is able to shut down Johnson and stifle the running game, they will be able to shut down the Lions offense.

Running Backs:

Kevin Smith has been one of the few bright spots for Detroit in an otherwise dismal season.  With only nine starts on his NFL resume, Smith has totaled 932 yards from scrimmage and five touchdowns.  He has accounted for 67 percent of their rushing yards and all but two of their rushing touchdowns.

But, it needs to be mentioned that, since the Lions are 30th in the league in rushing, averaging only 78.2 yards per game, experiencing this kind of production in this offense is kind of like taking your cousin to the prom.  This is not a potent offense, nor a potent rushing attack and, as ColtPower covered recently, running against the Colts isn't a salve for any ailing running game, but more of a caffeinated protein bar for a healthy one.

The defensive line simply needs to stay in their gaps and penetrate the line of scrimmage.  Whether the tailback running with the ball is Smith or Rudi Johnson, the important thing for the Colts will be to force them to either cut or start running east-to-west.

Both men are more effective when they can attack the defense north-to-south, set up their blocks, and make yards after contact when they have a head of steam. 

If the Indianapolis defensive line can get them off track, then Buster Davis, Clint Session, and Freddy Keiaho can flow to the ball and make the play.

If not, then it's possible that these two powerful men could start to wear the defense down by the end of the game.

Quarterback:

Whether Daunte Culpepper and his sore shoulder, Dan Orlovsky and his wounded hand, or Drew Stanton and his concussed cranium takes snaps for this team is irrelevant.

None of these men has the kind of talent around him, nor the personal ability to keep pace with the Colts in a shootout, especially when you consider that Detroit's defense is 31st in the league. 

The Lions are going to need to be able to run the ball effectively, keep it out of the hands of Manning and company, and control the clock, potentially hitting Johnson for some big plays if the defense creeps up too much. Therefore, it behooves Indianapolis to shut down the running game at all costs and bracket Johnson as much as possible.

Bottom Line: If it ends up happening that the Colts were defeated as a result of huge games by McDonald and Furrey against a pass defense that has only allowed four passing touchdowns all season, then Detroit was destined to win this game.

X-Factor:

Desperation.  The Lions played desperate against the Vikings last week and nearly pulled off an upset after Minnesota stumbled out of the gate, committed too many penalties, and lost too many turnovers.

Detroit did have some early success running the ball against a very stout Vikings front seven.  That boils down to desperate men doing whatever they can to open up holes in the running game in an attempt to make something happen.

With a playoff spot still on the line for Indianapolis, an excellent coaching staff, and a focused group of core veterans, it is extremely unlikely that the Colts players and staff will look past this game.  With the trap out of the way, the only thing left to overcome is a bunch of guys that don't want to go 0-16.


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