Can Lions Break Road Skid?

For the fans it's been three long years of futility. For Steve Mariucci, he's lost his only road game as the Detroit Lions head coach. While former coach Marty Mornhinweg never won a game on the road in his tenure, that isn't likely to happen to Mariucci.

MATCHUP: DETROIT LIONS VS DENVER BRONCOS INVESCO FIELD AT MILE HIGH 4:15 EST
ALLTIME: DENVER LEADS 5-3
LAST MEETING: 12/25/99: DENVER 17-7 AT PONTIAC SILVERDOME
HIGHLIGHT: Denver rookie RB Olandis Gary rushes for 185 yards, including 174 in 2nd half.
INJURY REPORT: Detroit Lions: OUT: WR Eddie Drummond (ankle/knee); CB Andre' Goodman (shoulder). QUESTIONABLE: G Ray Brown (chest); WR Shawn Jefferson (ribs); WR Bill Schroeder (knee). PROBABLE: QB Joey Harrington (finger). Denver Broncos: QUESTIONABLE: DT Daryl Gardener (hand); S Kenoy Kennedy (ankle); RB Clinton Portis (chest). PROBABLE: RB Mike Anderson (knee); CB Willie Middlebrooks (neck); QB Jake Plummer (shoulder).

(ALLEN PARK) - For the fans it's been three long years of futility. For Steve Mariucci, he's lost his only road game as the Detroit Lions head coach. While former coach Marty Mornhinweg never won a game on the road in his tenure, that isn't likely to happen to Mariucci.

This is a coach who is well prepared, pays attention to detail and teaches even in the worst moments of defeat. While Detroit is really up against it this week against one of the top ten teams in the NFL on the road, Mariucci's lessons are going to pay dividends on the roads at some point this season.

Could it be this week?

Upsets are commonplace in the NFL and Detroit does have a few things working in their favor.

First, Denver is coming off a super emotional win over their hated rivals the Oakland Raiders. Denver gave Oakland a pasting in their 31-10 win over Al Davis and Co. That lifted an emotional monkey off their backs going back to the 2002 season.

A year ago, the Broncos came into the season with thoughts of going to the Super Bowl. Behind quarterback Brian Griese, Denver was the favorite in the AFC West. But Davis' Silver and Black dismantled the Broncos in a 34-10 route, which changed both teams’ fortunes.

Denver plummeted out of the playoff race and Oakland was the team making an appearance, albeit a loss, in the Super Bowl. Oakland at one point completed 21 consecutive pass plays in throttling the Broncos.

Donning all-blue uniforms Denver repaid the favor, making the Raiders look like a very old team in the process. With a showdown looming next week against a 3-0 Kansas City Chiefs team that many are calling the best in football, could the Broncos look past the Lions or have a letdown? Mariucci isn't buying that line of thought.

"I know we're sandwiched between two of their big rivals in Oakland and Kansas City," Mariucci said. "But I know Mike Shanahan very well and I know he will have his team prepared."

New Broncos starting quarterback Jake Plummer agreed. "There should be no letdown," said Plummer, who earlier this week was named AFC offensive player of the week. "We know what we're trying do and what we are trying to accomplish. And if we don't do it week-to-week, it's a setback and it would be very disappointing. We've got to get to 4-0."

There's no question, though, no matter how much you talk about it, the Lions appear to be a cupcake sandwiched between two steaks. It would be easy for the Broncos to look past Detroit.

Defending the Broncos:

Denver has more than a few weapons, starting with the reborn Plummer. Under the tutelage of Denver coach Mike Shanahan, Plummer (87.3 passer rating third in the AFC) has had an up-and-down season so far, but appears to be grasping Shanahan's system. If there's an Achilles heel to his game it is that he can be erratic and will thrown a bad ball if pressured. The rub is Detroit hasn't gotten much pressure on anyone and Denver's always excellent offensive line has only allowed two sacks of Plummer all season.

Detroit will need to get some help from Kalimba Edwards, their best rusher. Playing in only spot duty to date, Edwards has yet to get a sack, but his speed and long arms off the edge give Detroit their best chance to get to Plummer.

Denver's running game will take a hit if former Miami standout Clinton Portis can't go. Some Lions fans have never forgiven GM Matt Millen for bypassing Portis instead opting for Edwards in the second round.

Portis (ranks 4th in the AFC with 291 yards rushing) has fit right into the Broncos system and paid immediate dividends. However, a severely bruised sternum may keep Portis from lining up against Detroit. If he can't go fullback Mike Anderson, a former 1,000 yard rusher and old friend Rueben Droughns (former Lion) will tote the load for Denver. Detroit would love to see the backups instead of Portis.

When Plummer goes to the air he has a multitude of targets, starting with talkative and productive tight end Shannon Sharpe, back for his second tour of duty in Denver after a short stint in Baltimore. Sharpe with his knowledge of the game and great hands is always a threat and would love to take Lions rookie Boss Bailey to school.

Rod Smith leads the team in receptions with 11, but it is deep threat Ashley Lelie that puts the fear in opposing defenses. Lelie possess speed to burn and when he gets in a seam between defenders, more often than not he's gone. Lelie only has five catches, but those have gone for 153 yards, a 30.6 average. Detroit will likely match up it's best corner, Dre' Bly against Lelie. That leaves Smith matched up against likely starter Otis Smith.

While Denver (5th in the NFL in total offense) clearly has the advantage talent wise in most of these matchups, Detroit's front seven (31st in the NFL in total defense) must stay disciplined and carry out their assignments rather than overreacting they way they did in Green Bay.

Detroit showed themselves susceptible to play action, mis-direction and trap blocking all day long at Lambeau Field. Denver's front five of Matt Lepis, Dan Neil, Tom Nalen, Ben Hamilton and Ephraim Salaam will cut block and trap Detroit to death unless the Lions stay firm in their assignments. Lions middle linebacker Earl Holmes must read and react rather than overrunning plays like he has early on.

Lions Attack:

While ideally a team should try to have a balanced attack, this time Detroit ought to take a page out of the Oakland Raiders playbook. No, we don't want Earl Holmes to go spitting on anyone, but Denver was lit up a season ago when Oakland forgot its run game and went strictly to the pass. After completing 21 consecutive throws, Denver was totally on its heels and Oakland was able to dictate to the Denver defense.

Detroit should come out in a four-wide set and dink and dunk the Broncos to death. Joey Harrington (28th in passing 58.9 passer rating) must make better decisions and avoid throwing interceptions(six interceptions in last two games). Use rookie Avon Cobourne and Shawn Bryson in a two-back, three wide look and go to the most favorable match up. With receiver Bill Schroeder hurting, this is the perfect time to use Scotty Anderson splitting the seams, Az-Zahir Hakim and Charles Rogers in crossing routes and erratic tight end Mikhael Ricks sitting down in the soft areas of Denver's zone.

If the scheme works, Detroit could then use Bryson and former Bronco Olandis Gary on draw plays to keep the Orange Crush defense off-balance. If not, Detroit is toast. It really would be foolhardy to try to establish the run against the Broncos front seven (third in the AFC in run defense). Denver is more vulnerable against the pass (13th in the NFL in pass defense) than against the run.

If it comes down to a field goal contest, Detroit is in good hands. Super reliable Jason Hanson is every bit the equal of long legged Jason Elam, the Broncos solid kicker. Neither team has missed a field goal attempt, Elam is seven-for-seven while Hanson is four-for-four.

Special Teams:

Detroit will miss great return man Eddie Drummond and will turn the duties over to shifty Az-Zahir Hakim. Hakim will go against a return unit that is less than stellar. Detroit has a slight edge in the punting category. John Jett pins opponents inside their 20 35% of the time. While Denver's Micah Knoor is only effective 25% of the time. Knoor also has been susceptible to the block having had one blocked and several near misses. He tends to kick low and long and as a result opponents have wracked up 121 return yards against him nine kicks. Detroit must exploit one of the few weak links in the Denver ball club to good advantage.

Intangibles: Confidence is contagious. Denver has it in huge number, but overconfidence can be fatal. If Denver keeps a level head and comes in prepared to take care of business its lights out for Detroit. Turnovers can tilt a ballgame very quickly. Detroit's one chance is to create turnovers and capitalize on them while exploiting it's edge on special teams.

Pick:

Detroit will start fast and be in this one late, but Denver's superior talent and top-flight coaching will help them overcome and upset minded Lions team.

Denver 30 - Detroit 23


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