Lions Prepare To Stop Tomlinson, San Diego

Another week, another great running back. That's the attitude in Allen Park this week as the Lions and defensive tackle Shaun Rogers prepare for the arrival of LaDainian Tomlinson, the AFC's 4th leading rusher on Sunday at Ford Field.

(ALLEN PARK) - Another week, another great running back.

That's the attitude in Allen Park this week as the Lions prepare for the arrival of LaDainian Tomlinson, the AFC's 4th leading rusher on Sunday at Ford Field.

Normally, the presence of a back like Tomlinson would strike fear into the hearts of the opposing defense, but you'll forgive the Detroit Lions if they have a "ho-hum" attitude. It isn't that they don't fear Tomlinson and what he can bring to the table, it's just Detroit is brimming with confidence after stuffing the NFC's leading rusher, Ahman Green of Green Bay last week, holding him to a meager 54 yards rushing, one of his lowest outputs of the season.

“I’ll tell you what, that front four is very, very impressive," said San Diego head coach Marty Schottenheimer of Detroit's defensive line. "Of course, I had Dan Wilkinson in Washington and he was a very good player for us down there. The game he played the other day against Green Bay is as good as I’ve ever seen Dan play. I thought he was dominant in that game, and with Shaun Rogers, they’re very similar-type players. You don’t move them very far. They don’t go very far.”

Lions' head coach Steve Mariucci admitted that he was pleased with what he has up front, particularly Rogers and Wilkinson. "I’ve bragged about our defensive line group several times. They are the ones who have to control the line of scrimmage and protect our linebackers so they can run to the ball, push the pocket and contain the quarterback. We’ve been able to do that quite a bit of the time with just a four-man rush. I like our two interior tackles, good players.”

Tomlinson says he knows what he's up against facing Detroit. “It’s definitely going to be tough. They have a good defense. That definitely will be a challenge for us and we’ve got to be ready to play. I think their front four is one of the best in the NFL that I’ve seen – they really cause a lot of havoc. I think that’s the biggest thing for me. Their front four is awesome.”

Tomlinson has heard that one of his favorite players, Lions' legend Barry Sanders will very likely make his public return to the franchise by attending his first game as an ex-Lion this week and the idea of playing in front of one of the all-time great excites him.

“I’m going to have to watch some Barry Sanders' tape this week. We’ve just got go in and keep those guys from penetrating into the backfield just to give the running game a chance and possibly make some plays.”

If the Lions are able to slow the run, it puts the onus on the quarterback to make plays to move the chains. This Sunday, despite a mild quarterback controversy, Schottenheimer said 41-year old Doug Flutie would be the starter on Sunday. Mariucci said that Flutie's years of experience pose a potential problem for the Lions.

“He’s a heck of a drummer. Didn’t he beat Joey in the little thing the other night? Joey is just in the tank," said Mariucci alluding to Flutie's defeat of Harrington in the Monday Night Football music contest.

"I remember coaching against him when he was in the USFL and I remember him, well, coming out of Boston College. He had a little magic to him. It’s hard to explain what it is. He can just play the game. He is smart, he is quick. From what I understand he is a gym rat. He is very athletic. He can do a lot of things. He’s been lucky enough to stay healthy during his lengthy career. Typically, smaller guys get banged up and he has been able to survive and bounce around and play in every league. He is an exciting guy. He can create. He is just a dangerous guy. He is a Fran Tarkenton kind of guy. He moves around. He makes plays with his legs and his arm. He’s got more arm than you think he has so he is a special guy.”

But if there is a more special player on the field for San Diego it's Detroit native Antonio Gates.

Yes, that Antonio Gates.

You remember him, he led Kent State, OH to the quarterfinals of the NCAA BASKETBALL tournament two years ago. Despite not playing football since his high school days in the Detroit PSL, Gates walked onto the Chargers and made the squad. Now, he's their starting tight end.

Amazing.

“We obviously liked him and the feeling was that he had an opportunity to develop because he was athletic, he was bright and as the thing began to unfold, it became very obvious that he could be physical and could enjoy physical play," said Schottenheimer. "I don’t want to get overzealous about the young man, but barring injury, I think he’s got an opportunity to be a terrific tight end in the National Football League. He blocks and he likes to block. He’s physical and he obviously he’s a good route runner. His catching radius is probably the best of anybody on our football team.”

Schottenheimer said that the 6-4 260-lb Gates has an "x" factor about him. “A couple of things have factored in. He wasn’t intimidated by the big stage as evidenced by his role on the basketball team at Kent State in their play in the NCAAs and his role in that. We knew he wasn’t going to be intimidated by the big stage. In discussions with him, he was a very down to earth young man and I know Detroit was trying to sign him. I understand that they were going to sign him as a defensive lineman and it was interesting because I was kidding him just today about that and he said, ‘Coach, my biggest plays as a player were on offense, not on defense.’ But he’s a fine young man and really an exciting young prospect.”

Gates caught his first TD pass of his career last week, an 18-yarder from Flutie and will likely get the start this week for San Diego.

The San Diego head coach will, for the first time, work against his brother, Detroit defensive coordinator Kurt Schottenheimer and Marty admits, it will be awkward.

MATCHUPS:
Detroit's defensive front four should be able to exert its will on San Diego, but that won't stop Schottenheimer from giving the ball to Tomlinson at least 15-20 times. As long as San Diego is within striking distance they feel giving the ball to their third-year back is as good an option as passing the football and their right. Detroit can't get overconfident, they must keep Tomlinson in front of them because he can go the distance on any play.

Detroit's Joey Harrington has played well and shows signs of grasping the full version of the West Coast offense. If Detroit does fall behind, Harrington must maintain his poise and execute the offense. That was a main reason, despite throwing four interceptions on the road in Minneapolis, Mariucci refused to pull the second-year signal caller.

“(We have to) continue to do what we’re doing, by continuing to get the fan support and by continuing to play smart football. We’ve played a lot better at home, obviously. We’ve lost a few games in a row on the road but every time we come home we feel comfortable. We feel good knowing that we’re prepared and that the crowd is going to be with us and that’s something that’s really big and instrumental in helping to build that home-field advantage.”

Harrington will have a new weapon at his disposal. Newly signed wide receiver James Williams will line up as the fourth receiver and could be No. 3 if Az-Zahir Hakim isn't healthy enough to play. Hakim was held out of practice this week.

“That’s nothing new," said Harrington. We’ve had guys coming in and out at every position but the thing that I’ve been very impressed with is how well people have adjusted and being able to come in, play and make an impact. Reggie Swinton, Doug Evans; guys have been able to come in and play well for this team, offense or defense and so I don’t think it will be any different.”

He is aware of the presence of the player many analysts and even some within the Lions organization wanted to draft instead of him, Quentin Jammer.

“I played against him in college and he was a good player. I haven’t had a chance to see him in person in the NFL yet. I’ve heard that he struggled a little bit last season but last week he played terrific. He had had two interceptions and made some big plays. I’ve played against him so I know what kind of player he can be.

He’s physical. He’ll get up in your face, he’ll jam you, no pun intended, and he’ll get after you. That’s what that whole Texas defense did. There were a lot of man coverage, a lot of in-your-face and he’s carried that style with him.”

One weapon Harrington will have to wait another week for is running back Artose Pinner. Coach Mariucci has ruled Pinner out for this week and is instead pointing towards the Kansas City game.

“We’re probably leaning towards saving him for Arrowhead,” Mariucci stated. “That might be a little too early. He hasn’t had a chance to practice all the plays with Joey and the rest of them. He’s getting a little bit at a time so we’ll see.”

That means Shawn Bryson will be the primary running threat for Detroit with Olandis Gary in reserve. Neither has had a 100-yard rushing game. Still with Detroit at home and San Diego struggling with injuries along its offensive line, Detroit should win the ballgame.

“Having a great crowd at home and having a tough place to play starts with the team’s performance. It starts with good football, aggressive football and entertaining football. Then the fans feed off of that and they certainly can help it from the start,” Mariucci said.

“We’re all in this together. I think having won a few in a row now and having a chance to win another one, I think our players enjoy playing there. I know our fans enjoy being there. It’s a fabulous venue. As we go and as we continue to win and play well there and develop that environment and that atmosphere there, that’s beneficial for us and detrimental to the opponent then it will gain that reputation over time.”

PICK: The Lions reach a milestone, winning five games for the first time since 1999. They have some fun and put this one out of reach early.

Detroit 24  -  San Diego 10


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