DETROIT LIONS (2-1) at ATLANTA FALCONS (4-0)
GEORGIA DOME, ATLANTA, GA 1:00 EST
DETROIT - LB Boss Bailey (knee) and RB Kevin Jones (ankle) are out. CB André Goodman (hamstring) is doubtful. CB Dré Bly (knee) and FB Cory Schlesinger (hamstring) are questionable. DE James Hall (hand) is probable.
ATLANTA - CB DeAngelo Hall (hip) is out. LB Jamie Duncan (pectoral) and CB Jason Webster (knee) are questionable. S Cory Hall (back) is probable.
(ALLEN PARK) - The Detroit Lions are heading toward the final stretch of what has been a three-week testing period. The test? Are the Lions capable of being a playoff team?
After an outstanding 2-0 start, Detroit's three week period of testing began with a home game against an elite NFC opponent, the Philadelphia Eagles. The Eagles blowout win against the Lions didn't necessarily mean the team failed the test. With a bye week to rest and get healthy, Detroit goes on the road to play a good team, the 4-0 Falcons led by former San Francisco 49ers defensive coordinator Jim Mora, Jr.
If the Lions could indeed win one of the two, the team has to be realistically looked at as a playoff contender. If not, then they most likely are a pretender, a year away. A playoff team wins road games against good opponents. A playoff team wins games at home against playoff teams. Sunday, Detroit will get a chance to show whether or not they are for real.
Lions' head coach Steve Mariucci agree's this game is another measuring stick for his young Lions. "We're playing against another team that is first in their division. They're undefeated and they're pretty confident right now. Michael Vick is getting better and better and their defense is pretty darn good. I think their city is excited. It should be a full house down there. It gives us another opportunity to see what we can do on the road and build on what we started in Chicago. It'll be a good test."
WHEN THE FALCONS HAVE THE BALL
It's no secret that the Falcons have made their living running the football. Ranking #1 in the NFC in rushing, Detroit will have to slow the Falcons running game and force Michael Vick to beat them ... with his arm. Part of the problem in stopping Vick is that his legs are more dangerous than his left arm is throwing the ball. But Vick is no slouch in that department. Although the Falcons rank 15th in the NFC in passing, Vick possess one of the strongest arms in football, he simply hasn't grasped all the nuances of the West Coast Offense that Atlanta offensive coordinator Greg Knapp installed this offseason.
Vick really enjoys checking the ball down to tight end Alge Crumpler who has become like a security blanket when the rush threatens. Vick simply dumps it off and lets Crumpler do his thing. Detroit's vanilla cover-two defense's strategy should be to crowd the line of scrimmage and take their chances the Vick won't be able to connect enough with top receiver Peerless Price to hurt them too badly.
Atlanta's Jim Mora says he isn't worried about the Falcons passing game right now.
"I think that (passing) comes last when you're putting in a new offense," said Mora. "Your third down and your red zone stuff are usually things that are hardest to get taught, hardest to get executed. I'm happy because we are running the ball well. In the first halves of games when you start tight, however you want to say it, our passing game has been outstanding. Mike has been outstanding in the first halves of games. I think if you take the Cardinals game, he wasn't outstanding, but the other three games he has been very, very good. I'm not concerned with it at all because I know it is going to take a while, but once it gets going it is going to be fun to watch."
Crowding the line of scrimmage will allow Detroit to stuff the short passing lanes where Vick dumps the ball off as well as keep eight men close to the line of scrimmage in order to shutdown the high-powered Falcons run game led by Warrick Dunn, former Michigan State standout T.J. Duckett and Vick.
If the Falcons get into the secondary, its waive bye-bye and send the kick return team onto the field. But when you're on the road, you have take some chances.
WHEN DETROIT HAS THE BALL
The Lions Roy Williams has become option number 1 for quarterback Joey Harrington when the Lions look to throw the football. Williams feels Atlanta's secondary, even without #1 pick DeAngelo Hall poses problems.
"On defense, they just play together as a group," said Williams. "You got (Aaron) Beasley who comes in for Nickel situations, and he's the veteran of that group. He plays the ball pretty well in the air. Their secondary is pretty good."
Detroit needs to put a stop to the slow offensive starts that nearly cost them a win against Houston and killed them in the loss to Philadelphia. Harrington said he's at a loss to figure it out.
"If I knew how to do it and I knew exactly what to put my finger on, it would have been done by now. It's something that just kind of happens and we've fought our way through it. I don't think it's necessarily one specific thing every time. We've just been slow to start. It's something that we can definitely correct, but like I said, I don't know exactly what it is to put my finger on."
Detroit wants to avoid becoming one-dimensional against an opportunistic Falcons defense that has caused turnovers and currently ranks 3rd in the NFC in giveaway-takeaway ratio. To do that, Detroit will have to rely on tailback Artose Pinner who'll get the start in the absence of rookie Kevin Jones (sprained ankle). Pinner, who Detroit drafted in the fourth round two years ago from Kentucky will get a chance to show what he can do.
If Detroit can't field at least a semblance of a running game, it's turn loose the hounds for Atlanta. Defensive end Patrick Kearney, who leads the NFL with an incredible seven sacks in four games is hoping that is the case.
"It puts our (opponent) in a real bind. Those two or three series there at the end of a game where you can just go ahead and rush the passer; because if they pick up seven yards on the draw and eat up forty seconds it is not going to hurt you so much."
Kearney said that having Mora, a former defensive coordinator who is a real 'high octane' personality, has rubbed off on the entire defense.
"I don't know how much Coach Mora has affected this defensive unit in particular as much as he has affected the whole team with his energy. You hang around the guy for just a couple of minutes and you'd swear the guy's blood is half caffeine. He's on the go all of the time and it has a tendency to trickle down to the entire team. That's the way we're showing up on the defensive side of the ball."
Still, the Falcons have been hit in the passing game and appear to be subsceptible to it. Kearney says it's all the way you look at the statistics.
"I think that [Atlanta's rank against the pass] (has more to do) with statistics. I think passing yards are only going to hurt you if you give up the big plays. If you're playing great defense down in and down out, then you give up a 60-yard touchdown pass, that is when it hurts you. Our guys on the back end have done such a great job of when passes are caught, bringing those guys down to the ground and letting us get back in the huddle and getting another shot at that offense."
One area Detroit ought to explore is using tight end Stephen Alexander. Alexander has speed and range to get behind the linebackers, but has so far almost been ignored in the Lions WCO. Harrington ought to take a look at how Vick uses Crumpler and start throwing the ball to a player on with more talent than Crumpler, especially in the absence of Jones and fullback Cory Schelsinger.
Will Detroit take a chance at crowding the line of scrimmage to crimp Vick and Co.'s style? Will Harrington throw the ball to Alexander. Will Artose Pinner be effective enough in the run game. Can Detroit stop Atlanta's high powered rushing attack?
Those are all questions that will play a part in determining the outcome of this one. I've said all along that Detroit is a year away from being a playoff team. This is one of those game that show why.
ATLANTA 27 - DETROIT 17