Detroit Lions vs. Atlanta Falcons: Dave Birkett’s scouting report, prediction

Detroit Free Press

Detroit Lions (2-3) vs. Atlanta Falcons (1-5)

The coaches: Lions-Matt Patricia (11-25-1 overall, 11-25-1 with Lions); Falcons-Raheem Morris (18-31 overall, 1-0 with Falcons).

Last game: Lions beat the Jacksonville Jaguars, 34-16; Falcons beat the Minnesota Vikings, 40-23.

Last meeting: Sept. 24, 2017: Falcons won, 30-26.

Dec 22, 2019; Atlanta, Georgia, USA; Atlanta Falcons defensive tackle Grady Jarrett (97) reacts after they defeated the Jacksonville Jaguars at Mercedes-Benz Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Jason Getz-USA TODAY Sports

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Key matchups

Lions RG Halapoulivaati Vaitai vs. Falcons DT Grady Jarrett — The Lions signed Vaitai to a $50 million free agent contract to play right tackle, but he’s expected to make his fourth straight start at guard Sunday, which puts him in line to go head-to-head with one of the best interior linemen in the NFL. Jarrett has 2.5 sacks in six games this season and drew high marks from Lions coach Matt Patricia for his power, explosion and instincts this week. He’s a game-wrecker whose low center of gravity and quickness could be an issue for Vaitai, who has settled in at guard after a rough debut last month. The Falcons do move Jarrett all around the interior of their defensive line, and occasionally split him wide of the tackle, so it will take a full team effort from the Lions to keep him at bay.

More on Lions OLs:

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Falcons WR Julio Jones vs. Lions CB Jeff Okudah — What did Okudah do to anger the football gods? He went from Davante Adams in his NFL debut, to DeAndre Hopkins the next week, and now he gets future first-ballot Hall-of-Famer Jones for the main course. Jones missed time with a hamstring injury earlier this season and sat out practice Wednesday, so his health is worth monitoring. But he exploded for 137 yards and two touchdowns last week and at 31 years old remains one of the best receivers in the game. Okudah has had a rocky start to his NFL career, but must be at the top of his game Sunday because with the explosive Calvin Ridley playing opposite Jones, the Lions can’t afford to shade help too far his way.

Scouting report

Lions run offense vs. Falcons run defense

The Lions are coming off their best rushing day of the season, a 180-yard performance against the Jacksonville Jaguars, but that effort wasn’t quite as efficient as it appeared. Take away two big first quarter runs against busted defenses, D’Andre Swift’s 54-yard run, when the safety vacated his responsibility, and Matthew Stafford’s 17-yard third down scramble, and a couple late-game kneel-downs and the Lions averaged just 3.3 yards per carry.

Detroit Lions running back D'Andre Swift runs the ball against the Jacksonville Jaguars during the second quarter Oct. 18, 2020, at TIAA Bank Field.

Swift saw an uptick in work last week with a season-high 14 carries, but the Lions won’t stray far from their by-committee backfield. Adrian Peterson remains the starter and the team’s favored between-the-tackles option, and Kerryon Johnson gets a handful of touches as a dirty-work back. Center Frank Ragnow should play, though he missed practice time this week with a groin injury, and the Lions do have the more powerful front.

The Falcons give up more yards per play than any team in the NFL, but they’ve been relatively solid against the run. Three of Atlanta’s six opponents have failed to crack 90 yards rushing, and two of the biggest plays the Falcons have allowed — a 45-yard run by Mitchell Trubisky and 28-yarder by Russell Wilson — have come from quarterbacks. Grady Jarrett and Tyeler Davison give the Falcons a nice 1-2 combo at defensive tackle, and Deion Jones is one of the fastest linebackers in the league. Edge: Falcons

Lions pass offense vs. Falcons pass defense

As badly as the Lions want to establish the run, this is a game where they should have plenty of success putting the ball in the air. The Falcons have a young secondary that surrenders more passing yards per game (335.3) than all but one other team, and outside of Jarrett they don’t have a consistent pass rusher.

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That could be good news for Matthew Stafford, whose completion percentage (60.7%) is at a six-year low. Stafford finally found his deep passing stroke last week, connecting on two long throws to Kenny Golladay, but he’s been let down by a receiving corps that struggles to get separation against man coverage and has dropped 8.5% of its chances this year, according to Pro Football Reference.

Golladay and tight end T.J. Hockenson do give the Lions two formidable red-zone targets, and Swift is second on the team with 16 receptions. As long as they can hold up against Jarrett and Atlanta’s interior pass rush, this should be a get-right game for the Lions’ passing attack. Edge: Lions

Falcons run offense vs. Lions run defense

He’s not the best running back in the NFL, like he was briefly during his Rams days, but Todd Gurley has experienced a bit of a resurgence in Atlanta. Gurley leads the Falcons and ranks eighth in the league with 422 yards rushing, and Atlanta is riding him to the tune of about 18 touches a game.

Atlanta Falcons running back Todd Gurley II (21) eludes a tackle by Green Bay Packers safety Darnell Savage.

Neither Gurley nor backup Brian Hill did much in the Falcons’ blowout win last week, and the success of this offense is much more about what happens through the air than it is on the ground. The Falcons don’t have a home run hitter in their backfield, but they at least run the ball enough to keep defenses honest.

The Lions shut down Jacksonville’s rushing attack last week, but allowed 170 yards on the ground in their first four games. Rookie John Penisini has taken over at nose tackle, and his solid play has allowed the Lions to get more out of Danny Shelton and Nick Williams. Penisini has a tough matchup against six-time Pro Bowl center Alex Mack that ultimately could decide who wins the rushing battle. Edge: Falcons

Falcons pass offense vs. Lions pass defense

Matt Ryan entered the week second in the NFL in pass attempts, behind rookie Joe Burrow, and there’s good reason the Falcons lean so heavily on their pass offense. Ryan is 35 and a few years removed from his MVP season, but he’s still a savvy passer with good weapons around him, and he’s limited his turnovers this year.

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Julio Jones’ status is a little up in the air because of a lingering hamstring injury, but he looked fine while blowing up for 137 yards and two touchdowns last week. Jones and Calvin Ridley give the Falcons one of the best 1-2 receiver combinations in the NFL, and the Falcons weapons don’t stop there. Russell Gage is an effective No. 3, and tight end Hayden Hurst has three touchdowns.

The Lions finally got something out of their pass rush last week, and it will be interesting to see if they stay as aggressive with their blitz game Sunday. Neither Desmond Trufant nor Justin Coleman is expected to play, which means Jeff Okudah and Darryl Roberts will join Amani Oruwariye as the Lions’ starting cornerbacks again. Edge: Falcons

Special teams

Jack Fox showed he was human with a pair of touchbacks last week, but he still leads the league in net punting average and the Lions’ special teams operation still is one of the best in the NFL. The dangerous Jamal Agnew has just two punt returns this year, as teams have mostly kicked away from him, and the Lions have been good about winning the field position battle on kickoffs and punts. Matt Prater is 0 for 3 on field goal tries of 55-plus yards, but perfect from everywhere else.  

Falcons kicker Younghoe Koo has made 9 of 10 kicks from 40-plus yards and showed no ill effects last week from the groin injury that sidelined him briefly earlier this month. The Falcons probably won’t give Agnew much of a chance to return punts s they’ve allowed just five returns all year, but rookie punter Sterling Hofrichter is more about placement than distance. Former Lions receiver Brandon Powell is handling most of the return duties for the Falcons. Edge: Lions

Detroit Lions head coach Matt Patricia, center, during the game against the Jacksonville Jaguars at TIAA Bank Field on Sunday, October 18, 2020.

Prediction

The Lions hammered one of the worst teams in the NFL last week, the Jacksonville Jaguars, and while the Falcons and Jaguars have identical 1-5 records, Atlanta is the far superior team. The Falcons aren’t great by any means, but they’re similar to the Lions in that they have an explosive offense, subpar defense and tendency to blow late-game leads. The Falcons did play their best all-around game of the season in last week’s win over the Minnesota Vikings, and there’s a chance interim coach Raheem Morris will permanently wake them from their malaise. But if the Lions truly fashion themselves as playoff contenders — and they do — this is a game they absolutely cannot afford to lose. Neither one of these teams has stopped a good offense all year, so whoever’s holding the ball last in this game should come out with the win. Pick: Falcons 31, Lions 30

Contact Dave Birkett at dbirkett@freepress.com. Follow him on Twitter @davebirkett.

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