Detroit Lions vs. Indianapolis Colts: Dave Birkett’s scouting report, prediction

Detroit Free Press

Dave Birkett
| Detroit Free Press

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Detroit Lions (3-3) vs. Indianapolis Colts (4-2)

The coaches: Matt Patricia (12-25-1 overall, 12-25-1 with Lions); Frank Reich (21-17 overall, 21-17 with Colts).

Last game: Lions beat the Atlanta Falcons, 23-22; Colts beat the Cincinnati Bengals, 31-27.

Last meeting: Sept. 11, 2016 when Lions won, 39-35.

Key matchups

Colts LG Quenton Nelson vs. Lions DT Danny Shelton: It’s rare that teams talk about game-planning for an interior offensive lineman, but that’s exactly what coach Matt Patricia said the Lions did with Nelson, the NFL’s premier guard. The Colts run so much of their offense Nelson’s way that Patricia said “you have to be aware of him and where maybe some of the attack points are with their offensive line. Even in the run game, it may be headed in a different direction, but it may all wind up back at the same spot.” The Lions have done a good job up front the past two weeks, with Shelton playing primarily off the nose in a defensive tackle position. Indy wants to establish control of the game, so the Lions need Shelton to clog rushing lanes that Nelson helps create, and maybe get a little interior pass rush on Philip Rivers.

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Lions WR Marvin Jones vs. Colts CB Xavier Rhodes: Kenny Golladay is the guy circled on the Colts’ stop sheet, but Jones and Rhodes have been going at it so long that this matchup should feel familiar to a lot of people. Jones had some of the best games of his career against Rhodes, when the cornerback was with the Minnesota Vikings. He beat Rhodes for two touchdowns in a career-high-tying four-touchdown game last October. And in 2017, Jones went for 109 yards and two touchdowns – most of it against Rhodes – in a Thanksgiving loss. The Colts play a ton of zone, so Jones and Rhodes will square off only so often. But when they do, Matthew Stafford should feel incredibly confident going Jones’ way.

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Scouting report

Lions run offense vs. Colts run defense

The Colts have one of the best defenses in the NFL. They rank second in total defense and fourth in scoring defense, and it starts with a third-ranked rush defense that typically keeps teams behind the chains. DeForest Buckner is a disruptive force inside, and his presence allows linebacker Darius Leonard to roam and make plays.

The Lions will have their work cut out against a team that has allowed two 100-yard rushing games all season. D’Andre Swift has been the Lions’ most effective back of late, but outside of two big plays against the Jacksonville jaguars, yards have been tough to come by even on the ground.

Adrian Peterson leads the Lions in rushing, and he and Swift are in a timeshare that does not appear to be changing soon. Peterson runs hard and has elite vision, but Swift has game-breaking ability. The only team to have success against the Colts on the ground, the Cleveland Browns, got two big runs on third downs, a scramble by quarterback Baker Mayfield and a fourth quarter run against a defense that was thinking pass. Edge: Colts 

Lions pass offense vs. Colts pass defense

Stafford is coming off his best game of the season, and the most important thing he can do Sunday is not turn the football over. The Colts lead the NFL with 10 interceptions, are assignment-sound in the secondary and rarely get beat deep.

Stafford showed his mastery of late-game and late-half situations again last week, but the Lions need to move the ball more consistently. They’ve had too many drops from their receiving corps, and too few big plays. Golladay is the exception to that, as he keeps making tough catches. And tight end T.J. Hockenson is one of the NFL’s best red zone threats, though the Colts have not allowed a touchdown to a tight end this season.

Buckner and Justin Houston (3.5 sacks) lead a formidable pass rush, Leonard is one of the game’s best coverage linebackers, and rookie safety Julian Blackmon has impressed since replacing the injured Malik Hooker as a starter, with two interceptions and six passes defensed. Edge: Colts

Colts run offense vs. Lions run defense

As good across the board as they are on defense, the Colts are equally below average on offense. They rank last in the NFL at 3.6 yards per carry, and have no real difference makers outside of Nelson and a solid offensive line.

Rookie Jonathan Taylor has emerged as Indy’s feature back with Marlon Mack out for the season with a torn Achilles. Taylor is more plowhorse than gamebreaker, as he needed 26 carries for his lone 100-yard game. He had fumble problems at Wisconsin, and will be spelled by Nyheim Hines, who leads the Colts with 23 catches.

The Lions had notable struggles against the run the first four weeks of the season, allowing 170 yards rushing per game. But they’ve been largely impenetrable the past two weeks. Rookie John Penisini has taken over at nose tackle, and he and Shelton give the Lions two space eaters. Edge: Lions

Colts pass offense vs. Lions pass defense

The Lions are on the over-the-hill portion of their schedule, facing quarterbacks Drew Brees (41 years old) and Matt Ryan (35) recently, and Philip Rivers (38) on Sunday. Rivers’ skills have been on the decline. He has thrown 22 interceptions in his past 22 games, but ranks among the league leaders in completion percentage (69.7%).

Part of Indy’s problem is a poor job of procuring skill position talent. T.Y. Hilton was slowed by a hamstring injury this summer and is averaging 12.1 yards per catch without a touchdown on the season. Hilton and Zach Pascal are the only Colts receivers with double-digit catches, though Hines is a weapon out of the backfield and Rivers has multiple options (Trey Burton, Mo Alie-Cox) at tight end.

The Lions rank 20th against the pass (248.7 yards per game) and are tied for 28th in sacks (eight), but they’ve gotten better play since the bye week. Romeo Okwara has quietly had a nice season with four sacks and two forced fumbles. Jeff Okudah and Amani Oruwariye will start again at cornerback, and the Lions appear poised to get slot corner Justin Coleman back from a hamstring injury this week. Edge: Lions

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Special teams

Just one player has netted more than 45 yards a punt in NFL history, Johnny Hekker (46-yard net average) in 2016, and six games into his NFL career, Lions punter Jack Fox is on track to be the second. He is netting a whopping 48 yards per punt and has routinely delivered big kicks this season. Tony McRae has shined as a gunner, and the Lions have been excellent in kick coverage. Matt Prater drilled three long field goals and a 48-yard game-winning extra point last week, and Jamal Agnew rounds out a solid special teams unit, though his opportunities remain few.

The Colts are no slouches on special teams thanks to good speed that shows up on their coverage units. Punter Rigoberto Sanchez has pinned opponents inside the 20 on eight of his 15 punts this season, and the Colts do a good job playing the field position game for their defense. Rookie kicker Rodrigo Blankenship has made 16 of 18 field goal attempts, though both of his misses have come from inside 41 yards. Hines handles most of Indy’s punt return duties, and rookie Isaiah Rodgers had a 101-yard kick-return touchdown against the Browns. Edge: Lions

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With two straight wins and a cool 500 fans allowed in the stadium Sunday, things seem to be breaking the Lions’ way. They’ve played well the past two weeks, and have four straight games upcoming against teams with sub-.500 records. If the Lions can solve a good Colts defense, there’s no reason they can’t enter December in the thick of the NFC North race. The Colts present challenges for the Lions in the trenches on both sides of the ball. Just as fans are wondering if the Lions can consistently beat good teams, the same can be said for the Colts, who’ve built a 4-2 record against teams with a combined mark of 13-27-1 this year. This game is a toss up, but even coming off a bye, I’m not sure the Colts have enough offense. Pick: Lions 23, Colts 20

Contact Dave Birkett at Follow him on Twitter @davebirkett.

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