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

Detroit Free Press

Dave Birkett
| Detroit Free Press

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Free Press sports writer Dave Birkett breaks down Sunday’s Detroit Lions-Washington Football Team game and makes a prediction: 

Detroit Lions (3-5) vs. Washington (2-6)

The coaches: Lions-Matt Patricia (12-27-1 overall, 12-27-1 with Lions; Vikings-Ron Rivera (78-69-1 overall, 2-6 with Washington).

Last game: Lions lost to Minnesota Vikings, 34-20; Washington lost to New York Giants, 23-20

Last meeting: Nov. 24, 2019: Washington won, 19-16.

Key matchups

Lions LT Taylor Decker vs. Washington DE Chase Young — With all due respect to punter Jack Fox, Decker was the Lions’ single best player the first half of the season. He played every snap at left tackle and did not allow a sack in more than 300 pass plays. On Sunday, he’ll face the most talented young pass rusher in the NFL in Young, the No. 2 pick of this year’s draft. Young got his NFL career off to a blazing start with 2.5 sacks the first two games, then was slowed the next month by a groin injury. He’s looked healthy of late, is dripping with athleticism and is the most relentless part of a Washington front that boasts five former first-round picks.

Lions CB Jeff Okudah vs. Washington WR Terry McLaurin — This is an all ex-Ohio State version of matchups. Like Decker and Young, both Okudah and McLaurin played for the Buckeyes. Unlike Decker and Young, Okudah and McLaurin were in Columbus together and competed against each other in practice. McLaurin, in his second NFL season, has emerged as one of the toughest covers in the league. He’s a polished route runner with good hands and he’s unquestionably Washington’s go-to receiver with seven catches in each of the last three games and double-digit targets four times this year. The Lions have depth at the cornerback position between Okudah, Desmond Trufant and Amani Oruwariye, but they’ve shown trust in Okudah to play No. 1 receivers in the past. He’s had some growing pains as a rookie and may not travel with his old teammate, but when the two line up across from each other it will be a test of where he’s at eight games into his rookie year.

Scouting report

Lions run offense vs. Washington run defense

The Lions ran the ball effectively last week — against a Minnesota team that did everything in its power to take the deep passing game away — but that has not been the case the entire season. The Lions have topped 100 yards rushing in only three games, and collectively, running backs D’Andre Swift, Adrian Peterson and Kerryon Johnson are averaging 4 yards per carry.

Peterson remains the starter at running back, but Swift has more touches and has played more snaps in each of the last four games. The Lions have given the explosive rookie a bigger role of late, for good reason, though both Peterson and Johnson remain in the playing rotation. For Peterson, there might be some extra motivation playing against the team that unexpectedly cut him in late August.

Washington ranks at or near the top in the NFL in a number of defensive categories, but has found stopping the run difficult. Six teams have gone for more than 125 yards on the ground against Washington this year, and the Lions will no doubt try to establish the run Sunday to keep Washington’s fierce pass rush at bay. Cole Holcomb has played well in his return from a knee injury and at least gives Washington a trusted presence in the middle of its defense. Edge: Lions

Lions pass offense vs. Washington pass defense

The Lions won’t have their No. 1 receiver again Sunday, as Kenny Golladay remains out with a hip injury. The status of tight end T.J. Hockenson also is up in the air after he missed practice Thursday with a toe injury. The Lions are 0-3 without Golladay, their top deep threat, and if Hockenson can’t go or is limited, they will be severely lacking in the passing game.

Matthew Stafford did not practice last week while on the reserve/COVID-19 list, but he played well until the wheels fell off with a couple second half interceptions. Turnovers have been an issue for Stafford this year, and if he’s not patient, they will be a factor again Sunday. But if Taylor Decker and Co. can hold upfront, the Lions should have some opportunities downfield.

Washington leads the NFL in pass defense (185.6 ypg) and ranks second in sack rate (11.7%), though its sack totals are a bit inflated with 14 of its 27 sacks coming in its two wins. Kendall Fuller has four interceptions, but the secondary has been just average as a group. Edge: Washington

Washington run offense vs. Lions run defense

Aside from a couple solid October outings against the Jacksonville Jaguars and Atlanta Falcons, the Lions have been pretty atrocious against the run this season. Fortunately for them, Washington has been equally inept running the ball, save for a huge 208-yard day against the Dallas Cowboys two weeks ago.

For as bad as Washington’s 29th-ranked rushing attack is statistically, Antonio Gibson is a dynamic player. He was a hybrid receiver/rusher/return man in college, and Washington deploys him in a variety of ways. Gibson has 112 total touches this season, and occasionally plays alongside backup J.D. McKissic in a two-back formation that stresses the defenses because of both players’ receiving ability.

The Lions won’t have top run defender Trey Flowers for a couple more weeks, but they seem content to rely on big defensive tackles Danny Shelton and John Penisini upfront. Neither player has made a living in the backfield this season, and the Lions have not gotten many big players out of their linebacking corps, either. Jamie Collins struggled covering Dalvin Cook, so that could be a matchup that Washington tries to exploit with Gibson. Edge: Washington

Washington pass offense vs. Lions pass defense

Alex Smith is expected to make his first start Sunday in almost two years, since he broke the fibula and tibia in his right leg in a Nov. 18, 2018, game against the Houston Texans. Smith’s return is an inspirational story, but the reality is he’s a 36-year-old quarterback with lots of rust to shake off who’s surrounded by marginal talent.

McLaurin is a borderline No. 1 receiver. He had his way with Darius Slay last season and should be heavily targeted Sunday. Outside of McLaurin, though, Washington has few weapons in the passing game. Washington’s second- and third-leading receivers are McKissic and Logan Thomas, both cast-offs from the 2019 Lions. Pass protection has been an issue, too, as Smith has taken eight sacks in limited action (53 pass attempts) so far.

The Lions don’t have much of a pass rush, so it remains to be seen if how they take advantage of Washington’s porous front. But Romeo Okwara has played well this year and Everson Griffen should see more time in his second week as a Lion. In the secondary, Okudah, Trufant and Oruwariye all should see time at the outside cornerback spot for the second straight week. Edge: Lions

Special teams

Matt Prater’s struggles making field goals have done nothing to take the shine off a special teams unit that’s been rather impressive this season. The Lions have three blocked punts the last two weeks, something no NFL team has accomplished in 29 years, and Fox continues to lead the league in net punting average. Prater must get his field goal issues squared away, and top gunner Tony McRae is out for the season with a torn ACL. But overall, the Lions have one of the best kicking games in the league

Washington ranks near the bottom of Football Outsiders’ composite special teams rankings, though like the Lions, they have a strong punting game. Tress Way is netting 44.6 yards per punt, and Washington has not allowed a return longer than 13 yards this year. Steven Sims handles punt returns for Washington — he had a 91-yard kick return touchdown against the Lions last season — while kicker Dustin Hopkins is just 5 of 9 on field goals 40 yards or longer this season. Edge: Lions


It’s easy to look at middling teams like Washington and next week’s opponent, Carolina, and think the Lions should run away with victories, when the reality is the Lions are middling, too. They’ve struggled to stop the run all season, have underachieved offensively and don’t make impact plays on the defensive side of the ball. If one or more of those things don’t change Sunday, the Lions could be in for another long day at Ford Field, where they have not won since last October. A loss to Washington would all but extinguish the Lions’ fading playoff hopes and perhaps signal the end of Patricia’s tenure in Detroit. A win might only delay the inevitable, but given the results of the last two weeks it’s something the organization desperately needs. Pick: Lions 23, Washington 17.

Contact Dave Birkett at Follow him on Twitter @davebirkett.

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