Detroit Lions vs. Houston Texans: 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 Thursday’s Detroit Lions-Houston Texans game and makes a prediction: 

Detroit Lions (4-6) vs. Houston Texans (3-7)

The coaches: Lions: Matt Patricia (13-28-1 overall); Texans: Romeo Crennel (31-58 overall, 3-3 with Texans).

Last game: Lions lost to Carolina Panthers, 20-0; Texans beat New England Patriots, 27-20.

Last meeting: Oct. 30, 2016: Texans won, 20-13.

Key matchups

Texans DE J.J. Watt vs. Lions RT Tyrell Crosby — Crosby made the cut for key matchups against Panthers pass rusher Brian Burns last week, and that did not turn out well for the Lions. This week, he faces a future Hall-of-Famer in Watt, who is a better overall player than Burns, though not quite the blur off the edge. That’s not a slight against Watt; few players have Burns’ get-off. Watt just wins in different ways. He’s powerful, quick and relentless, and when he doesn’t get to the quarterback he still is disruptive because of his motor and savvy. Crosby has mostly held his own as a first-year starter, but the Lions need better out of him than last week to give Matthew Stafford a chance.

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Lions LB Jamie Collins vs. Texans QB Deshaun Watson — Watson seems underappreciated when it comes to the NFL’s best quarterbacks, but the 25-year-old is exactly that. He is completing nearly 70% of his passes, he rarely turns the ball over (five interceptions) and he is Houston’s second-leading rusher. The Lions cannot let Watson beat them with his feet, either by scrambling or extending plays. Some of that falls on a disciplined pass rush, and some falls on a linebacking corps that has underachieved this season. Collins is the Lions’ best linebacker, and while he won’t play in a true spy role Thursday, he will match wits with Watson. The more plays he makes, and the harder he makes life on Watson, the better chance the Lions have of winning.

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Scouting report

Lions run offense vs. Texans run defense

The Lions are one of four NFL teams averaging fewer than 96 yards rushing per game, but they are a different offense with D’Andre Swift on the field. Swift’s status remains up in the air in his return from a brain injury, but he is making his way through the NFL’s concussion protocol and has a chance to play.

If the electric Swift cannot go, Adrian Peterson and Kerryon Johnson will split backfield duties for the second straight week. Peterson has had one rush of 10-plus yards in the Lions’ last six games. Granted, he has topped 10 carries just twice during that span, but if Swift is out the Lions simply do not have big-play capability in their backfield.

As bad as the Lions are rushing the ball (29th), the Texans are even worse defending the run (32nd). They did hold a good New England Patriots rushing attack to 86 yards last week, so there are signs of life on defense. But they’ve also given up 200-plus yards rushing in a game three times this season and have allowed more 20-plus-yard runs (10) than all but three other teams. Edge: Lions

Lions pass offense vs. Texans pass defense

Matthew Stafford still is dealing with an injured thumb on his throwing hand, but he insists that had nothing to do with the offense’s dismal day last week. Stafford got beat up by a good pass rush and the Lions could not dig themselves out of repeated third-and-longs.

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He will not have top receiver Kenny Golladay for the fourth straight game, or slot receiver Danny Amendola for the second straight week, and this offense has not been the same with Golladay sidelined. The Lions need more consistent production out of Marvin Jones and T.J. Hockenson, and they need to establish the run so teams respect their play-action passing game.

The Texans rank near the bottom of the NFL in third down defense (28th) and pass defense (22nd) and are worst in the league at creating turnovers (five, including just two interceptions). J.J. Watt remains a threat as a pass rusher, and Lions left tackle Taylor Decker said Houston has moved around more of late. In the back end, Justin Reid and the versatile Eric Murray form a serviceable safety tandem, but Houston’s cornerback play has been subpar. Edge: Lions

Texans run offense vs. Lions run defense

They are not statistically the worst rushing team in the NFL, but you’d be hard-pressed to find a team with a more anemic running game than the Texans right now. Since placing David Johnson (concussion) on injured reserve earlier this month, Houston’s running backs have combined for 73 yards rushing on 27 carries (2.7 ypc).

Duke Johnson has replaced David Johnson (no relation) as starter, but he’s best utilized as a receiving back and he has not made much of an impact in that area (17 catches, 129 yards) this season. Houston’s best rushing threat is quarterback Deshaun Watson, and he can be a game changer with his legs. One caveat: The Texans are not great up front, though Pro Bowl left tackle Laremy Tunsil should be back after missing last week’s game with the flu.

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The Lions rank 30th against the run at 139 yards per game, but they mostly bottled up the ground games of Washington and Carolina the last two weeks. Da’Shawn Hand likely will miss his second straight game with a groin injury, but John Penisini and Danny Shelton have played heavily in run-down packages. Edge: Lions

Texans pass offense vs. Lions pass defense

As good as Watson is with his legs, he’s equally dangerous as a passer. Lions coach Matt Patricia praised Watson this week for his ability to escape pressure while keeping his eyes downfield. “More so what I’m seeing now, you think you might have an, OK, this is where he’s going to scramble, and all of a sudden he’ll change directions, he’ll go out the other side and just get away from everybody,” Patricia said.

The Texans traded away their best receiver, DeAndre Hopkins, this offseason, but they still have two deep threats who play well of Watson’s scrambling ability in Will Fuller and Brandin Cooks. Fuller leads the Texans with six touchdowns and a 15.1-yard-per-catch average. Former Lion Darren Fells, best known for his blocking, is Houston’s No. 1 tight end.

The Lions likely will not have Jeff Okudah because of a shoulder injury, which means Desmond Trufant and Amani Oruwariye will stay on the field at cornerback. Both have been susceptible to the deep ball at times this season, and given Watson’s scrambling ability, the Lions could play more zone than usual. Up front, Everson Griffen seems primed for a bigger role at defensive end. Edge: Texans

Special teams

The Lions have the best punting game in the NFL, which is why they have consistently gotten the edge in my special teams breakdowns this season. Jack Fox nets an impressive 46.3 yards per punt, and the Lions have been solid in coverage even after losing special teams ace Tony McRae. They will be down another gunner Thursday, Mike Ford, and if Fuller is back on punt returns would be wise to keep the ball out of his hands. Matt Prater’s struggles on long field goals — he’s 8-of-15 from 40-plus yards — are an issue, but the Lions have three blocked punts this season and a dangerous return man in Jamal Agnew.

Houston actually ranks ahead of the Lions in Football Outsiders’ composite special teams rankings, but the Texans do not have one dominant unit. Bryan Anger is netting 42.5 yards per punt and Houston has allowed one punt block this season. Ka’imi Fairbairn has two misses of less than 50 yards in the past month, and the Texans don’t have a kick return longer than 29 yards this season. Edge: Lions

Prediction

With three losses in their last four games, the Lions are on the brink of playoff elimination and possibly a head coaching change. Players insisted this week they remain 100% behind Patricia, but they sure have not played like it of late. Swift’s potential return could be the spark that they need, but even against a subpar Texans secondary, there aren’t many big plays to be had without Golladay. Houston is in a similar position to the Lions, playing out the string after firing Bill O’Brien, another Bill Belichick protégé, in October. Watson is a game-changer, though, and the Texans have gone 3-3 under interim head coach Romeo Crennel. Thanksgiving football is special in Detroit, even in an empty stadium. But the Lions have not played well enough in any facet of the game over the last month to think they’ll turn in a winning effort Thursday. Pick: Texans 31, Lions 17.

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

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