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

Detroit Free Press

Dave Birkett
 
| Detroit Free Press

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Detroit Lions (5-8) vs. Tennessee Titans (9-4)

The coaches: Lions’ Darrell Bevell (1-1 overall, 1-1 with Lions; Titans’ Mike Vrabel (27-18 overall, 27-18 with Packers).

Last game: Lions lost to Green Bay Packers, 31-24; Titans beat Jacksonville Jaguars, 31-10.

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Last meeting: Sept. 18, 2016: Titans won, 16-15.

Key matchups

Titans RB Derrick Henry vs. history: Henry leads the NFL with 1,532 yards rushing, 573 shy of Eric Dickerson’s single-season NFL record. He needs to average 191 yards rushing the next three games to surpass Dickerson, and 156 per game to become just the eighth back in NFL history to hit the 2,000-yard mark. That seems like a lot, but Henry ran for 215 yards last week and Tennessee plays two of the NFL’s four worst rush defenses (the Lions and Houston Texans) in the next three weeks. The Lions, 29th in the league against the run at 132.8 ypg, will need a big game from the likes of John Penisini, Jamie Collins and Reggie Ragland to stop Henry.

[ How is Lions’ GM/coach search different this time? ‘Identifying what we want’ ]

Lions OL Jonah Jackson vs. Titans DL Jeffery Simmons: With Frank Ragnow out of Sunday’s game with a fractured throat, the Lions could make wholesale changes to their offensive line, moving Jackson, a rookie third-round pick, from left guard to center, and starting some combination of Oday Aboushi and Joe Dahl at guard. Jackson, suddenly, looks like the Lions’ best interior lineman, and wherever he lines up he’s sure to spend some time blocking Simmons, who has three sacks and has been a terror inside for the Titans all year.

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Scouting report

Lions run offense vs. Titans run defense

The Lions are in a tricky spot offensively. Their passing game has been decimated by injury, with receiver Kenny Golladay and center Frank Ragnow out and quarterback Matthew Stafford questionable to play. That means the Lions will have to place a greater emphasis on controlling the ball.

The problem with that, of course, is that the Lions are not a very good rushing team. They rank 30th at 90.3 yards per game, and they’re tied for the fourth-fewest attempts in the NFL. D’Andre Swift should be back to a full workload, and I suspect he and Adrian Peterson will see plenty of touches. If Chase Daniel starts at quarterback, he can be effective with his legs.

[ Kenny Golladay: Injury ‘sucks,’ prefers to stay and sign long-term deal ]

The Titans rank 18th against the run at 113.8 yards per game, but have held six opponents under 100 yards rushing this season. DaQuan Jones and Simmons lead the Titans up front, while Rashaan Evans is one of the NFL’s more underrated linebackers. Edge: Titans

Lions pass offense vs. Packers pass defense

Bevell said the Lions could take the decision on Stafford up until 90 minutes before kickoff. Stafford was in severe pain when he hurt his ribs in the fourth quarter against the Packers, but slowly got better throughout the week. He has a tremendous tolerance for pain, so no one should be surprised if he wills his way onto the field.

T.J. Hockenson has shined in Golladay’s absence this fall. He leads the Lions with 58 catches and Bevell has done a good job scheming him open on misdirection plays and screens. Swift could see his target share soar if Daniel starts. Either way, protection could be an issue for the Lions, who are shuffling personnel up front to account for Ragnow’s injury.

[ Phil Simms hopes Lions get rid of Stafford so he can win Super Bowl ]

The Titans have done a good job forcing turnovers — they’re tied for ninth with 12 interceptions — and have one of the game’s best safeties in Kevin Byard. Tennessee does not get a lot of pressure on opposing quarterbacks, and tends to give up plenty of yards through the air. Edge: Lions

Titans run offense vs. Lions run defense

Henry is the best running back in the NFL. He’s built like a small truck at 6 feet 3 and 240 pounds, and tougher to stop. For a taller running back, Henry runs with tremendous power. His stiff-arms are legendary, he does a good job protecting the ball and he has the speed to take any run to the house.

The Titans want to physically dominate their opponents up front, and they tend to do a good job of that. They do not deviated easily from the run game, and they have physical receivers and tight ends who help create rushing lanes. 

The Lions have struggled against the best backs on their schedule this season. They gave up 206 yards rushing to Dalvin Cook last month, and got gashed for 149 yards from scrimmage by Aaron Jones in Week 1. Henry is more dominant than both of those backs, and it will take a team effort to hold him in check. Penisini has played well at nose tackle, but the Lions are without Everson Griffen, Da’Shawn Hand and Trey Flowers. Edge: Titans

Titans pass offense vs. Lions pass defense

The Titans have a tremendous play-action passing game thanks to Henry and Ryan Tannehill, who revitalized his career after a few down years in Miami. Tannehill has completed 68% of his passes in two seasons in Tennessee and has 28 touchdowns to five interceptions this year.

Both A.J. Brown and Corey Davis are trending towards 1,000-yard receiving seasons. Brown is the big-play threat — he has a team-high nine touchdown catches — and will give the Lions trouble in downfield. After a hot start, tight end Jonnu Smith has faded from the game plan with fewer than 40 yards receiving in eight straight weeks.

The Lions are without two of their top three pass rushers in Griffen and Flowers, and two of their top three cornerbacks in Jeff Okudah and Desmond Trufant. They might be able to overcome their issues in the secondary, as Tennessee plays enough out of multiple tight end sets that the Lions can counter with different base defensive looks. But they’ll need Romeo Okwara to have a big game rushing the quarterback, and they’ll need to put Tennessee behind the sticks in early downs. Edge: Titans

Special teams

Jack Fox should hit the 50th punt of his career Sunday, and when he does he likely will set a new record for both highest gross and net punting average through the first 50 punts of a player’s career. Fox has been a consistent bright spot this fall, as has the Lions’ punt- and field goal-block units, which have a combined four blocks. Jamal Agnew finally broke a big return last week and the Lions nearly recovered a crucial onside kick. Matt Prater is 8-of-15 on kicks of 40-plus yards, and has added kickoff duties to his plate the last two weeks. 

The Titans rank 29th in Football Outsider’s composite special teams rankings, though like the Lions their struggles have largely been confined to the kicking game. Stephen Gostkowski has eight missed field goals this season, though he has made 7-of-8 kicks from 50-plus yards. Brett Kern is a three-time Pro Bowler and one of the best punters in the NFL. The Titans are have gotten minimal production out of their return games this year, though Brown did return an onside kick for a touchdown. Edge: Lions

Prediction

This is not a good matchup for the Lions, and doubly so with all their injuries. Henry seems primed for a huge game against the Lions’ undermanned defense, and if Stafford is not playing, the Lions will have a hard time generating the offense they need to keep up with the NFL’s fourth-highest scoring team. If Stafford plays, the Lions have at least a puncher’s chance so long as they take care of the ball and generate an extra possession or two. Bevell has made an impact in two games as interim coach, but he has his work cut out for him. Pick: Titans 35, Lions 21

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

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