| Detroit Free Press
Detroit Lions get Christmas gifts; is win over Tom Brady in their stocking?
Free Press sports writers Dave Birkett and Carlos Monarrez hand out gifts for the Detroit Lions, and predict the game vs. the Tampa Bay Buccaneers.
Carlos Monarrez and Dave Birkett, Detroit Free Press
Detroit Lions (5-9) vs. Tampa Bay Buccaneers (9-5)
The coaches: Lions’ Darrell Bevell (1-2 overall); Bucs’ Bruce Arians (65-44-1 overall, 16-14 with Bucs).
Last game: Lions lost to Tennessee Titans, 46-25; Bucs beat Atlanta Falcons, 31-27.
Last meeting: Dec. 15, 2019: Bucs won, 38-17.
Bucs QB Tom Brady vs. Lions head coach assistant Evan Rothstein: With the bulk of their defensive staff unavailable because of COVID-19 protocols, the Lions are turning defensive play caller duties over to Rothstein, a coaching assistant and research analyst who has spent most of his nine seasons with the Lions working behind the scenes. Rothstein will be implementing defensive coordinator Cory Undlin’s game plan, but he cannot be in contact with Undlin during the game. That means once the ball kicks off, it’s up to Rothstein to match wits with Brady, arguably the greatest quarterback in NFL history.
Bucs DL Ndamukong Suh vs. Lions interior OL: Suuuuuuhhhhh! The best Lions defensive player of the past decade returns to Detroit for the third straight season. At 33, Suh is not the same every-down menace he was in his early days with the Lions, but he has played well against his old team. In games at Ford Field with the Los Angeles Rams in 2018 and Bucs last year, Suh had nine tackles, four quarterback hits and one sack. The Lions are ailing up front offensively and could be without center Frank Ragnow for the second straight week. Suh will be on the field for most passing downs, and it will be up to Jonah Jackson, Joe Dahl and Oday Aboushi to keep him away from Matthew Stafford’s ribs.
Lions run offense vs. Bucs run defense
The Bucs have the NFL’s best rush defense by a wide margin, but that does not mean the Lions won’t try and get something going on the ground. D’Andre Swift is healthy after migraine issues kept him out three weeks. He played 65% of the offensive snaps in last week’s loss to the Tennessee Titans and got 76% of the running back touches.
Swift is dangerous enough as a receiver that his presence should help slow Tampa’s vaunted pass rush. Kerryon Johnson could see more snaps, especially on third down, as he is the Lions’ best pass-protecting back and Stafford is playing with sore ribs. Three offensive line starters missed practice time this week, so the Lions will have their hands full up front.
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The Bucs have held 11 of 14 opponents below 95 yards rushing this season, and Dalvin Cook, who had 101 yards rushing two weeks ago, is really the only back to have success against their defense all year. The New Orleans Saints did stumble into a few big gains with gadget player Taysom Hill, so perhaps temporary Lions play caller Sean Ryan will try some trickeration. Edge: Bucs
Lions pass offense vs. Bucs pass defense
Ryan is a complete unknown when it comes to tendencies and preferences, but the Lions will not deviate too much from their core concepts on a short week, with injuries mounting on offense and with Bevell still overseeing the game plan.
Stafford has played well through rib and thumb injuries, but protecting him is paramount. Tampa’s Todd Bowles is one of the most aggressive defensive coordinators in the NFL, and the Bucs have a load of good players in their front seven including Jason Pierre-Paul (9.5 sacks), Shaq Barrett (eight) and Devin White (eight).
If Stafford has time, the Lions should have opportunities downfield against a suspect Tampa secondary. Kenny Golladay remains out for the Lions, but Marvin Jones has played well in recent weeks and T.J. Hockenson was a deserving Pro Bowl selection. Cornerback Carlton Davis does have four interceptions. Edge: Lions
Bucs run offense vs. Lions run defense
Ronald Jones was on pace for the first 1,000-yard rushing season of his career until he landed on the reserve/COVID-19 list last week. Jones will miss his second straight game Saturday, when the Bucs will turn to Leonard Fournette as their lead back.
Fournette and top backup LeSean McCoy have more name recognition than they do value as players at this point in their career, but against a sieve of a Lions defense that will be without its top four assistants and several key players, one or both could be in line for big days. Tampa has abandoned the run too quickly at times this season, but the Bucs are at their best with a strong play-action passing game.
The Lions rank 29th in the NFL in rush defense at 137.3 yards per game, and the unit appears to be getting worse by the week. Missed tackles continue to be a problem, and top linebacker Jamie Collins’ status is in question because of a neck injury. Nose tackle Danny Shelton returned to practice from injured reserve Wednesday. If he is activated before kickoff, he could give the front a boost. Edge: Bucs
Bucs pass offense vs. Lions pass defense
Things have been choppy at times for the Bucs offensively this season, but there is no denying the collection of talent Tampa has assembled in the passing game. Brady is closing in on another 4,000-yard season at 43 years old, and he’s throwing to the likes of Mike Evans, Chris Godwin, Antonio Brown and Rob Gronkowski.
Evans is fourth in the NFL with 11 touchdown catches and has emerged as Brady’s favorite target. Godwin has yet to have a 100-yard game this season, but is a matchup problem for the Lions’ dilapidated secondary. And Scotty Miller leads the Bucs at 15.5 yards per catch, though his playing time has shrunk since the addition of Brown.
The Lions cannot sit back in a zone defense all day and allow Brady to pick them apart. They will need a good day from bookend pass rushers Romeo Okwara (eight sacks) and Everson Griffen, who is back after a two-game COVID-related absence. In the secondary, Tramaine Brock could see time alongside Amani Oruwariye and Justin Coleman, but the Lions are allowing nearly 8 yards per pass play, second most in the league. Edge: Bucs
While the Lions’ offensive and defensive staffs experienced COVID-related shakeups this week, the special teams unit dealt with a different kind of blow as popular coordinator Brayden Coombs was fired a day after he went rogue on a fake punt call. Under Coombs, the Lions were one of the most aggressive special teams units in the league, and they would be wise to keep that mindset the next two weeks. Pro Bowl punter Jack Fox has been a bright spot all season, and the Lions have four blocked kicks on the year. Return man Jamal Agnew and kicker Matt Prater have been less consistent, but both are capable of game-changing plays.
Ryan Succop does not have Prater’s leg strength on field goals, but he’s been more reliable in that department this season, connecting on 25 of 27 attempts. The Bucs are primarily a touchback team on kickoffs — they’ve allowed just 10 returns all season — and likely will not give Agnew many chances. Former Lions defensive end Pat O’Connor blocked and recovered a punt for Tampa earlier this season, while Bradley Pinion has a modest 41.5-yard net average but has been good about avoiding touchbacks. Edge: Bucs
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The Lions match up better against the Bucs than they did Tennessee last week, but with everything that’s gone on the past few days — from Coombs’ firing to the COVID-related coaching staff changes — this game has the potential to be another rout. Perhaps the Lions keep it close early, during whatever feeling-out period there is with new play callers. But Tampa’s offense is too explosive, the Lions are green at key positions on the coaching staff and defense, and this week was too hectic for that to last. Brady and the Bucs can clinch a playoff spot with a victory, and I think they get it in relatively easy fashion. Pick: Buccaneers 38, Lions 21