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

Detroit Free Press

Cincinnati Bengals (3-2) at Detroit Lions (0-5)

The coaches: Lions-Dan Campbell (5-12 overall, 0-5 with Lions); Bengals-Zac Taylor (9-27-1 overall, 9-27-1 with Bengals).

Last game: Lions lost to Minnesota Vikings, 19-17. Bengals lost to Green Bay Packers, 25-22 (OT).

Last meeting: Dec. 24, 2017: Bengals won, 26-17.

Key matchups

Lions OLB Charles Harris vs. Bengals LT Jonah Williams: A career underachiever, Harris has been the Lions’ most productive pass rusher this fall. He has one sack each of the past four weeks, with three coming from a hand-down spot at right defensive end. If his usage holds, Harris will square off plenty with Williams. Williams has allowed two sacks this season, according to Pro Football Focus, but is one of the Bengals’ steadiest linemen. Cincinnati likely will be without rookie right guard Jackson Carman, who is on the reserve/COVID-19. They need Williams to keep Harris at bay to protect Joe Burrow and get their high-powered passing game on track.

Charles Harris has gone from draft bust to Lions sack leader: ‘Man on a mission’ ]

Lions TE T.J. Hockenson vs. Bengals LB Logan Wilson: Hockenson opened the season with dominant performances against the San Francisco 49ers and Baltimore Ravens, catching eight passes and a touchdown in each game. He has gone quiet since, with eight receptions total the past three weeks. Defenses have built their game plans around stopping the third-year tight end, and now it’s up to the Lions to adjust and get him the ball. Wilson flies under the radar playing in Cincinnati, but he is one of the best young linebackers in the game. He has 47 tackles and three interceptions this season, and if he has his way with Hockenson, the Lions will be in for a long day.

Scouting report

Lions run offense vs. Bengals run defense

When running backs coach Duce Staley said the Lions need “more” from their running game, he primarily is talking about more opportunity. The Lions have run the ball effectively most of the season. They average 4.3 yards per carry and have struck a good balance between D’Andre Swift and Jamaal Williams, but game script has forced them to abandon the run.

Swift probably needs more touches, as he’s the more explosive of the two backs, and he could see a tick up in his numbers this week as Williams missed practice time with a hip injury. The Lions are missing two key pieces on their offensive line in Frank Ragnow and Taylor Decker, but Evan Brown fared well in his first career start at center last week. One issue for the running game: A lack of big plays. The Lions do not have a carry longer than 20 yards from their backs this season.

The Bengals rank 10th against the run at 101.4 yards per game and have shut down two good rushing attacks this season: the Vikings (with a healthy Dalvin Cook) and the Pittsburgh Steelers in Week 3. Wilson is a playmaker at linebacker, and his success is due in part to D.J. Reader’s stellar play up front. Edge: Bengals

Lions pass offense vs. Bengals pass defense

Jared Goff downplayed his paltry passing numbers this week, saying if he was concerned about completed air yards per catch — he ranks last in the NFL in the metric at 3.7 — he would “overthrow everybody 50 yards over and over again and my yards per attempt will go through the roof.”

Goff is not the only one to blame for the Lions’ anemic passing offense. The Lions are down to a skeleton crew at receiver and offensive coordinator Anthony Lynn needs to be more creative scheming up shots downfield. But Goff has been mediocre this season with seven turnovers, four in the red zone, and the Lions desperately need to get Hockenson more involved.

The Bengals are a middle-of-the-pack pass defense despite facing two rookie quarterbacks already in Justin Fields and Trevor Lawrence. They revamped their defense this offseason with a heavy focus on the pass rush, signing Trey Hendrickson (4.5 sacks) and drafting four defensive linemen, but they have some questions in the back end. Ball-hawking safety Jessie Bates is the best player in their secondary, while Eli Apple has been a favorite target of opposing quarterbacks. Edge: Bengals

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Bengals run offense vs. Lions run defense

The Lions are in a similar situation to last week, when they spent time preparing for a do-everything running back who was battling an ankle injury — Cook was a last-minute scratch last week, and Joe Mixon is questionable to play Sunday.

Mixon was limited to 10 carries while trying to play through his injury last week and did not look like himself. At his best, he is an elusive runner and good pass catcher who can churn out big plays. With backup Samaje Perine on reserve/COVID, Chris Evans, the rookie sixth-round pick from Michigan, likely is next up if Mixon cannot play.

The Lions have been a mixed bag against the run this season, holding the Ravens’ vaunted rushing attacking in check but getting burned for big plays the past two weeks by the Vikings and Chicago Bears. The Lions’ biggest defensive problems against the run tend to be on the perimeter, and they cannot commit too many resources to the stopping the run Sunday because of Cincinnati’s high-powered passing attack. Edge: Lions

Bengals pass offense vs. Lions pass defense

Joe Burrow has not played a full season’s worth of games yet, but the second-year Bengals quarterback already looks like a seasoned pro. “For a young quarterback, you can really see that he sees it,” Lions defensive coordinator Aaron Glenn said. “He can open the field up and he knows exactly where to go with the ball.”

The Bengals have surrounded Burrow with an impressive cast of weapons, though their offensive line leaves much to be desired. Rookie of the Year favorite Ja’Marr Chase leads the NFL with four catches of 40-plus yards, and if the Lions keep him in check, they still must contend with Tyler Boyd, Tee Higgins and tight end C.J. Uzomah.

The Lions rank last in the NFL at 9.3 yards per pass allowed and have one of the greenest secondaries in the league. Jerry Jacobs should make his second straight start at cornerback opposite Amani Oruwariye, and safety Tracy Walker is coming off his best, most active game of the year. If Oruwariye can’t play because of his hip injury, Bobby Price likely would join Jacobs in the starting lineup. Edge: Bengals

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Special teams

For all the angst about the Lions’ kicking game in the preseason, Austin Seibert and Ryan Santoso have combined to make 6 of 7 field goals and all eight of their extra points. Seibert drilled a 52-yarder last week. Jack Fox is netting 45.1 yards per punt this season, an especially impressive number considering the turnover the Lions have had in their coverage units. Kick returner Corey Ballentine is out with a hamstring injury, which means Godwin Igwebuike could handle those duties again.

The Bengals are coming off a heartbreaking loss in which Evan McPherson missed field goals of 49 and 57 yards in the fourth quarter and overtime. Moxie is not an issue for McPherson, though. He is a talented kicker who has made two game-winners as time expired already this year. Former Western Michigan standout Darius Phillips handles punt returns for the Bengals, and punter Kevin Huber ranks near the bottom of the NFL with a 40.4 yard net punting average. Edge: Lions

Prediction

The Bengals have not won a postseason game since Jan. 6, 1991 — a year before the Lions’ last playoff win — but they look like a playoff team this year. Burrow, Chase, Boyd and Co. make up one of the most dangerous passing attacks in the NFL, and while the Bengals don’t anything spectacular on defense, they have enough talent to get by.

The Lions, conversely, don’t do much well on defense, and their secondary will have its hands full. As usual, the Lions’ best bet to steal a win is to get their running game going early and control the clock. Both teams are coming off emotional losses, so there could be some slop early. And turnovers have been an issue for both quarterbacks. I think this one stays close throughout, but I have more faith in the Bengals’ ability to put the ball in the end zone with Burrow pulling the trigger. Pick: Bengals 28, Lions 23.

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

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