Detroit Lions at Los Angeles Rams: Scouting report, prediction vs. Matthew Stafford

Detroit Free Press

Detroit Lions (0-6) at Los Angeles Rams (5-1)

The coaches: Lions-Dan Campbell (5-13 overall, 0-6 with Lions); Rams-Sean McVay (48-22 overall, 48-22 with Rams).

Last game: Lions lost to Cincinnati Bengals, 34-11. Rams lost to New York Giants, 38-11.

Last meeting: Dec. 2, 2018: Rams won, 30-16.

Key matchups

Lions C Evan Brown vs. Rams DT Aaron Donald: In his third career start Sunday, Brown will draw the primary blocking assignment on the best defensive player in the NFL. Donald is a three-time Defensive Player of the Year who is on pace for his fifth straight double-digit sack season and has dominated the Lions in his career with six sacks in three games. Lions offensive coordinator Anthony Lynn said it’s important to get “four hands on (Donald) as much as possible,” so Brown won’t be asked to block Donald alone. Still, as the pivot of the offense, he has his hands full keeping Jared Goff clean and opening space in the run game.

Rams QB Matthew Stafford vs. Lions S Tracy Walker: They were teammates for three seasons in Detroit and know each other reasonably well. Walker said he picked off Stafford a handful of times in practice over the years and picked up a couple tips on how to defend the deep ball. Now, it’s time put those tips into practice. The Rams have the best deep passing game in the NFL and Stafford’s skill set is a big reason why: He has a rocket launcher for an arm and uses his eyes well to manipulate opposing safeties. In a young secondary, Walker, who is having a nice season, is the Lions’ best hope of limiting L.A.’s big plays.

Scouting report

Lions run offense vs. Rams run defense

The Lions do not have enough firepower offensively to get in a shootout with the Rams. Their best hope of winning is to run the ball well enough and consistently enough to control the clock, shorten the game and keep L.A.’s offense off the field.

I thought the Lions’ running game was at its best earlier against the Chicago Bears, when Jamaal Williams ran with authority and the Lions shuttled him and D’Andre Swift in and out of the lineup frequently. As a tandem, Williams and Swift are coming off their worst game of the season, and it does not help the Lions remain without their two best offensive linemen. Chances are, they have some success early, then peter out as the Rams adjust.

The Rams are tied for ninth in the NFL in run defense at 107.7 yards per game allowed. Those numbers are slightly skewed by game script — four of their five wins have come by more than a touchdown — but they have a very good defense. Donald is the best defensive lineman (and maybe best player) in the NFL, flanked by lane-clogging Greg Gaines and Sebastian Joseph-Day up front. Edge: Rams

Lions pass offense vs. Rams pass defense

Campbell was up front last week about the Lions’ need to get more from quarterback Jared Goff. Goff, who played his first five NFL seasons in L.A., has eight turnovers in six games and has contributed to the Lions’ recent protection problems by holding the ball too long and sometimes setting too deep in the pocket.

The Lions do not have any semblance of a downfield passing game, which allows defenses to load the box against the run and swarm to Swift, Williams and tight end T.J. Hockenson on check-down routes. Campbell said the Lions need to play with better tempo, so more no-huddle offense could in the cards Sunday. More importantly, they need someone to start winning one-on-one battles outside.

The Rams play a lot of split-safety defense and do a good job of limiting big pass plays. Jalen Ramsey is a lockdown defender at cornerback, and Donald and outside linebacker Leonard Floyd lead a relentless pass rush. Slot cornerback Darious Williams (ankle) is on injured reserve, and while rookie Robert Rochell has shown promise in the No. 2 role, perhaps that’s an area the Lions can exploit. Edge: Rams

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Rams run offense vs. Lions run defense

When the Rams lost Cam Akers to a torn Achilles tendon this summer, many thought that doomed Stafford to life without a running game again. The Rams have not been great running the ball this season, but at 103.5 yards per game rushing, Stafford has some of the best run support of his career.

Darrell Henderson has four rushing touchdowns and is averaging 4.6 yards per carry, though he has just one run longer than 20 yards this season. Sony Michel will see 20 or so snaps as the backup. The Rams do not use their backs much in the pass game.

Stopping the run has been a chore for the Lions. They’ve allowed more than 115 yards rushing in four straight games and rank 31st in the league in red zone defense. Michael Brockers could be in store for a big game in his return to L.A., and the Lions have gotten good play from rookies Alim McNeill, Levi Onwuzurike and Derrick Barnes in recent weeks. Edge: Rams

Rams pass offense vs. Lions pass defense

Stafford is a legitimate MVP candidate for the first time in his career and the biggest reason why the Rams are Super Bowl contenders. He is completing nearly 70% of his passes, has connected on more shot plays of 40-plus yards (seven) than anyone in the NFL and is making good decisions.

Much of Stafford’s success is predicated off the play-action game, and he has a cadre of good receivers to throw to in Cooper Kupp, Robert Woods, Van Jefferson, DeSean Jackson and tight end Tyler Higbee. Kupp is tied for the NFL lead with 46 catches, and the Rams have gotten good play from their line, allowing six sacks in six games.

Big pass plays have been a problem for the Lions all season, though the emergence of rookie cornerback Jerry Jacobs has helped stabilize the secondary. The Rams play at a fast tempo, especially in the red zone, so defensive coordinator Aaron Glenn will have to keep things simple for his young defensive backs. Getting some pass rush from Trey Flowers and Charles Harris would help immensely. Edge: Rams

Special teams

Jack Fox is having another Pro Bowl-caliber season punting. He is netting 45.8 yards per punt and the Lions are allowing less than 7 yards per punt return. He is a valuable weapon if the Lions can make this a field position game. Austin Seibert is 6-for-7 on field goals this season, his only miss coming in the opener from 51 yards. Tom Kennedy could be line for kick return duties for the second straight week.

The Rams rank 28th in Football Outsiders’ composite special teams rankings, in part because they give up more field position than usual in the kicking game. Johnny Hekker is netting just 40.4 yards per punt, though 13 of his 17 punts have landed inside the 20. Matt Gay is a respectable 11 for 12 on field goal attempts, but like the Lions, the Rams are getting limited production from their return game. Not that they’ll need to resort to trick plays Sunday, but the Rams have historically been aggressive in that regard. Edge: Lions

Prediction

Two-touchdown favorites are rare in the NFL, but that’s exactly what the Rams are Sunday – and for good reason. From a pure roster standpoint, the Rams have an edge over the Lions at almost every position on the field. Stafford is playing some of the best football of his career, the Lions do not match up well against the Rams’ plethora of weapons, and Donald and Ramsey are two of the premier defensive playmakers in the league. The Lions need to be successful on first  and second down on offense, and defensively, force Stafford into mistakes to have a chance. Maybe Goff plays out of his mind against his old team. More likely, the Rams win this one in a walk. Pick: Rams 31, Lions 14

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

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