Detroit Lions at Cleveland Browns: Dave Birkett’s scouting report, prediction

Detroit Free Press

Detroit Lions (0-8-1) at Cleveland Browns (5-5)

The coaches: Lions — Dan Campbell (5-16 overall, 0-8-1 with Lions); Steelers — Kevin Stefanski (16-10 overall, 16-10 with Browns).

Last game: Lions tied Pittsburgh Steelers, 16-16. Browns lost to New England Patriots, 45-7.

Last meeting: Nov. 12, 2017: Lions won, 38-24.

Key matchups

Lions LT Taylor Decker vs. Browns DE Myles Garrett: Decker was a tad rusty in his season debut last week, drawing two penalties and allowing a pressure that led to a sack. This week, he missed practice time with an elbow injury, and is set to face potential NFL defensive MVP Myles Garrett, the game’s best edge-rusher. Garrett has 13 sacks this season and the potential to wreck any game. The Lions will give Decker plenty of chip help, but the more Decker can win one-on-one, the better it is for the offense.

Browns RB Nick Chubb vs. Lions LB Alex Anzalone: Chubb just got out of COVID protocols, so his role could be limited Sunday. But whether it’s him, D’Ernest Johnson or someone else as the lead back, the Lions’ focus is the same — stopping Cleveland’s running game. Chubb is among the best backs in the NFL, and he has excelled in Cleveland’s wide zone rushing attack behind a dominant offensive line. Anzalone enters the week tied for the NFL lead in missed tackles, according to Pro Football Focus. This will be a gang-tackling effort for the Lions, and Anzalone must be at the forefront.

Scouting report

Lions run offense vs. Browns run defense

The Lions had their best rushing performance of the season last week, piling up 229 yards on 39 carries, for an average of 5.9 yards per run. They controlled the line of scrimmage for the better part of three quarters with their six-lineman package, and will need to do the same Sunday to keep Cleveland’s pass rush at bay.

Unlike last week, however, the Lions are beat up on their offensive line. Taylor Decker is expected to play, but is not 100%, and Matt Nelson is battling an ankle injury. The Lions will get Jamaal Williams back in their running back mix, which should help on what should be a sloppy day. D’Andre Swift is coming off his best performance of the season and looks to be in line for a big workload again.

The Browns have a better run defense than the Steelers. Jadeveon Clowney is a top-notch edge run defender, though the interior of Cleveland’s line is a soft spot. Opponents are averaging 3.8 yards per carry against the Browns, fourth best in the NFL. Edge: Browns

Lions pass offense vs. Browns pass defense

Fans have been hankering for the Lions to bench Jared Goff for weeks, and Goff’s strained oblique has opened the door for Tim Boyle to make his Lions debut. Boyle, who is expected to start, is returning from a broken thumb suffered in training camp. He has a stronger arm and is less risk-averse than Goff, which should open the deep passing game. But his accuracy issues and inexperience could be an issue on a sloppy day.

Even with the change in quarterback, the Lions have a limited passing game with no true downfield threat. Josh Reynolds will make his Lions debut Sunday and could help, but Swift and tight end T.J. Hockenson, coming off a zero-catch, one-target game, remain the Lions’ best offensive weapons.

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Garrett leads the NFL with 13 sacks and the Browns are tied atop the NFL with 29 as a team. Garrett is a truly special player, a Hall of Fame-type talent who lines up primarily at right end. The Browns have a talented young secondary as well, with first-round picks Denzel Ward and Greg Newsome starting at corner. Edge: Browns

Browns run offense vs. Lions run defense

The Browns rank second in the NFL in rushing yards per game (154.1) and first in yards per carry (5.3), and their success is due to a combination of very good players and a very good scheme.

Chubb is a difference maker. He has good vision, runs with power and has enough speed to pull away from defenders. Co-starter Kareem Hunt is out with a calf injury, but Johnson had 99 yards rushing against a good Patriots defense last week and 146 yards in a game earlier this season. Beyond their backs, the Browns boast one of the best offensive lines in the NFL, though center JC Tretter is dealing with a knee injury.

The Lions rank 30th against the run this season at 135.7 yards per game, though they did a respectable job against the Steelers and rookie running back Najee Harris last week. The Lions have given up too many big plays on the ground — eight rushes of at least 20 yards, including one by Steelers quarterback Mason Rudolph last week — and need more from veteran interior linemen Michael Brockers and Nick Williams. Edge: Browns

Browns pass offense vs. Lions pass defense

ESPN analyst Rex Ryan was heavily critical of Baker Mayfield after his woeful performance against the Patriots last week, saying the Browns quarterback is ill-equipped to beat man-to-man coverage. The NFL is a copycat league, so it’s plausible the Lions go with a more man-heavy approach Sunday. But they are a two-high safety team and committed to stopping the run, so it’s more likely they don’t deviate too much from their identity.

Mayfield missed practice time this week but will start Sunday. Like the Lions, the Browns lean heavily on their tight ends (Austin Hooper and David Njoku) and running backs (Hunt, in particular) in their passing game. Jarvis Landry, Cleveland’s de facto No. 1 receiver, has topped 37 yards receiving just twice this year.

The Lions have not had a sack in their past two games and have struggled to get consistent pressure on opposing quarterbacks in Romeo Okwara’s absence. Jerry Jacobs should be back in the starting lineup after leaving the Steelers game with a groin injury, but safety Tracy Walker (concussion) is questionable. Edge: Browns

Special teams

The Lions made a change at kicker after Ryan Santoso missed an extra point and field goal in last week’s tie. Rookie Riley Patterson, who is expected to handle kicking duties, has never appeared in an NFL game, even in the preseason. The kicking situation aside, the Lions have one of the stronger special teams units in the NFL. Jack Fox is a Pro Bowl punter, Godwin Igwebuike and Kalif Raymond have solidified the return spots, Josh Woods leads solid coverage units and the Lions have been aggressive, successfully executing two fake punts and a surprise onside kick. 

The Browns rank just ahead of the Lions on Football Outsiders’ composite special teams rankings. Jamie Gillan has one touchback on 31 punts this season and the Browns have yet to give up a return longer than 19 yards. Chase McLaughlin has been solid on field goals, making all four of his attempts from 50-plus yards, and Cleveland snuffed out a fake field goal by the Steelers last month. The Browns will be without kick returner Anthony Schwartz, but punt returner Demetric Felton is expected back in the lineup after a stint on the reserve/COVID list. Edge: Browns

Prediction

Boyle won’t have it easy in what should be the first start of his career, playing in cold, rainy conditions against one of the best pass rushes in the NFL. He noted Friday the Lions have two first-round offensive tackles to help keep him clean, and while that should help, this isn’t a particularly good matchup for the Lions in other areas. They will have their hands full with Chubb and the Browns’ offensive line, and Cleveland seems in line for a bounce-back performance coming off its most lopsided loss of the year. I don’t expect the Lions to be able to run the ball nearly as well as they did last week, and for that reason, I don’t expect this game to be nearly as close. The pick: Browns 31, Lions 17.

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

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