Detroit Lions vs. Denver Broncos: Dave Birkett’s scouting report, prediction

Detroit Free Press

Detroit Lions (1-10-1) at Denver Broncos (6-6)

The coaches: Lions-Dan Campbell (6-17-1 overall, 1-10-1 with Lions); Broncos-Vic Fangio (18-26 overall, 18-26 with Broncos).

Last game: Lions beat the Minnesota Vikings, 29-27. Broncos lost to Kansas City Chiefs, 22-9.

Last meeting: Dec. 22, 2019: Broncos won, 27-17.

Key matchups

Broncos RB Javonte Williams vs. Lions LB Alex Anzalone: The Broncos have good skill talent on offense, and Williams, a second-round pick out of North Carolina, is emerging as integral part of their attack. He has 26 broken tackles on the season —D’Andre Swift, for comparison, has nine on the same number of rushing attempts — and has topped 100 yards rushing in two of his past four games. Anzalone could see a slight reduction in his role due to Denver’s altitude, but should be on the field in most key situations. He leads the NFL in missed tackles, so limiting Williams’ yards after contact will be key.

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Lions WR Amon-Ra St. Brown vs. Broncos CB Kyle Fuller: St. Brown had the best game of his young career last week, catching 10 passes for 86 yards, including the winning score as time expired. St. Brown’s role has expanded in recent weeks, and he could take on even more importance Sunday with Swfit and Jamaal Williams out and T.J. Hockenson doubtful. Fuller plays as the Broncos’ primary slot cornerback, which means he will be responsible for shutting down what might be Lions quarterback Jared Goff’s new favorite target.

Scouting report

Lions run offense vs. Broncos run defense

The Lions cobbled together a respectable running game in D’Andre Swift’s absence last week. They will be challenged to do so again given their personnel limitations. Swift is out for the second straight week with a shoulder injury, and the Lions are without Jamaal Williams, their top backup, and center Evan Brown due to COVID.

Even with Godwin Igwebuike and Jermar Jefferson splitting time in the backfield, the Lions want to run the ball — and they built their gameplan early in the week expecting to do so with Williams on the field. Igwebuike and Jefferson are raw, with 18 career carries between them, but Igwebuike has played well in spurts since moving from safety, and Jefferson has earned praise for his vision.

The Broncos’ fortunes this season have been tied largely to their run defense. They’ve averaged 73.3 yards rushing allowed in their six wins and 137 in their six losses. They do not surrender many chunk rushing plays, but opponents have found success running up the middle and against the right side of their defense. Edge: Broncos

Lions pass offense vs. Broncos pass defense

It was nice to see Jared Goff push the ball downfield into tight windows last week, but that performance seems more like an aberration than something sustainable. Goff still ranks last in the NFL in air yards per completion, and the Lions’ passing game will be especially limited with no Swift and likely no Hockenson.

Josh Reynolds has been a nice addition to the receiving corps. His size is something defenses must account for downfield, and when they do, that gives Amon-Ra St. Brown more room to operate underneath. Dan Campbell remains a work in progress as a play-caller, but the Lions showed creativity in their alignments and pass concepts last week.

The Broncos have a top-10 pass defense, at 220.3 yards per game allowed, but they could be without top pass rushers Bradley Chubb and Shelby Harris. Dre’Mont Jones has been a steady presence off the edge in recent weeks, and he had a career-best 2½ sacks against the Lions in 2019. Rookie cornerback Patrick Surtain II looks like a future star, and the versatile Justin Simmons is one of the best safeties in the league. Edge: Broncos

Broncos run offense vs. Lions run defense

Javonte Williams and Melvin Gordon give the Broncos one of the best running back tandems in the NFL. Williams has the makings of a future star. He’s a powerful back who keeps his legs churning, and he seems to have settled into Denver’s inside zone rushing scheme.

Gordon has been nicked up of late, but he still has home run ability; he leads the Broncos with five rushing touchdowns. Together, the pair lead the NFL in broken tackles, and they’ve had success while playing behind a mediocre offensive line. Ex-Lion Graham Glasgow is out for the season, but rookie Quinn Meinerz has played well in his four starts.

The Lions have not allowed a run longer than 12 yards the past two weeks and have only allowed two carries of more than 15 yards — one on a wildcat play and one on a quarterback scramble — since Halloween. They’ve gotten good play from the interior of their defensive line, though a flu outbreak kept most of those players off the practice field this week. Rookie cornerback Jerry Jacobs has been solid in run support. Edge: Broncos

Broncos pass offense vs. Lions pass defense

The Broncos have a well-built passing game, with two big receivers on the outside in Courtland Sutton and Tim Patrick, the surehanded Jerry Jeudy operating out of the slot and an athletic tight end in Noah Fant. He leads the Broncos with 49 catches, but Sutton and Patrick are the go-to receivers when Denver needs a big play.

Campbell shared his reverence for Teddy Bridgewater earlier this week, but Bridgewater is the weak link of the passing game. He has seven interceptions, has taken 28 sacks this season and is coming off an ugly two-turnover game.

The Lions are vulnerable in the back end with Tracy Walker on the reserve/COVID list, but they’ve gotten good play out of Amani Oruwariye (five interceptions) and the physical Jacobs at cornerback. Getting a steady pass rush is a must with Dean Marlowe and Will Harris ticketed for starting safety duties, but that could be difficult if Charles Harris is limited by the illness that kept him out of practice Friday. Edge: Lions

Special teams

The kicking game has been a consistent bright spot for the Lions this season. Jack Fox is having another Pro Bowl-caliber year, even though his net punting average (42.4 yards) has dipped in recent weeks because of touchbacks. The Lions rank among the top 10 in punt and kick return average and kick return defense, and their aggressiveness in the kicking game can’t be overlooked. Riley Patterson, who made his first three career field goals against the Vikings, is battling the bug that went around the facility this week.

The Broncos rank near the bottom of Football Outsiders’ special teams rankings in part because they have the worst kick return defense in the league. That number is skewed, however, by one Jamal Agnew touchdown return and that Denver’s thin air almost always leads to touchbacks. Ex-Lion Sam Martin handles punting for the Broncos, and Brandon McManus has missed field goals in three of Denver’s past five games. Edge: Lions

Prediction

It’s hard to imagine the Lions winning, given how hamstrung they are because of injuries and illness. They had two days of minimal practice, they’re without their two best offensive weapons (Hockenson and Swift) and they placed four players on the COVID list in a five-day span. The Broncos are a mediocre team who’ve scored fewer than 20 points in half their games this year, but they play solid defense and need a win to remain in playoff contention. Last week, the Lions took motivation from the Oxford shootings. This week, the Broncos can play in memory of former star Demaryius Thomas, who died this week at 33. That’s a lot to overcome for a Lions team with an incredibly small margin for error. Pick: Broncos 24, Lions 16.

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

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