The Detroit Lions (0-1) are welcoming the Washington Commanders (1-0) into the not-so-friendly confines of Ford Field for a Week 2 matchup. The Commanders are looking to continue their one-game winning streak and stay undefeated under the new franchise name, while the Lions are hoping to avoid the dreaded 0-2 start to the season.
Let’s take a closer look at the key things the Lions need to do against Washington in order to get their first win of the season.
Key matchup: Lions IOL vs Jonathan Allen/Daron Payne
The biggest strength of the Commanders team is their defensive line. Honestly, it should be after spending four first-round picks on that unit in consecutive seasons (2017-2020). Unfortunately for Washington, they will be without stud edge rusher Chase Young against Detroit but remain stout at the other three spots.
“They’ve got some really good guys, particularly up front,” Lions offensive coordinator Ben Johnson said at his Thursday press conference. “I think it starts there with them, (EDGE Montez Sweat) 90, (DT Jonathan Allen) 93, and (DT Daron Payne) 94. Those guys are about as good as it gets, and they have some great complementary people upfront as well, so we’ll have our challenge controlling those guys… the pressure is something that we are focusing on.”
Sweat versus the Lions’ offensive tackles (Taylor Decker and Penei Sewell) is an evenly balanced matchup, but for the Lions to find success, they’ll need their interior offensive line to step up against the combination of Allen and Payne.
The biggest question mark right now is: who will be on the Lions interior?
All-Pro center Frank Ragnow (groin/foot) has already been ruled out and he will be replaced by Evan Brown, who started 12 games at center last season when Ragnow was out. The Lions are already working with a reserve at right guard in Logan Stenberg after Halapoulivaati Vaitai was placed on injured reserve. Stenberg was solid in the run game in Week 1, but his pass blocking was an issue he will need to clean up quickly against the Commanders interior combo.
“He handled his own,” Lions’ offensive line coach Hank Fraley said of Stenberg’s performance in Week 1. “There’s a lot to learn when you’re in there. It’s the real thing. It’s (a) different tempo than preseason now. It’s different with the first line, first (team) defense across from you, and guys like Fletcher Cox and all those guys, they’re good players. He’s been a great player in this league for a long time. And he’s got his challenge with (Daron) Payne this week and those guys across, (Jonathan) Allen inside. We’ve got our own challenges now, not just Logan; across the board.”
And there is still a big question mark hovering over Pro Bowl left guard Jonah Jackson (finger), who has not practiced since leaving the field on Wednesday, and carries a questionable designation into this game. The Lions have yet to rule out Jackson, and having him available would be a huge plus. But if he can’t go, the Lions will dip back into their reserves bucket.
Will they push Matt Nelson—arguably their next best offensive lineman—inside? Or will they turn to newcomers Drew Forbes or Kayode Awosika, who have been on the team less than 10 days? Or maybe elevate Dan Skipper or Darrin Paulo from the practice squad, as they were with the team most of training camp?
Whatever the player combinations they land on are, step one to finding success against Washington is weathering the storm in the middle of the offensive line.
D’Andre Swift will be money in the passing game
If you want to slow down Washington’s pass rush, beyond the offense blocking well, the Lions need to make fast decisions on the field and rely on plays that get the ball out quickly.
Running back D’Andre Swift is coming off a career game as a rusher, but he could very well have a career game as a pass catcher in this game.
Washington’s 4-3 defense relies on their linebackers and safeties—often a third safety—to cover the running back out of the backfield. In Week 1, linebacker Jamin Davis was thrown at six times and allowed four receptions for 62 yards, earning a 29.3 coverage grade from PFF. Washington’s third safety, rookie Percy Butler, allowed catches both times he was targeted. While Butler only gave up six total yards, one of the catches resulted in a touchdown.
Swift, of course, is also working through an injury, but he returned to the practice field on Friday and has said on multiple occasions this week that he would play on Sunday, despite him being listed as questionable.
Feed Amon-Ra St. Brown
Keeping with the theme of slowing down Washington’s aggressiveness, Amon-Ra St. Brown should be the other player the Lions lean on.
Based on what we saw in Week 1, the Commanders will rely on Davis, a third safety, and slot corner Benjamin St. Juste to cover the slot receiver. Collectively, the Washington defense allowed Jaguars slot receiver Christian Kirk to amass 117 yards on six receptions. Most notably, Kirk was very successful attacking the middle of the field, catching three passes on five targets for 91 yards.
Feed the Sun God.
Force Carson Wentz to beat you
Statistically, Commanders quarterback Carson Wentz had a nice outing against the Jaguars, totaling 313 passing yards, four touchdowns, and two interceptions. But those two interceptions paint a very clear picture of the type of quarterback Wentz is.
Entering the fourth quarter, the Commanders were up 14-12, but Wentz threw interceptions on the first two drives of the quarter (on back-to-back plays) and they quickly went down 22-14. Now, you have to give credit to Wentz for getting Washington the lead back (and eventual win), but as we have seen in the past, Wentz often struggles in these situations.
Like most quarterbacks, Wentz’s success drops significantly when he is pressured. In Week 1, PFF credited him with a 71.9 grade when passing from a clean pocket, but that number dropped to 51.5 when pressured.
“I have total confidence in Charles (Harris),” defensive coordinator Aaron Glenn said on Thursday. “I have total confidence in Aidan (Hutchinson). I have total confidence in Alim (McNeill), that those guys are going to create havoc and go make plays, so each week I go in with a mentality that our guys are going to make plays. We just have to know exactly who we’re playing against. And if you look at what happened with (Eagles QB) Jalen (Hurts), we had him corralled, we just didn’t finish. And I think those guys will go out and finish this week.”
Get physical with their skill players
The Washington skill players are a bit of an underrated group. Wide receiver Terry McLaurin has been on the mainstream radar for a few years but he has rarely had others around him who can draw the defense’s attention. That changed during the offseason. The Commanders added Jahan Dotson in the first round to play opposite McLaurin, and slot/gadget player Curtis Samuel has returned from injury after missing most of last season. Then in the backfield, former wide receiver turned running back Antonio Gibson is one of the most underrated backs in the NFL.
“So there’s a number of things that I know that (Commanders Offensive Coordinator) Coach (Scott) Turner likes to do, and he’s got plenty of weapons there,” Campbell said earlier this week. “He’s got gadgetries, he’s got slots, he’s got—McLaurin can play inside, outside, Dotson can do a little bit of both. So, these guys are explosive athletes, and they have speed. They’re not the biggest guys, but it gives them a lot of versatility offensively. And then with Gibson in the backfield, I mean this guy’s a big man that can run, and so we cannot let him get going.”
While very talented, as Campbell mentions, the receivers are also all undersized, which is something the Lions should try to exploit. Last week, the Jaguars allowed Washington’s receivers free releases off the line and struggled to stay with them in space. That put the defensive linemen at a big disadvantage as they needed to get home quickly. The Lions secondary is a physical bunch (especially if they need to rely on Will Harris to start if Amani Oruwariye, who is also questionable, can’t play), and they would benefit from using that physicality at the line of scrimmage to redirect and change up the timing of the outside receivers, specifically McLaurin and Dotson. Slowing them down and disrupting their routes early puts more pressure on Wentz to deliver.
In the slot, things are a bit more challenging, as the Lions defense doesn’t have a solid option to man-up Samuel. But the Lions’ split-zone defensive scheme can help with that. By passing off Samuel instead of trying to stick with the talented athlete, then crashing down and flowing to the ball, the Lions can limit his impact. The communication flow between Lions slot corner Mike Hughes with safeties Tracy Walker and DeShon Elliott must operate at a high level to deal with Samuel successfully.
The hardest job for the Lions defense likely falls on the linebackers, as they will be tasked with slowing down Gibson.
“The offense damn near goes through him,” Lions linebacker coach Kelvin Sheppard told the media on Friday. “This kid is a legit player. Now, I don’t know why he doesn’t get promoted in the national spotlight, but this Gibson, this 24, he’s a real dude, man. They do a good job with the schematics of marrying what he does well. He’s an excellent zone runner, that’s the scheme that they do. They’re going to try and stretch you out and if he can put his foot in the ground and get vertical, it’s a problem. So it starts there with stopping the run.”
Paging Malcolm Rodriguez. Your gap integrity skills are needed at Ford Field this Sunday.
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