Kent Lee Platte, DLD Writer
You’ve probably already seen the matchups you expected to. Reggie Bush vs. the Vikings Linebackers. Suh/Fairley vs. the Vikes Oline. Hey, we’ve even got the annual smack talk between Jared Allen and whichever Lion is playing LT (Riley Reiff takes Jeff Backus’ old spot). Those matchups are all good, and will surely be front and center during the Lions’ season opener. Since you’ve already heard all of those, however, I’m going to point to a few matchups that we will also see in all its football glory, but maybe aren’t what you’d expect to be looking for. Some of them I am surprised I haven’t seen mentioned more often, but all of them could have game changing implications not only for the outcome of this one game; but also for the outcome of the season if the team continues to win these battles. They may be a little fringe, but they’re important nonetheless.
Sharrif Floyd vs. Larry Warford
These two squared off in college last season, though Floyd would ultimately leave early with injury. This battle was a big reason some considered Warford one of the best Guards in his draft class, as he was able to neutralize the big Florida Tackle. Floyd is still battling injury, so there’s a chance he doesn’t play against the Lions. With Kevin Williams’ status also up in the air due to injury, we may end up watching Larry Warford vs. Letroy Guion or Fred Evans and that just isn’t that exciting. Should Floyd suit up, we get the joy of watching two of the top prospects at their respective positions lined up against each other in their NFL regular season debut, a game that could set the tone for their careers. Lions fans are of course hoping Warford wins that contest, and considering he won it the last time they faced off there is a good chance of that, but this is an interesting one to watch if Floyd makes it on the field.
Matthew Stafford vs. Harrison Smith
Stafford had his share of struggles this preseason, and whether it was caused by his mechanics, chemistry with his receivers, or just general inaccuracy it was clear the biggest issue he was displaying was overthrowing. When you overthrow in the NFL, the ones who tend to benefit are the Safeties, who just love to see a pass sail high. With both Calvin Johnson and Patrick Edwards starting against the Vikes, Stafford is likely to target the deep part of the field more often than we saw in 2012, where he had no deep threat outside of Calvin. Smith had a respectable 11PDs (3 against Detroit) and 3INTs last season, and you can be sure he’s watched Stafford throwing it over his receivers heads this preseason. If the Lions Franchise QB is off his game, it is Harrison Smith who will benefit.
Matthew Stafford vs. Patrick Edwards.
Yes, I know they’re on the same team. Yes, I know I was just talking about Stafford. I’ve been a huge fan of Edwards since his college days at Houston, and while I kept expecting him to blow up in the preseason (Especially after watching him in person in camp), it just didn’t happen. When it DID happen, Edwards would blow past his defender on a deep route, get a nice chunk of separation, having no defenders ahead of him…only to be overthrown. It was almost a running gag amongst fans, “Look, Edwards with another TD! Nope, overthrown again…” When Stafford hit Edwards right in the numbers on a comeback route, Edwards let it bounce right off his chest as he attempted to catch it with his body. The mistakes were working both ways. It’s game time, now, and these two obviously have some chemistry issues they need to get worked out with the quickness. If they come out hot against the Vikes, there is a possibility all the Lions’ hemming and hawing about needing a #2 receiver opposite Calvin Johnson could all be for naught. I for one am hoping Nate Burleson is right on this one and Edwards emerges into the complimentary receiver the Lions have been lacking for so long, and the team can target two, maybe even THREE receivers a game for a change. I know, madness.
Reggie Bush vs. Jared Allen/Brian Robison
It is already a big test for Reggie if he is ready to take the reins of the Lions rushing attack. Given the volume of his targets and catches this preseason, the Lions are going to lean on him in the passing game as well. One thing we only got to see briefly is an area Bush has struggled in the past, which is when he is forced to stay back in pass protection. It’s unlikely, given how the Lions have used him, that he will be asked to stay back often, but with the opponent the Lions are facing it may be a necessity by halftime. The Lions are fielding two Offensive Tackles who have never started across from each other, and have only a single start between them in their short careers. They’re facing perennial All Pro Jared Allen and recent breakout Brian Robison. That’s not an easy draw for anyone. The Lions are a team that tends to use their additional blockers in space, rather than keeping them in to pass protect. In fact, the Lions are often at the bottom of the league in number of blockers, meaning they keep extra blockers in far less often than most teams. Despite this, if the pass rush is especially fierce or if the starting Tackles can’t handle it, it’s not only likely but probable Reggie Bush will see some time helping out in that area. RBs don’t often do more than chip block against the edge rushers, but even that split second of additional time can be crucial to the Lions’ gameplan. In addition, if Bush can’t convincingly chip, the Vikings veteran LBs like Greenway will key in on his routes pretty easily, limiting his effectiveness. If all goes well, this battle will never happen, or at least be a very small part of the Lions’ plans. If things go south, this is one to watch.
Bill Bentley vs. Greg Jennings
This one is a more traditional matchup, but it’s one I feel is flying under the radar. Bentley had a terrible outing against the Jets, but recovered and played well once the Lions brought in some competition. He outplayed both veterans Ron Bartell and Rashean Mathis as the slot corner (although Mathis still played well) and will likely take many snaps there against the Vikes. In three receiver sets, the Vikes are likely to put Greg Jennings in the slot, where he has received much of his work in recent years, because both Jerome Simpson and Cordarrelle Patterson are primarily outside receivers. Jennings facing off against Bentley is going to be an interesting one for me. How Bentley fares in that contest could put his stamp on the Nickel role for the rest of the season if he does well, especially going against a long time Lions foe. Which Bentley will we get? Will it be the bumbling, stumbling, inept one that got obliterated by Mark Sanchez and Co.? Or will it be the quick, instinctive opportunist we had against the Bills?
Darius Slay vs. Xavier Rhodes
While they won’t be facing off against each other, this is something I will be watching very closely anyway. Rhodes was taken by the Vikings with the 25th pick of the 1st round, while the Lions selected Slay with the 4th pick of the 2nd round. That’s less than a dozen spots later. Both players earned their stripes in camp and the preseason, and it is intriguing to me to watch two fringe 1st round prospects in their first NFL game. Slay is likely facing the harder charge of the two, going against a physical receiver like Cordarrelle Patterson or a deep runner like Jerome Simpson. That is, of course, if Rhodes matches up against Patrick Edwards and Nate Burleson instead of Calvin Johnson. If Rhodes is locked onto Johnson, it will be the hardest assignment Rhodes has ever had since deciding to play football, and I don’t envy him. All in all, watching these two will likely just be for bragging rights for their fan base, but for the team we could be watching long term starters on rival teams who were drafted very close together whose careers will always be compared to one another. That, to me, is interesting to watch.