Kent Lee Platte, DLD Writer
Fans are always just a little less excited coming off a loss. Even when that loss was by a last second buzzer beater against a perennial postseason contender. Sure, the Lions had their flaws against the Bengals. For the most part, though, they performed very well as a unit, and with only a few exceptions that was the case last week. The Lions were simply outcoached and never adjusted their game plan to compensate.
This week, they face the cream of the NFC East, the Dallas Cowboys. Both teams are 4-3, both boast strong QBs and top flight WRs, and some sketchy defensive play. The teams are far from similar, however, and the under the radar match ups this week have a theme of not necessarily being match ups if the teams had played each other week one.
Chris Houston vs. The Bench
No bones about it, Chris Houston was the worst player on the football field for the Lions OR the Bengals last week. He was bad enough that he was ultimately benched by the staff in favor of struggling 2nd round rookie Darius Slay. Slay played alright in Houston’s absence, but I can’t tell if he was actually good or if it just looked good by comparison. Houston is no stranger to the bench, either, and the last time he rode pine for any length of time was against the Lions opponent this week, Dallas.
The last time these two teams met, Houston would bench himself briefly after getting utterly obliterated, repeatedly, by then rising star Dez Bryant. Houston would go on to play some pretty excellent football, but he hasn’t adjusted to the new Lions scheme very well. He was benched again last week, and rumors are he may not even start. Frankly, it’s tough to really WANT him to start against Bryant. I remember seeing Houston, battered, beaten, talking with coaches the last time around and you could see the frustration. Last time, Houston would come back and help save the game. Can he repeat that feat here?
Lions Offensive Line vs. The Scrubs
The last time the Lions faced a fierce pass rush, they shut them out. It’s been their MO all year, in fact. When they faced a poor pass rush, like the Packers, they got destroyed. It’s a strange dichotomy that the Offensive line has, playing up or down to their opponents.
The Cowboys pass rushers I refer to as scrubs, not as a demeaning term (Okay, maybe a little), but rather pointing out that they are guys that would likely not be rushing were it not due to injuries. Jason Hatcher has played well, but it is rare that the light suddenly turns on this far into a career. George Selvie is a well traveled journeyman, but suddenly turns it on this season? I’m not buying into either, and looking at the level of the opponents the real eye catchers on the Cowboys stat sheet tells me their numbers are more the anomaly than the rule.
Still, Riley Reiff is coming in injured, LaAdrian Waddle played a lot like an Undrafted Free Agent at times against the Bengals, and Barry Richardson is a short term band aid at his very, very best. Can the Lions shore up their line in the wake of such injuries? Or are they going to continue to help a couple guys get career numbers?
Morris Claiborne vs. Ryan Broyles
Once upon a time, Claiborne was considered the top cornerback in his draft and worth so much that a team should not only draft him high but spend multiple picks to trade up for him. My how the mighty have fallen, with Claiborne sitting no higher than third on the Cowboys depth chart.
Ryan Broyles was once the best Wide Receiver in college football history. He now sits as a barely used slot WR. As much talk as Dez and Calvin have gotten, I’m more interested to see which of these two can prove their worth in this match up. Claiborne, like Chris Houston, has struggled in a new scheme, and it will be interesting to see if Broyles’ zone busting abilities ever come back. If we don’t get to see it against someone who is clearly struggling, we might never see it.
Darius Slay vs. The Limelight
There comes a time when a player has to pony up. We can talk all day about the speed of the game, and how it takes some players longer than others to adjust and get used to how fast the NFL is. No such luxury can be afforded to Slay, with Houston struggling and coming up against one opponent who crushed him once before, Slay will need to step up and step up big. The Bengals went one read all day on the Lions and the Lions secondary failed nearly every time.
Someone has to make a team pay for one read throws, and Slay made a career of that in college. It’s the big time now, kid. Do it to it. Slay will be matching up with Dez Bryant at times, which isn’t a very good match up, and other times with Terrance Williams, a former 3rd round pick who is on fire for the Cowboys. Meanwhile Tony Romo is having an above average season, playing efficiently and throwing well. This isn’t Andy Dalton throwing to Marvin Jones, this is a long seasoned QB who can make a team pay for letting him two step toss all day. If we’re not hearing Slay’s name called all day for the right reasons, you can bet we’ll be hearing it for all the wrong ones.
Gunther Cunningham vs. Gunther Cunningham
As much as I’ve ragged on Scott Linehan for his terrible play calling this season, it was Cunningham that really let the team down against the Bengals. The team looked like it had never heard of AJ Green, even leaving him completely uncovered on the line at least once, covering him with LB Ashlee Palmer on another. What was he thinking?
Well, on first watch I thought maybe, just maybe, the Lions were giving too much credit to rookie RB Giovanni Bernard. On second viewing, it looked pretty simple. The Lions were not respecting Andy Dalton’s ability to pass. Ever. Even when Dalton started to gouge the team for good yardage, they continued to play like Dalton was some backup injury replacement instead of the starter on a playoff team he is. That it happened that way was bad, that it continued through all four quarters is unforgivable.
Cunningham has switched up his scheme before, so I’m not sure why he was so committed to playing like an idiot against the Bengals. No, I don’t have a PC way of putting it, if you’re on third down and AJ Green is out wide, you don’t play with a single safety deep and, the other on the line, and the slot CB completely uncovered. Cunningham needs to fix himself with the quickness. That kind of stubborn arrogance only works if you have the team and the scheme to back it up. The Lions have neither. Jim Schwartz falls here as well, as he either lacked the ability or the inclination to step in and make that defense run.
Lions Defensive Line vs. Expectations
Coming into this season, many believed the Lions defensive line was the best in the league. 7 games later and the Lions are averaging just fewer than 2 sacks a game. Their 13 team sacks rank 27th in the NFL. Does that mean that Ziggy Ansah, Ndamukong Suh, and Nick Fairley are playing poorly? No. Teams are getting passes out at record speed against the Lions and the Lions scheme (See Gunther Cunningham above) is allowing teams to freely take their first read.
My question is this: Why aren’t their hands up? It was a focus of Training Camp. It was, in part, why the Lions chose to go with bigger, longer D-linemen this season. And yet, we are seeing a whole lot of free passing lanes right over their heads or between them. The scheme is killing these guys, but their inability to adjust themselves to the speed the ball is coming out is just as alarming. Disappointments abound. While the D-line isn’t playing as poorly as they look statistically, we aren’t seeing the kind of dominance we all expected or even anything near to it.
The Cowboys rank just above the middle of the league in pass protection; these are the opponents the Lions defensive front are supposed to annihilate. Facing a rookie Center ought to be a cake walk for Suh and co., but will we see them start to take over games any time soon?