Kent Lee Platte, DLD Writer
Despite suffering an embarrassing loss against the Pittsburgh Steelers, the Lions are still sitting atop the NFC North and in fact are still clinging to the 3rd seed in the NFC. This week’s matchup against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers is important not only because the Lions need to bounce back and show they can win, but because it is an NFC opponent meaning the playoff implications are much bigger.
There are plenty of upfront matchups to look at, most notably the league’s best receiver going against its best cornerback, so there’s no need for me to hash those out here. Another thing I’ll mention and then move on is how the Lions have to handle this game mentally, I don’t think we need to go into detail about how damaging a loss at this point in the season at home to a conference opponent can be. So skipping over the obvious, we’ll jump right the under the radar match ups in this week’s make or break game!
Mikel Leshoure vs. Mounting Pressure
Mikel Leshoure has seen almost no playing time this season. As much as he struggled last season, no one can really question that at least part of that was due to shoddy up front blocking from the Lions Offensive Line, and this season’s line is vastly improved in that area. Despite that, Leshoure sits fourth on the depth chart, and has only actually touched the ball twice all season. Now, I’m not calling for him to retake his spot atop the depth chart or even supplant Joique Bell as the #2 guy, but does it really make much sense for the staff to keep him on the bench?
Reggie Bush has been streaky, as has Joique Bell, and with injuries to Bush, Bell, and even Riddick at one point, the coaching staff has to feel the pressure to get him on the field and let him actually carry the ball. Bell is struggling with tendonitis, has had rib issues earlier in the year, and is now also dealing with an Achilles issue. None of those things have kept him out of practice this week, but ALL of them could lead to more serious injuries if he’s forced to carry the ball more, as he was last week when he aggravated his injuries. You have a guy, you made it a point to keep that guy specifically for injury relief, and yet you don’t use him in that role?
Gunther Cunningham vs. Jonte Green
I’m not sure what happened in the offseason or during this season that has soured the coaching staff to Jonte Green. While he had plenty of issues last season, he started to improve as the season wore on and definitely showed enough to warrant a closer look. And yet, there he sits, often a healthy scratch and very sparingly used defensively. Bill Bentley should return from his knee injury to shore up the slot position, but do we really want to see Don Carey back in that spot if Bentley goes down again? Carey more than struggled when asked to carry a whole game, looking much more comfortable when he played as a reserve safety or when he is asked to play run support at the line. In coverage? Not so good, to put it lightly.
Can Green do better? Maybe, maybe not, but it would be hard for him to play worse. The Lions have been winning, and they’ve been doing so by utilizing some of their younger players, so I haven’t beaten the old “Schwartz and Co. Veteran Preference” drum a lot, but it’s starting to rear its head again. Some of Cunningham’s comments regarding Slay lead me to believe he’s still as reluctant as ever to use his younger guys, and there’s no excuse for Green’s absence on the field. As poor as that secondary has performed, you don’t shake it up even a little bit?
Reiff and Waddle vs. Dekoda Watson
Even going back to his college days at Florida State, I have never been a fan of Dekoda Watson. I’m still not, actually. The Bucs, however, seem to have found a role he’s not terrible in as a pass rushing Linebacker in certain situations. He’s not a great pass rusher, I wouldn’t even put him in the ‘good’ category, but it presents an issue. The Lions haven’t really faced a team that uses their Linebackers in that kind of hybrid role. The only exception was the Redskins, and they were cheating when they were doing it.
Both Reiff and Waddle have been having good seasons, and I don’t think there’ll be much concern if they end up face to face with Watson. My concern with that is simply recognizing it when it happens, and whether either can adjust. This falls as much on Bush/Bell and co. as it does on the Tackles, but it is still something worth paying attention to as the game progresses.
Lions LBs vs. TBRB1
The Bucs, as awful as they’ve played as a team for much of the season, have had three separate running backs rush for 140+ yards in a game. Two of those are out with injury, but the most recent is Bobby Rainey who is coming off a brilliant game against the Falcons. The Lions shrewdly tried to acquire Rainey last season from the Ravens Practice Squad, but were unsuccessful. It looks like the Bucs found a good way to use the former Western Kentucky Hilltopper and that’s the guy the Lions are trying to stop this week.
The Lions have been allowing just over 2 YPC to Running Backs for several weeks now, but it’s difficult to gauge if it’s due to actually ‘getting it’ in run defense or just because teams pass with ease against the Lions porous secondary. Whatever the cause, the Lions have to contain Rainey if they want to move past the Bucs. DeAndre Levy has played at an All Pro level this season, and Tulloch is no slouch, but this team has found ways to move the ball on the ground.
Jim Schwartz vs. Injuries
No, I’m not going to take the trite road and talk about how the team needs to avoid injuries, that could be said any week. No, this is referring to taking advantage of injuries to the opposing team. Last week, the Lions had several favorable matchups against the Steelers’ banged up offensive line and several defensive players battling through or out. I don’t need to point out how huge of a failure that was, but they’re facing similar situation this week. Dashon Goldson isn’t injured, but he IS out and reserve Safety Keith Tandy is, well, not good. Teams shouldn’t have to rely on their 6th round guys to start but that is the position Goldson’s dirty play has left them in.
Can the Lions take advantage of Tandy? I should hope so. Adding to the challenge is Bucs Linebacker Mason Foster, who has been dealing with a concussion and is out for the game. Long time Buc reserve LB Adam Hayward will play in Foster’s stead, and that’s another match the Lions can exploit. The team did some interesting things with Larry Warford last week, who quietly had his best game of the year which got lost in the loss, and I’d like to see some more of that if they’re going to expose some of the potential holes in the Bucs defense.
Rashean Mathis vs. Tiquan Underwood
Wait, really? Tiquan Underwood? The Buccaneers passing attack has been pretty much Vincent Jackson and their Running Backs, being one of the few teams to boast (if you’d boast about it) about having a worse WR corps than the Lions. There is no depth there. Having said that, Underwood was targeted on third down four times by the Bucs against the Dolphins. Two of his three targets against Seattle were on third down. This is a guy that the Bucs believe can extend drives, and that’s something the Lions have been allowing to happen in spades recently. Gunther Cunningham doesn’t exactly put his cornerbacks in good position to make plays, but if you’re facing third down Underwood can make you pay for paying too much attention to Vincent Jackson.