Rams vs Lions: 5 Keys to the Game for Detroit
Finally, a game we can analyze without trying to justify why the outcome is important.
This game is important because it's a real game. This game could decide playoff positioning. The stats will go in the record books.
It's NFL regular season Week 1, and this is a game between two teams that want to win for more than just moral victories and good execution.
That means there are game plans and keys for each team. There are things both teams will want to execute, and things they want to take away from their opponent. Because we are back to real football, and winning is important (sorry, I'm excited, and apparently feel the need to continue reminding myself of that).
So, with the regular season underway, here are the things the Lions need to do to start the season off right.
Rattle Sam Bradford
Lions fans know that sometimes an injury-plagued, No. 1-overall quarterback needs a season or three to really get his bearings.
This game will mark the beginning of Sam Bradford's third NFL season, and his return to the field after missing most of 2011 with injury. Sound familiar?
In many ways, Bradford shows signs of being a franchise quarterback, but he's also relatively young and inexperienced, and his pass protection is suspect. Bradford still lacks a true go-to receiver, and that means his decision making is slower under pressure (since he doesn't have an instinctive panic button, as Stafford has in Calvin Johnson or Brandon Pettigrew).
The combination of poor pass protection and a lack of a reliable pressure release, make Bradford vulnerable in the pocket, and the Lions need to attack to exploit that. If they don't, and Bradford gets into a rhythm, this game will be tougher than it needs to be.
Contain Steven Jackson
I may have overstated just a bit when I said Bradford has no pressure release.
Chances are, Bradford will be dumping the ball off to Steven Jackson when things get too hot, and he could do a whole lot worse.
In fact, the Rams will likely apply a healthy dose of screens to Jackson in order to counteract the Lions' sometimes over-aggressive defense. The Lions would do well to have someone in the defense (Stephen Tulloch) keep an eye on Jackson no matter where he is on the field.
Though rookie Isaiah Pead is the Rams' heir apparent at the running back position, there is no question that Jackson is the back to stop in this one, especially in the short passing game.
There's no doubt the Lions will give up some rushing yards to Jackson, but he is at his most dangerous when he has about as many receiving yards and rushing yards. If the Lions shut down half of that, Jackson goes from great to just really good.
This seems like a foregone conclusion, but it's not always as much of a sure thing as it seems.
The Lions offense pretty much keys on this connection. Even though the Lions expect a number of other receivers to step up this year, Johnson's dominance and the need to keep him consistently double-covered is what makes everyone else go.
The Lions will obviously want to get Titus Young involved with the offense, get the short and intermediate passing game going with the tight ends and run the ball with Kevin Smith and whatever combination of running backs they deem necessary.
But none of that works at anywhere near maximum efficiency if Johnson doesn't establish himself as the dominant weapon we all know he is.
The Rams will game-plan to, first and foremost, contain Johnson in this game. If Stafford hooks up with him as he should, the Rams will need to go in at halftime and figure out why their original plan didn't work.
That means more pressure on Johnson, and therefore far less pressure everywhere else.
Bend, Don't Break (on Both Defense and Special Teams)
The Lions may not field the best special teams unit in the league. That's okay, they don't need to.
What they need to do is keep return men out of the end zone, because that was a bigger problem than it should have been in the preseason.
The Lions' defense, while likely not dominant, should be effective enough in this game to allow Stafford and the offense to outscore the Rams, but not if the special teams units continue to put them in bad positions.
The starting defense didn't allow a ton of points in the preseason, but they didn't perform especially well until they got to their own side of the field.
If the special teams units have the defense starting in its own territory, that "bend-but-don't-break" philosophy is going to be a lot harder to enact.
After all, the defense is going to need room to bend.
Don't Beat Yourselves
The Lions are more than capable of taking control and winning this ball game. They're also more than capable of losing control and blowing the game.
Now, give it a couple of weeks of clean play, and the Lions' offseason issues will have the media staying power of your breath on a cold day: really interesting for about five seconds, then completely irrelevant.
And yes, the first time the Lions get called for a penalty, the announcers will find a way to work in the words "offseason arrests" as a relevant talking point. Just prepare for it now, but understand that the storyline will disappear as long as the Lions win games cleanly.
Of course, the prerequisite there is that the Lions actually win those games, and do so with a minimal amount of penalties (especially the pointless post-play variety).
That is important to the Lions' overall image, but it's worth pointing out also that the Rams are not so hapless as to just allow gift yardage to go to waste. In other words, it's not just an issue of image, it's an issue of actually winning the game first.
Still, for the first time in over a decade, the Lions enter the season with a reputation that is not one of a hapless team of losers, and that should be progress. But the reputation that the Lions enter with instead seems equally undesirable, and Detroit will open the season trying to shake that one, too.
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