Lions vs Titans: 10 Keys to the Game for Detroit
Luckily for the Detroit Lions, the first hurdle to winning this game is already cleared: It's not 2008 anymore.
Unfortunately, the Titans have also benefited from that fact by no longer fielding Vince Young as a quarterback.
That was the last time these teams met, at which point current head coach Jim Schwartz was on the opposite sideline along with defensive leaders Kyle Vanden Bosch and Stephen Tulloch.
The Tennessee Titans were in the midst of a 13-3 season, while the Lions...weren't. Things were different back then.
Fast forward to 2012, in which the Lions are coming off a 10-6 playoff season and the Titans are trying to build on a 9-7 season with a second-year head coach and quarterback.
Because that's how quickly things change in the NFL.
Anyway, for as much as the Lions seem to have struggled thus far this season, the Titans look even worse, having lost their first two games by a combined 49 points.
And sure, those games were against the Patriots and Chargers, but neither of those teams is very well-known for stifling defense. Yet the Titans are scoring at a league-worst clip of 11.5 points per game.
This looks like a nice "get well" game for the Lions, who should come into Tennessee looking to blow off some steam after a disappointing loss to San Francisco.
But then, it could also be a "get well" game for the Titans offense.
Here's what the Lions need to do to make sure they're the only ones feeling better about their season come Monday.
Turn Mikel Leshoure Loose
Mikel Leshoure has been waiting a year-and-a-half for this moment.
After missing his first 16 games due to a torn Achilles, and two more this season because of some bad choices, Leshoure is finally ready to get on the field and play in a real game.
And not a moment too soon; the Lions gave a dangerously high number of touches to Joique Bell last week.
Leshoure was a controversial pick in 2011 as it is. Not only did the Lions trade up from the third round and basically up a third and fourth-round pick for him, but they did it at a time when running back was not perceived as a major team need (how is that perception working out now?).
But all of that goes away if Leshoure comes out and has a 100-yard day in his first regular-season action.
Is it likely? No.
But is it possible? Considering the Titans are fielding the third-worst rushing defense in football right now (a stat almost certainly weighted by the fact that they've played in two blowouts thus far, but still), it's certainly possible.
Hassle Jake Locker
Jake Locker won't have any trouble avoiding the "elite" tag this year, but for as poorly as his offense has played, he has only been sacked twice and thrown two interceptions.
In other words, he plays pretty poorly even without pressure. And no quarterback plays better with pass-rushers flying at him.
Which is good, because Locker is likely to be facing the softest secondary he's seen all year. If the Lions give him too much time, he might find a comfort zone, and then this game becomes harder than it needs to be.
Locker is a young quarterback with lots to learn, but he's not bad. After two games, he has the same number of touchdown passes as Matthew Stafford and less turnovers. Even his completion percentage is comparable. Locker could turn out to be a good one eventually.
The Lions just have to put him under enough duress so that "eventually" doesn't become "this weekend."
Keep CJ2K Playing Like CJ0.2K
Chris Johnson is averaging 1.1 yards per carry this season. He's on pace to rush for well under 200 yards this season. We're talking 21 yards on 19 carries.
Six Detroit Lions, including Matthew Stafford and Keiland Williams, have better rushing averages than that. Stafford's receiving average is better than that.
It's hard to claim that the Lions rush defense isn't greatly improved over last season, considering their performance in holding star running backs Steven Jackson and Frank Gore under 100 yards each in back-to-back weeks.
Johnson is not playing at anywhere near the same clip as Jackson or Gore, so it would seem the Lions won't have much trouble keeping Johnson playing below expectations. But that doesn't mean they can take him out of their calculations. If nothing else, Johnson is still fast, and that means he's still a threat.
Continue Work on a New CJ2K
Chris Johnson earned the nickname "CJ2K" because of his initials (CJ) and his 2,000-yard (2K) rushing season in 2009.
The Lions have their own CJ, and he notched 1,681 receiving yards in 2011. He is currently on pace for 1,640 yards in 2012 after a couple of off games (!).
There is a debate regarding the Lions' reliance (or OVERreliance, depending on your perspective) on Calvin Johnson's production, and while I do think the Lions have put too much pressure on the man to perform, that doesn't mean he should be targeted less.
It means the players around him should step up and make plays so that Megatron can do more with the looks he gets. If the Lions can get that to happen, Calvin Johnson could become the first player in NFL history with over 2,000 receiving yards in a season.
And since we're talking about it...
Subpoena the WR Corps
Calvin Johnson should probably consider putting in a call to his teammates because it seems Johnson himself is the only receiver who showed up for the regular season.
Maybe that's a little unfair. Nate Burleson caught six passes for 69 yards against the Rams, so he was a factor in that game.
But what about Titus Young, everybody's favorite training camp darling? What's up with his breakout season? Two receptions for 25 yards is not what anybody had in mind. Negating that with two penalties for 25 yards isn't, either.
Ryan Broyles isn't supposed to be a major factor yet this season, so I give him a pass.
But this was supposed to be the year Johnson got some help. Young was supposed to emerge as a star receiver, a 1,000-yard receiving threat that made defenses think twice about triple-teaming Johnson.
So far, Young doesn't look improved. He looks like he has regressed from his rookie year.
The Lions play a softer secondary this week than they had in their first two weeks, so it could be a good time for a breakout game for Young. If he ever actually plans on having one of those, that is.
Keep Special Teams Special
A pleasant surprise this season has been the play of the special teams.
This looked like a trouble spot in the preseason during which it seemed special teams coordinator Danny Crossman was blowing gaskets on a weekly basis.
But in the regular season, the Lions have been effective in all facets of special teams. They have limited long returns, and Stefan Logan looks more like his 2010 edition than 2011.
That nobody was able to outperform Logan in camp was distressing at the time, but his return averages are up, and he already has as many kick returns of 40 yards or more as he did all of last year. Maybe he's worth that roster spot after all.
Continue to Avoid Dumb Penalties
The Lions are a modest 1-1 after two weeks, but there is one thing to get particularly happy about.
We are in Week 3 of the regular season, and the "undisciplined Lions" storyline has yet to be rammed down everybody's throats.
Eight penalties for 89 yards is what the Lions are looking at right now. No, not last week. All season.
Perhaps more importantly, they have kept the impact of those penalties to a minimum. Yes, the running into the kicker penalty against San Francisco was ill-advised. Yes, Titus Young took a post-play personal foul against the Rams. But they have yet to negate a touchdown or give teams free yards in crucial fourth-quarter situations.
In large part, the Lions are playing good, clean, disciplined football two games in, which is exactly what they need to do to get away from that "dirty team" image.
Of course, it's entirely possible the Lions are playing the exact same way, and it's simply being called differently by replacement officials. I'm OK with that, too.
Do NOT Blitz (Much)
The Lions, under the current regime of Martin Mahew and Jim Schwartz, have focused on building the defensive line almost as much as they have focused on offensive skill positions.
Games like this are the reason why.
As I noted previously, the Lions need to put pressure on young Jake Locker to keep him off balance. But even a second-year player learning the ropes knows what to do in a blitz situation, especially a pocket passer like Locker.
Against a blitz, Locker will get rid of the ball quickly to an available RB or TE and let them do work in the open field. And after last week's defensive performance, it's pretty clear that the Lions should try to limit the number of open-field tackle situations they face in each game.
That means the Lions have to bring pressure with their front four. And that's OK; that's what they're built to do. But the Lions defensive front has been inconsistent with bringing pressure in the first two games.
Cliff Avril, in particular, spent most of last week getting driven 10 yards off the line of scrimmage.
Despite the woes of the rest of the unit, the Titans offensive line is one of the better ones in the league, and getting to Locker won't be easy. But neither is stopping the Lions' front four.
Go Deep, Whether It's There or Not
I thought we had already established this: It does not matter whether or not Calvin Johnson is open down the field.
He can be as open as he wants to be.
Seriously, sometimes I wonder why the Lions don't just run the same play on offense every time out: Have Calvin Johnson go about 30 yards downfield and win a jump ball.
That's terrible gameplanning, of course, much like if your entire playbook was just variations of the Hail Mary. And yet Johnson seems to make it work about 85 percent of the time.
So while I'm certainly not suggesting the Lions sling it down the field on every play, I am suggesting they do it a whole lot more than last week. The 49ers had no particular reason to fear the deep ball against Detroit because Stafford and Johnson never tried their luck against the deep safety.
This week, even if the Titans show the same defensive look as the 49ers last week, the Lions should sling one deep to Calvin anyway. Whether he comes down with it or not is almost irrelevant. the opposition should always be afraid of getting beat deep, and tossing one downfield just keeps it in their heads.
This was how bleak things looked the last time these teams met up.
It was on Thanksgiving in Detroit, and it was a stinker. The Titans dominated from start to finish, as did most of the Lions' opponents from that season.
Only a handful of Lions (Jason Hanson, Calvin Johnson, Kevin Smith and most of the offensive line) were actually with the team when the Lions suffered their worst beating of their worst season ever.
As previously noted, the head coach and a couple of defensive players were actually on the opposite sideline at the time.
But the ones who were there need to remember. Remember how it felt losing 47-10 on Thanksgiving Day, in front of a listless home crowd, on the way to the biggest disappointment most of them will ever feel in their professional careers.
Remember, and pay it back. Most likely, 0-16 isn't on the table for the Titans this year, and after this game, the Lions could probably care less what the Titans do the rest of the year.
But for one game, at LP Field in Nashville, the roles will be reversed. The Lions are going to invade enemy territory, having just lost their first game a week earlier, and try to keep a winless team winless.
And if they win by 37 points, then so be it.