After an unsuccessful trip to Green Bay, the Detroit Lions will attempt to get back on the winning track with a visit to Cleveland. The two teams will face off in FirstEnergy Stadium on the shores of Lake Erie Sunday.
These two teams met in the preseason. Cleveland won that contest, 24-6, in a game where the Lions tried very hard not to reveal anything the Browns could use in preparation for this regular-season matchup. There is really very little to glean from that meeting.
Since the Browns franchise returned to the NFL in 1999, Detroit has won two of the three meetings.
The last was a 38-37 thriller in 2009, a game in which Matt Stafford threw for five touchdowns. Lions fans fondly recall the last of those scores, a game-winning strike to Brandon Pettigrew, despite Stafford playing with a separated shoulder on his non-throwing arm.
Detroit holds a 17-5 advantage all time against the Browns, including a 6-4 record in Cleveland since the first meeting in 1952.
NFC North Division Standings
|Team||Win||Loss||Points For||Points Against|
|Green Bay Packers||2||2||118||97|
The Lions remain tied for the NFC North lead despite the loss to Green Bay. Chicago lost at home to New Orleans, its second setback in a row. The Packers pulled to within a half-game of the lead. Minnesota was on a bye in Week 5.
The Browns are also 3-2 and tied for first place in their division, the AFC North. Cleveland has won three in a row after starting 0-2.
It enters this game with some extra rest. Cleveland knocked off the Buffalo Bills last Thursday, giving it a couple extra days to rest and rehab.
Here's how the teams stack up in statistical rankings so far:
|Rushing||Passing||Run Allowed||Passing Allowed|
Cleveland is a difficult team to define by mere numbers. After all, it traded away starting running back Trent Richardson after Week 2 while at the same time turning to backup quarterback Brian Hoyer.
Hoyer tore up his knee on an awkward slide in the win over Buffalo last week, an injury that restored Brandon Weeden to the quarterback gig.
One of the reasons Hoyer—and then Weeden in relief—looked a lot better throwing the ball after Week 2 has been the return of wideout Josh Gordon. The speedy Gordon has added a dynamic dimension that was sorely lacking in the Cleveland offense.
Lions fans might recognize this phenomenon from the Green Bay game. It's amazing what not having a top wideout can do to a vertically oriented offense. I'm not saying Gordon is as great as Calvin Johnson, but having a viable No. 1 receiving target fundamentally alters an offense for the better.
Speaking of Calvin Johnson, his surprising absence from the lineup in Green Bay appears to be a one-week blip.
Head coach Jim Schwartz led off his Monday media conference, which you can watch on the team's official website, by updating Johnson's status, saying that his star receiver "is getting better every day" and that getting him back "would be a real bonus."
Jason Fox returned against Green Bay after missing three games with a groin injury. During the game, the Detroit Free Press' Dave Birkett reported that Fox suffered a knee injury:
Jason Fox is out with a knee injury for the #Lions. Questionable.—Dave Birkett (@davebirkett) October 6, 2013
Fox was replaced by Corey Hilliard, who would once again get the nod if Fox cannot go versus Cleveland. Schwartz offered "really no new information" on the starting right tackle's status.
Riddick was also injured during the Packers game. Coach Schwartz updated his status during his press conference, per Tim Twentyman of Detroitlions.com:
Schwartz said Theo Riddick had CT scan at the hospital yesterday that was normal. He was diagnosed with concussion and has to pass protocol—Tim Twentyman (@ttwentyman) October 7, 2013
Nate Burleson won't be back for several more weeks, but he did offer his own status update on Monday:
He cannot return soon enough. Kris Durham will continue to fill Burleson's starting role opposite Johnson.
What Needs to Improve
The snide answer is "just about everything," but that's hyperbole.
Detroit did not play well in Green Bay. We all know that—and so do the Lions themselves. To improve, they must show the mental toughness to get past a tough loss.
Beyond putting the subpar performance behind them, there are some things they can do between the lines to help get themselves back on the winning track.
Foremost is trying to establish some offensive balance.
Lions pass heaviest game (70%) comes in the one Calvin Johnson sits out. Perfect.— Mike Clay (@MikeClayNFL) October 7, 2013
Throwing the ball more frequently in spite of missing both Johnson and Burleson was not only counterintuitive, but also stupid.
Even though Reggie Bush struggled to find running lanes, he was the best weapon on the field for Detroit. As he has shown in other games, Bush needs but just a small crease to make a big play.
The second-best weapon on the field against Green Bay was Joique Bell. Unlike Bush, Bell was relatively productive with his runs. His hard-charging style breaks tackles, and he has some breakaway ability of his own.
Instead, the Lions opted to throw more to lesser talents at the receiver position. The Browns have a much tougher defense than the Packers, so being one-dimensional against them figures to result in an even less productive day.
Even with a healthy Calvin Johnson, whom I fully expect to play on Sunday, the Lions must show more dedication to the running game.
For his part, Bush can do a better job of taking his carries where the blocking is designed to lead him. His impatience in sticking with the play design cost him yards and detracted from the blocking effort. All the New Orleans Saints fans are nodding in bemused agreement.
The pass protection needs a rebound game in a big way. This was the worst game of the season for all the linemen—but especially for left tackle Riley Reiff. He has proven the ability is there; Reiff needs to demonstrate the Green Bay game was a bad day and not a trend.
Then there are the punt- and kick-return units. Once again, return man Micheal Spurlock was a detriment instead of an asset. Once again, the blocking in front of him was not acceptable, either.
Spurlock has attempted to return kickoffs seven times this season. The Lions have started every one of those ensuing drives from inside their own 20. The one time Spurlock did advance the ball beyond the 20, a penalty was called on the return, forcing the Lions offense to start at the 8-yard line.
By simply taking a knee on every kickoff, the Lions will improve.
As long as the defensive tackle duo of Ndamukong Suh and Nick Fairley shakes off a bad game against a physical line, the defense should look a lot better against Cleveland.
The Browns are exceptional at left tackle with Joe Thomas and at center with Alex Mack. The rest of the Cleveland offensive line, however, has proven vulnerable.
Suh will match up against right guard Shawn Lauvao, who comes off a game where Pro Football Focus (subscription required) graded him a minus-5.8. Fairley draws John Greco, whom Pro Football Focus has tagged for three sacks in the last two games.
This game is about rebounding. It's imperative to winning in basketball, but it's also critical for the Detroit Lions. They must rebound back to the level of execution and amount of dynamic plays they showed in the weeks prior to Green Bay.