Monday Night Football returns to Ford Field when the Baltimore Ravens head to Detroit to take on the Lions.
What: Baltimore Ravens (7-6) at Detroit Lions (7-6)
Where: Ford Field, Detroit
When: Monday, December 16, 8:30 p.m. ET
Watch: ESPN, Al Michaels and Jon Gruden with the call
Both teams control their own playoff destinies at this point, though the loser will almost certainly surrender that important distinction.
Meanwhile, just north up snowy Interstate 95, the Lions were blown away 34-20 by the Philadelphia Eagles. A fourth-quarter collapse buried the Lions in a game in which they dominated the first half.
Here is how the teams match up statistically in NFL rankings:
|Rushing||Passing||Run Allowed||Passing Allowed|
The Lions slid three spots in both run offense and run defense. It's hard to extrapolate real significance from anything that happened in the eight inches of snow in Philly, however.
Detroit and Baltimore have met just three times. The Ravens have won two of those three, including the last meeting. That was in Week 15 of the 2009 season, and Baltimore rode running back Ray Rice to a 48-3 romp over a Lions team that wound up 2-14.
In preparation for breaking down this matchup, I watched six Ravens games on NFL Game Rewind (subscription required). All of the following pictures are screen captures from those games.
In watching those games, Baltimore showed some vulnerabilities which the Lions can exploit. Here are a few ways Detroit can help itself stay in control of the NFC North race.
Come out Firing
One of the glaring conclusions from watching the Ravens is that Joe Flacco is a much better quarterback after halftime. For whatever reason, he often comes out flat and inaccurate.
Take a look at his splits from half to half:
|Joe Flacco Passing Splits by Half|
|Completion %||TDs||INTs||QB Rating|
Given Detroit's propensity for historically awful fourth quarters, getting off to a strong start and building an early lead is imperative. The potential is certainly there, as Matthew Stafford is statistically at his best in the first quarter of games.
|Matthew Stafford Passing Splits by Quarter|
|First Quarter||63.3% completions||5 TDs||2 INTs||91.4 QB Rating|
|Pro Football Reference|
The glaring standout there is the lack of touchdown production in the first quarter of games. Finishing those promising early-game drives all the way into the end zone needs to be a primary focus for the Lions in this contest.
Lean on the Offensive Line
Lions fans know they have a good thing in the offensive line. The front quintet has consistently played well all season despite having new starters at three different positions.
The prime-time stage presents the Lions with an excellent chance to show off the strength of their underrated offensive line. Detroit needs to establish the run behind the rookie right side duo of guard Larry Warford and tackle LaAdrian Waddle.
Waddle has quickly proven to be very adept at hammering defenders at the second level, and the Ravens' defensive scheme affords him ample opportunity to shine.
Here is a play from Baltimore's most recent game against Cincinnati. The Bengals are a great team to watch because they are constructed similarly to the Lions on both sides of the ball.
On this play, Baltimore initially shows a single-high-safety look. That tells the offense that it's a passing situation. But the second safety quickly drops back before the snap to expose the real intent. At the same time, the right outside linebacker creeps further outside the formation.
Bengals quarterback Andy Dalton quickly processes the change and audibles to a running play. He correctly deciphers that his offensive line has a decided advantage against the softer, less crowded Baltimore front.
The play he switches to should look familiar to Lions fans. Detroit runs a very similar play, though they typically run it with a third receiver on the field instead of the second tight end the Bengals deploy here.
The design is for the right tackle to explode out and flatten the inside linebacker to that side, with the in-line tight end kicking out with a block on the outside linebacker and the right guard removing the defensive end from the hole.
Because there is no nose tackle over him, the center is free to peel out and attack the backside linebacker.
In order for the play to really work, the running back—Gio Bernard in this case—has to attack the hole quickly and decisively. The option to bounce the run outside or cut back across the middle keys on the right guard's block at the line.
Right guard Kevin Zeitler (No. 68) crushes the end, quickly turning his shoulders and driving him outside. Sounds like something Larry Warford can do pretty well, right? Well, here is a play from Detroit's Week 10 win over Chicago that uses these same principles.
On this play, Waddle fires out directly at the middle linebacker, while Warford is responsible for moving the defensive tackle inside. Left guard Rob Sims pulls across and wham blocks the defensive end, a wrinkle the Lions can use against Baltimore as well.
Right off the snap, Warford dominates his man. He turns him around and pushes him a few yards out of the way, like a Kenworth crashing through a flimsy wood fence. Sims quickly peels across and seals the edge.
The beauty of this play, however, is Waddle's work. He flies out to the second level and blows up linebacker Khaseem Greene (No. 59). Reggie Bush, like Bernard did for the Bengals, does not have to break stride as he blows past the encumbered linebacker.
Detroit has the ability to run plays like this and take advantage of the strong offensive line run blocking. Waddle left last week's game with an elbow injury but all indications are he will be good to go Monday night.
Be the Smarter Team
When listening to sports talk radio around Michigan, or reading the message boards and comment sections on all Lions-related topics, there is a prevailing theme.
These Lions are too talented to make all these stupid mistakes.
The encroachment penalties on hard counts. Completely losing a receiver down the field in coverage. Dropping passes where no defender is close to the play. The mental errors this team commits on a weekly basis are staggering.
But wait, there's more!
Twenty turnovers in the last six games. Blocked field goals. Lazily missed tackles. Roughing the passer penalties, both legitimate and mythical.
There are also the more macro-level acts of stupidity.
Sticking in a Wide 9 technique against 12 personnel (one back, two tight ends). Throwing five passes to Kris Durham and one to Calvin Johnson in the fourth quarter of a game. Keeping Mikel Leshoure inactive when Reggie Bush was a risky game-time decision.
In short, the Detroit Lions do not play like a smart football team.
If the Lions avoid the mindless mistakes and mental errors, and play fundamentally sound football, they will win. They are the more talented team, and they are playing at home.
There is to much at stake to give away yet another game by being the sloppier, dumber team.