This Sunday, the 2-6 Detroit Lions face the 0-8 Buffalo Bills in Ralph Wilson Stadium. It’s a safe bet to assume that no one except the fans of both of these teams will be paying much attention to this game.
It’s not exactly a marquee matchup.
The primary drama involved in this contest for most people is whether the Bills are truly hapless enough to continue their dreary march to duplicate the 0-16 record the Lions themselves posted at the end of their 2008 season.
In the entire history of the NFL, only six teams have managed to accomplish perfect regular season records:
The 1934 and 1942 Chicago Bears, the 1972 Miami Dolphins, and the 2007 New England Patriots all went undefeated, while the 1976 Tampa Bay Buccaneers and 2008 Detroit Lions never won or tied a single game.
Some folks are predicting that this game against the Lions is the best hope the Bills have to avoid a total train wreck this season, and they’ll be paying attention only for that reason.
Of secondary interest to casual observers is whether Detroit can finally break its current 24 game road losing streak (their second such streak this decade). If they don’t, the Lions will have established yet another infamous NFL record.
Click forward to discover the five keys to a Lions victory over Buffalo.
Buffalo and Detroit are polar opposites when it comes to incurring penalties.
The Bills defense has given up only 280 penalty yards as opposed to 537 yards by the Lions. On the other side of the ball, Buffalo’s offense has been flagged for 328 yards, while Detroit’s has been penalized almost the length of six football fields.
Of course, that doesn’t even count gains that were wiped out by penalties.
Buffalo is unlikely to beat itself with penalties, especially stupid penalties committed at pivotal points in the game. If the Lions coaching staff doesn’t make it absolutely crystal clear to each and every player that foolish, unprofessional penalties won’t be tolerated, and if every player on every single down doesn’t play smart, disciplined football, it could very well cost Detroit the game.
With Shaun Hill taking most of the snaps this year, the Lions are currently ranked 7th among all NFL teams in average points scored per game. Not bad, but they have the talent to do even better.
With a grand total of 39 catches, Calvin Johnson is currently ranked 26th among wide receivers in receptions. Yet he’s scored eight touchdowns, the third highest number of any NFL wideout.
There are very few teams in the NFL with true “shutdown” corners. Despite being ranked sixth against the pass, Buffalo isn’t one of them.
Last week against the Jets, Nate Burleson had a breakout game with seven receptions for 113 yards and a touchdown. Meanwhile, Calvin Johnson had one reception for 13 yards.
It’s good that Burleson demonstrated that he’s a legitimate threat, but the Lions have to get Johnson open more often. If Atlanta can design plays to get Roddy White 58 receptions and Miami can hit Brandon Marshall 52 times, Scott Linehan ought to be able to get the ball to Calvin more than 39 times in eight games.
The Lions running game strategy has become a puzzle as well. In the first quarter against the Jets, the Lions sent Jahvid Best up the middle five times for total gain of ten yards. Is that the ideal way to use him, especially when a healthy Kevin Smith has a chip on his shoulder and is eager to run between tackles and punish linebackers and safeties?
The Bills have the worst defense in the NFL against the run. They’ve allowed nine rushing touchdowns in eight games this year. Only the Broncos and Jags have allowed more TDs. Detroit has to start using Kevin Smith as the hammer up the middle and run plays that get the ball to Jahvid Best in space.
Dave Rayner misses yet another
Jason Hanson is in his 19th season as the Lions' kicker and his accuracy up to and beyond 50 yards has been excellent throughout the 295 games he’s played in.
Dave Rayner’s NFL career spans four years and 43 games. From beyond 30 yards, his accuracy is pretty unimpressive. Relying on Rayner for anything but converting extra points would be a crapshoot.
The Lions will lose to Buffalo if they can’t score touchdowns and have to rely on field goals to win, especially in an open air stadium near the end of the game.
In the six games since being named the Bills' starting quarterback this season, Ryan Fitzpatrick has passed for 1499 yards and 13 touchdowns. He has completed 59.9% of his passes and thrown only seven interceptions.
Fitz has a passer rating of 85.8, a mark equal to or better than three of the quarterbacks who beat the Lions this year, and better than Shaun Hill’s passer rating.
Fitzpatrick has also scrambled and run the ball on 24 occasions this year for 168 yards, which is impressive when you consider that Fred Jackson, the Bills leading rusher, has racked up only 313 yards.
Fitzpatrick has two speedy, surehanded receivers to throw to in Steve Johnson and Lee Evans, and if given the time, he’ll find them deep downfield.
Detroit can lose this game if they don’t consistently pressure and contain Fitzpatrick.
The Lions' situation at quarterback is precarious at best. Losing Matt Stafford again last week was bad enough. Failing to keep Shaun Hill protected and healthy from here on out would be disastrous.
Lions fans can be forgiven if they don’t relish the prospect of turning the fate of the team over to a third string quarterback with three years of experience, who didn’t have the presence of mind to take a sack and keep the clock running at a critical point in the most important game of Detroit’s season so far this year.
Keeping Hill healthy means no blown assignments by the offensive line or running backs assigned to protect him. It means limiting plays that require Hill to take seven step drops and emphasizing plays designed to let him get rid of the ball quickly and with good effect.
It will also require a lot more successful running plays.
If Detroit has to dink and dunk its way down the field into the end zone for the rest of the season, so be it. The Lions can’t worry about producing exciting football for the fans. They have to focus on doing whatever it takes to win games.