Strategy And Personnel

The Sports Xchange

September 05, 2018 at 1:08 am.

GAME PLAN: Matt Patricia knows the recipe to beating the Jets. He won 10 of 12 games against them in his six seasons as Patriots defensive coordinator and held them to 17 points or fewer the last four times they met. With a young quarterback in Sam Darnold on the other sideline, expect the Lions to disguise their defensive looks and pepper the Jets with blitzes. Darnold doesn’t take many chances downfield, so the Lions’ defensive backs will be aggressive with New York’s receivers at the line of scrimmage. On offense, the Lions have made it clear they want to establish the run, but the Jets don’t have much pass rush, either, so Matthew Stafford should have time to throw downfield.

–Lions WR Marvin Jones vs. Jets CB Trumaine Johnson. Jones led the Lions with 1,101 yards receiving on just 61 catches last year, when he emerged as one of the top deep threats in the league. He spent the summer having his way with opposing cornerbacks, and given the Jets’ lack of pass rush, the Lions will take some shots with him Monday. That’s where Johnson comes in. The Jets spent big on him in free agency for matchups like these.

–Jets RBs/TEs vs. Lions LBs. The Jets don’t have any big-time pass catchers in their backfield or at the tight end spot, but the Lions have been terrible covering those positions for the better part of a year. Jarrad Davis, in particular, looks lost as a pass defender at times, and teams that have been able to isolate running backs or tight ends on him usually find success. With Darnold starting his first game and in need of security blankets, it’s especially important the Lions shut down his outlets in the passing game.


QUARTERBACKS: Starter – Matthew Stafford. Backup – Matt Cassel.

Stafford is right about at the midpoint of his NFL career, 30 years old and entering his 10th NFL season. Statistically, he’s one of the best quarterbacks to ever play, but his resume is devoid of playoff success. The Lions have made the postseason just three times since drafting Stafford first overall in 2009, and have yet to win a playoff game. If they’re going to finally get over the hump this year, Stafford will have to be a reason why. He committed 17 turnovers last year, and while several of those were due to poor protection, he can’t afford to be as careless with the ball. Cassel beat out Jake Rudock for the backup job in part because of his experience and previous relationship with Patricia.

RUNNING BACKS: Starter – LeGarrette Blount. Backups – Kerryon Johnson, Theo Riddick, Ameer Abdullah, FB Nick Bellore.

Blount is listed as the starter here, but it could easily be Johnson as the two are expected to share the workload much of the season. The Lions traded up to get Johnson in the second round of April’s draft and he’s looked every bit as good as expected. He’s a shifty runner with good patience and the ability to do almost anything on the field. Blount, at 250 pounds, is a more physical runner and he’ll play a primary role in goal-line and red-zone situations this fall. Riddick is one of the better receiving backs in the NFL, while Abdullah is a cheap insurance policy who doesn’t appear to have much of a role after losing his starting job late last season.

TIGHT ENDS: Starter – Luke Willson. Backups – Levine Toilolo, Mike Roberts, Hakeem Valles.

The Lions showed a lot of faith in Willson this offseason, signing him to be their move tight end even though he’s never been a big pass catcher in his career. Willson had a quiet training camp, but he appears fine after leaving the third preseason game with a knee injury. Toilolo and Roberts are best known for their blocking, though their size alone makes them intriguing red-zone threats. Valles is no Eric Ebron, and that’s a good thing. He’s a solid pass catcher, though he’s likely in for the tiniest role of the group.

WIDE RECEIVERS: Starters – Marvin Jones, Golden Tate, Kenny Golladay. Backups – TJ Jones, Brandon Powell, Bradley Marquez.

The Lions have one of the best top-to-bottom receiving corps in the NFL. Tate, who’s entering the final year of his contract, has caught 90 or more passes each of the last four seasons. He’s sure-handed and slippery in the open field, the perfect inside complement to the two big bodies the Lions have on the edge. Marvin Jones got appreciably better at the line of scrimmage during his first two seasons in Detroit, and that helped him become a dynamic threat downfield. Golladay knows how to use his massive frame and appears primed for a breakout season after missing five games last year with a hamstring injury. TJ Jones can play inside or out as the No. 4 receiver, while undrafted rookie Brandon Powell might be the heir apparent to Tate if he doesn’t get a new deal.

OFFENSIVE LINEMEN: Starters – LT Taylor Decker, LG Frank Ragnow, C Graham Glasgow, RG T.J. Lang, RT Rick Wagner. Backups – T Tyrell Crosby, T Andrew Donnal, G Kenny Wiggins, G Joe Dahl.

With three high draft picks and two high-priced free agents starting, there’s no reason for the Lions not to have one of the better offensive lines in the league. Decker is back healthy after missing half of last season with a torn labrum, and keeping him on the field is essential to the Lions cutting down on their sacks. Ragnow, the rookie first-round pick, has impressed everyone with his tenacity and technical know-how. He’s slotted to play left guard for now but could wind up at center or right guard down the road. Lang is the biggest injury concern on a line that shuffled through 11 different starting combinations last year. He did not play in the preseason because of a shoulder injury and is a good bet to miss time during the year. The Lions are high on Crosby, their rookie fifth-round pick, but he doesn’t have a place to play yet with Wagner locked in as starting right tackle.

DEFENSIVE LINEMEN: Starters – LDE Ricky Jean Francois, NT Sylvester Williams, RDE Ziggy Ansah. Backups – DE Anthony Zettel, DE Kerry Hyder, DL Da’Shawn Hand, DT A’Shawn Robinson.

The Lions will work out of both odd- and even-man fronts this fall, but Jean Francois, Williams and Ansah should see a majority of the time no matter what package is on the field. Ansah is the only proven pass rusher on the team, but he’s battled through two injury-riddled seasons and is returning from offseason knee surgery and a summer hamstring injury. The Lions need to keep him healthy and productive or their defense could struggle. Jean Francois didn’t sign until July, but he’s one of Patricia’s must trusted players and has been a good mentor for the rookie Hand. Robinson, a second-round pick in 2016, is entering a make-or-break fall.

LINEBACKERS: Starters – OLB Devon Kennard, MLB Jarrad Davis, OLB Christian Jones. Backups – OLB Marquis Flowers, OLB Eli Harold, MLB Jalen Reeves-Maybin, LB Miles Killebrew.

With so little reliable pass rush up front, the Lions need a big year from Kennard, their top free-agent addition of the offseason. He’ll play as a stand-up outside linebacker, where he looks to be a reliable edge-setter in the run game. Davis could hold the keys to the entire defense. He’s a physical run-stopper who oozes leadership, but he’s yet to prove he can be a three-down player as he continues to struggle in pass defense. If Davis can’t effectively cover running backs and tight ends, the Lions may have to give more snaps to Reeves-Maybin, whose lack of size can be an issue stopping the run.

DEFENSIVE BACKS: Starters – CB Darius Slay, CB Nevin Lawson, S Glover Quin, S Quandre Diggs, S Tavon Wilson. Backups – CB Jamal Agnew, CB Teez Tabor, CB Dee Virgin, S Tracy Walker, S Charles Washington.

It didn’t happen overnight, but Slay has developed into one of the best cornerbacks in the NFL. He tied for the league lead in interceptions last year and has an exceptional ability to mirror routes. The Lions are shaky at the cornerback spot opposite Slay, as Tabor is speed deficient and Lawson is prone to getting penalties. Agnew will see time in sub packages, though the Lions will play Quin, Diggs and Wilson a majority of the time. Diggs has made the conversion to safety full-time. He’s a monster hitter with a good nose for the ball. Quin, 32, stayed away from the team to be with family most of the offseason and there were concerns he’d lost a step during training camp.

SPECIAL TEAMS: K Matt Prater, P Sam Martin, LS Don Muhlbach, KR Kerryon Johnson, PR Jamal Agnew.

The Lions have one of the best all-around special-teams units in the NFL. Prater made seven field goals of 50-plus yards last season, Martin was a Pro Bowl alternate in 2016 before a foot injury cost him half of last year, and Agnew was an All-Pro return man with two punt-return touchdowns. The Lions have not yet picked a kickoff returner, but Johnson, Agnew, Ameer Abdullah and TJ Jones all could see time at the position.

PRACTICE SQUAD: DT John Atkins, OLB Alex Barrett, CB Mike Ford, WR Chris Lacy, CB Cre’Von LeBlanc, OLB Eric Lee, S Rolan Milligan, LB Darnell Sankey, T Dan Skipper, QB Jake Rudock.