It has been a long time since we could say the Lions were a good team, or that Detroit was a tough place to win a football game. The Lions have had six straight losing seasons, and haven't won a playoff game since 1991. But this year, they're undefeated at home and looking more and more like a playoff contender with each passing week.
The biggest reason for the improvement is their passing attack, currently ranked ninth. Detroit's offense has become explosive in their second season under offensive coordinator Mike Martz, averaging nearly 25 points per game. The Giants head to Ford Field Sunday to take on the Lions, and here's a look at how the two teams will match up.
GIANTS (6–3) at DETROIT LIONS (6–3)
Sunday, 1 p.m., FOX
WHEN THE GIANTS HAVE THE BALL The Lions' defense is a strange creature. They're pretty tough against the run, with strong play up front from tackles Shaun Rogers and Cory Redding. The team ranks eighth in run defense, and has held opponents to just 3.7 yards per carry.
Detroit's pass defense has been opportunistic, ranking second in interceptions (15) and third in sacks (26). But those big plays can't always make up for what has been a terribly porous secondary. The Lions are giving up an average of two touchdown passes per game, and they rank 30th in passing yards allowed.
The Giants have enough offensive firepower in their passing game to exploit this weakness, especially if their pass protection can rebound. The offensive line struggled against the Cowboys last week, allowing five sacks. In the first eight games, quarterback Eli Manning had only been sacked eight times. The lack of time in the pocket meant most of his throws were going underneath, to the backs or to tight end Jeremy Shockey. If his linemen give him time in the pocket, he should be able to make some throws down the field.
Brandon Jacobs continues to run the ball well. He's averaged 5.2 yards per carry and has three 100-yard games in five weeks since returning from a knee injury.
WHEN THE LIONS HAVE THE BALL Martz was the architect of the great Rams' offenses of the late 1990s, and while he is running the same playbook here in Detroit, he doesn't have the same caliber of players to work with. Quarterback Jon Kitna is playing well, but the veteran's success is more about working within the system than overwhelming defenses with his passing abilities. The Lions have some good young receivers, including Roy Williams and rookie Calvin Johnson. But an awful lot of Kitna's passes are going to receivers Mike Furrey and Shaun McDonald, backups from St. Louis that Martz brought in because of their experience with his system.
The biggest difference between Martz's Lions and his Rams is in the backfield. In St. Louis, he had Marshall Faulk, one of the most versatile backs in NFL history. The Lions have Kevin Jones, a much more limited player. Jones has run the ball effectively at times, but he has struggled with blitz pickups and with running pass routes. His durability has also been a big problem in recent years, and he has been limited this year because of a foot injury.
These backfield issues have caused a variety of problems for the Lions. They have struggled both in the red zone and in short yardage situations. At times, their inability to run the ball has forced them to abandon the ground game completely. Against the Cardinals last week, the Lions called seven running plays and fifty pass plays. They ended the game with –18 rushing yards in a lopsided defeat.
So the Lions will be one dimensional, but they will put all of their energy toward exploiting the weaknesses in the Giants' secondary. Veteran cornerback Sam Madison couldn't cover Terrell Owens last week, and Roy Williams is a similar kind of receiver who has the strength to outmuscle him and the speed to run past him. Rookie cornerback Aaron Ross is great in press coverage, which could help the Giants slow down the Lions' quick passing attack. The Cowboys also exploited the Giants' safeties in zone coverage, something that could be a concern against the Lions' frequent three and four receiver sets.
KEY TO THE GAME The Giants need to get to Kitna early and often. They still lead the league in sacks, and the Lions' quarterback has been taken down a league high 37 times. He also leads the league with eleven fumbles, and the Giants need to force a few turnovers to keep the Lions offense from getting them into a shootout.
Lahman's Pick: Giants 31–24
Steely Defense Could Topple Jets' Anemic Offense
A return home will offer little comfort for the Jets. Five of their next six games are against teams who are likely heading to the playoffs. It starts with the Pittsburgh Steelers on Sunday, a team that is excelling in all phases of the game. If there's anything to look forward to, it's a chance to look at some of the younger players that are getting a chance to play. There aren't many wins left.
Pittsburgh Steelers (7–2) at Jets (1–8)
Sunday, 4:05 pm, CBS
WHEN THE JETS HAVE THE BALL Kellen Clemens makes his third NFL start, and he hasn't seen anything like the Steelers' defense. They rank first in both passing and rushing yards allowed, and they have a ferocious pass rush. The Steelers have held seven of their nine opponents to 16 points or less, and the anemic Jets offense will have a hard time putting points on the board.
Because running back Thomas Jones has not been able to give the Jets a consistent ground game, opposing defenses have been able to focus on containing the Jets passing attack. The Steelers will do this with their blitz. They use many different looks to confuse quarterbacks and disguise what they're doing. For example, they'll occasionally line up with just one defensive lineman and six linebackers all milling around the line of scrimmage. Clemens won't know who's blitzing and who's dropping into coverage — and more importantly, neither will his blockers.
The Steelers play a base 3–4 defense, designed to have the linemen occupy blockers and allow the linebackers to make plays. James Farrior, Clark Haggan, and James Harrison have combined for 15.5 sacks, and Harrison has forced five fumbles in the last two games.
If Pittsburgh has any vulnerability in their defense it is at the cornerback position. Ike Taylor and Deshea Townsend can be exploited in man coverage. But few quarterbacks have found enough time in the pocket to attack that weakness.
WHEN THE STEELERS HAVE THE BALL There has been a lot of focus on the performance of quarterbacks Tom Brady and Brett Favre this year, so some fans may have missed the fact that Ben Roethlisberger is having a great season himself. After struggling through injuries last year, the Steelers' signal caller has re-established himself as one of the game's elite passers. He has thrown 22 touchdown passes and just seven interceptions.
The emergence of second-year receiver Santonio Holmes has helped the Pittsburgh passing game tremendously, giving Big Ben another dangerous target down the field. This has also allowed Hines Ward to flourish underneath. He's still one of the game's best possession receivers. For years, Pittsburgh dominated teams with a power running game. Now, their ground attack is based on the speed and elusiveness of Willie Parker. He has a knack for bouncing inside runs to the outside, and his explosiveness makes him a threat to score on every play. Although he's relatively small (5 feet 9 inches and 205 pounds), he's surprisingly tough and durable. He ranks second with 873 rushing yards, and will hope to add to that total against a Jets' run defense that ranks last in the league.
KEY TO THE GAME On paper, this looks like an incredible mismatch: the Jets' anemic offense versus the league's stingiest defense, and New York's horrible run defense against one of the league's best power runners. To win, they Jets will need to do three things that the haven't done so far this year: run the ball well, create turnovers, and stuff their opponent's ground game.
Lahman's Pick: Steelers 34–13