The Tennessee Titans will travel to Ford Field to face the Detroit Lions at 12:00 PM CST on Sunday.
Momentum lies in favor of the Lions. They are coming off a 39-35 win over the Indianapolis Colts. The Titans, on the other hand, are coming off of a 25-16 loss to the Minnesota Vikings, in which they turned the ball over three times.
But the game, of course, has yet to unfold, and as we prepare for Sunday, there are matchups to consider between the opposing teams.
Ameer Abdullah, Theo Riddick versus Titans’ Linebackers
Lions’ quarterback Matthew Stafford has a tendency to throw passes to both of his running backs, Ameer Abdullah and Theo Riddick.
In fact, in 2015 Pro Football Focus graded Riddick as the NFL’s best receiving threat out of the backfield, since he led the league with 80 receptions on 99 targets.
The Lions continued to the throw the ball to their running backs last week versus the Colts — Abdullah and Riddick were targeted ten times — and we can expect that they will do the same this week.
For this reason, pressure lies on the Titans’ linebackers to pass protect against both running backs. The job may be more challenging if linebacker Derrick Morgan is unable to play on Sunday. He is currently recovering from a hamstring injury that he suffered in Week 1.
Titans’ Front Seven versus Lions’ Offensive Line
Last week the Titans front seven proved why they are a top unit in the league. They limited Adrian Peterson to just 31 yards on 19 carries for a 1.6 yards per rush average.
The group was, however, disappointed that they were unable to generate a single sack or turnover against the Vikings, and after the game they expressed a need for improvement.
“Detroit is going to be a great test for what we are going to be about,’’ defensive lineman Jurrell Casey said. “It is going to be our job to try and go out there and cause turnovers and help our offense out in the best way possible.”
The onus of protection, therefore, falls on the Lions’ offensive line. Last week they gave up six quarterback hits to the Colts’ front seven. This week they face a far more formidable unit led by Casey, Brian Orakpo and Avery Williamson.
Matthew Stafford versus Titans’ Secondary
Matthew Stafford had a great performance against the Colts (31-39, 340 yards, three touchdowns, zero interceptions) that allowed the Lions to make a game-winning field goal with four seconds remaining in the fourth quarter.
The eight-year quarterback may be hitting his stride in 2016, despite not having future Hall-of-Fame receiver Calvin Johnson.
In Sunday’s matchup Stafford passed Troy Aikman for career touchdowns; his completion percentage (79.5%) was the third-best of his career; and his passer rating (128.6) was the sixth-best of his career.
The Titans’ secondary will therefore have their hands full on Sunday. Last week the unit allowed no touchdowns — an admirable feat — but they also allowed ten passes that travelled at least 10 yards in the air, and they were protecting against backup quarterback Shaun Hill.
A truer test comes this Sunday versus Stafford.
DeMarco Murray, Derrick Henry versus Lions’ Defense
It should be noted that while the Lions beat the Colts, the team almost blew a 21-3 lead. In fact, in the second half alone, the Lions’ defense gave up 25 points to Andrew Luck and the Colts’ offense.
This offensive run by Indianapolis bodes well for the Titans’ offense, particularly running backs DeMarco Murray and Derrick Henry, who are looking to bounce back from a poor performance against the Vikings.
Murray averaged 3.2 yards per rush; Henry totaled just three yards on five carries; and Marcus Mariota and Murray miscommunicated on an option-read, resulting in a fumble.
These struggles can in part be attributed to the Vikings’ defense and the fact that, when facing a deficit, the Titans began to throw the ball more often than run the ball.
As a result, Tennessee ran 41 passing plays and just 22 rushing plays last week — an outlier compared to the Titans’ four preseason games. Through that period, 57 percent of the Titans’ play calls were rushes.
Expect head coach Mike Mularkey to bring a more balanced offense against the Lions. If so, Murray and Henry may establish a rhythm that thwarts Detroit’s defense and gives Tennessee their first win of the season.