While the Lions have legitimate things to play for in the NFC playoff picture, needing a win in Dallas on Monday night and some help to potentially wrap up a playoff spot prior to their week 17 game against the Packers, Jason Garrett’s top-seeded Cowboys will be looking to match their intensity in a “tune-up” for the playoffs that will come through AT&T Stadium.
These two teams are meeting for the first time since a 2014 playoff game down in Dallas that featured plenty of fireworks, and a Cowboys victory.
Q: I like to start off with how opposing fans are viewing the Cowboys coming into their game. The Lions haven’t played in Dallas since that 2014 playoff game, which featured plenty of controversy and late theatrics from Tony Romo. Now the Lions are seeing Dak Prescott, what is their perspective coming into this match up?
Nate Atkins (@NateAtkins_): When it comes to the fans, for several days now, there’s a nervous sense of energy. They had a five game winning streak snapped by the Giants, leaving them wondering how the Lions will play against top competition. I think their hopes probably got a little bit better after last night (Thursday) with the Giants loss wrapping things up for Dallas, but everyone realizes this is no small feat no matter how much Dallas gets up for it.
This whole Dallas roster is so loaded, they’ve become a model for how you build a team. Its going to be a huge test for the Lions one way or another. I think people are definitely excited for it, they know Green Bay is right on Detroit’s heels, and its likely week 17 is going to be mean everything for the division. If you win in Dallas, it sets you on course and potentially wraps up a playoff spot before then. That is what everyone’s been looking for.
Q: Matt Stafford missed some throws against the Giants due to the injury in his hand, going up against a great New York defense. He’s still playing as an MVP candidate under Jim Bob Cooter. Not having to deal with the elements in an indoor game against a Cowboys defense that can give up some passing yards, what is the latest on his status and what are you expecting from him in this game after another week off?
Nate Atkins (@NateAtkins_): The preparation for Stafford is a little bit different this week than it was last week. He’s been dealing with the dislocated middle finger that he suffered in the Bears game.
Last week he was preparing with a one-handed glove built for the rainy conditions in New York. This week he’s switched to a white, one-finger glove that he thinks will make him more comfortable playing indoors.
I think it will – he’s had some really nice games at AT&T Stadium against the Cowboys. I don’t know if being a Texas guy makes him more comfortable, but he’s had a great year and a few off weeks against great defenses dealing with this injury.
He’s ready to get back on track and these WRs are ready to get some individual match ups they can win. New York made that incredibly hard last week. If there is one area you can attack Dallas, it is through the air and I think that is what they’re looking forward to.
Q: Speaking of the WR match ups for the Lions against the Cowboys, it seems like Brandon Carr will get most of the work against the Lions top target in Golden Tate. Carr has played well against guys like Mike Evans in recent weeks, so who else needs to step up in the Detroit passing game against Anthony Brown and Orlando Scandrick?
Nate Atkins (@NateAtkins_): The Lions have been facing teams lately that really play a lot of man coverage. The Giants had superior athletes to where these Lions WRs are right now.
Against Dallas, Rod Marinelli loves to run more zone than teams usually do. It will be interesting to see if he tries to go with a little bit more press man.
With a QB as in-control as Stafford, he has a good time against zone coverage where he can read the field and find holes. Without Calvin Johnson now, he really spreads the ball around seeing what match ups are there.
The Cowboys secondary is a little bit more vulnerable so it will be interesting to see what the Lions do.
Q: Stafford has been doing this without a strong running game, as he has his whole career with the Lions. Looking ahead to this week against a Cowboys team that leads the league in rushing defense, what needs to improve in this Lions running game moving forward for this week and in the playoffs without that true rushing threat?
Nate Atkins (@NateAtkins_): Its been an ongoing problem for them ever since Ameer Abdullah went out with a foot injury on Injured Reserve a couple of weeks ago. They’ve shuffled the deck at that position with Theo Riddick who is more of a scat back, and he has also not been here with a wrist injury the past couple weeks.
The Lions are down to a 7th round rookie in Dwayne Washington and a 2nd year player in Zach Zenner, who is more of an inside runner. The real issues for them, more than who is carrying the ball, is what they’re dealing with up front. They’ve had some shuffles on the offensive line at both guard spots, and center Travis Swanson suffered a concussion a couple of weeks ago.
They’ll come out and run plays that they think will work with pulling guards but they are not connecting, trying to combine that with the running backs this late in the year is difficult. A quick fix would be to get Theo Riddick healthy, but I highly doubt that he plays on Monday against the Cowboys.
Bigger than that, they need to stick to their run blocking scheme and get guys connecting with backs going to the right holes. Executing the right way is important against teams with personnel advantages against them to stay on schedule instead of having the rushing numbers they had at the Giants.
Q: Getting into these defenses, the Lions defense may not have a lot of well-known names but they have played well in support of this pass-happy offense. Who are a few names on this side of the ball for Cowboys fans to be aware of as they try to evaluate Dak Prescott and Ezekiel Elliott in the last two weeks before the playoffs?
Nate Atkins (@NateAtkins_): One guy to keep an eye out for is FS Glover Quin. He’s one of their most tenured players and he’s just been doing one role well for a very long time.
The Lions will run a Cover 4 that looks like a prevent defense as their base, they are hell-bent on not giving up the big plays. They’ve matched up well with Dez Bryant a few times because of this.
Quin will prevent that deep pass while also stepping right up in the running game, almost like a linebacker. He’s a very sure tackler, and with CB Darius Slay dealing with a hamstring injury he’ll be counted on to step up against Bryant and against Dallas’ running game.
Another guy to look out for is OLB DeAndre Levy, who’s snaps are increasing working back from a knee injury. I would expect him to play over 60% of the Lions’ defensive snaps, and he is a huge difference maker when he’s out there. He made eight solo tackles on less than half of the snaps against the Giants. Levy is a sideline to sideline player who also covers RBs and TEs out of the backfield.
The Cowboys use Elliott and Jason Witten in the short passing game along with running stretch plays to Zeke to take advantage of his speed and vision. The Lions will be leaning on Levy to limit those plays from turning into big ones.
Q: Do you see anything changing schematically for the Lions defensively since they play a Cover 4 look, based on the fact that they’ll need to try to slow down the Cowboys running game and perhaps force Prescott to throw more against a secondary that is playing well?
Nate Atkins (@NateAtkins_): I don’t think they will change too much from what they normally do. When you think of two high safety looks, you typically expect to be vulnerable to the run. Their version of Cover 4 has their linebackers and safeties reading these running plays, and it has worked out pretty well.
Levy and Quin can know where the plays are going based on this defensive line winning run gaps, but the Lions will probably keep more guys in the box with the linebackers spread out since Levy covers so well. LB Josh Bynes has covered well too, so they’ll rely on those guys in the middle of the field.
You can’t rely on your front to stop everything against Dallas, but you know what they’re going to do.
Few teams can stop it though, except the Lions are the #1 tackling team in the NFL right now. They know Dallas is going to get a push and get some yards, but if they limit the big plays to force 3rd down throws and win little battles they’ll look at it as a win.
Q: Before we get to your game prediction, I wanted to ask about DE Randy Gregory – who will finally be back on the field this week. He’ll be trying to help a Cowboys pass rush that is surprisingly making plays. My take on Gregory has been that he is a guy that offensive coordinators actually have to game plan for at his position against the Cowboys. I don’t think the same can be said about David Irving or Benson Mayowa, who can make plays but might not force an offense to change things in the blocking scheme.
What are the Lions saying about the fact that they’ll be facing Randy Gregory, and what is their game plan for him outside of playing him 1 on 1 to start – chipping with a back or tight end if needed later?
Nate Atkins (@NateAtkins_): We asked Jim Bob Cooter about him today, and they are totally prepared to see Gregory. Its been an interesting process scouting him, going back to last year’s tape but projecting how he’ll play with Mayowa and Irving.
There is a challenge there, and it will be a challenge for Gregory to get his feet under him, but nothing matters more than protecting Stafford through this injury. Having a running back, tight end, or sometimes a fullback help block is always something the Lions are conscious of.
I think they are also taking David Irving seriously after his breakout game against Tampa Bay, and they know Mayowa finds a way with his effort to affect the game. They will have a plan for Gregory to help their tackles, and there will not be any lapses in preparation of knowing where he will be and what he can do.
Q: Who wins this game and why?
Nate Atkins (@NateAtkins_): I planned on picking the Cowboys at home, they are a machine right now, but I’m going to go with the Lions now based solely on last night’s (Thursday’s) result changing the game for Dallas.
I don’t know if it will change them playing their starters, but it changes the fire they’ll bring into this game. The Lions are so frustrated by last week’s loss to the Giants, they are ready to beat a good team and get away from the fear of losing three straight to end the season.
Right now I would go with the Lions 27-21. The Cowboys are so deep that they could go to their backups and it will be a really competitive game, but it seems like Stafford against this secondary, back in Texas and in a dome, can get back on track and find a way to pull this out.