Opponent Preview: Detroit Sportswriter Tells Us About Lions Strengths And Weaknesses

We turned to CBS Detroit sportswriter Will Burchfield for a little “behind enemy lines” peek at the Detroit Lions heading into the playoff game this Saturday.

Will was kind enough to answer our biggest questions about this matchup. He gave us his take on the most disruptive player on Detroit’s front seven, unexpected offensive weapons, and the biggest match-ups he’s expecting to see.

Be sure to follow Will on Twitter @burchie_kid for more Lions news and game day updates. You can read more of his work here.

(Here is our version, on Detroit’s site).

Here are his answers:

Seattle’s offensive line is its biggest weakness heading into this game. Which player on Detroit’s front seven is most disruptive and should have Seahawks fans paying attention?  

Burchfield: The numbers would say Kerry Hyder, who leads the team with eight sacks. But my gut tells me Ezekiel Ansah, who remains the most explosive player among the Lions’ front seven. Sure, Ansah was limited for much of the season by a high ankle sprain and finished with a career-low two sacks. But this is the same player who racked up 14.5 sacks and went to the Pro Bowl in 2015. His combination of size (6’5, 275) and speed makes him a matchup nightmare and his ability to consistently penetrate the backfield can wreak havoc on an offense. Both of Ansah’s sacks came in the final three games, a sign that he’s trending in the right direction. Lions fans are hoping his breakout performance comes against Seattle’s porous offensive line.

We’re expecting Matthew Stafford and the Lions offense to lean heavily on the passing game and try to attack Seattle’s secondary (currently playing without All Pro safety Earl Thomas). Seahawks fans are going to keep an eye on former Seattle wide receiver Golden Tate. However, who are some lesser-known players Stafford might turn to in the event Tate is shut down? 

Burchfield: The Lions’ passing attack has evolved under offensive coordinator Jim Bob Cooter. What it has sacrificed in big-play potential, it has made up for in versatility. Detroit has five players with at least 50 catches, just the fifth team to accomplish this feat in NFL history. Along with Tate, that quintet includes receivers Marvin Jones and Anquan Boldin along with tight end Eric Ebron. (Running back Theo Riddick is the fifth member of the group, but he’s done for the year with a wrist injury.) Look for Jones, who leads the Lions with 16 catches of 20 yards or more, to make an impact on Saturday if Seattle leaves him in a one-on-one coverage in an effort to neutralize Tate.

Detroit hasn’t had more than 100 yards on the ground in three games. What have you seen from Zach Zenner and Dwayne Washington that makes you think they could be effective against Seattle’s front seven? Could we expect to see both backs get carries, or primarily Zenner?

Burchfield: The Lions’ struggles in the ground game are well documented. For the second year in a row, they averaged under four yards per carry and haven’t had a player rush for 100 yards in a game since Reggie Bush in 2013. (That’s a span of 51 games.) Things might be different had Ameer Abdullah and Theo Riddick stayed healthy this season, but no one’s feeling sorry for the Lions in a next-man-up league. Thus has Zenner emerged, and it’s likely he’ll see the bulk of the action on Saturday. The second-year pro has scored three touchdowns and averaged 4.25 yards per carry in the last two games. Jim Caldwell likes Zenner’s reliability as a pass-catcher as well, something the rookie Washington has struggled with.

What are some interesting matchups you foresee heading into this game?

Burchfield: Let’s start where we began. If there was ever a time for Ansah to have a breakout game, it’s this Saturday versus the Seahawks’ vulnerable offensive line. Ansah will be defended by left tackle George Fant, one of the lowest-graded players in the league at his position. Seattle will likely insulate Fant in pass protection, but any time Ansah gets him one-on-one, look out.

In the same vein, look for Jimmy Graham to have a big game against the Lions’ shaky secondary. Detroit has had issues covering tight ends all season long, and Graham is one of the best in the league. Particularly down in the red zone, the 6’7, sure-handed Graham could have a field day. It will be incumbent on Lions safeties Glover Quin and Tavon Wilson to prevent him from getting over the top.

Finally, keep an eye on the chess match between Pete Carroll and Jim Caldwell. Two of the oldest coaches in the league, Carroll (65) and Caldwell (61) have just about seen it all. It’ll be interesting to see how Carroll compensates for the absence of safety Earl Thomas and how Caldwell manages field position in a raucous environment. In what has become a season-long trend, look for Caldwell to preserve as many timeouts as possible for the end of each half — even if that means neglecting to challenge a questionable call.

How can the Detroit secondary neutralize big plays in the passing game from Russell Wilson?

Burchfield: This is a case where something’s gotta give. Seattle’s offense has gained the sixth most passing plays in the league of 40 yards or more, while Detroit’s defense has allowed the third fewest of such plays. That’s not to the Lions are any good against the pass – they’re allowing the highest opposing QB rating (106.5) in the league – but they’re content giving up short/intermediate gains to protect themselves over the top. Doug Baldwin leads the Seahawks with five receptions of at least 40 yards (tied for the second best mark in the league), so look for the Lions to neutralize him with star cornerback Darius Slay.

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