The Detroit Lions (4-2) travel back home this week to face the Cincinnati Bengals (4-2). This is the second straight week the Lions will be facing an AFC North foe with an identical record. Last week, the Lions disposed of the Cleveland Browns in a somewhat impressive game on the road. Meanwhile, the Bengals barely escaped the city of Buffalo with an overtime win. Who will prevail in the Northern Inter-Conference Game of the Week (trademarked)? Chart time:
Lions pass offense (6th) vs. Bengals pass defense (9th)
Last week, the Lions faced their biggest test against a solid Browns defense. They unequivocally passed with flying colors, even with a less-than-100 percent Calvin Johnson. Overall, Matthew Stafford has yet to dip below an 83 passer rating in a game, and he is outgaining opponents' yards per game averages on a consistent basis.
The Lions still find themselves ranked in the top half of the league in almost every important passing category: 10th in passer rating (95.0), 13th in completion percentage (62.8%), t-sixth in touchdowns (12) and t-eighth in interceptions (4). Stafford has yet to throw 2 interceptions in a game this season and has at least 2 passing touchdowns in four of six games.
Considering the health concerns at the wide receiver position, the Lions pass offense has been fairly impressive this year. A lot of credit goes to the running backs and tight ends, who are responsible for 52 percent of the team's receptions and nearly 48 percent of the receiving yards.
With Johnson nearing full health, I wouldn't be surprised to see him get more attention from Stafford on Sunday (just 3 catches last week).
The Bengals pass defense presents another big challenge for the Lions this week. This is a defense that made Aaron Rodgers and Tom Brady look like CFL backups. Granted, Cincinnati was aided by a monsoon against New England, but their ability to shut down Rodgers was astonishing to see.
The Bengals rank 11th in passer rating allowed (80.1), fifth in yards per attempt allowed (6.4) and seventh in completion percentage allowed (58.4%). That is all very impressive considering they have played some of the best passing offenses in the league thus far.
But then there are the two curious outliers: the Browns and the Bills. The likes of Brian Hoyer and freakin' Thaddeus Lewis were able to do what Brady and Rodgers were not: gash the Bengals defense. I'm not sure what to really take out of this, but overall, I think they're just strange outcomes that can almost be completely overlooked given the overall performance of the defense this season.
Player to watch: Leon Hall. The former Wolverine (which in no way influenced my opinion to pick him) leads the team with 6 passes defended and is one of five players on the team with an interception. Hall is a great cover corner with tremendous ball skills. He should give Lions wide receivers fits on Sunday.
Advantage: Lions +1. Outside of one quarter last week, the Lions were able to move the ball efficiently and consistently against a good Cleveland defense. This gives me a lot of confidence going forward. Cincinnati may provide the biggest challenge yet, but a healthier Megatron should help the Lions have another productive day.
Lions run offense (21st) vs. Bengals run defense (10th)
The Lions sort of/maybe are turning things around in the running game. They have met or outgained their opponents' averages in two of the past three weeks in yardage and all three weeks in yards per carry. A healthy Reggie Bush has been providing a huge spark, giving the running game big-play potential. Bush is averaging an impressive 4.8 yards per carry (seventh-best) and has 3 rushes of 20+ yards (t-eighth). Meanwhile, Joique Bell has been brilliant in short-yardage situations, gaining a first down on 28 percent of his carries (Bush gets a first down 23 percent of the time).
As a team, the Lions are rushing for just 3.7 yards per carry (t-21st). But they are gaining first downs on 25.3 percent of their carries, which actually ranks them fourth-best. So, perhaps I've been underselling the Lions rushing attack.
The Bengals are just as impressive at stopping the run as they are the pass. Only the Packers were able to outgain yardage and yards per carry averages against the Bengals.
They are ceding, overall, 3.9 a carry, good for t-13th in the league. And they aren't too susceptible to the long run. They have only allowed 1 rush of 20+ yards (t-second).
Player to watch: Carlos Dunlap. Sure, I could have gone with Geno Atkins or leading-tackler Vontaze Burfict, but Dunlap has been playing under the radar thus far. He has 4 tackles for a loss (in addition to his 4 sacks) and is the team's leading tackler among defensive linemen.
Advantage: Bengals +0.5. I wouldn't expect a whole lot out of the Lions running game this week, but the big key to the game will be Detroit's ability to pick up third-and-short against this Bengals defense. This will be the newly-formed offensive line's biggest challenge. Unfortunately, on paper, they look to be at a slight disadvantage.
Bengals pass offense (16th) vs. Lions pass defense (21st)
Andy Dalton and the Bengals passing offense have been all over the place this season. Dalton has had three games with a passer rating over 95 and three games under 85. The Bengals have surpassed yardage averages in two games, met averages in two games and failed to reach averages in two games. They are the definition of average.
The raw statistics are just a big clump of average. They rank 15th in passer rating (87.2), eighth in completion percentage (65.1%) and t-19th in yards per attempt (7.2). Dalton has 8 touchdown and 6 interceptions on the season.
What isn't average is wide receiver A.J. Green. Green ranks 13th in receiving yards. He is Dalton's go-to guy, as Green actually leads the entire league in targets.
The Lions pass defense chart is the very definition of bend-don't-break defense. They are ceding a large amount of yards, but holding the majority of teams at or below their passer rating average.
The Lions are a very opportunistic pass defense. They are second in the league in interceptions (10) and have allowed just 7 passing touchdowns (t-ninth least). The rest of the statistics are somewhat average. They rank t-15th in yards per attempt (7.2) and 17th in completion percentage (61.3%) but seventh in passer rating allowed (75.4).
Player to watch: While Green is their best receiving threat, Marvin Jones is their secret weapon. Jones is a quick, elusive receiver that the Bengals like to use in short-route situations. While Jones has just 12 receptions on the season, he has turned those into 190 yards. He excels at getting yards after the catch.
Advantage: Lions +0.5. The Bengals pass offense is very much similar to the Lions', but not quite there in terms of talent. Freak-of-nature wide receiver? Check. Speedy running back who can make a splash in the passing game? Check. Large amount of contributions from tight ends? Check. The biggest difference is Dalton is no Stafford. And while the Lions pass defense is nowhere near as good as the Bengals pass defense, they have done a good job at forcing turnovers, and I'd be surprised if Dalton doesn't give the ball away at least once on Sunday.
Bengals run offense (16th) vs. Lions run defense (29th)
The Bengals run offense is another fine example of mediocrity. Cincinnati has outgained yardage averages in three of six weeks and met yards per carry averages in four of six weeks. Yet, they have not surpassed 4.2 yards per carry in a single week this season.
They are averaging just 3.7 a carry (t-21st) and only have 3 rushes of 20+ yards (t-16th).
Rookie Gio Bernard has started to take over the workload and has done a valiant job thus far. He is averaging a team-leading 4.0 a carry and has reached the end zone twice.
The Lions run defense continues to struggle. Earlier in the week, I tried to get to the bottom of this problem, and the answer seems to be poor linebacking play. Opposing teams have been focusing in on the defensive tackles, leaving the linebackers free to make plays. Yet, DeAndre Levy and Stephen Tulloch have failed to dominate in the running game.
The Lions are giving up a league-worst 5.4 yards per carry and have given up 4 rushes of 40+ yards this year.
Overall, I expect the numbers to slightly improve as the season goes on. I don't think the big plays will continue to happen on an almost-weekly basis, but for now, things don't look very good.
Player to watch: Bernard. Bernard is a quick back who can take full advantage of open space. If the Lions give him an inch, he will take a mile.
Advantage: Bengals +1. The Bengals don't have an explosive run offense, but they are, at the very least, respectable. That is more than I can say about the Lions run defense. While Detroit has faced some impressive running teams thus far, they have also failed against lesser running teams (see: last week). The key will be holding the Bengals to only one or two big plays.
Home field advantage. The Lions are 2-0 at home this season and are averaging over 10 more points at Ford Field (37) than they are on the road (26.25). Granted, that is a very small sample size, but the Bengals also struggle on the road. Cincinnati is just 1-2 away from home.
Common opponents. The Lions and Bengals have already shared three of six opponents on the year: the Bears, the Packers and the Browns. In those games, the Lions are 2-1 and the Bengals are 1-2. However, only one of those games was played on the same field. Both teams played Cleveland on the road, and with drastically different results. The Lions came away with a fairly decisive win over the Browns, while the Bengals dropped a disappointing game. Things are always a little different with division foes, but it is still an interesting data point to consider.
Last week's prediction:
Last week, my prediction of Lions 23, Browns 16 was fairly accurate. Had the Lions not added a late touchdown, it would have been almost perfect. But my prediction was blown out of the water by fellow writer Christopher Tomke, who nailed the score exactly right in the comment section. Congrats, Chris! By this time next year, you'll be writing the previews.
This week's prediction:
Overall, we're left with this season's second draw of the year. The game plan for the Lions will be to keep doing what they're doing on offense, while limiting big plays from the Bengals on defense. For Cincinnati, they must stay balanced on offense and take care of the ball.
I think the Lions are facing a team very similar to the Browns on defense, but with a much better offense. If this game were in Cincinnati, I would undoubtedly be picking the Bengals, but because the Lions are coming home to a pumped-up crowd, I think home field advantage pushes them over the top. Lions 27, Bengals 23.