The Detroit Lions are in the midst of an incredibly tight playoff race. With three very winnable games in the near future, the Lions can ill afford to have even one slip-up the rest of the way. With the 2-10 Tampa Bay Buccaneers coming to town this week, it seems unlikely that Detroit will fall on Sunday. However, last year the 2-8 Bucs managed to down the Lions, which desperately needed a win to stay ahead in the playoff race. The Lions cannot afford to overlook Tampa, and they will need to game-plan them seriously. Here's how they should do it:
The Tampa Bay offense doesn't do much well. Despite a couple of great receivers in Mike Evans and Vincent Jackson, the Bucs only average 18.3 only points per game, fifth-worst in the league.
A lot of the blame has gone to the Tampa Bay quarterbacks and for good reason. Josh McCown and Mike Glennon have combined for a passer rating of just 79.0, also fifth-worst in the league. McCown and Glennon's stat lines are quite similar, so it's not clear if one should be starting over the other. However, you'd think with the season already lost, the Bucs would be playing the second-year Glennon to get him some much-needed in-game reps.
Regardless, the Bucs' offensive problems go well beyond the man behind center. Tampa Bay's offensive line has been a huge disappointment all year. Poor line play has resulted in the ninth-most sacks allowed (33) and a running game that is averaging just 83.2 yards per game (29th) and 3.8 yards per carry (t-24th). Football Outsiders ranks the Bucs' offensive line as 31st in run blocking and 22nd in pass protection.
This is all somewhat surprising given the players who actually play on the offensive line. Starting at left guard is six-time Pro Bowler Logan Mankins, and alongside him is veteran center (and one-time stompee) Evan Dietrich-Smith. Yet, despite a somewhat talented group, the Bucs' offensive line has irrefutably failed to meet expectations. If you think Mankins -- now 32 years old -- has lost a step, you'd be right:
Watch as No. 92 on the Cleveland Browns drives Mankins 5 yards into the backfield. Not only does the defensive lineman force the Bucs running back to cut further outside, but he even gets a hand on him, critically slowing him down and allowing the linebacker time to force him back inside.
Poor offensive line play like this is one reason Tampa struggles so mightily in the red zone. According to TeamRankings.com, the Bucs rank 23rd in touchdown efficiency in the red zone.
The Lions have the best run defense in the league, and it is not even close. Led by Ndamukong Suh and DeAndre Levy, Detroit has only allowed over 100 yards on the ground once all season. They should dominate this matchup again this week.
The Tampa defense is a little tougher to decode. Lately they have played very well, allowing more than 22 points just once in the past six weeks. Tampa's run defense has been their best unit on the team. Led by Pro Bowler Gerald McCoy, they are allowing just 4.0 yards per carry (t-ninth).
However, the defense's Achilles' heel appears to be in the passing game. The Bucs' secondary isn't bad, but they may be the answer to solving the Tampa defense.
Tampa plays a lot of zone coverage, as their legacy suggests. The key to zone play is quick recognition and keeping the offense in front of you, preventing big plays. For the most part, the Bucs have done a good job at that. They have allowed the fewest pass plays of over 40 yards (3) and the 15th-fewest pass plays of over 20 yards (37).
If there's one particular weakness in the Bucs' secondary, it is fifth-year safety Major Wright. Wright took over safety duties after Tampa traded away starter Mark Barron at the end of October. Wright has always had a reputation as a big hitter and a risk-taker, which is not always ideal in a zone-heavy defense. Many times, his aggressive nature has resulted in a big whiff:
In both of these instances, Wright missed his target and allowed a fairly big gain.
This is a matchup that I can easily see Golden Tate winning. Tate's agility and impressive YAC stats could make Wright vulnerable to giving up an explosion play on Sunday.
Overall, there aren't any huge deficiencies in this Tampa Bay team; there just isn't a lot that is impressive about them, either. Detroit should have no problem slowing the Bucs' poor offense, but cracking their defense will prove to be a more difficult task.