A few things typically accompany a team when they are waist deep in a rebuild like the Detroit Lions are.
Extremely young and inexperienced roster? Check. Issues with depth at nearly every position? You bet. Razor thin margin of error on a weekly basis? Oh yes.
Despite these glaring problems, the Lions have nearly come away with a victory on a couple of occasions. They took the Baltimore Ravens to the wire and lost on a record-setting 66-yard field goal from kicker Justin Tucker as time expired. They played one good half of football against the Green Bay Packers before turnovers and mental errors killed them down the stretch. Then there is Minnesota Vikings kicker Greg Joseph who broke his career high twice last week as the Lions once again found a way into the record books for the all of the wrong reasons.
Anyways, looking for two ways the Lions can stay in the game and potentially notch a win against the Cincinnati Bengals on Sunday at Ford Field?
You’ve come to the right place.
Winning the turnover battle
Lions head coach Dan Campbell has said on multiple occasions that his young team has to stop with the self-inflicted wounds in order to start coming away with wins. When you lack game-breaking talent at the majority of positions, your margin of error is obviously a lot thinner than that of other teams. And while the Lions have come close to victory, there are plenty of reasons why they are currently winless. Like the fact that the offense has turned the ball over at least once every week but one (Baltimore in Week 3) and have committed two turnovers in three of their first five games.
With a turnover differential of -1, Detroit is just about average when compared to the rest of the league. But as we have seen, turnovers have come at crippling times and have often turned the tide of the game. For example, they were hanging around in Week 1 against the San Francisco 49ers before quarterback Jared Goff tried forcing a throw that led to an interception for a touchdown. Or when the offense botched several red zone opportunities against the Chicago Bears, including two turnover on downs and two fumbles by Goff. With the margin of error as thin as it is, the Lions have to clean this area up if they hope to come away with a win Sunday.
Whether the offense takes care of the football and plays a turnover-free game, or the defense forces former number one overall pick Joe Burrow into turning the ball over, the Lions need to come away victorious in this department. Burrow, while leading his team to a 3-2 record, has thrown six interceptions on the season. The Bengals are also having trouble protecting their franchise quarterback, having given up 14 sacks through five weeks of play. Generating consistent pressure on Burrow will be essential if the Lions are going to force a few takeaways.
Push the ball downfield
Maybe even more than their propensity to give the football away, another issue that has plagued the Lions has been their inability to create explosive, chunk plays down the field. When you consistently rely on long, sustained drives to score, you increase the odds of something going awry.
Yes, the Lions’ lack of playmakers in the wide receiver room has been well documented. Losing receivers Tyrell Williams and Quintez Cephus to injury doesn’t do anything to help the situation. Still, Goff has flat out been unwilling to take shots down the field this season and his 6.6 yards per attempt (27th among quarterbacks) makes for a really inefficient passing attack.
The NFL is a copycat league and with five weeks down, there is plenty of current film for coaches to look at to prepare for an opponent. And if we are doing some honest self scouting, the Lions probably do not strike fear into many defensive coordinators.
My approach to stop the Lions offense would be simple. Stop the run early, and dare Goff to throw it downfield. If running backs Jamaal Williams and D’Andre Swift get going on the ground, the Bengals will likely begin to slide safeties down near the line of scrimmage. And the only way to force a team out of stacking the box, is to throw the ball over their heads. Even if some of these shots fall incomplete, it at least makes the Cincinnati defense think twice about sending extra help to defend the run.
On paper, the Bengals have the upper hand in plenty of critical areas. If the Lions can control these two aspects on Sunday, they at least give themselves a fighting chance.