LIONS INSIDER

Twentyman: How the Detroit Lions can combat the Atlanta Falcons Saturday night

Posted Dec 22, 2012

The Detroit Lions will line up across from one of the top teams in the NFC Saturday night. Tim Twentyman breaks down the game.

If there were two teams in the NFL right now the Lions would like to pattern their offense around, it would be the New Orleans Saints and the Atlanta Falcons. Both are a triple threat. They have a terrific quarterback, multiple receiving threats, and an elite tight end and can run the ball when needed.

"That's certainly what we've aspired to do on offense,” Lions head coach Jim Schwartz said this week when asked about the Falcons’ weapons on offense.

“We have a great player in Calvin Johnson and quarterback in (Matthew) Stafford. The whole idea is to surround them with the ability to make a defense pay if they pay too much attention to one or another.”

That hasn’t gone according to plan for the Lions this season, mostly because of injuries, but it’s certainly the goal moving forward.

“Last year you could say the same about the Falcons,” Schwartz said. “They had gone all in on (receiver) Julio Jones and didn't get that immediate gratification from that move (because of injuries), but this year you're seeing why they did that.

“Roddy White's a better player because of it. Tony Gonzalez is a better player. Their run game is in a better position. Their quarterback's a better player. He's got more places to go with the ball. He's got quicker answers. He's got guys, particularly the two wide outs, that are very good run after the catch guys.”

It was only a few years ago that the Falcons were a predominately rushing offense behind Michael Turner. Their strength now lies in the passing game with quarterback Matt Ryan and all his receiving weapons, but the point is, they can do it all. A defense can’t load up to stop one thing.

The Lions' run game is still a work in process as far as being a true threat that teams have to respect. They’ve been trying to add pieces in the passing game that either haven't worked out (Titus Young) or are injured (Ryan Broyles and Nate Burleson).

Lions fans will see firsthand on Saturday a team that’s figured it out offensively and can win in a number of different ways.

It’ll be a close-up view of what the Lions are aspiring to be.

HISTORY
The series dates back to 1966 and the Lions hold a commanding advantage, 23-11. Their .676 winning percentage vs. the Falcons is the highest among any team in the NFC and second-highest against any team in the NFL. The Falcons won the last meeting in 2011, though, 23-16. The Lions were held to under 300 total yards in the game with just 13 first downs.

2012 REGULAR SEASON STATISTICS (Rank)

 LionsFalcons
Record 4-10 12-2
Points per game 23.6 (10) 26.5 (7)
Total yards per game 406.5 (2) 377.4 (7)
Rushing yards 104.4 (23) 89.9 (28)
Passing yards 302.1 (1) 287.5 (5)
Points allowed 27.1 (28) 18.5 (4)
Total yards allowed 337.5 (12) 354.4 (19)
Rushing yards allowed 119.4 (18) 124.9 (24)
Passing yards allowed 218.1 (11) 229.5 (17)
Turnover ratio -9 (24t) +9 (8)

PLAYERS TO WATCH

Lions

Matthew Stafford, QB:

How will Stafford bounce back from arguably his worst performance since his rookie year? Last week in Arizona, he threw three interceptions, two of which were returned for touchdowns.

The Falcons have been opportunistic on defense this season with 27 takeaways, third-most in the league. In three games this season against Peyton Manning, Eli Manning and Drew Brees, the Falcons allowed just one touchdown pass and 10 interceptions. Needless to say, they won all three games.

Stafford will have to play his very best Saturday against the top team in the NFC.

Jonte Green, CB:

The Lions placed Jacob Lacey (knee) on injured reserve this week and signed veteran Ron Bartell, but it’s Green who’ll likely get the start opposite Chris Houston. It’ll be his fifth start of the season.

The Falcons have one of the best receiver tandems in the league in Roddy White (1,156 yards) and Julio Jones (1,071). Both players are No. 1-caliber receivers, so Green and Houston will have their hands full.

The Lions have liked Green’s development since May; we’ll see how far he’s come Saturday night.

Calvin Johnson, WR:

Where would Lions fans be right now without having Johnson’s pursuit of Jerry Rice’s single-season receiving record to hang their hat on?

Johnson needs 182 yards to break the record and he might get a lot of opportunities to do so this week if the Lions hope to keep pace with the high-flying Falcons' offense.

Falcons

Michael Turner, RB:

Turner got off to a slow start this season but aims for a sixth game in a row Saturday with a touchdown. He and receiver Julio Jones lead the team with nine touchdowns each.

Turner has 342 rushing yards (171 per game) and two touchdowns in his last two meetings with the Lions.

Tony Gonzalez, TE:

Gonzalez, 36, is still one of the best tight ends in all of football after all these years. He leads the Falcons in catches (87) and needs 120 yards over the next two games to reach 1,000 yards for the season.

“I talked to Charlie Sanders yesterday at length and we were talking about Tony Gonzalez,” said Lions defensive coordinator Gunther Cunningham. “What he had said, he said, ‘Gun, people don’t understand this guy is in the top five.’ He looked at me like I didn’t know what he meant. I said, ‘Top five of all-time receivers, not just tight ends.’"

Gonzalez has 28 catches for 364 yards (91 per game) and three touchdowns in four career meetings with the Lions.

Thomas DeCoud, S:

Falcons safeties account for 10 of the team's 18 interceptions, and DeCoud has six of them. He's second among all safeties in the league with six interceptions (Stevie Brown, NYG, 7).

5 KEYS FOR LIONS

TURNOVERS ARE THE GREAT EQUALIZER
Lions fans saw firsthand last week how turnovers can be the great equalizer for a team less talented than another. The Cardinals scored 28 points off four turnovers and handedly beat a more talented Lions team, 38-10.

Matt Ryan has thrown 14 interceptions this season, so there are chances to make a play. They also push the ball down the field with their receivers, so there may be opportunities for a player like Chris Houston, who has good ball skills, to come down with one.

GET TO RYAN
The fifth-year quarterback was terrific in last weekend's blowout of the Giants, completing 23-of-28 passes for 270 yards and three touchdowns. His 142.6 rating was his highest this season and was the second-best rating of his career.

Atlanta's offensive line did a great job protecting Ryan against one of the best defensive lines in all of football, allowing just three quarterback hits on 67 offensive plays.

Like the Giants, the Lions won’t be able to win that way.

START FAST AND FINISH STRONG
The Atlanta Falcons have scored 51 points on their opening possessions this year, the most in the NFL, and are 41-10 in head coach Mike Smith’s tenure when they score first.

Since 2008, the Falcons have scored 224 points on their opening possession, which leads the NFL, ahead of New England (201) and New Orleans (199).

The Falcons also know how to finish. Over that same time frame, they rank fifth in the NFL with 99 points on 89 possessions in the final two minutes of either half.

Both areas have been a problem for the Lions at points this season.

WHO STEPS UP?
Which Detroit Lions’ player will step up and make a play? It’s long overdue that someone else takes advantage of single coverage to take some of the pressure off Calvin Johnson.

Johnson had 10 catches for 121 yards last week in Arizona. Eight other receivers combined for 14 receptions and 125 yards.

Can anyone take advantage of the opportunity and the national spotlight?

BE MULTIDIMENSIONAL
The Falcons' defense is giving up nearly 125 yards rushing per game on the season and opponents are averaging 4.9 yards per rush. They’ve held an opponent under 100 yards rushing only five times and have given up 11 rushing touchdowns.

The best way to take pressure of both Matthew Stafford and Calvin Johnson is to run the football efficiently with Mikel Lehoure and Joique Bell. It doesn’t have to be a mainstay of the offense, but a few effective runs early in the game could change the whole dynamic of how the Falcons play defense.

That means the Lions'  offensive line - coming off probably their worst game of the season - must to do its part.