O'Hara's Friday Focus: Avril's goal on Sunday is to slow Luck's path to legendary NFL status

Posted Nov 30, 2012

It’s time for the Lions to get out of their own way and put together a consistent, winning performance.

Cliff Avril sees the potential for greatness in Indianapolis Colts rookie quarterback Andrew Luck.

Size, speed, arm strength, poise, pocket awareness, won-lost record – Luck possesses every quality that could one day define him as a legend among NFL players.

From his spot at left end on the Lions’ defensive line, Avril’s goal is to keep Luck from taking another step in that direction against the Lions on Sunday.

“Not this game,” Avril said good-naturedly. “We’d like to kind of slow him down a little to getting to be a legend.”

The Lions and Colts are operating in different gears as the NFL’s regular season heads into December, when playoff berths are decided.

The Colts have accelerated to surpass expectations, with a 7-4 record and five wins in the last six games. They are legitimate playoff contenders in the AFC.

The Lions need to put the brakes on a three-game losing streak that has put their playoff chances on life support. Their record has dropped from 4-4 to 4-7 in the losing streak. They have to win the last five games to have any chance at a repeat Wild Card berth in the NFC playoffs.

If the Lions haven’t had their hearts ripped out by losing to the Packers and Texans in their last two games, at the very least some serious damage has been done to the rhythm.

My pick for Sunday isn’t based on Luck – expecting the Colts’ talented rookie to have an off game. And it’s not based on luck – the probability that the ball eventually will bounce the Lions’ way.

There is no such thing as starting a playoff run at 4-7. The object is to win a game, then regroup and play the next one on the schedule.

It’s time for the Lions to get out of their own way and put together a consistent, winning performance. The feeling around the Lions is that they want to take out their frustration on someone other than themselves.

My pick for Sunday: Lions 26, Colts 16.

Here are the players to watch, matchups and key stats in this week’s Lions-Colts Friday Focus:

Avril in December: Avril is closing strong and could surpass his season-high of 11 sacks, set last year.

Avril went three straight games without a sack before dumping Aaron Rodgers in a loss to the Packers. He had two sacks in the last game, a loss to Houston on Thanksgiving  Day. He has 7.5 sacks for the season.

As good as Luck has been, it’s always important to get pressure on a rookie quarterback and take him out of his comfort zone.

“I just want to keep chopping away,” Avril said. “I’ve had injures basically the whole season. I’m starting to actually feel a little better now.

“I just want to keep chopping away and put myself in situations to help the team win.”

Forcing Luck into turnovers is part of the equation of beating the Colts. He has an even split of touchdown passes to interceptions – 13 of each.

In Indy’s four losses, Luck has five TD passes and nine interceptions. In only one of the losses – 22-17 at home to the lowly Jacksonville Jaguars – did Luck have more TD passes (2) than picks (1).

In rating his performance, Luck passes the eye test. The end result on the field is better than it appears to be in the final stats.

“No doubt, he’s definitely better than his stats,” Avril said. “He’s a heck of an athlete. He’s pretty fast, too -- a big dude, and he can throw. I have respect for him as a rookie to come in and play the way he plays on film.

“He has a decent feel for the pocket.  For us, it’s just about getting in his head early. He’s still a rookie. Get in his head early, put some hits on him.”

Matchup -- Houston’s problem: Week-in, week-out, Lions cornerback Chris Houston covers the opposing team’s best receiver.

In the last game, it was Texans star Andre Johnson. On Sunday, it’s Reggie Wayne, still a dangerous, productive receiver in his 12th season..

Wayne caught passes from Peyton Manning in his first 10 seasons – 787 passes, to be exact, with 69 TDs. He made five Pro Bowls.

With Manning out with a neck injury, the entire franchise slumped last year – Wayne included. He caught 75 passes – his lowest total since 2003.

As Luck’s main target,  Wayne has rebounded. He leads the NFL with 84 receptions.

Wayne doesn’t rely on his physical tools to get open and catch passes.

“Definitely, he’s smart,” Houston said. “Smart receivers are always better than those who just have speed and quickness. He can do everything. He’s not limited to one thing. He can do multiple things.”

Houston tracks the receiver even before he breaks the huddle. While the other team is huddling, Houston stands in the middle of the defensive line, then follows the receiver he’s covering to his position – split right or left.

“I just have to find the receiver when he breaks the huddle,” Houston said. “You don’t want to be scattering. I just line up in the middle of the formation. Whichever side he’s on, I go.”

Injuries/personnel: The Colts have some players who are familiar to the  Lions and their  fans.

Cory Redding, who starts at defensive end, began his career with the Lions as a third-round draft pick in 2003. Redding left the Lions for Seattle in 2009, spent two seasons with the Baltimore Ravens and signed with the Colts this year.

Redding has been a solid, productive starter at every stop. He has started all 11 games for the Colts and leads the team’s linemen with 33 tackles.

Colts backup quarterback Drew Stanton began his career with the Lions as a second-round draft pick out of Michigan State in 2007. He signed with the Jets this offseason but became expendable immediately when the Jets traded for Tim Tebow.

With Tebow on board, Stanton was traded to the Colts, and an exchange of low-round draft picks was involved.

For the Lions, Jeff Backus is likely to return as the starter at left offensive tackle after missing the first game of his career against Houston. A hamstring injury ended Backus’ streak of consecutive starts at 186. Rookie Riley Reiff started in place of Backus and did a creditable job.

Safety Louis Delmas, who has played only four games this year because of a knee injury, returned to practice on a limited basis and could start.

It is not known what role wide receiver Titus Young will have. He was made inactive for the last game against Houston as discipline for his actions in the previous game. Young rejoined the team for practice on Wednesday, one day after the rest of the team began preparations for Indy.

Without Young in the lineup, Matthew Stafford threw for 441 yards, two TDs and no interceptions. Rookie Ryan Broyles started in Young’s place and caught six passes for 126 yards.

Stats: The Lions should win the turnover battle. They are minus-seven in turnover differential, but the Colts are twice as bad at minus-14.

The Lions have a 12-7 edge over the Colts in takeaways and two fewer giveaways – 19 vs. 21 for Indy.

Home cooking: The Lions can’t complain about crowd support. Fans have been rocking for field all season, but the Lions haven’t taken advantage.  Their won-lost record at home is 2-3.

“It’s awesome,” center Dominic Raiola said of the fan support. “They did a great job of coming out and supporting us every week. We’ve got to start reciprocating that back to them.”