5 things to watch: Lions at Falcons

The Lions are in Atlanta today trying to make it three wins in their last four and two straight as they take on the Falcons, who are looking for their first home win of the season.

The Falcons are still in the playoff hunt at 6-8, but barely. They can't afford another slip up these last three weeks of the season, so Detroit can expect to get their best today. The Lions are trying to build some late momentum and continue to play the role of spoiler to end the season.

Here are five things to watch out for in today's matchup:

1. QB FOR DETROIT

It looks like it will be the Tim Boyle show at quarterback for the Lions with Jared Goff still on the Reserve/COVID-19 list as of Saturday. Offensive coordinator Anthony Lynn said Boyle's looked good in practice over the last three weeks, and the team views this start differently than the one in Cleveland last month. In that contest, Boyle had been back at practice for just a week after being out 11 weeks due to thumb surgery. The Lions had a very vanilla game plan for Boyle in bad weather, and he threw for just 77 yards and had two interceptions in a 13-10 loss.

Boyle and the coaching staff said this week nothing changes offensively from what we've seen the last few weeks where Goff has played very well and the Lions passing attack has been much more aggressive. Will it stay that way with Boyle at the helm? Can he play better than he did in Cleveland?

2. RB ROTATION

We'll see if running back D'Andre Swift plays today. He returned to practice as a limited participant this week after missing Detroit's last three games with a sprained shoulder and was listed as questionable on Friday's injury report. Maybe he's on a pitch count if active?

Jamaal Williams also returned to practice this week after missing the last two games while on the Reserve/COVID-19 list. He'll certainly work back into the mix.

Then there's Craig Reynolds, who's been really good toting the rock the last couple weeks filling in for Swift and Williams. He rushed for 195 yards the last two games, including the first 100-yard performance of his young career last week against the Cardinals. He's certainly earned a continued role in the backfield.

It will be interesting to see how the Lions divvy up carries and playing time in the backfield today.

3. STAYING HOT

What a rookie season wide receiver Amon-Ra St. Brown is having, fueled by the current three-game hot streak the fourth-round pick out of USC is on. He's got at least eight catches in each of his last three contests, with touchdowns in two of those games. He's been targeted at least 11 times in each of the last three games, and he's certainly become a trusted receiver in the slot for Goff.

It would be wise for Boyle, if he in fact is the guy under center today, to continue to look for St. Brown to help navigate him through his second start.

St. Brown is tough and crafty, and Lynn said he reminds him a lot of former Pittsburgh great Hines Ward, who was known for his toughness and reliability for so many years with the Steelers. That's pretty high praise from Lynn. Can St. Brown stay hot on the road today?

4. DEFENSIVE EFFORT

The Lions' defense played arguably their best game of the season holding the explosive Arizona Cardinals' offense to just 12 points last week, with Arizona's first touchdown coming with under five minutes to play in the contest.

This is a very different offense they square up against this week in Atlanta. Falcons head coach Arthur Smith came over from Tennessee and brought with him a physical, run-first mentality. Lions defensive coordinator Aaron Glenn said this week his guys better be ready to buckle their chin straps because the Falcons want to come downhill and be physical.

Detroit will be without arguably their best defensive player in cornerback Amani Oruwariye, who was placed on Reserve/Injured Saturday with a thumb injury. That's a big loss for Detroit on the outside, but like they've done all year, Glenn will ask the next man to step up – probably rookie Ifeatu Melifonwu – and fill a role.

The Lions will need to have a good plan on defense for the versatile Cordarrelle Patterson, who leads Atlanta with 10 touchdowns, and has both 500 rushing and 500 receiving yards on the year so far.

5. FIRST LOOK AT PITTS

The No. 4 overall pick in the draft is an offensive unicorn for the Falcons. He can line up at tight end or receiver, and he impacts the game so much, even if he's not catching the ball, because the defense has to devote resources his way with him being such a dominating athletic presence at 6-foot-6, 245 pounds and 4.4 speed in the 40.

Pitts was named to his first Pro Bowl after catching 58 passes for 847 yards in 14 games so far. He's easily on his way to a 1,000-yard rookie season – hopefully not passing the mark today – and his 14.6-yard average per reception is the big number of concern for the Lions' defense. When the Falcons need a big play, Pitts is their guy.

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