The Detroit Lions have a critical early-season test Sunday against Seattle as they try to get back to .500 on the year after letting one slip away late in Minnesota last week.
That task will be tougher without leading rusher D’Andre Swift and leading pass catcher Amon-Ra St. Brown, as head coach Dan Campbell said Friday both players would be out this week.
Swift's 231 rushing yards and 8.6-yard average per rush have paced a Lions rushing attack that enters Sunday ranked third in the NFL at 170.3 yards per game. Detroit's run game is top three in the NFL in yards (511), average (5.9) and touchdowns (5). Swift's 308 scrimmage yards through three games are the fifth most among all NFL running backs.
The good news for the Lions is they like the depth they've assembled at running back. Jamaal Williams rushed for 87 yards and two touchdowns on 20 attempts last week after Swift left the game. The Lions also have a lot of confidence in Craig Reynolds, who rushed for 112 yards last season when he was tasked to start a game for them due to injury. And veteran Justin Jackson has produced in this league.
Lions assistant head coach and running backs coach Duce Staley said Friday's he's excited about the opportunity for other players to step up and get their shot with Swift out, and he's confident they'll keep the train moving down the tracks.
St. Brown leads the Lions in receptions (23), receiving yards (253) and touchdowns (3). His 23 catches trail only Cooper Kupp (28), Stefon Diggs (27) and Marquise Brown (24) through the first three weeks of the season. He's been a security blanket in the passing game for quarterback Jared Goff, so he'll obviously be missed.
But like we talked about at running back, Detroit's other pass catchers simply have to step up. Both DJ Chark and Josh Reynolds have been dealing with ankle injuries this week, but I expect both to play. Veterans Kalif Raymond and Quintez Cephus could be pressed into bigger roles on offense. Both have proven in the past they can handle that task when called upon to do so.
Together, Swift and St. Brown have combined for 53 percent of Detroit's total yards on offense.
A team's depth is always going to be tested throughout the course of the regular season. The Lions like the depth they've built at both running back and receiver. We'll see if they can keep the offense moving this week, despite the injuries.
"Listen, man, that's what it's all about, next man up," Campbell said. "We still got Hock (TE T.J. Hockenson), we got (DJ) Chark, we got Leaf (Raymond), we got (Quintez) Cephus and we've got Jamaal (Williams). And we got this o-line and a quarterback who can throw it, so we feel good about it."
The open competition between safeties JuJu Hughes, Kerby Joseph and Ifeatu Melifonwu to replace the injured Tracy Walker is apparently going down to the wire. Campbell said Friday's practice is part of the evaluation and he didn't foresee a situation where they fill the role by committee.
"As a professional, they all have to be ready," pass game coordinator and defensive backs coach Aubrey Pleasant said Friday. "This week has been good to see all those guys go out there and compete."
Pleasant said Joseph has done a good job improving on some of the negatives that showed up in the preseason. Melifonwu has a lot of talent and size. His biggest issue has just been availability. Hughes has the most experience.
It will be interesting to see which way the Lions decide to go on Sunday.
EYES ON PENNY
The Lions won't be fooled by Seattle's low rushing totals heading into Sunday's game.
"Yeah, look it's still everything starts with the run game," Campbell said. "They're a strong unit there, man, this o-line will lean on you and I think (Rashaad) Penny's one of the better backs in this League. He's up there, I think this guy's dangerous. He's real dangerous."
Seattle comes in averaging just 74.7 yards per game on the ground, the fourth fewest in the NFL. But it was just last season (Week 17) when Penny had 185 scrimmage yards (170 rushing) and two touchdowns against the Lions.
"That's a guy I've always had respect for, even watching him in college," Lions defensive coordinator Aaron Glenn said of Penny. "I knew he was going to be a good back. I know he had an issue with injuries, and I think that's still his Achilles' heel. So, just like a lot of these backs, man, we've got to make sure that we're good, and we're gap-sound against their run."
FIXING THE RED ZONE DEFENSE
Opposing offenses have been inside Detroit's red zone 11 times this season. They've scored a touchdown on 10 of those trips. That 90.9 conversion percentage is the most in the NFL, and one of the big reasons the Lions' defense also ranks last in the league in points allowed (31.0 ypg).
It certainly hasn't been lost on Detroit's defensive coaches on how their message this week to finish also applies to individual drives that reach the red zone.
"If there's a blade of grass, we have to defend it, man," Pleasant said. "We're looking at that not only from the characteristics of our players to scheme of what we're doing. Do we need to simplify things? Do we need to add things here? Those are all things that are being taken into account."