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O'HARA'S FRIDAY FOCUS: Lions businesslike in their Falcons prep

The changing profile and rising expectations that should go with it are documented in the Detroit Lions' won-loss records in Jim Caldwell's tenure as head coach.

They are 2-0 this season going into Sunday's game at Ford Field against the Falcons, who also are 2-0 and rightfully favored based on their superior recent record.

In a larger and more comprehensive sample size, the Lions are 29-21 in the regular season in Caldwell's 50 games as head coach.

In the NFC North, where the Lions remain part of the chase pack trying to loosen the Green Bay Packers' grip on the division, only the Packers at 33-17 have been better in the last 50 games. The Minnesota Vikings (27-23) and Chicago Bears (14-36) are third and fourth.

What doesn't show up in those won-loss records but is a crucial component in building a team is the culture change that has transformed the franchise beginning with Caldwell's arrival and was ramped up with the hiring of general manager Bob Quinn in 2016.

The businesslike, professional approach of the team's core group to playing the defending NFC champion Falcons is an example of that. It's an interesting matchup in Week 3 of the season, and the players are treating it as just that – a Week 3 game.

Nobody's going to get a trophy for winning Sunday, or write off the season with a loss. 

"The good thing is, the great majority feel that way," Caldwell said Thursday. "The young guys, you don't quite know what to expect, but most of the guys who've been around here -- most of them look at this situation like they do any other ball game.

"It's the most important game because it's the next one. Every single week you're measured against who you play. Everybody's got talent. I think they look at it like they should look at it.

"Do everything we can. One game at a time. Keep that focus."

The 2017 Detroit Lions are not a perfect team, but the roster is stocked with young, talented players who are developing rapidly. As Caldwell has said often, it's the deepest team he's had in his four seasons in Detroit.

Beyond that, the Lions are not one dimensional. They're not built to win at home, or win in a dome, or to ride Matthew Stafford's arm. For example: They beat the Giants by throwing only four passes in the second half, and they actually closed out the victory with their running game on their final possession.

Prediction: It's a harder pick than many might realize, but that's the nature of the NFL. In the last game, the Giants were looking for a bounce-back win at home against the Lions. Instead, they were outplayed and tumbled further.   

The Falcons are good, but missing stud pass rusher Vic Beasley takes some heat off the Lions' offensive line. Ziggy Ansah is back healthy for the Lions and primed to harass quarterbacks.

Stafford can spread the ball and buy time with his mobility that is superior to Matt Ryan's, but Ryan has a superior receiver in Julio Jones and twin running threats in Devonta Freeman and Tevin Coleman.

Win or lose, the Lions will move on. That's one of the strong qualities that has developed under Caldwell.

But it's more fun to move on after winning.

Score: Lions 31, Falcons 27. Home field is the advantage.

Series history: The Lions have a 22-21 lead, but the Falcons have won the last two games at Ford Field – 23-16 in 2011 and 31-18 in 2012.

2014 meeting, London: The Lions overcame a 21-0 halftime deficit to win, 22-21. Matt Prater's 48-yard field goal on the final play won it. The Lions drove 63 yards in 11 plays – from their seven-yard line to Atlanta's 30 – to set up the winning kick.

Stats match, 3 to watch:

Turnovers: The Falcons thrived on them last year with their speed defense. They were plus 11, fourth best in the league, and had 22 takeaways. They're plus one so far this year. The Lions were minus one last year, largely because they had only 14 takeaways. They're off to a good start at plus three, tied for second best.

First down: The Lions rank 31st on offense with an average gain of 3.41 yards on first down. The Falcons are 10th at 5.86. On defense, the Falcons are 13th (4.33 yards allowed). The Lions are 14th (4.36).

Red zone: It's been the TD zone for the Lions' offense. They're 4-for-4 inside the 20. The Falcons are 4-for-6. On defense, the Lions have been scored on 3-of-6 times, the Falcons 4-of-6.

Lions focus – double edge threat: Edge rushers get a lot of credit and notoriety, and it's well deserved. Quarterback sacks change games, and Ziggy Ansah showed again with his three-sack performance against the Giants that he is one of the league's most dynamic edge rushers when he's healthy.
Cornelius Washington watched Ansah for four seasons while playing for the Chicago Bears. As a teammate playing the opposite end, Washington isn't surprised by what he has seen from Ansah in the first two games. 

"It just confirmed everything I already thought," Washington said.

A less glamorous job on the defensive line is setting the edge. Forcing runners to cut back inside, where the pursuit is waiting, is vital in stopping the run. The Lions rank second in the NFL in run defense after two games, allowing an average of 53.5 yards – 45 to the Cardinals in the opener and 62 to the Giants.

The Lions have been beaten on a couple of end-around plays, but tailbacks have been held in check. The Falcons have a talented tailback tandem in Devonta Freeman and Tevin Coleman.

"It's really going to be a big emphasis this week to set the edge," Washington said. "Not only set it, but set it short – set it quick. You can't let that thing drag out past the numbers. That stretches the whole defense out."

Falcons focus, Sanu toughness: Julio Jones is Matt Ryan's go-to receiver, and for good reason. Jones has the entire skill set of an elite receiver – size (6-3, 220), speed, hands, toughness and big play ability. Some think that Jones has been the top receiver of the decade, even ahead of retired former Lion Calvin Johnson.

Mohamed Sanu has been a good complement to Jones since coming to the Falcons in 2016 after four seasons with the Bengals. He makes meaningful catches and isn't reluctant to go inside.

In 2016, 33 of Sanu's 59 catches were for first downs – a rate of 55.9 percent.

After two games he leads the Falcons with 11 catches. Sanu and Jones both did what they do best in last week's win over the Packers. Jones had five catches for 108 yards, giving him nine for the season and an average of 19.3 yards per catch.

Sanu also had five catches for 85 yards. He wasn't quite as spectacular as Jones, but what Ryan appreciated were the tough catches inside and on third down.

"It's a game changer for us," Ryan told reporters after the game. "He had two or three catches over the middle tonight. Just because he's such a big target you can trust throwing over the middle. He can come underneath, and he's just fearless."

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