Lions vs. Falcons: Locking down Jones key

James Hawkins
The Detroit News


James Hawkins of The Detroit News breaks down Sunday's Lions-Falcons game at Ford Field (1 p.m. FOX/760 WJR).

Falcons to watch

¦ Julio Jones, WR: Arguably the league’s best receiver, his combination of size, strength, speed and athleticism is something that defenses simply can’t match up with. Jones can singlehandedly change how the opposition covers him and Atlanta’s offense. Through two games, he ranks seventh in the league in receiving yards (174) and is averaging 19.3 yards per reception.

¦ Devonta Freeman, RB: The fourth-year pro is coming off back-to-back 1,000-yard seasons and has been a scoring machine since the second half of last season. Freeman has reached the end zone in each of his past six games, including playoffs, has 14 total touchdowns since Week 12 last year, and is coming off a two-touchdown performance against the Packers.

¦ Matt Ryan, QB: The reigning NFL MVP was a play or two away from a fairytale ending last season until it quickly came crashing down in the Super Bowl. Despite the monumental letdown, Ryan is still at the top of his game and at the head of an offensive juggernaut that’s capable of scoring 30 points every game. He ranks second in average yards per completion (9.9) and fifth in passer rating (112.2).


¦ Battle ofunbeatens: The Lions are one of three NFC teams left standing with a perfect record through two weeks, along with the Falcons and Panthers. And after taking care of business against a pair of underwhelming teams in the Cardinals and Giants, the degree of difficulty is ratcheted up against the reigning NFC champions in a Motown showdown where Detroit can make a statement that it’s not a pretender.

¦ Signs of life: While the Lions run game has more than its share of plays result in no gain or lost yardage, it has done just enough to be respectable and open up play-action passes for Matthew Stafford. The most encouraging sign has been Ameer Abdullah’s ability to rip off runs in the fourth quarter to close out the game. Detroit will need to get it going on the ground sooner and control the time of possession to keep Atlanta’s potent offense off the field as much as possible.

Keep pushing: Detroit’s pass rush was a major question mark heading into the season, but the front four has been able to produce and put the opposing quarterback under duress to ease the burden on the rest of the defense, something it didn’t do much of last season. It also helps to have a healthy Ziggy Ansah, who recorded more sacks Monday (three) than he did in 13 games last season (two).

¦ Big break: The Falcons will be without their most destructive defensive player in All-Pro linebacker Vic Beasley, who has been ruled out with a hamstring injury he suffered in the third quarter last week against the Packers. Beasley led the league with 15.5 sacks and six forced fumbles last season and seemingly picked up where he left off, recording two sacks and forced fumble in Atlanta’s first two wins.

Facts and figures

¦ Detroit’s five takeaways (four INTs, one fumble recovery) are tied for the second-most in the league, and are the most by a Lions team through the first two games of a season since 2013.

¦ The Lions’ defense has allowed 107 total yards rushing through Week 2 (45 vs. Cardinals, 62 vs. Giants), which is the team’s sixth-best total to start a season since 1940.

¦ The Lions finished with more yards rushing (138) than passing (122) in last week’s win for first time since Detroit’s 7-3 win over Green Bay on Dec. 12, 2010 — a span of 104 games.

¦ Ameer Abdullah came close to giving the Lions their first 100-yard rusher since Nov. 28, 2013 (Reggie Bush, 117 yards), finishing with a career-high 86 yards against the Giants.

¦ Per Bovada, Matthew Stafford is the co-favorite to win the NFL MVP this season, tied for the best odds at 5-1 with New England’s Tom Brady and Green Bay’s Aaron Rodgers. Atlanta’s Matt Ryan is listed at 10-1 to repeat as MVP.

¦ The Lions have been the underdog against the spread in all three games this season.