Allen Park — It wouldn’t be unlike these Detroit Lions to defy expectations.
No one expected Detroit to beat New England after starting the year 0-2, but they did. And while, in hindsight, the victory over Green Bay doesn’t look as impressive than it once did, few were picking the Lions before that game kicked off. Even two weeks ago, when the Lions appeared to be in a full freefall, losing three straight be double digits, the team pulled together to top a 6-3 Panthers team.
So why is this week any different? Shouldn’t we be bracing for the unexpected when the Los Angeles Rams bring their high-octane offense to town?
Vegas certainly doesn’t think so. The Rams are currently favored by 10 points. That’s the longest odds the Lions have faced all season.
Then again, who could blame the oddsmakers? The Rams are coming off a bye, and before the week of rest, they hung 54 points on the Kansas Chiefs in one of the most thrilling regular-season games in recent memory.
The Rams enter the week averaging 35.4 points and have scored fewer than 30 just twice. The Lions counter with a defense that’s allowing 26.0 points per game, which ranks in the bottom-10 of the NFL, plus have an offense that hasn’t scored more than 32 this year.
Given the Lions announced last season's leading receiver Marvin Jones is done for the year, and talented rookie rusher Kerryon Johnson is looking like a no-go with a knee injury, the offense doesn’t have the personnel to hold up in a track meet. That means the defense is going to have to step up, in an unexpected way.
“We just have to do what we can to defend what they do, and do it really well from that standpoint,” Lions coach Matt Patricia said. “Try to keep them from not scoring 35 points a game, that would probably be our starting point.”
Easier said than done.
The Rams offense doesn’t really have a glaring weakness. Running back Todd Gurley already has cracked 1,000 yards on the year, averaging 5.0 yards per carry. Quarterback Jared Goff, the former No. 1 overall pick in his third season, has a passer rating of 113.5. He’s completing 67.7 percent of his throws and averaging 9.31 yards per attempt, the second-best rate in the league this season. And wide receivers Brandin Cooks and Robert Woods are each on the cusp of 1,000-yard campaigns, and no one should be surprised if both top the mark this week in Detroit.
That's enough to cost a defensive coach a few extra hours of sleep during the week.
“What goes through your mind is how can you slow them down?” defensive coordinator Paul Pasqualoni said. “What can you do to defend them? Trying to understand exactly what the offense is and how they’re coming up with all these yards and these explosive plays. ...They’re pretty balanced and they’re pretty good at what they do, so it’s hard.”
One option the Lions are likely to consider is dictating the game’s tempo, at least for as long as they reasonably can. It's a strategy the Lions already have been utilizing much of the year.
According to pace statistics tracked by Football Outsiders, the Lions are among the NFL’s slowest offensive teams, taking 28.5 seconds between snaps. And that figure is skewed because the team understandably picks up the pace when trailing, and they’ve been behind plenty this year. When the scoring situation is considered neutral, no team uses more clock between snaps than the Lions.
Another possibility, which goes against convention, would involve focusing less on stopping Gurley while committing more resources to limiting the Rams' aerial assault.
Almost every defensive coach will tell you the first priority of the game plan is stopping the run, but the Rams' lowest offensive point output his season overlapped with Gurley’s best day on the ground, a 208-yard output in a 23-20 victory over the Broncos.
It's also counter-intuitive since the Lions have been highly effective against the run as of late, holding their past three opponents to 49.3 yards per game and 2.8 yards per carry.
“I think that’s where you go through the games and you take a look at the different teams that played them, and teams have tried both and really haven’t been successful,” Patricia said. “I think you have to try to stop both, it’s just a situation where control of the game is important.”
Whatever path the defense chooses, execution of the plan figures to be daunting. But this isn't a game the Lions can afford to get down big early. If the Rams come out the starting blocks hot, they're not likely to look back.