Lions vs. Broncos scouting report: Matchups, trends, players to watch

Justin Rogers Julie Walker
The Detroit News

Allen Park — Here's a scouting report ahead of the Detroit Lions' Week 16 matchup with the Denver Broncos. 

Justin Simmons

Key matchups

► Matchup to watch when the Lions are on offense

Wide receiver Kenny Golladay figures he'll be shadowed by four-time Pro Bowl corner Chris Harris on Sunday, which will likely force rookie quarterback David Blough to look elsewhere much of the afternoon. When he does, he'll need to be aware of where safety Justin Simmons is as at all times. 

A Pro Bowl snub, Simmons has been a force in his third season out of Boston College. Through 14 games, he's tallied 84 tackles, 14 pass breakups and three interceptions. Broncos coach Vic Fangio, who did great work with the safeties as Chicago's defensive coordinator, has been deploying his new toy all over the field, lining Simmons up deep, in the box and in man coverage in the slot. 

Blough struggled to take care of the ball last week against the Buccaneers, and if he's not careful on Sunday, Simmons is the type of defensive back who will make you pay for a careless mistake. 

More: On menu of 10 first-rounders, options are tantalizing for Lions

► Matchup to watch when the Lions are on defense

Darius Slay battling against up-and-coming receiver Courtland Sutton should be a fun battle to keep an eye on, but if banged-up tight end Noah Fant suits up, he could be a handful for Lions safety Tracy Walker. 

College teammates with Detroit's T.J. Hockenson, the ultra-athletic Fant is still trying to establish more consistency through his rookie season, but he's managed to break through with a pair of 100-yard performances in the past six games. He's also a big play waiting to happen, with three receptions of at least 40 yards during that stretch. 

Shelby Harris

Underrated opponent

Defensive tackle Shelby Harris

The Broncos have a number of underrated players, in many ways starting with Simmons, but we've got to give a little love to Harris, who has been a legitimate pass-rushing threat for the the Broncos on the inside. 

A former seventh-round pick in his fifth season, Harris has set a career-high with 6.0 sacks, while continuing to develop a knack for knocking down passes at the line of scrimmage. He's one of only five players in the league with six sacks and six knockdowns. 

More: Lions' Kerryon Johnson 'all for' reunion with former Auburn teammate Derrick Brown

Statistical Trends

► Denver: One of the key elements with going on the road to play Denver is the altitude, which can quickly wear down even the best-conditioned athletes. But the Broncos don't seem to be using the geography to their advantage. They've played some of the slowest-paced football in the NFL this season, and over the past three weeks, their 55 offensive snaps per game is the lowest in the NFL. 

For contrast, the Eagles are averaging 75 snaps on offense during the same stretch. That probably makes for an easier film review on Monday for the Broncos. 

► Detroit: Since Blough has taken over the quarterbacking duties in Detroit, the offense has been in a rut, particularly at the start of games. During the three weeks he's been under center, the Lions have averaged 6.7 points through two quarters. Only the Jaguars have been worse.

That's even more staggering when you consider the fact the Lions scored touchdowns on Blough's first two possessions. 

The ugliest part of Detroit's offensive performance has been the inability to even get drives going, let alone sustained. The Lions have gone three-and-out on nine of their 16 first-half possessions (56.3 percent) with Blough. 

Players to watch

► Drew Lock, QB: The rookie out of Missouri calls himself a gunslinger, but he hasn’t had much time to prove himself. Starting in just the past three games for the playoffs-eliminated Broncos, Lock has 31 completions on 51 attempts for five touchdowns and 651 yards. He also has three interceptions, which could be attributed to that aggressive mindset he touts. Broncos offensive coordinator Rich Scangarello said this week that Lock will need to learn to temper that aggressiveness in the NFL, and sometimes go for the next down rather than a splashy play, as he might have done in college. What better time to practice and hone skills than in a meaningless home game against the even more lowly Detroit Lions?

Phillip Lindsay

► Phillip Lindsay, RB: He did it last year as an undrafted free agent in his rookie season and he hopes to do it again – hit the 1,000-yard rushing mark. Heading into Sunday’s game, the team’s leading rusher has 187 carries for 849 yards and six touchdowns. He’d have to average 75.5 yards in each of his last two games to do so, but he’s struggled on the road in Weeks 14 and 15, gaining just 32 yards in a 23-3 loss against Kansas City last Sunday, and 51 yards the week before in a 38-24 loss against Houston. The local product became South High School’s (Denver) leading rusher with 4,587 yards while wearing his father’s No. 22 jersey. Lindsay broke the school record of 4,400 yards set in 1979 – by his father. A torn ACL prematurely ended his senior season, but he went on to play at the University of Colorado Boulder, where he set a school record for all-purpose yards (5,760). Last year he became the first undrafted rookie to get elected to the Pro Bowl. The Lions are giving up 113.2 rushing yards a game.

► Courtland Sutton, WR: Amid a dismal 5-9 season for the Broncos, Sutton’s numbers shine. He’s by far the team’s leading receiver with 63 catches for 1,019 yards and six touchdowns. His average of 72.8 yards per game puts him in a tie for No. 17 in the NFL with New England’s Julian Edelman, but his playing style has been compared to Falcons star wideout Julio Jones, and people around the league are taking notice. “He makes guys miss and runs through tackles,” Lions coach Matt Patricia said this week. “I really don’t think people realize how big he is when he’s coming at them.” The 6-foot-4 receiver, in his second season, got support from teammates this week, calling his absence from the Pro Bowl a snub.

Lions at Broncos

Kickoff: 4 p.m. Sunday, Empower Field, Denver

TV/radio: CBS/760 AM

Records: Lions 3-10-1, Broncos 5-9

Line: Broncos by 6