3TFO: Texans @ Lions, Week 12
It’s time for the NFL’s annual tradition of professional football in Michigan on Thanksgiving Day. Unfortunately for the Lions, that coincides perfectly with their tradition of getting beat on Thursdays in late November. Whether you assign blame to the NFL giving Detroit tougher matchups on national television, or the Lions’ general ineptitude over the past decade, the fact still stands that Detroit hasn’t won on Thanksgiving since Joey Harrington led them past the Packers in 2003.
That fact aside, Detroit has been steadily infusing talent into their roster, something its front office had avoided doing too much of in the previous decade. There is a nucleus of explosive young players on both sides of the ball, and although this season hasn’t been quite up to the level of their playoff team a year ago, the Lions have been competitive in every loss this season, only once losing by more than a touchdown. They have an uphill battle ahead if they hope to make the playoffs in the NFC, and it’s really starting to look like this Thursday will be a must-win contest.
Not wanting to make things any easier on the Lions this year, the NFL’s scheduling gods chose to send the Texans to Ford Field. Owners of the best record in the league (along with Atlanta), Houston is fresh off an overtime scare in which it took the Texans 73 minutes to finally dispatch the troublesome Jaguars. With the talent on their roster, that game should have been put away long before the fourth quarter came around, and if Houston doesn’t play up to its potential this week, they may end up handing Detroit a much needed turkey day win.
Battle in the Middle
After whiffing hard on several first-round draft picks around the turn of the century, the Lions have corrected that in recent years with some worthy selections. The first round has been kind to Detroit as of late, handing over a pair of defensive tackles able to make ample contributions in their short time with the team. Ndamukong Suh gets most of the hype, and while he’s somehow played more snaps than all but two of his teammates, it’s really the sophomore Nick Fairley who’s had the biggest impact. After a sluggish rookie year in which he had a hard time getting on the field, the Auburn product is on a tear this year. His Run Stop Percentage of 7.8 lands him in the top quarter of defensive tackles, but it’s his pass rushing that really differentiates him from other tackles. His Pass Rushing Productivity of 9.0 is second best, and precisely half of his 22 pressures came in his Past two games.
It’s a mixed bag on the interior of Houston’s offensive line. Center Chris Myers is about as good as they come, especially in run blocking. Just to his left, Wade Smith is far from a liability, giving up one or fewer pressures in six games this year, including a dominant outing last week. The situation at right guard is suspect though, with Ben Jones and Antoine Caldwell splitting time there. Neither has been particularly impressive and both rank in the bottom third of guards in terms of their Pass Blocking Efficiency. Strong play from this unit will go a long way toward creating a clean pocket, and anyone who watched Matt Schaub a week ago saw what he can do when given a clean pocket.
Which Johnson will Reign Supreme?
By his standards, it’s been a relatively quiet year for Calvin Johnson — that is, if leading the league with over 1,100 yards counts as quiet. Granted, all those yards don’t quite make up for the fact he’s reached the end zone only three times after posting 16 scores a year ago. The nine passes he’s put on the ground are the second-most among wideouts, and his Drop Rate of 12.16% is roughly double that of recent years. Even so, he’s near the top of the wide receiver class in broken tackles and yards after the catch, so Megatron seems to be handling the Madden Curse pretty well.
Also having a quiet year (prior to last Sunday), Andre Johnson recently reminded fans why he still belongs among the elite wide receivers. His 273 yards and 14 receptions against the Jaguars showed that he’s more than capable of taking over a game, and when Houston needed him most, he found the end zone on a bubble screen that covered nearly half the field and clinched the victory. Even after that huge game, Johnson’s stats are a ways off what we know he’s capable of. It’s almost as if Schaub completely forgot he had an All-Pro receiver on the field with him- Johnson was targeted six or fewer times in four of his first five games. Johnson’s been trending up though, as he’s seen at least nine balls thrown his way in every game since. Whichever receiver can make more plays will give his team a much better shot at the victory.
Some Semblance of Balance on Offense
Houston’s second-ranked rushing defense is one of the premier reasons they sit atop the AFC at 9-1. And the premier player on that defense is none other than J. J. Watt. If you aren’t a Houston fan, you’re probably sick of hearing us sing his praises, but he makes such an impact on every game that he’s hard to ignore. He has recorded a stop in run defense on nearly one fifth of all running plays he’s been a part of, and his 44 total stops are more than double that of his next closest teammate. The Defensive Player of the Year candidate will command the attention of the Lions’ offensive line, but that hasn’t stopped him making plays in the past. Whether he’s making plays for himself or setting plays up for others he’s sure to have an impact in this game.
If there’s been one knock on the Lions’ offense this year, it’s been there over reliance on Matthew Stafford and the passing game. Only once this year have the Lions produced a 100-yard rusher, when Mikel Leshoure gained exactly that in a Week 3 overtime loss to the Titans. Though the line has done well creating holes for its running backs, Leshoure has been able to force only five missed tackles on his 124 carries — a number which several backs have topped on half the amount of carries. And while Joique Bell has been a solid contributor, he’s had most of his success through the air where 61% of his total yardage has been gained. Perhaps the most disappointing aspect is the Lions complete lack of explosive runs — they have yet to register a run over 20 yards. The Lions will need to find some semblance of a running game this week or they could become very one-dimensional, very quickly, and that is not a good thing against this Texans’ defense.